American Labor


American Labor Essay, Research Paper


By Ira Peck

(Scholastic Inc.)

The Industrial Revolution was dawning in the United States. At Lowell, Massachusetts,

the construction of a big cotton mill began in 1821. It was the first of several that would

be built there in the next 10 years. The machinery to spin and weave cotton into cloth

would be driven by water power. All that the factory owners needed was a dependable

supply of labor to tend the machines.

As most jobs in cotton factories required neither great strength nor special skills, the

owners thought women could do the work as well as or better than men. In addition,

they were more compliant. The New England region was home to many young, single

farm girls who might be recruited. But would stern New England farmers allow their

daughters to work in factories? The great majority of them would not. They believed

that sooner or later factory workers would be exploited and would sink into hopeless

poverty. Economic “laws” would force them to work harder and harder for less and less



How, then, were the factory owners able to recruit farm girls as laborers? They did it

by building decent houses in which the girls could live. These houses were supervised

by older women who made sure that the girls lived by strict moral standards. The girls

were encouraged to go to church, to read, to write and to attend lectures. They saved

part of their earnings to help their families at home or to use when they got married.

The young factory workers did not earn high wages; the average pay was about $3.50

a week. But in those times, a half-dozen eggs cost five cents and a whole chicken cost

15 cents. The hours worked in the factories were long. Generally, the girls worked 11 to

13 hours a day, six days a week. But most people in the 1830s worked from dawn until

dusk, and farm girls were used to getting up early and working until bedtime at nine o’clock.

The factory owners at Lowell believed that machines would bring progress as well as profit.

Workers and capitalists would both benefit from the wealth created by mass production.

For a while, the factory system at Lowell worked very well. The population of the town

grew from 200 in 1820 to 30,000 in 1845. But conditions in Lowell’s factories had already

started to change. Faced with growing competition, factory owners began to decrease

wages in order to lower the cost–and the price–of finished products.

They increased the number of machines that each girl had to operate. In addition, they

began to overcrowd the houses in which the girls lived. Sometimes eight girls had to share

one room.

In 1836, 1,500 factory girls went on strike to protest wage cuts. (The girls called their

action a “turn out.”) But it was useless. Desperately poor immigrants were beginning to

arrive in the United States from Europe. To earn a living, they were willing to accept low

wages and poor working conditions. Before long, immigrant women replaced the

“Yankee” (American) farm girls.

To many people, it was apparent that justice for wage earners would not come easily.

Labor in America faced a long, uphill struggle to win fair treatment. In that struggle, more

and more workers would turn to labor unions to help their cause. They would endure

violence, cruelty and bitter defeats. But eventually they would achieve a standard of

living unknown to workers at any other time in history.


In colonial America, most manufacturing was done by hand in the home. Some was

done in workshops attached to the home. As towns grew into cities, the demand for

manufactured goods increased. Some workshop owners began hiring helpers to increase

production. Relations between the employer and helper were generally harmonious.

They worked side by side, had the same interests and held similar political views.

The factory system that began around 1800 brought great changes. The employer

no longer worked beside his employees. He became an executive and a merchant

who rarely saw his workers. He was concerned less with their welfare than with the

cost of their labor. Many workers were angry about the changes brought by the

factory system. In the past, they had taken great pride in their handicraft skills; now

machines did practically all the work, and they were reduced to the status of common

laborers. In bad times they could lose their jobs. Then they might be replaced by

workers who would accept lower wages. To skilled craft workers, the Industrial

Revolution meant degradation rather than progress.

As the factory system grew, many workers began to form labor unions to protect their

interests. The first union to hold regular meetings and collect dues was organized by

Philadelphia shoemakers in 1792. Soon after, carpenters and leather workers in Boston

and printers in New York also organized unions. Labor’s tactics in those early times

were simple. Members of a union would agree on the wages they thought were fair.

They pledged to stop working for employers who would not pay that amount. They also

sought to compel employers to hire only union members.


Employers found the courts to be an effective weapon to protect their interests. In 1806,

eight Philadelphia shoemakers were brought to trial after leading an unsuccessful strike.

The court ruled that any organizing of workers to raise wages was an illegal act. Unions

were “conspiracies” against employers and the community. In later cases, courts ruled

that almost any action taken by unions to increase wages might be criminal. These

decisions destroyed the effectiveness of the nation’s early labor unions.

Not until 1842 was the way opened again for workers to organize. That year several union

shoemakers in Boston were brought to trial. They were charged with refusing to work with

non-union shoemakers. A municipal court judge found the men guilty of conspiracy. But

an appeal to a higher court resulted in a victory for labor unions generally. Chief Justice

Lemuel Shaw ruled that it was not unlawful for workers to engage peacefully in union

activity. It was their right to organize, he said. Shaw’s decision was widely accepted. For

many years following this decision, unions did not have to fear conspiracy charges.


In the next two decades, unions campaigned for a 10-hour working day and against child

labor. A number of state legislatures responded favorably. In 1851, for example, New Jersey

passed a law calling for a 10-hour working day in all factories. It also forbade the

employment of children under 10 years old.

Meanwhile trade unions were joining together in cities to form federations. A number of

skilled trades organized national unions to try to improve their wages and working conditions.

The effort to increase wages brought about hundreds of strikes during the 1850s. None was

as extensive, however, as a strike of New England shoemakers in 1860. The strike started

in Lynn, Massachusetts, when factory workers were refused a three-dollar increase in their

weekly pay. It soon spread to Maine and New Hampshire. Altogether, about 20,000 workers

took part in the strike. It ended in a victory for the shoemakers. Similar victories were soon

won by other trade unions. These successes led to big increases in union membership. Yet

most American workers were generally better off than workers in Europe and had more hope

of improving their lives. For this reason, the majority did not join labor unions.

In the years following the Civil War (1861-1865), the United States was transformed by the

enormous growth of industry. Once the United States was mainly a nation of small farms. By

1900, it was a nation of growing cities, of coal and steel, of engines and fast communications.

Though living standards generally rose, millions of industrial workers lived in crowded,

unsanitary slums. Their conditions became desperate in times of business depressions. Then it

was not unusual for workers to go on strike and battle their employers. Between 1865 and

1900, industrial violence occurred on numerous occasions.

Probably the most violent confrontation between labor and employers was the Great Railway

Strike of 1877. The nation had been in the grip of a severe depression for four years. During

that time, the railroads had decreased the wages of railway workers by 20 percent. Many

trainmen complained that they could not support their families adequately. There was little that

the trainmen could do about the wage decreases. At that time, unions were weak and workers

feared going on strike; there were too many unemployed men who might take their jobs. Yet some

workers secretly formed a Trainmen’s Union to oppose the railroads.

Then, in 1877, four big railroads announced that they were going to decrease wages another 10

percent. In addition, the Pennsylvania line ordered freight train conductors to handle twice as many

cars as before. On July 16, a strike began on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in West Virginia. The

strike quickly spread to other lines. On July 19, Pennsylvania Railroad workers at Pittsburgh

refused to let freight trains move. (The strikers let passenger trains move freely because they

carried United States mail.) The next day the governor sent statemilitiamen to oust the strikers from

the freight yard. But these men were from Pittsburgh. They had many friends and relatives among the

strikers. Soon they were mingling with the crowd of men, women and children at the freight yard.

The next day 600 militiamen arrived from Philadelphia. They were ordered to clear the tracks at the

freight yard. The soldiers advanced toward the crowd and shooting erupted. In the aftermath, 20

people in the crowd lay dead. Many more were wounded. News of the killings triggered rioting and

fires in the Pittsburgh railyards. President Rutherford Hayes ordered federal troops to Pittsburgh to

end mob violence. When they arrived, the fighting had already ended. In the smoking ruins, they

found the wrecks of more than 2,000 railroad cars. Dozens of buildings lay in ashes.

Many strikers were sent to jail and others lost their jobs. A large part of the public was shocked by

the violence in Pittsburgh and other cities. Some people were convinced that miners, railroad

workers and other laborers were common criminals. Legislatures in many states passed new

conspiracy laws aimed at suppressing labor. But the Great Railway Strike of 1877 helped the

workers in some ways. A few railroads took back the wage cuts they had ordered. More important

was the support given to the strike by miners, iron workers and others. It gave labor an awareness

of its strength and solidarity.


The Railway Strike led many workers to join a growing national labor organization. It had a grand

name–the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor. It was founded in 1869 by a small group

of Philadelphia clothing workers. Their union had been unable to organize effectively. The reason,

they believed, was that its members were too well-known. Employers fired them and then put their

names on a “blacklist.” Other employers would not hire anyone whose name appeared on the list.

The garment workers came to two conclusions:

Secrecy was needed to protect union members against employer spies.

Labor organizations would fail if they were divided into separate craft unions. Instead, labor should

be organized in one big union of both skilled and unskilled workers.

Membership in the Knights of Labor was open to wage earners over 18 years of age regardless of

race, sex or skill. New members had to take an oath of secrecy. They swore that they would

never reveal the name of the order or the names of its members.

The program of the Knights of Labor called for: an eight-hour working day, laws establishing a

minimum weekly wage, the use of arbitration rather than strikes to settle disputes, laws to protect

the health and safety of industrial workers, equal pay for equal work, an end to child labor under

14 years of age and government ownership of railroads, telegraphs and telephones.

It was impossible for the Knights to operate in complete secrecy. Rumors of their activities

reached the press. Newspaper stories usually exaggerated the strength of the order. Under

pressure from public opinion, the Knights began to operate openly. But they were still forbidden

to reveal the name of any member to an employer.

Membership in the Knights increased slowly. By 1884, the order had only 52,000 members. But

that year workers led by Knights of Labor organizers went on strike against two big railroad

companies. Both strikes ended in complete victories for the Knights. Now workers everywhere

rushed to join the order. Within two years membership in the Knights rose to 150,000. Newspapers

warned their readers about the power of the Knights. One of them said, “Their leaders can shut

most of the mills and factories, and disable the railroads.” Many people associated the order with

dangerous radicals.

Later railroad strikes by the Knights met with defeat. The order was not nearly as powerful as it

had seemed. Workers began to leave it in great numbers. Within 10 years of its greatest victories,

the Knights of Labor collapsed.

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