Labor Unrest and Strikes

Although the major national labor unions, with the exception of the AFL, disavowed strikes as a tactic, there were still over 20,000 strikes involving an estimated 6.6 million workers between 1880 and 1890. Strikes often broke out spontaneously in response to calls from leaders in a factory, but local and national unions increasingly played an important role in organizing work stoppages. Governments at every level opposed strikes, and often, local police, the state militia, and federal troops were called in to end labor unrest. This did not mean, however, that elected officials were unsympathetic to workers' aspirations. Indeed, in 1894 Congress declared the first Monday in September to be Labor Day, a legal national holiday recognizing the nation's workers.

The Railroad Strike of 1877. The first nationwide strike, precipitated by a wage cut for workers on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, spread quickly to lines east of the Mississippi River and as far west as San Francisco. Wherever the strike erupted — Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis — riots broke out and railroad equipment was burned. When the state militia proved incapable of restoring order, President Rutherford B. Hayes sent in federal troops, which resulted in an inevitable clash between the Army and the workers. By the time the strike was over, 100 people had been killed and property damage stood at $10 million.

The Homestead Steel Strike of 1892. On June 29, 1892, members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel & Tin Workers were locked out of the Homestead Steel plant in a dispute over wages and working conditions. The manager of the plant, Henry Clay Frick, was determined to use the strike to break the union. A confrontation between the strikers and Pinkerton detectives brought in by Frick to enforce the lockout turned violent, and 8,000 state troops were needed to reopen the plant in July for nonunion workers. Although the strike continued well into November, the union was effectively destroyed, causing a major setback for organized labor in the steel industry.

The Pullman Strike of 1894. In the wake of the depression of 1893, the Pullman Palace Car Company reduced wages and laid off many workers. The workers lived outside of Chicago in a company town where the company owned the workers' houses and the stores in which they bought their food and clothing. Despite the wage cuts and layoffs, rents and prices for goods remained the same. Consequently, Pullman workers went on strike, and the American Railway Union, recently formed under Eugene V. Debs, called on its members to refuse to handle trains that had Pullman cars. By July 1894, rail traffic throughout the Midwest and West came to a standstill. Although Debs urged a peaceful boycott, there were clashes between the strikers and the special deputies sent by the U.S. Attorney General to keep the trains running. President Grover Cleveland ordered troops in over the objection of Governor John Peter Altgeld of Illinois, and the federal government came up with a new tactic. Citing the Sherman Antitrust Act, a federal district court issued an injunction prohibiting the strikers from interfering with the delivery of the mail or taking actions in restraint of trade. The union called off the strike, but Debs was jailed for violating the injunction. Upheld by the Supreme Court in 1895, the injunction became a powerful weapon against organized labor in the decades that followed.

Despite public fears, left‐wing elements had very little influence on the unions. Debs was radicalized by the Pullman strike, and the collapse of the American Railway Union led him into politics. In 1897 he founded the Social Democratic Party of America, which soon merged with the Socialist Labor Party to form the Socialist Party of America in 1900. The party's candidate for president five times, Debs received more than 900,000 votes, about 6 percent of the popular vote, in 1912.