Organized Labor Essays

37. Organized Labor


Labor laws were passed after the disastrous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire. 146 people were killed because the company owners had locked doors in an attempt to keep the workers from leaving.

In the mid-19th century, the vast majority of American work was still done on the farm. By the turn of the 20th century, the United States economy revolved around the factory.

Most Americans living in the Gilded Age knew nothing of the millions of Rockefeller, Carnegie and Morgan. They worked 10 hour shifts, 6 days a week, for wages barely enough to survive. Children as young as eight years old worked hours that kept them out of school. Men and women worked until their bodies could stand no more, only to be released from employment without retirement benefits. Medical coverage did not exist. Women who became pregnant were often fired. Compensation for being hurt while on the job was zero.


This 1899 political cartoon, published in The Verdict, represents the growing disparity between the rich and poor classes in America. This disproportion fomented the formation of anti-trust laws in the following decade.

Come Together

Soon laborers realized that they must unite to demand change. Even though they lacked money, education, or political power, they knew one critical thing. There were simply more workers than there were owners.

Unions did not emerge overnight. Despite their legal rights to exist, bosses often took extreme measures, including intimidation and violence, to prevent a union from taking hold. Workers, too, often chose the sword when peaceful measures failed.

Many Americans believed that a violent revolution would take place in America. How long would so many stand to be poor? Industrial titans including John Rockefeller arranged for mighty castles to be built as fortresses to stand against the upheaval they were sure was coming.

Slowly but surely unions did grow. Efforts to form nationwide organizations faced even greater difficulties. Federal troops were sometimes called to block their efforts. Judges almost always ruled in favor of the bosses.

Illinois Labor History Society

Chicago "Anarchists." In 1886, protesting for an 8-hour work day led to the Haymarket Riot.

The workers often could not agree on common goals. Some flirted with extreme ideas like Marxism. Others simply wanted a nickel more per hour. Fights erupted over whether or not to admit women or African Americans. Immigrants were often viewed with hostile eyes. Most did agree on one major issue — the eight-hour day. But even that agreement was often not strong enough glue to hold the group together.

Organized labor has brought tremendous positive change to working Americans. Today, many workers enjoy higher wages, better hours, and safer working conditions. Employers often pay for medical coverage and several weeks vacation. Jobs and lives were lost in the epic struggle for a fair share. The fight sprouted during the Gilded Age, when labor took its first steps toward unity. It began with the Great Upheaval.

I'm not old enough to work, but do just the same. This photo journal shows American children at work from 1908-12 in mills, mines, fishing boats, farms and on the streets.
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During the nation-wide strike for the 8-hour workday, which began May 1, 1886, a mass meeting was held in the Chicago haymarket to protest a police action of the previous day in which workers were killed. When police ordered the protest meeting to disperse (peaceful though it was), a bomb was thrown by an unknown person, killing several officers. This became known as the "Haymarket Riot." Check out this explosive site
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Organized Labor from 1875-1900

1972 WordsApr 8th, 20078 Pages

The movement in organized labor from 1875 to 1900 to improve the position of workers was unsuccessful because of the inherent weaknesses of unions and the failures of their strikes, the negative public attitudes toward organized labor, widespread government corruption, and the tendency of government to side with big business. After the Civil there was a push to industrialize quickly, and the rushed industrialization was at the expense of the workers as it led to bigger profits for big business and atrocious working conditions for them; conditions that included long working hours, extremely low wages, and the exploitation of children and immigrants. In an effort to organize themselves to better their situation, laborers created unions…show more content…

The Amalgamated finally called for a strike when Frick announced another wage cut and gave the union two days to accept it. In response to the strike, Frick shit down the plant and called in guards from the Pinkerton Detective Agency (well-known strikebreakers) to enable the company to hire nonunion workers. The mere presence of the hated Pinkertons was enough to incite the workers to violence. As the Pinkertons approached the Homestead plant by river, strikers prepared for them by pouring oil on the water and setting it on fire and meeting the guards at the docks with guns and dynamite. The Pinkertons surrendered after several hours of pitched battle that left three guards and ten strikers dead, but the workers' victory was temporary. 8,000 National Guard troops were called in to protect the strikebreakers and production in the plant resumed. Public opinion turned completely against the strikers when a radical attempted to assassinate Frick. Defeated, strikers slowly drifted back to their jobs until Amalgamated had no choice but to surrender. Amalgamated membership shrank from 24,000 to 7,000, a decline symbolic of the general erosion of union strength as factory laborers became increasingly unskilled, and so increasingly easy to replace. Public opinion came to reflect the belief that labor unions were dangerous attempts by radicals to promote, at best,

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