Notes on Labor, 1875-1900


The following are notes on the reading. 


The Workers' World 


Introduction from Digital History

Many American workers experienced the economic transformations of the late 19th century in terms of a wrenching loss of status. For free white men, pre-Civil War America, more than any previous society, was a society of independent producers and property holders. Farmers, shopkeepers, and craftsmen generally owned the property they worked. About four-fifths of free adult men owned property on the eve of the Civil War. High rates of physical mobility combined with the availability of western lands to foster a sense that the opportunity to acquire property was available to anyone who had sufficient industry and initiative.

After the Civil War, however, many American workers feared that their status was rapidly eroding. The expanding size of factories made relations between labor and management increasingly impersonal. Mechanization allowed many industries to substitute semi-skilled and unskilled laborers for skilled craft workers. A massive influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe saturated labor markets, slowing the growth of working-class incomes.

Echoing earlier debates over slavery, many working men and women feared that the great industrialists were imposing a new form of feudalism in America, which was reducing "freemen" to "wage slaves." They demanded "a fair day's wages for a fair day's work" and an eight-hour work day. Native-born workers, fearing competition from low-wage immigrant workers, sometimes agitated for immigration restriction. Many observers feared that the United States was on the brink of a ruinous class war.


Industrial Work:


Steel – work 12 hr days, 7 days a week. HARSH.

Most industrial workers put in 10 hr days/ 6 days per week at about $1.50 per day.

Average of 35,000 dead (500,000 injured) per year in industrial accidents. No workers' compensation..

By 1890, the richest 9 percent of Americans held nearly three-quarters of all wealth in the United States. But by 1900, one American in eight (nearly 10 million people) lived below the poverty line.

Three severe depressions -- 1873-1879, 1882-1885, and 1893-1897 (the worst of the three) -- rocked the economy in the last third of the century. With hard times came fierce competition as managers searched frantically for ways to cut costs.



By 1900, two-thirds of of all industrial work took place in large scale mills such as Homestead.  Industrial work featured the use of machines for mass production; the division of labor into intricately organized menial tasks; and the dictatorship of the clock.

Most industrial workers put in 10 hr days/ 6 days per week at about $1.50 per day. They rarely saw the owner. The foreman or supervisor exercised complete authority over the unskilled workers in his section, hiring and firing them, even setting their wages.


During the 1870s and 1880s, Frederick W. Taylor  undertook time and motion studies of workers in steel mills with the aim of higher productivity and prices.  He set up standard procedures and offered monetary incentives for beating production quotas. On one occasion, he designed 15 different ore shovels, each for a separate task. Soon, one hundred and forty men were doing the work of 600."Taylorism" was a philosophy adopted by many industries.


Many workers regarded themselves as citizens of a democratic republic. They expected to earn a "competence" -- enough money to support and educate their families and enough time to stay abreast of current affairs. Few butt highly skilled workers could realize such democratic dreams. More and lore, labor was managed as another part of an integrated system of industry.


Ordinary workers refused to perform as cogs. In a variety of ways they sought to exert some control. Workers took off on traditional holy days or saints days, or did not come into work on "blue Monday." Or they slowed down the grueling pace. Or they simply walked off the job. Come spring, factories often reported turnover of 200 and 300 percent.


It took $600 per year to make ends meet and most industrial workers made approximately $500. Women and children therefore had to go to work. By 1900, 1.7 million children were working. On average , children worked 60 hours per week and took home pay that was a third the size of adult males.


Only 5% of married women held jobs outside the home in 1900. Many women involved in the garment industry worked in their homes, cutting and sewing garments. (sweat shops) Married black women were four times more likely to work outside of the home (as domestics, etc.).


Industrialization  pushed women  into industries considered an extension of housework: food processing, textiles, clothing, cigar making, and domestic service.


White collar women: typists, bookkeepers, and secretaries.


African American men faced discrimination. They were often used as strikebreakers, or were employed in  service trades – waiting on whites in restaurants and trains.


Working class Americans did improve their overall lot. Though the gap between rich and poor widened, between 1860 and 1890 real daily wages climbed 50%, more the result of declining prices than of increases in pay. The number of hours worked declined after 1890. Yet most unskilled and semi-skilled workers in factories continued to receive low pay: $500 per year. (A skilled worker made about twice the pay of an unskilled worker.)


Most American workers believed in the American dream. Bad as their conditions were, they were better than in Europe from where many had recently arrived. Workers also experienced a greater sense of opportunity (ie. free libraries, public schools, etc.) Many workers also experienced some improvement and social mobility. In one study, about one-fourth of manual labors in Pittsburgh entered the lower middle class in their own life times. More often, such workers climbed in financial status within their own class. This is one explanation why American labor did not readily embrace radical visions such as socialism. Most workers, seeing some improvement, believed in the American dream of success even if they did not fully share it.





Individual workers coped by putting in more hours to save a few pennies, walked out in exhaustion or disgust, slowed down on the job.

 For workers, unions were their systematic response to industrialization.


Early Unions:

Before the Civil War Unions began forming. Skilled craft workers – carpenters, iron molders, cigar makers – joined together to protect themselves. Railroad brotherhoods also furnished insurance for those hurt or killed on RR lines. Largely local and exclusively male, these early craft unions remained weak and unconnected to each other as well as to unskilled workers.


NATIONAL LABOR UNION (NLU) : Initially formed by a group of craft unions, brotherhoods, and reformers, it reached out to both skilled and unskilled alike in a nationwide organization. The National Labor Union attacked the wage system as unfair and degrading and they urged workers to manage their own factories. The NLU pushed energetically for an 8-hour day. Ranks swelled to more than 600,000 but wilted during the depression that began in 1873 and the Great Railroad strike of 1877..

                                                                                                    "Eight hours for work; eight hours for rest; eight hours for what we will!"


The Great Railroad strike of 1877, which began as a strike against the B + O Railroad, spread from Wheeling West Virginia to Pittsburgh and Chicago and turned violent. State militias were called out in states  and fired on workers. Workers destroyed railroad property (most notably in Pittsburgh)  and the President sent troops to break the strike. In the minds of many middle class people, unions and strikes became associated with violent radicalism.


Knights of Labor    


The Knights of labor proved more successful than the NLU. Terrence Powderly revived the organization, which had been founded in 1869. The Knights called for one big union to embrace all those who produced:  both skilled and unskilled labor, men and women, native and immigrant, all religions and races. (These coalitions proved unstable.)

Knights saw workers as producers who had been  denied by monopoly and special privilege the full enjoyment of the wealth they created.  The aim of the Knights was to make each man his own employer. The Knights envisioned a cooperative economy of mines, factories, and railroads, owned and operated by workers, who would pool their resources and profits.

The Knights did not accept as permanent the wage system and the division of society into owners and workers. The Knights wanted workers to be owners.

The Knights established more than 140 cooperative workshops, sponsored political candidates in 200 cities and towns, and pushed for short term reform. They advocated the 8 hr day, government regulation of trusts, and abolition of child labor and of liquor.

Theoretically, Powderly opposed strikes, but during the mid 1880s  local chapters of the Knights staged some successful strikes against railroads   The Knights, however, were unfairly linked in the public mind to anarchists in the Haymarket Bombing incident of 1886 in Chicago and they thus lost a lot of support from middle class people. An unsuccessful strike against the Texas and Pacific Railroad further weakened the Knights and by the 1890s, the Knights teetered on the edge of extinction.





The American Federation of Labor   


The Knights position as the premier union in the nation was taken by the rival AF of L, a federation of independent craft unions led by Samuel Gompers, a former cigar maker. Whereas the Knights aimed to reform society, the AF of L focused on bread and butter issues for skilled workers.

When asked by a congressional committee to identify his goals for labor, he responded with one word: "more."

Gompers accepted the division of society into owners and laborers. He accepted capitalism and the wage system, but sought better wages and  working conditions, and shorter hours for skilled workers. The AF of L did not run candidates for office like the Knights. Rather, it supported candidates whom it judged friendly to labor. By 1901, it had more than a million members, almost a third of all skilled workers in the United States. Only two locals – the Cigar Makers’ Union and the Typographers’ Union -- enrolled women. Most restricted black membership through high fees, technical exams, and discriminatory practices.  


Despite the growth of the AF of L, unions did not grow among unskilled and semi-skilled workers. By 1900, only 10% of all industrial workers were members of a union. Workers were divided by language, race, and gender. Raised to self-reliance, many working men and women resisted unionization.


The American Railway Union (ARU)

The ARU was an Industrial Union led by Eugene Debs. It sought to organize all of the workers -- skilled and unskilled -- in the railroad industry. It was crushed during the Pullman Strike. Other industrial unions such as the United Mine Workers, the United Steel Workers, and later the the United Auto Workers (UAW) struggled to organize their industries. Not until the 1930s were unskilled and semi-skilled workers of major industries organized successfully into unions.



Radical Union:

Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) nicknamed the "Wobblies." It was led by "Big Bill Haywood" and was particularly strong among lumbermen and miners in the West. In fact, it grew out of the Western Federation of Miners. It was willing to use violence to bring down capitalism. Eugene Debs was one of the founders but eventually broke with it because of its embrace of violence.




Preamble to the IWW Constitution

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.

Instead of the conservative motto, "A fair day's wage for a fair day's work," we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, "Abolition of the wage system."

It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.


By Ralph H. Chaplin
(Tune: "Marching Through Georgia")


Come with us you workingmen, and join the revel [merry] band –

Come you discontented ones, and give a helping hand,
We march against the parasite to drive him from the land,
With One Big Industrial Union.
Hurrah! Hurrah! We’re going to paint ‘er red!
Hurrah! Hurrah! The way is clear ahead –
We’re gaining shop democracy and liberty and bread
With One Big Industrial Union.


Come on, you fellows, get in line; we'll fill the boss with
Red's the color of our flag, it's stained with blood and
We'll flout it in his ugly mug and ring our loudest cheers



"Slaves" they call us "working plugs," inferior by birth,
But when we hit their pocketbooks we'll spoil their smiles
of mirth--
We'll stop their dirty dividends and drive them from the



We hate their rotten system more than any mortals do,
Our aim is not to patch it up, but build it all anew,
And what we'll have for government, when finally we're



The Alarm, Newspaper published by the IWW (Wobblies) 1885:

Dynamite!...Stuff several pounds of this sublime stuff into an inch pipe (gas or water pipe), plug up both ends, insert a cap with a fuse attached, place this in the immediate vicinity of a lot of rich loafers who live by the sweat of other people's brows, and light the fuse. A most cheerful and gratifying result will follow....A pound of this good stuff beats a bushel of ballots all hollow--and don't you forget it!





Limits of Industrial Systems 

The vagaries of the market place (even in boom times 1 of 3 workers was unemployed at least three or four months every year) and the opposition of  owners broke the labor movement.

In the late 19th century, a wave of labor activism swept the nation. More often than mobs, strikes and boycotts challenged the authority of employers and gave evidence of working class identity and discontent.

Most strikes broke out spontaneously, organized by informal leaders in a factory. eg: Malvina Fortune in Chicopee, Massachusetts, for example, .


Some workers resorted to terrorism. In the coal fields of Pennsylvania between 1866-1876, a secret society of Irish coal workers known as the the Molly Maguires resorted to intimidation, arson, and murder against mine owners as a way to combat the horrid conditions in the mines. In 1876, 20 "Mollys" were brought to trial and and a year later executed for 16 murders.


1877 -- In the midst of depression, the country's first nationwide strike (the Great Railway Strike of 1877) opened an era of confrontation. 

B+O cut wages by 20%. President Hayes sent troops to enforce a court order ending the strike, but two-thirds of the nation's tracks were shut down in sympathy.

When owners brought in strike breakers, workers torched rail yards, etc. Local police, state militia, and federal troops quashed the strike after 12 days. The strike showed the potential power of worker organization but also alarmed middle class people who feared revolution and associated strikers with anarchistic radicalism.


Laundresses Strike: Richmond -- 3000 laundresses struck in 1881. Most were black women.  Washing society. Not successful.


Haymarket Square Bombing: 1886 -- the "Great Upheaval": a series of strikes, boycotts, and rallies. Haymarket square -- bomb.

Conservatives charged that radical anarchists were responsible for the "massacre" (7 policeman killed, 70 injured, at least 4 civilians). Four anarchists hanged. Governor Altgeld pardoned three, much to the chagrin of many in Illinois. Cities enlarged their police forces, and states built more National Guard armories. The Haymarket bombing helped to fasten in the public mind the image of labor unions and strikers as anarchists and revolutionaries.


Management Strikes Back


Second surge of labor unrest in 1892

    Couer d'Alene, Idaho -- miners -- 

    Homestead, PA. in Carnegie's mill; strikers defeated Pinkerton guards trying to occupy the mill and protect "scabs." State militia were sent to crush the strike. An anarchist's attempt to kill Henry Frick reinforced the ideas in the public's mind that strikes and Labor Unions were dangerous, radical, and Un- American. (Often state militia or federal troops joined company guards (Pinkertons) to crush strikes.

    Broadest confrontation -- Pullman Strike (1894) -- strike supported by the American Railway Union led by Eugene Debs.

     Boycott of trains that used Pullman cars. Quickly spread to 27 states. President Cleveland secured a court order (injunction)  halting the strike on the basis that the strike was a conspiracy in restraint of trade and therefore a violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. President Cleveland, acting on the advice of his Attorney General, Richard Olney, who was also a railroad attorney,  called in several thousand deputies in Chicago to enforce it. There was rioting. Federal troops were dispatched. The strike was crushed and Debs was jailed. Debs emerged from jail a Socialist.


Employers enjoyed advantages in labor confrontations: they used "yellow dog" contracts, blacklists, lockouts, company spies, and strike breakers.

Management could also count on local, state, and federal authorities for troops. They could also count on court injunctions -- court orders that prohibited strikes by barring workers from interfering with their employer's business. Such an order put Debs in prison. He emerged a Socialist.

In Debs's case, he advocated public (government) ownership of the major means of production and distribution (railroads, telegraphs, major industries) and run them for the benefit of everyone in society.. He believed in democracy, however and renounced violence. He sought to overturn capitalism through democratic elections.

Eugene Debs

I am for socialism because only the collective ownership [through government] of industry will guarantee a democratic society and individual rights. I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough. Money constitutes no proper basis of civilization.

By 1900, only 1 out of 10 workers belonged to a union. Only the AF of L grew slowly. The ARU disappeared. Not until the 1930s under Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, would unions manage to organize the unskilled and semiskilled in heavy industries such as coal, steel, rubber, mining, and automobiles.