The Rise of Organized Labor

Before the Civil War, less than a million people worked in industry; by the end of the century, that figure had more than tripled. Traditionally, skilled artisans were employed in small shops to make finished products while setting their own hours, and more often than not, they worked alongside the shop owner. As the factory system took hold and plants became larger, the nature of labor changed. Mass production meant that workers were responsible for only a small part of the process, performing one specific task repeatedly in the creation of an item. Many tasks could be done just as well by unskilled workers, and craftsmen found themselves displaced by women, children, and recent immigrants, all of whom were willing to work for a lower wage. The factory became an impersonal environment in which workers never saw or even knew the owners, and where the pace of work was set by the capabilities of the machines.

The typical factory worker in the late nineteenth century worked ten hours a day, six days a week. Unskilled workers were paid between $1.00 and $1.50 a day; skilled workers might make twice as much, while women (who became a significant percentage of the labor force after the Civil War), children, and African‐Americans were paid considerably less. Workplace accidents were common, and the idea of compensating workers injured on the job was unheard of at the time. To help each other through illness, injury, and deaths, workers formed mutual benefit societies (often organized along ethnic lines), but the assistance these groups provided was minimal. The most serious problem for factory workers was unemployment. It was common for a worker, particularly an unskilled one, to be out of a job at least part of the year.

Early labor unions. Skilled workers, such as cigarmakers, iron molders, and hat finishers formed the first labor unions before the Civil War. Several of these craft unions (so named because they organized workers within specific craft industries) joined together to form the National Labor Union (NLU) in 1866. Although the organization advocated an eight‐hour workday, it did not support strikes to achieve that goal. The NLU was also concerned with social reform, including equal rights for women, establishing worker cooperatives, and temperance. The union, along with organized labor in general, declined sharply in the wake of the depression of 1873 but not before influencing Congress to enact the eight‐hour day for federal employees (1868).

The Knights of Labor, organized in 1869, is considered to be the first industrial union, open to skilled and unskilled workers, women, and African‐Americans. This inclusive policy contributed to its growth, and the union boasted more than 700,000 members by the mid‐1880s. The program of the Knights of Labor was a combination of reform ideas and specific worker demands. Along with setting up cooperative workshops and calling for the regulation of the railroads, the union wanted an eight‐hour workday, legislation protecting the health and safety of workers, and an end to child labor (for children under the age of 14). To achieve these goals, political action and arbitration between employers and labor representatives were preferred over strikes. The decline of the Knights of Labor after 1886 was due to several factors: the failure of several unauthorized strikes, the growing dissatisfaction of craftsmen who felt the union favored the interests of unskilled workers, and the public perception in the wake of the Haymarket Square Riot (1886) that the Knights supported violence.

On May 4, 1886, a mass meeting of workers was called in Chicago's Haymarket Square to protest the death of a striker at the McCormick Harvester plant. When the police tried to disperse the crowd, someone threw a bomb that killed seven policemen and injured several more. The riot that followed resulted in additional deaths on both sides. Although it was one of the three unions on strike at McCormick, the Knights of Labor had nothing to do with the events in Haymarket Square. This fact did not prevent the union from becoming a victim of the antilabor sentiment that swept the country, and its membership declined rapidly over the next four years.

The American Federation of Labor. Founded in 1886 by Samuel Gompers, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was a federation of skilled workers in national craft unions that maintained their autonomy while working together to promote labor legislation and support strikes. In contrast to its predecessors, the new union focused exclusively on basic labor issues — the eight‐hour workday, higher wages, better working conditions (particularly plant safety), and the right of workers to organize. To Gompers, who began his career in the cigarmakers union, only craftsmen that could not be easily replaced had the leverage necessary to either bargain effectively with employers or go on strike. The AFL had little more than disdain for unskilled workers or blacks, skilled or not, and did not seriously try to organize women. Although he was an immigrant himself, as were many local union men, Gompers nevertheless strongly supported restrictions on immigration to prevent new arrivals from competing with American workers for jobs. Even though it excluded most of the working class, the AFL became the largest single labor organization in the country by 1900 with over one million members.