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Labor Unions During the Second Industrial Revolution: Organized Labor vs. Management

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  • 0:06 Labor Conditions
  • 1:36 Organized Labor
  • 3:54 Confrontations Between…
  • 8:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

Before American businesses had to comply with basic labor laws and safety regulations, workers organized to improve their working conditions. Learn about the early labor unions and their violent clashes with management and government.

Labor Conditions

During the Second Industrial Revolution in America, workers needed help. First of all, modern labor laws such as safety regulations, minimum wages and working hours didn't exist at the federal level, and many state and local protections were struck down by the Supreme Court. There had been little need for economic regulation in earlier times and little desire to see federal intervention over states' rights until after the Civil War. This hands-off approach to the economy is called laissez-faire capitalism.

Second, in the late 1800s, many educated Americans agreed with the concept (if not the term) of social Darwinism; that is, the so-called 'fittest' members of society - in this case, the fittest businesses - will survive, and the weakest will die out. Therefore, the struggle between labor and management was only natural, and if it was allowed to play out, then the economy and the people would evolve into something stronger - at least in theory.

In reality, working conditions were not going to evolve, because labor had no leverage. This third problem was largely due to unprecedented immigration. Despite difficult, dangerous circumstances, there was an increasing pool of people willing to work for poverty wages, and when there are more willing workers than jobs, employers don't need to improve conditions.

Organized Labor

Throughout Europe, many workers turned to various forms of socialism, but American workers weren't necessarily dissatisfied with government; they just wanted to increase their own bargaining position in the market. They did this by organizing. A factory owner could easily replace one button-pusher who complained about his working conditions; it was not so easy to replace an entire factory full of them.

The earliest large-scale union in the United States was the Knights of Labor, organized in 1869. They sought equal work for equal pay, including women and blacks, and an 8-hour workday. Despite early successes, however, the Knights peaked in the 1880s and were soon replaced by the American Federation of Labor, or simply the AFL.

The AFL, led by Samuel Gompers, combined several national craft unions in 1886. The American Federation of Labor saw modest victories, because they had modest goals. They did not attempt to overhaul the basic economic system. Instead, Gompers and the AFL pressed for a better position within the existing system: for example, higher wages, a right to work without being laid off arbitrarily and better working conditions. Gompers opposed most strikes and didn't think that organized labor should be involved in politics - though the AFL did come to support candidates after the turn of the century. And though Gompers claimed that unions were 'of the workers, by the workers, for the workers,' the American Federation of Labor did not welcome unskilled workers. They approved of racially segregated local unions and varied in their openness to women.

In contrast to the relatively docile AFL, the most militant of the early labor unions was the Industrial Workers of the World, known simply as the IWW, or 'Wobblies.' The Wobblies openly called for class warfare and aggression, including sabotage, and looked forward to the day when workers would seize machines and factories for themselves. Their leader, Eugene Debs, ran for president several times as the Socialist Party candidate.

Confrontations Between Workers and Management

Although strikes were not new in America, worker organization became more widespread during the Second Industrial Revolution. In the 1880s alone, there were nearly 10,000 strikes and lockouts. Of course, management attempted to shut down the growing union movement, tried to stop workers from joining unions and did whatever they could to break strikes. In many ways, the two sides were at war with one another, often with violent results. Usually, the workers ended up on the losing side.

One such conflict was the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. The nation was still feeling the effects of the Panic of 1873, with unemployment as high as 14%. When railroad employees in West Virginia had their pay cut twice in a matter of months, they went on strike, but railroad executives were unable or unwilling to discuss their demands. The strike spread to cities across the nation, leading to riots, arson, destruction of railroad property and even gun battles with state and federal troops. Before it was all over, more than 100 men were dead, and more than $100 million worth of property had been damaged. But, there were no increases in pay and the War Department created the National Guard to handle such problems in the future.

Nine years later, another nationwide strike was called, involving 340,000 workers from 12,000 different companies, all of whom were pushing for a standard 8-hour workday. Strikers rallied in cities across the country. In Chicago's Haymarket Square, police attempted to break up one such demonstration, organized by known anarchists. One of the strikers threw a bomb at police. They responded by firing into the crowd. Reports vary, but as many as 12 people were killed (including seven or eight police officers), and up to 60 people were injured. Ultimately, four of the organizers were hanged for their involvement. The Haymarket demonstration turned public opinion against the unions, who felt that they were becoming too radical and threatening law and order. Union membership fell dramatically in the years that followed.

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