ADVANCED PLACEMENT AMERICAN HISTORY

Organised Labour


*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 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 to 14%.  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 National Guard 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, the governor of Illinois 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 go on strike.  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 wit 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 eventually released after being promised that they 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.




This page last updated 4 October, 2018.