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Industrialization and Urbanization, Labor

Haymarket Square Riot, great railroad strike, yellow dog contracts, American Railway Union, Pullman strike

The trend toward large-scale production changed the structure of the labor force and the nature of work. From 1870 to 1900, as the industrial work force expanded, the unskilled worker replaced the artisan or autonomous craftsperson. The typical workplace was more likely to be a large factory than a small workshop. Striving for efficiency, employers replaced skilled labor with machines and low-paid workers. Factory tasks became specialized, repetitive, and monotonous. The need for unskilled labor drew women and children into the industrial work force. Some performed piecework, work paid for according to the amount produced rather than the hours worked, in crowded tenements; others operated machinery in textile mills and garment plants. Industrial labor in the late 19th century was often hazardous. Workers lacked protection against industrial accidents, long hours, wage cuts, layoffs, and sudden bouts of unemployment.

As the industrial work force grew, tensions increased between labor and management. They disagreed over issues such as wages, length of the working day, and working conditions. Labor unions emerged to protect the rights of workers and to represent them in negotiations with management. Most employers vigorously opposed trade union activity, and struggles between workers and employers often became violent.

The first national labor organization, the Knights of Labor, organized in 1869, tried to include all workers. The Knights reached their greatest strength between 1884 and 1885, when railroad strikes raged, and then declined. As the Knights of Labor faded, a new federation of local and craft unions, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), was organized in 1886. Led from 1886 to 1924 by Samuel Gompers, an immigrant cigar maker from England, the AFL welcomed skilled workers, almost all of them men. The AFL focused on hours, wages, working conditions, and union recognition by management. It also favored use of economic weapons such as strikes and boycotts.

Late-19th-century unions attracted only a small portion, perhaps 5 percent, of the work force, but strikes involved far more workers. In the last quarter of the century, thousands of strikes aroused public concern, and several large, violent events evoked fear. The great railroad strike of 1877 was a wildcat strike (a strike by a union local without consent of the national union to which it belongs) set off by wage cuts on a single railroad line. It became a nationwide protest that almost ended rail traffic and led to scores of deaths. Only the arrival of federal troops ended the strike.

In the 1880s, a decade of 10,000 strikes and lockouts, workers often succeeded in averting wage reductions and winning shorter hours. Most strikes concerned local grievances but some closed down entire industries and incurred reprisals. The Haymarket Square Riot in Chicago in 1886 grew out of a strike against a company that built agricultural machinery. Union leaders called a protest meeting at which police intervened and a bomb exploded, causing many deaths. Eight people were convicted of murder, and four were hanged. Repelled by the violence, the public blamed the labor movement for the casualties at Haymarket Square, and the Knights of Labor lost influence.

At the end of the 19th century, business often defeated workers’ demands. In the 1890s, at employers’ requests, federal troops crushed strikes at Idaho silver mines, Carnegie’s steel plants, and Pullman railway works. The Pullman strike began when workers for the Pullman Palace Car Company protested wage cuts. The protest led thousands of workers to join the American Railway Union, led by Eugene V. Debs. But employers, who united to break the union, called for an injunction, a court order for workers to return to work, and attained it under the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. Federal troops arrived to enforce the injunction against the union, riots ensued, the strike was crushed, and Debs was arrested, convicted, and imprisoned. The injunction was a powerful tool for business to use against labor.

Besides the injunction, union organizers faced other obstacles, such as blacklists (lists of union activists circulated among employers) and attacks by Pinkerton detectives (agents of a private detective firm that guarded factories, protected railroads, and battled labor). In some instances, employers forced workers to sign “yellow dog contracts,” in which they promised not to join unions. Management retained the upper hand.

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