UNITED STATES HISTORY
Organized Labor, Immigration, and Urbanization
*As immigration swelled the American population and as the
frontier began to close, demand for work increased in America’s
industrial cities, and so wages fell and working conditions
*In crowded factories and sweatshops, men, women, and children
worked twelve hours a day (or more—sometimes as long as sixteen),
six days a week. Sunday schools were originally created by
churches to provide education to working-class people on the only
day they had off.
*Women and children were attractive as employees because they
could be paid less than the dollar or two a day adult men
typically earned in the North (they earned less in the South)
because presumably women and children were not the primary
breadwinners in their homes; children could also fit into smaller
spaces than adults, which was also useful.
African-Americans, and sometimes Asian-Americans, on the other
hand, were often excluded.
*Working conditions were dangerous, and there were no workplace
safety laws nor health insurance, workman’s compensation or
disability laws, or retirement benefits. Businesses
sometimes locked their fire doors (to keep employees from
stealing), which left workers locked inside in the event of a
fire. American factories had some of the most efficient
machines in the world, making it difficult, and sometimes
dangerous, for human workers alongside them to keep up.
*Social Darwinism suggested this was only natural: some
people were more fit for success than others. On the other
hand, once the fittest rose to the top, they made sure they stayed
*Many large companies created company towns for their employees,
where the company deducted rent and bills at the company store
from employees pay checks. Employees were often paid in
scrip, so they could not spend it anywhere else. Sometimes a
working man might only have a couple of cents left after all his
deductions, and many went in debt to their company and could not
even quit working there until their debts were paid. Some of
them called this ‘wage slavery.’
*Workers sometimes had to sign an ‘iron-clad oath’ before they
could go to work for a company. Later, an iron-clad oath was
called a ‘yellow-dog contract.’ By doing so, they swore not
to form or join a union. If they did so, they could be
fired. People fired by a company were often put on a
blacklist circulated among employers, so they would know who not
*If workers began causing problems or threatened to go on strike,
some companies would get ahead of them and use a lockout to keep
their employees from getting to work. Eventually workers
would have to give up their demands or starve.
*If workers did go on strike, companies could simply hire other
workers, called ‘scabs’ by the strikers, although these scabs
often faced violence from striking workers. Sometimes rather
than call a walk-out strike, workers would stage a sit-down strike
to keep scabs from coming in and doing their jobs.
*Companies said these measures were necessary because of the
growth of labour unions (while the unions said such measures
proved that the working class needed unions to protect them).
*The first unions in America were formed in the 1820s, but were
not very successful. In the 1830s, the Massachusetts Supreme
Court ruled that unions planning a strike were guilty of
conspiracy, which made unions almost powerless. In 1842,
however, the Massachusetts Supreme Court case of Commonwealth v.
Hunt declared unions legal, although corporations would find many
legal (and extra-legal) was to harass them.
*Unions (and other workers’ associations) did many things.
Some of the simplest were burial clubs, whose members paid dues in
exchange for the guarantee that they would get a decent burial
when the time came. Other insurance schemes were common,
*Many unions used their numbers for collective bargaining, using
strikes and the threat of strikes to force employers to negotiate
for better pay and better treatment.
*The first major labour strike in the US occurred in 1877. A
major banking firm (Jay Cooke and Company) had failed in 1873,
causing many other businesses to fail and unemployment to
rise. When railroad workers in Martinsburg, West Virginia
had their wages cut for the second time in one year they refused
to let any more train cars go through the switching yards.
Soon railroad workers in many cities refused to work and even
began destroying property. The militia and eventually the US
Army were called out and many strikers were shot dead.
Eventually the strikers gave up.
*This did not stop the labour movement, particularly as local
labour unions and craft guilds began to work together in
nation-wide associations of many different types of unions.
*The largest labour organisation of the 19th Century was the Noble
and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor. It was founded in
1869, and developed out of the short-lived National Labor
Union. At first it operated as a secret society (which were
very popular in the 19th century), with rituals, passwords, and a
secret handshake. This was to protect its members from
reprisals by the bosses. Eventually, it opened its
membership to almost all workers, skilled and unskilled, white and
black (but not Asian), male and female. It only excluded a
few professions such as liquor distillers, professional gamblers,
doctors, lawyers, bankers, and stockbrokers.
*The Knights of Labor demanded an end to child labour and convict
labor, temperance, paper money, a graduated income tax, and an
eight-hour day. They tried to create co-operatives,
businesses operated by members of the Knights of Labor for the
benefit of all the members. These were often unable to
compete with the company stores and with the much larger trusts
with whom they competed. Officially the national leaders of
the Knights of Labor were opposed to strikes, but they sometimes
used them anyway, and local chapters of the Knights of Labor often
went on strike.
*Eventually, a major protest would get out of hand. In May,
1886, the Knights of Labor were involved in a larger series of
nation-wide protests and general strikes supporting an eight-hour
work day (and, for some of the strikers, in sympathy with an
existing lockout of workers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine
plant in Chicago). The protests began on 1 May, and on 4
May, there was a meeting in Haymarket Square, Chicago.
*The meeting in Haymarket Square began peacefully enough, although
there were police there just in case. As the last speaker
was finishing up, the police ordered everyone to go home, and
began marching into the crowd. Someone then threw a pipe
bomb, which killed a police officer and wounded others. The
police then fired into the crowd, killing several workers (and
also apparently hitting other policemen). Some of the
workers fired back. Eight policemen died that day or later
of their wounds, and at least four workers were killed.
Sixty policemen were injured in total; no-one knows how many
workers were. The whole affair only lasted about five
*Eight people were arrested and charged with the murder of the
policeman killed by the pipe bomb. Five of them were
German-born immigrants, another was an American citizen of German
descent (and since Karl Marx was a German, many Americans
suspected all German workers—and even many immigrants in
general--of communist leanings).
*Seven of the men were sentenced to death, the other to 15 years
in prison. They appealed their case to the Illinois Supreme
Court and then the US Supreme Court, without success.
Afterwards, Illinois governor James Oglesby commuted two of their
sentences to life in prison, but five were still to be executed
(although one committed suicide by blowing off his face with a
dynamite cap smuggled into prison). The other four were
*Many people felt that their sentences were unjust, and that they
were simply scapegoats for a larger labour problem. Many
workingmen even believed that the Pinkerton Detective Agency,
which was employed by many big businessmen, had actually thrown
the bomb to instigate a riot and discredit the labour
movement. In 1893, Peter Altgeld, governor of Illinois,
pardoned the three survivors and released them from prison.
*May 1st, when the protests began, is now celebrated as Labour Day
in many parts of the world in memory of the Haymarket Riot, but
not in the United States.
*The Haymarket Riot was a national sensation. Although the
Knights of Labor were not involved in it, their involvement in the
nationwide strikes that it was part of made many Americans suspect
them of anarchy and communism, and the Knights of Labour went into
decline and had practically ceased to exist by the end of the
century, and would be replaced by other groups.
*Of these, the most important was the American Federation of
Labor. The AFL was founded in 1886 by Samuel Gompers, a
Jewish immigrant from London who worked in the cigar-making
*Unlike the broad-based Knights of Labor, the AFL was a craft
union, only allowing in skilled workers such as plumbers,
carpenters, and bricklayers. Unskilled factory workers were
not welcome, and neither were women or blacks.
*Because the AFL required large dues to join, it could provide for
its members when they went on strike, although they preferred to
simply organise boycotts companies that did not have fair labour
practises. It was also better organised than the Knights of
Labor, so it enjoyed greater success. It also had more
limited expectations. Its main goals were the ‘closed shop’
in which all employees in a particular field had to belong to a
union, better pay, and shorter working hours. Furthermore,
the AFL was, by labour union standards, fairly conservative.
It was against communism, and did not want to seriously re-order
society. It simply wanted workers to have a larger share of
the prosperity of the Gilded Age.
*Other workers were more radical, particularly the low-skilled and
unskilled workers who were unwelcome in the AFL. Many of
them, particularly immigrants, supported the ideas of socialism
and communism made famous by Karl Marx. Others supported
anarchy outright, although in the 19th century, many political
anarchists assumed that without a government, people would
naturally create a communistic society of their own free will.
*In the summer of 1892, Carnegie Steel workers in Homestead,
Pennsylvania planned to renegotiate their contract. Although
Carnegie was publicly in favour of unions and against the use of
force to break strikes, he privately gave his business partner,
Henry Clay Frick, permission to do whatever was needed to prevent
or end a strike, and ordered his plants to increase production of
steel so they could go without production later if they had to.
*At first, Frick offered to negotiate with the union, but
countered their demands for a wage increase with a 22% decrease,
and eventually locked them out of part of the factory.
Workers walked out of the open parts of the factory, and workers
in some other Carnegie plants went on sympathy strikes.
*After the strikers prevented scabs from going to work in the
factories, Frick called in the Pinkertons, who planned to sail to
the steel mills on a river since they could not approach by
land. They were repulsed and some of them were stranded,
while the strikers fired on them from above—eventually even
bringing in a cannon. Eventually the surviving Pinkertons
surrendered, but were eventually released after the workers were
promised that the Pinkerton agents would be tried for the murder
of the strikers they killed in the battle (a promise that was not
*The state militia was called in and the town of Homestead placed
under martial law. On 23 July, an anarchist unconnected with
the strike got into Frick’s office where he shot him three times
and stabbed him with a sharpened file, but not fatally.
Although this was not the union’s idea, it was blamed, and they
called off the strike before any more violence could take place.
*During the Panic of 1893, the Pullman Palace Car Company laid off
some of its workers and cut wages by 25%, but did not lower prices
or rents in the company town. In 1894 workers tried to
negotiate, but three more workers were fired and Pullman closed
*In May 1894 the Pullman workers went on strike and turned to
Eugene V. Debs of the American Railway Union. He convinced
railroad workers across the country to refuse to work on any train
pulling a Pullman car, and by June over 300,000 railroad workers
had stopped working.
*There was some violence, particularly when the railroads tried
hiring scabs, and when African-American railroad workers decided
not to strike in protest against the ARU’s racism, which they
feared would keep them out of the one of the few professions where
black men could make a respectable living. During the course
of the strike, 13 strikers were killed and 57 wounded, and
strikers caused $340,000 in damage to railroad property.
*Eventually, President Cleveland sent in troops to stop the strike
(on the grounds that it was interfering with the US Mail), and
Debs was arrested, tried, and despite a brilliant defence by
Clarence Darrow, convicted. In jail he read the works of
Karl Marx and eventually became a leader of the socialist party in
America, on whose ticket he ran for president in 1900, 1904, 1908,
1912, and 1920. In 1905, he founded the Industrial Workers
of the World (IWW or Wobblies), a workers’ group that gained a
reputation for leading violent strikes.
*By the early 1900s, particularly under the influence of the AFL,
most unions would become less violent and the public would come to
feel that they did have some legitimate grievances, as journalists
of the late 1890s and the early 1900s began to expose more and
more of the problems of big business at the turn of the century
and an age of reform began.
*America has always been a nation of immigrants (except for the 1%
of the population who are American Indians), but between 1870 and
1900 the number of foreign-born Americans nearly doubled.
*In the 1840s and 1850s many immigrants had come from Ireland and
Germany, but starting in the 1870s and until the start of World
War I, many more began coming from Scandinavia, eastern Europe,
and southern Europe (although quite a few continued to come from
Germany and Ireland). On the West Coast, many also came from
East Asia, especially China, although a growing number also came
*Unlike most German immigrants and some Irish (or ‘old
immigrants’), many of the ‘new immigrants’ were poor and
unskilled. Many were also Catholic or Jewish (at a time when
most Americans were Protestants). This added to fears that
American culture would change or be destroyed, which led to
*Many immigrants came because falling farm prices in Europe made
their old lifestyles unprofitable. Religious persecution
also pushed some of them out of Europe, particularly Russian Jews.
*America offered jobs and land. The Homestead Act of 1862
made western land cheap, and railroads made it easy to get to
it—in fact, many railroads offered cheap fares west so they would
later have customers for the products they shipped across the
country. America also offered political and religious
*Once immigrants came to America they often wrote to family and
friends back home, so that people from the same family or town
would end up in the same town or neighbourhood in America.
This was the beginning of Chinatowns, Little Italies, Hispanic
barrios, and other ethnic neighbourhoods—as Southerners migrated
north, some of them even settled in distinctive parts of town and
preserved their culture for a generation or two.
*In other cases, entire villages would pack up and move to America
and found a new village much like their old one—this was
particularly common in Scandinavia.
*When immigrants arrived they had to be inspected to make sure
they were healthy and that they had money, a skill, or someone in
America who would support them. First and second-class
passengers were processed quickly on board the ship, but
third-class passengers were taken to special facilities for health
*In New York (where most European immigrants landed) this was done
at Ellis Island. In San Francisco (where most Asian
immigrants landed) it was done at Angel Island.
*Ellis Island was relatively welcoming and about 98% of immigrants
were allowed into the United States (although it was not uncommon
for foreign names to be misspelled, shortened, or changed).
Angel Island was much harsher on Asian immigrants, particularly
Chinese. Sometimes Asians were held for weeks or months,
almost like prisoners.
*By 1890, 40% of the people in San Francisco and Chicago were
foreign-born and 80% of those in New York were. To help them
with the process of Americanization, settlement houses gave them a
place to live and taught them to dress, speak, eat, and act like
Americans. One of the most famous settlement houses was Hull
House in Chicago, founded by Jane Addams.
*As more and more immigrants entered the country, an
anti-immigrant movement known as nativism (which had existed since
at least the 1840s) tried to limit immigration and the rights of
immigrants. Some of the earliest laws against teaching
religion in public schools were passed by Protestants to try to
shut down Catholic schools.
*Prejudice against the ‘Yellow Peril’ of low-paid Chinese workers
in California led to Congress passing the Chinese Exclusion Act in
1882, which outlawed immigration by Chinese workers (or even the
return of those who went overseas on a visit) and limited the
rights of Chinese in America. In 1898 the Supreme Court
later ruled in the case of United States v. Wong Kim Ark
that (thanks to the XIV Amendment) Chinese-Americans born in
America were citizens and had equal rights even if their parents
were immigrants, but Asian-Americans were still often
*Eventually, as more and more immigrant workers joined labour
unions, the unions demanded better treatment for immigrants, but
assimilation was a slow process.
*Although some immigrants moved west or went to small towns, most
settled in big cities, and America certainly had big cities by the
*In 1860, 16% of Americans lived in towns or cities of 8,000
people or more. By 1900, over 30% lived in towns or cities,
including 15 million Americans in cities of 50,000 people or
more. The growth of cities is known as urbanization.
*Most of America’s major cities were in the Northeast, along
Midwestern rivers, or on the Pacific Coast. Railroads made
travel to and between cities easier and the growth of industry
(which was mostly near cities to take advantage of their
population) led to more people moving to cities for work—and a
greater variety of work than what they could do in the country.
*New inventions helped cities grow. Steel frame construction
and Otis’s safety elevator allowed the construction of skyscrapers
ten storeys high or higher, and better central heating systems
made them more comfortable.
*Mass transit also became widespread in the late 1800s.
Horse-drawn streetcars had existed for some time, and in 1888,
Richmond introduced the first electric-powered streetcar.
*Streetcars, cable cars, and later subways allowed people to live
farther from where they worked, eventually creating suburbs for
those who could afford mass transit every day—the poor still
stayed in inner cities and walked to work.
*Many of the working class in the inner city ended up living in
tenements, cheap apartments that were often badly overcrowded,
dark, and poorly-maintained.
*Overcrowding in cities led to the spread of disease, crime,
fighting between gangs based on ethnic groups or workplace
affiliation, and disasters due to the fact that a tenement that
caught on fire could kill hundreds of people. The Great
Chicago Fire of 1871 killed between 200 and 300 people and left
over 100,000 homeless.
*In the late 1800s more and more cities began creating
professional police forces, fire-fighting companies, public
utilities (the most important were those that provided clean
water), and even public parks so people in cities could have a
brief escape to a real outdoor setting. Nonetheless,
poverty, pollution, and crime remained serious problems into the
*Religious groups tried to help the working class. The Young
Men’s Christian Association was founded in London in 1844 to
provide housing for young men who needed a wholesome place to stay
in big cities that would let them live in cities without picking
up the bad habits of the city. The YWCA was founded in 1855
to provide housing for women who came to the cities to find
*Both groups also provided education based on Bible study, but
extending to many other areas, including, eventually, YMCA-created
*The YMCA emphasised health and fitness as well. Basketball
was invented in 1891 by James Naismith while studying at the YMCA
International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts (later
to be named Springfield College). Volleyball was invented in
1895 at a YMCA in Holyoke, Massachusetts by their athletic
director, William G. Morgan.
*The Salvation Army was formed in England in 1865, although it did
not take that name until 1878. It was founded by William
Booth (a Methodist minister) and his wife Catherine—in fact, the
Salvation Army was one of the first major modern Christian groups
to allow women to preach as equals with men. They based
their hymns on popular songs—often drinking songs—with new
religious lyrics, and the Salvation Army became famous for its
bands. They hoped to minister to the poor and needy whom
many well-to-do Christians did not want to come into contact
with: the three S’s of the Salvation Army were SOUP, SOAP,
and SALVATION. To help them, the Salvation Army created
homeless shelters at a time when most people were happy to see the
poor starve. Because the drunks, drug addicts, prostitutes,
and other wretches the Salvation Army tried to save were not
welcome in mainstream churches, the Salvation Army became (in most
countries) its own church, distinguishable by the uniforms its
*In 1880, the Salvation Army came to the United States, and in the
early 20th Century gained respect for helping people left homeless
by the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 (the deadliest natural disaster
in US history, with between 6,000 and 12,000 killed) and the Great
San Francisco Fire of 1906.
*Although there were many unskilled workers, the need for educated
workers led to the growth of public schools. Although they
had existed throughout the country, especially in New England,
since the early 1800s, they were not common anywhere, especially
in the South. This in turn led to the creation of Normal
Schools to train teachers on a professional basis (whereas in the
past anyone with any education could teach at most country schools
and many urban ones). In 1911, East Tennessee Normal School
opened (as did MTSU, WTSU (now the University of Memphis), and
Tennessee State University for African-Americans opened in 1912).
*Some schools focused on preparing students for college, while
others prepared them for agricultural or craft work.
*In 1881, Booker T. Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute in
Alabama to teach trades to African-Americans, feeling that they
could only win political equality when they had earned economic
equality through their own labour.
*For both the working classes and the middle classes, education
could even be a form of entertainment. In 1874, Methodist
minister John Heyl Vincent and businessman Lewis Miller founded a
teaching camp for Sunday school teachers at a campsite on the
shores of Chautauqua Lake in New York State.
*It soon became popular for entire families to come to educational
camps like this, and Chatauqua meetings were held across the
United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Some had
permanent facilities, with lecture halls, libraries, dining halls,
parks, and theatres, usually set up in the country but not too far
from a town with a good rail connection. Others were
temporary affairs set up with tents and stages, where lecturers
would speak on a variety of topics, religious, historical,
literary, political, and more. Music was also common.
Theodore Roosevelt said that Chatauquas were the most American
thing about America.
This page last updated 13 October, 2020.