ADVANCED PLACEMENT 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 deteriorated.

*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 there.

*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 to hire.

*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, too. 

*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 minutes.

*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 hanged.

*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 industry. 

*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 kept). 

*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 the factory.

*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 from Japan.

*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 greater discrimination.

*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 freedom.

*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 inspections. 

*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 discriminated against.

*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 late 1800s.

*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 20th century.

*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 work. 

*Both groups also provided education based on Bible study, but extending to many other areas, including, eventually, YMCA-created colleges. 

*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 officers wore.

*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.
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