By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
Most of the new city dwellers were working-class people. As the scale in cost of setting up a business increased, working-class men’s chances of becoming employers in their own right decreased. Many of them turned to trade unionism instead, hoping to be able to improve their wages, job security, and working conditions.
The skilled workingmen in particular industries began to create viable trade unions, and they eventually banded together in an organization called the American Federation of Labor, which was founded in 1886 under the leadership of Samuel Gompers. The great railroad strike of 1877 had showed that strikes could succeed if they enjoyed community support, but would fail if business owners used their political influence and court injunctions against the unions.
Middle-class Americans feared trade unions. They feared that they were influenced by dangerous foreign radicals, and this was particularly true after an explosion at a demonstration in 1886, the so-called ‘Haymarket Riot’, during which an anarchist bomb was exploded.
Bitter union management conflicts characterized, particularly in the 1890s, a period of economic depression, principally in the Pennsylvania coal fields, at the Homestead Steel plant near Pittsburgh, and on the railroads. It was the experience of these strikes in which he played a leading role that prompted Eugene Debs, a trade unionist, to create the American Socialist Party, and to become its first presidential candidate in 1900.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The scale of industry was increasing very rapidly, and that changed the nature of work. It became impersonal. It was increasingly common for a workingman not to know his boss. From the boss’s point of view, the employees were just one of the many factors for which they had to pay in getting the commodity made, and bosses usually wanted to keep their costs as low as possible so that the business could be as profitable as possible. There was an incentive for keeping wages low.
When employees appealed for higher wages, the boss or his managers sheltered behind the laissez-faire doctrine and the sanctity of contracts. In other words, according to this theory, every man seeking a job approaches the boss, and between them they work out a mutually acceptable contract according to which the work will be done, but the reality is usually very different, because the aspiring workman has got to accept the job on the terms the boss lays down; he’s arguing from a position of great disadvantage.
One of the motives behind creating a union was the idea that if all the employees together bargained collectively against the boss, then they would have some real bargaining power.
The way in which work was done was also changing very rapidly. Before it was industrialized, work rhythms had been different: less regimented, less regulated by the clock, and less regimented by harsh rules. Work was playing a more and more imperious role in the structuring of lifetime.
Also, work wasn’t safe. Industrial accidents were very common; working on the railroads, for example, was an incredibly risky business. In the days before the perfection of Westinghouse air brakes, and even after that on trains that didn’t have the highest priority, trains employed men called brakemen who literally had to walk along the top of the train, screwing a wheel that applied mechanical brakes by hand. We can imagine that walking along the top of a train was very risky. Even for brakemen who weren’t killed, being out in all the different weather conditions could be incredibly arduous.
Regularly, the men who were coupling wagons together would be crushed when a locomotive hit a line of wagons against another set without the man being prepared for it. Workers were constantly being scalded by steam from exploding boilers, which was another common accident among the steam railways.
Employees working in unsafe conditions lost their lives in accidents that could have been prevented or could have been mitigated by proper escapes.
Establishment of Unions
If an individual state took the initiative to pass laws regulating work standards in the state, all they found was that the industry would migrate out of the state.
One of the first Progressive states was Massachusetts, and the textile industry, which had grown up in Massachusetts, reacted by migrating to North Carolina and to Georgia, where the legislative system was far slower to react, where they didn’t have to install safety equipment or to protect machinery and moving belts, where they didn’t have to restrict working hours, and where there was no minimum age for the hiring of labor.
It was notoriously true in the Carolina and Georgia textile factories that child labor and the abuse of child labor was very common. Humanitarian reformers tried to prevent child labor, but it was an uphill battle.
Well, it was in reaction to conditions and circumstances like this that trade unions began to develop, overcoming a great variety of obstacles, but by 1900, they were nevertheless playing an important role in American economic life.
Common Questions about the Rise of Trade Unions in America
One key motive behind creating a union was the idea that if all the employees together bargained collectively against the boss, then they would have some real bargaining power.
In the days before the perfection of Westinghouse air brakes, and even after that on trains that didn’t have the highest priority, trains employed men called brakemen who literally had to walk along the top of the train, screwing a wheel that applied mechanical brakes by hand.
When Massachusetts took the initiative to pass laws regulating work standards, the textile industry, which had grown up in Massachusetts, reacted by migrating to North Carolina and to Georgia. There they didn’t have to install safety equipment or to protect machinery and moving belts; they didn’t have to restrict working hours; and there was no minimum age for the hiring of labor.