The American Labor Movement of the nineteenth century developed as a result of the city-wide organizations that unhappy workers were establishing. These men and women were determined to receive the rights and privileges they deserved as citizens of a free country. They refused to be treated like slaves, and work under unbearable conditions any longer. Workers joined together and realized that a group is much more powerful than an individual when protesting against intimidating companies. Unions, coalitions of workers pursuing a common objective, began to form demanding only ten instead of twelve hours in a workday. Workers realized the importance of economic and legal protection against powerful employers who took advantage of them. (AFL-CIO American Federalist, 1)
The beginnings of the American Labor Movement started with the Industrial Revolution. Textile mills were the first factories built in the United States. Once factory systems began to grow, a demand for workers increased. They hired large amounts of young women and children who were expected to do the same work as men for fewer wages. New immigrants were also employed and called “free workers” because they were unskilled. These immigrants poured into cities, desperate for any kind of work.(Working People, 1)
Child labour in the factories was not only common but necessary for a family’s income. Children as young as five or six manned machines or did jobs such as sweeping floors to earn money. It was dangerous, and they were often hurt by the large, heavy machinery. No laws prevented the factories from using these children, so they continued to do so. (AACTchrNET, 1)
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“Sweatshops” were created in crowded, unsanitary tenements. These were makeshift construction houses, dirty and unbearably hot. They were usually formed for the construction of garments. The wages, as in factories, were pitifully low, no benefits were made, and the worker was paid by the number of pieces he or she completed in a day. Unrealistic demands were put on the workers who could barely afford to support their families. (1)
The United States had the highest job-related fatality rate of any other industrialized nation in the world. Everyone worked eighty hours or more a week for extremely low wages. Men and women earned twenty to forty per cent less than the minimum deemed necessary for a decent life. The number was even worse for children. (Department of Humanities Computing, 2)
Often workers would go home after a long day and have to continue work on an unfinished product, which they had to return to the factory in the morning. Their jobs were never finished, and they barely had any time to rest. (Working People, 1) These men, women, and children lived in dilapidated tenements. People lived and worked in unhealthy environments in poverty with little food. (Working People, 1) The country was growing and its economy was rising, but its people were miserable.
Technological improvements continually reduced the demand for skilled labour. Yet, eighteen million immigrants between 1880 and 1910 entered the country eager for work. With an abundance of new immigrants willing to work, and no laws protecting a worker’s rights, businesses disregarded the lives of the individuals. (Department of Humanities, 1) This began to change with the formation of National Unions, collaborations of trade unions created to be even more effective than the local unions. (Working People, 1)
The National Trades’ Union, formed in 1834, attempted to improve the current working conditions, but failed due to the financial panic three years later. (AFL-CIO American Federationalist, 1) The National Labor Union in 1866 managed to establish an eight hour work day in 1868 for federal employees. However, it fell apart once their leader had died in 1873 and an economic depression swept across the nation. (1)
The first large national labour organization to become popular was the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor. It was founded in 1869 by garment workers in Philadelphia who believed that one union of skilled and unskilled workers should exist. The union was originally a secret but later was open to all workers, including blacks, women and farmers. Five hundred thousand workers joined in a year. Their goals were an eight-hour workday, a minimum wage, arbitration rather than strikes, health and safety laws, equal pay for equal work, no child labour under the age of fourteen, and government ownership of railroads, telegraphs and telephones. However, the Knights of Labor was a relatively weak organization and eventually fell apart.
In 1886, the American Federation of Labor (AF of L) was formed and replaced the Knights of Labor. Its leader was former cigar union official Samuel Gompers who only wanted to focus on skilled workers.
The founders were quoted as saying, “the various trades have been affected by the introduction of machinery, the subdivision of labor, the use of women’s and children’s labor and the lack of an apprentice system so that the skilled trades were rapidly sinking to the level of pauper labor. To protect the skilled labor of America from being reduced to beggary and to sustain the standard of American workmanship and skill, the trade unions of America have been established.” (AFL-CIO American Federationalist, 1) The AF of L was a conglomeration of twenty-five unions that included three hundred thousand workers working for increasing wages, reducing hours, and improving working conditions. (AFL-CIO American Federationalist, 2)
Gompers believed that everyone should receive equal pay for equal work and that everyone’s rights should be protected. He also thought the unions should be primarily concerned with the day-to-day welfare of the members and should not become involved with politics. He also thought that socialism would not succeed in the United States. “Bread and butter” unionism was the term given to his philosophies that higher wages and fewer working hours could achieve the goal of a better life for the working people.
Labourer’s goals and the unwillingness of capital to grant them resulted in many violent labour conflicts and strikes. The first of these occurred with the Great Rail Strike of 1877. Rail workers all over the United States went on strike due to a ten percent pay reduction. Rioting and destruction of several cities surfaced with the efforts to stop the strike. Federal troops had to be sent in at several locations to end the strike such as Baltimore, Maryland; Chicago, Illinois; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Buffalo, New York; and San Francisco, California. (Department of Humanities, 2)
The Haymarket Square incident took place nine years later in 1886. On May 1, many workers struck for shorter hours. A group of radicals and anarchists became involved in this campaign. Two days later, a death occurred from shooting during a riot in the McCormick Harvester plant in Chicago when police arrived and tangled in the chaos. On May 4, a bomb exploded in Haymarket Square during a meeting called to discuss the events of the preceding day. (James Connolly Society, 1) Nine people died, including eight police officers, and some sixty were wounded. (Department of Humanities, 2)
The next riots came in 1892, at Carnegie’s steelworks in Homestead, Pennsylvania. The company hired three hundred Pinkerton detectives to break a strike by the Amalgamated Association of Iron. Steel and tin workers were fired upon and ten were killed. The National Guard was called in to resolve the situation. Non-union workers were hired and the strike was broken. Unions were not allowed back into the plant until 1937. (2)
Two years later, a strike in the Pullman Palace Car company came about as a result of wage cuts. The American Railway union joined the strike, and much of the country’s rail system was not running. Over three thousand men were trusted by General Richard Olney to keep the rails open. The federal court gave a court order against union interference with the trains since they were an important and necessary vehicle in transportation, and the strike was eventually broken. (2-3)
The most militant of the strike-prone unions was the International Workers of the World (IWW), commonly known as “wobblies”. (3) They formed in 1905 in Chicago as a combination of unions fighting for better conditions in the West’s mining industry. The IWW was particularly strong among textile workers, dock workers, migratory farmers, and lumberjacks. Under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs, they gained particular fame from the Colorado mine clashes of 1903 and the brutal manner in which they were put down. The wobblies gained many characters after winning the battle and striking against the textile mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912 with their peak membership of one hundred thousand. They called for work stoppages in the middle of World War I which led to a government crackdown in 1917, and essentially destroyed them. (Department of Humanities, 3)
A powerful reform called Progressivism swept the country in the early years of the twentieth century. The goal of college professors, ministers, journalist, physicians and social workers was to improve conditions for all Americans. They wanted to make the political system and the economic system more democratic. They were appalled at the fact that Americans were either wealthy or lived a life a poverty. Those who owned the nation’s resources should share some of their wealth with the less fortunate was their theory. The movement appealed to farmers, small businessmen, women, and labourers.
The progressives were concerned about the country’s labor problems. They disagreed with and were disturbed with the growing use of court rulings to halt strikes. In 1890, Congress passed the Sherman Anti-trust Act which purpose was to punish big business corporations that combined to prevent competition. However, it seemed to be used more as a weapon against unions. Progressives also were irritated by the use of federal troops and state militia against strikers. (3)
Factory conditions still had not improved. The Progressives and the AFL pressured state governments for laws to protect wage earners. Almost all the fifty states passed laws to forbid the hiring of children under fourteen years of age. Thirty-seven states forbade children under sixteen to work between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. Nineteen states established the eight-hour day for children under sixteen in factories and stores. Women were also in need of protection for their jobs. Forty-one states wrote new or improved laws to protect women workers, limiting the work day to nine hours or the week to fifty-four hours. (3)
Another problem that had to be handled was the industrial accidents that occurred too often to be ignored. Progressives said the cost of insurance to cover medical bills should be paid by the employers. By 1917, thirteen states had passed workers’ compensation laws. Many states also passed laws to improve safety regulations. (3)
There was an alliance of Progressives and the AFL because they had similar goals in the improvement of American labour. Congress passed laws as a response to the many requests and demands to protect children, railroad workers, and seamen. A Department of Labor in the president’s Cabinet was established. Congress also passed the extremely important Clayton Act in 1914, which ceased the use of antitrust laws and court injunctions against unions. The federal government created the War Labor Board during World War I to settle disputes by arbitration. The board made advances in wage increases, the eight-hour workday, and collective bargaining. They favoured unions, and this led to a huge increase in union membership. By January of 1917, the AFL had 2,370,000 members. The number increased, and two years later they had 3,260,000. (3)
Throughout the twentieth century, union struggles increased and decreased. During the 1920s, the economy was high and generally prosperous for all Americans. The Great Depression in the 1930s was a time of hardship and poverty for many workers. Unions actually benefited with the help of Franklin D. Roosevelt who promised Americans a “New Deal”. The Wagner Act was passed which guaranteed workers the right to join unions and bargain collectively. The National Labor Relations Board (NRLB) was formed. The board could hold elections so that workers could vote for the union they wanted to represent them. The board could also stop unfair practices used by employers against unions. America was developing into the country it is today. (4)
The purpose and philosophy of a union, that a group is more powerful than any individual, has not changed throughout time. Americans are still fighting for what they believe in. They have been since the development of the country. Americans have realized that working together in unison is important for achieving their goals. The country would not have survived if the people had not compromised and “shared the wealth”. Although we as a nation have conflicts in the society that we live in, the past has taught us to handle problems calmly, rationally, and together.
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Many Americans take their job benefits for granted, not realizing the struggles our ancestors underwent for their security and happiness. The Constitution states that every American is entitled to the right of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. If the workers were controlled and overpowered by their employers and treated inhumanely, then they were like slaves serving their masters. In conclusion, unions developed in America due to the slavery-like conditions facing the American worker.
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