Exam preparation materials


Although craft unions existed in the period before the Civil War, the first major strike in American history was the large strike of railroad workers that began in July 1877. Railroad workers protested layoffs and the reduction of their wages. In various parts of the country, railroad property was destroyed and trains were derailed. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, over 30 strikers were killed by militia forces loyal to the railroad companies. President Hayes finally sent in government troops to restore order and break up the strike, although he felt that steps should be taken to “remove the distress which afflicts laborers.”

The major union to emerge from the 1870s was the Knights of Labor, which was founded in Philadelphia in 1869. Many earlier unions represented single crafts (shoemakers, for example). The Knights of Labor opened their doors to skilled and unskilled workers, and welcomed immigrants, blacks, and women as well. Membership in the Knights of Labor peaked around 750,000 in the mid-1880s. Brochures written by the Knights of Labor proposed a new, cooperative society, where laborers would one day work for themselves and not for their industrial bosses. Unfortunately, this rhetoric failed to impress many bosses, and in several large strikes, ownership refused to even negotiate with representatives of the union, causing it to gradually lose members.

On May 1, 1886, a massive labor rally was held in Chicago, with nearly 100,000 workers turning out to support strikers at the nearby McCormick reaper plant. Chicago authorities were aware of the violent tactics practiced by many European socialists at this time and vowed not to let that happen in Chicago. The next evening a large worker’s demonstration took place near Haymarket Square in downtown Chicago. Police and militia forces arrived to break up the demonstration. At that moment, a bomb went off. Seven people died and nearly 70 were wounded. Eventually, eight anarchists were convicted of setting off the bomb. To many not involved in labor unions, the events at Haymarket Square hurt the labor movement; the press at the time drew little distinction between “hard-working union men” and “foreign” socialists and anarchists. Police forces in cities across the country also increased their supplies of ammunition, guns, and men in preparation for the next outbreak of “anarchism “that might break out. The Knights of Labor suffered a decline in membership as a result of Haymarket Squarc.

The American Federation of Labor (A.F.L.) was the next major national labor organization to achieve national stature. The A.F.L. was organized by crafts and made up almost exclusively of skilled workers. This helped its image, since in the eyes of the public, most anarchists and other radicals were unskilled workers. The union’s first leader was Samuel Gompers. Unlike the idealistic philosophy of the Knights of Labor, the A.F.L. bargained for “bread-and-butter issues” like higher wages and shorter hours. By 1917 the A.F.L. had over 2.5 million members. Although the union used strike tactics on many occasions it strenuously avoided the appearance of being controlled by radicals. Major strikes of era included a 1892 strike against the Carnegie Steel Company in Homestead, Pennsylvania, and a 1 894 strike by the American Railway Union against the Pullman Palace Car Company. The American Railway Union was founded by Eugene V. Debs, who would later run for president on the Socialist party ticket.

Miners in the West also were engaged in labor activity, and in late 1905 helped to found the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.). In spirit this union was close to the old Knights of Labor, as it attracted both skilled and unskilled workers. Union literature spoke of class conflict, violence, and the desirability of socialism. I.W.W. members were called “Wobblies” and included “Mother” Jones, who organized coal miners, and Big Rill Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners. The union was involved in many strikes, many of them bloody, and was destroyed during World War I when many of its leaders were jailed.

Strikes by all of the unions mentioned in the preceding text clearly advanced the condition of the American worker during this era. Their wages had risen, and the hours they worked were less. However, the limitations of unions in this era must also be noted. The Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World were the only unions that recruited women, blacks, and immigrants. The A.F.L, vigorously rejected the recruitment of these groups, claiming that their acceptance in the workforce would depress the wages of all. Some women did form their own labor unions; the 1909 strike by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in New York City was one of the largest strikes of the era.

Industrial bosses were able to scare some workers away from joining unions, and many continually suspected that unions were filled by anarchists and other agitators. The government supported industrial owners on several other occasions by sending in the military to end strikes. Pinkerton guards were also used against strikers. Unions had still not achieved widespread acceptance in this era. Even in 1915 only 12 percent of the workforce was unionized.

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