Workers tried to form unions in the 1800s, hoping to improve wages, hours, and working conditions. Business leaders worked with some trade unions but generally opposed industrial unions. Strikes during this era sometimes led to violence, which hurt the unions’ image and slowed their growth.

Working in the United States

 Why did workers try to form unions in the late 1800s?

There were many benefits of laissez-faire economics in the late 1800s, including rapid industrialization, dramatic innovation, and an improving standard of living, but the laissez-faire idea that governments should avoid regulating the economy had costs as well. Working conditions in factories and mines were difficult and often dangerous. Many workers performed dull, repetitive tasks in dangerous, unhealthy working conditions. Workers breathed in lint, dust, and toxic fumes. Heavy machines lacking safety devices led to injuries. With no regulations governing workplace safety or training requirements, workers had no recourse when they were poorly treated other than to quit and look for a new job. 

Despite these conditions, industrialism led to a dramatic rise in the standard of living. The average worker’s wages rose by 50 percent between 1860 and 1890. Nevertheless, the uneven division of income between the wealthy and the working class caused resentment among workers. In 1900 the average industrial worker made 22¢ per hour and worked 59 hours per week.

Deflation, or a rise in the value of money, added to tensions. Between 1865 and 1897, deflation caused prices to fall, which increased the buying power of workers’ wages. Although companies cut wages regularly in the late 1800s, prices fell even faster, so that wages were actually still going up in buying power. Workers, however, resented getting less money. Eventually, many concluded that they needed a union to bargain for higher wages and better working conditions.

Early Unions

There were two basic types of industrial workers in the United States in the 1800s—craft workers and common laborers. Craft workers, such as machinists, iron molders, stonecutters, shoemakers, and printers, had special skills and training. They received higher wages and had more control over their time. Common laborers had few skills and received lower wages.

In the 1830s, as industrialization began to spread, craft workers began to form trade unions. By 1873, there were 30 national trade unions in the United States. Among the largest and most successful were the Iron Molders’ International Union, the International Typographical Union, and the Knights of St. Crispin—the shoemakers’ union.

Opposition to Unions

Employers often had to negotiate with trade unions because the unions represented workers whose skills they needed. Employers, however, generally viewed unions as conspiracies that interfered with property rights. Business leaders particularly opposed industrial unions, which united all the workers in a particular industry.

Companies used several techniques to stop workers from forming unions. They required workers to take oaths or sign contracts promising not to join a union. They hired detectives to identify union organizers. Workers who tried to organize a union or strike were fired and placed on a blacklist—a list of “troublemakers”—so that no company would hire them. Companies used lockouts to break up existing unions. They locked workers out of the property and refused to pay them. Employers would hire other employees, or strikebreakers, if the union called a strike.

Efforts to break unions often succeeded because there were no laws giving workers the right to form unions or requiring owners to negotiate with them. Government policies toward unions did not really reflect a commitment to laissez-faire economics. Instead of staying out of economic disputes, and allowing workers to confront owners and work out their disagreements on their own, the government's relationship toward business shifted toward policies that supported business owners and impeded the development of unions. Courts frequently ruled that strikes were "conspiracies in restraint of trade" for which labor leaders were often fined or jailed. Eventually even state militias and federal troops would be used to break up strikes.

Part of the reason for the government's objection to unions and collective action by workers was the perception that unions were un-American. In the 1800s, the ideas of Karl Marx, called Marxism, became very powerful in Europe. Marx argued that capitalist society was shaped by the class struggle between workers and owners. He believed that workers would eventually revolt, take control of the factories, and overthrow the government.  Marx thought the state would disappear and leave a communist society where classes did not exist.

While many labor supporters agreed with Marx, a few supported anarchism. Anarchists believe that society does not need any government. Anarchists killed government officials and set off bombs across Europe in the late 1800s. They hoped to start a revolution.

Tens of thousands of European immigrants headed to the United States during this same time period. Anti-immigrant feelings were already strong in the United States. People began to tie immigrant workers to radical ideas. They became suspicious of unions. These fears and concerns for law and order often led officials to use the courts, the police, and even the army to crush strikes and break up unions.

Struggling to Organize

 What made it difficult for union workers to create large industrial unions?

Workers often tried to create large industrial unions, but they rarely succeeded in creating these unions. In many cases, the confrontations with owners and the government led to violence and bloodshed.

The Great Railroad Strike

The Panic of 1873 was a severe recession that struck the U.S. economy. It forced many companies to cut wages. The economy had still not recovered when, in July 1877, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad announced it was cutting wages for the third time. In Martinsburg, West Virginia, workers walked off the job and blocked the tracks.

Railroad workers across the country walked off the job as news spread. The strike eventually involved about 80,000 railroad workers and affected two-thirds of the nation’s railways. Angry strikers smashed equipment, tore up tracks, and blocked rail service in New York City, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Chicago. The governors of several states called out their militias. Gun battles happened between the militia and the strikers in many places.

President Hayes declared a state of "insurrection." He sent federal troops to Martinsburg, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere. It took 12 days for police, state militias, and federal troops to restore order. More than 100 people were dead by the time the strike ended. More than $10 million in railroad property had been destroyed. The violence of this strike scared many Americans and only further contributed to the idea that allowing workers to organize was dangerous to society.

The Knights of Labor

The Knights of Labor was founded in 1869. It took a different approach to labor issues. Its leader, Terence Powderly, used boycotts and arbitration instead of strikes. Arbitration happens when a third party helps workers and employers reach an agreement. Unlike other unions, the Knights welcomed women and African Americans. The Knights wanted an eight-hour workday, equal pay for women, no child labor, and worker-owned factories.

The Haymarket Riot In 1886 supporters of the eight-hour workday called for a nationwide strike on May 1. On May 3, Chicago police got involved in a fight on a picket line and opened fire on the strikers. The next day, about 3,000 people gathered  to protest the shootings in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. Someone threw a bomb. Police opened fire, and workers shot back. About 170 people were hurt, and 10 policemen were killed. Eight men were arrested for the bombing. All eight were convicted even though the evidence against them was weak, and four were executed.

Union critics used the Haymarket riot to claim that dangerous people were in charge of unions. One of the men arrested was a member of the Knights of Labor. So the Knights got a bad reputation. This bad reputation, as well as failed strikes, led to a decline in their membership and influence.

The Homestead and Pullman Strikes

Another labor dispute led to bloodshed in the summer of 1892. Anti-unionist Henry Clay Frick was manager of a Pennsylvania steel mill owned by Andrew Carnegie. Frick wanted to cut wages by 20 percent. He then locked union employees out and had the Pinkerton Detective Agency bring in replacements. The strikers resisted when Pinkerton and the strikebreakers came to the plant. Pinkertons and strikers were killed and injured over the next 14 hours. The governor of Pennsylvania sent in the militia to protect the strikebreakers. Four months later the strike collapsed.

In 1894, the Pullman Palace Car Company cut  workers’ wages without lowering rents and prices in the company town. American Railway Union (ARU) workers refused to handle Pullman cars, and railroads ground to a near halt. Railroad managers linked mail cars to Pullman cars, and President Cleveland sent in federal troops to keep the mail running. A federal court then issued an injunction, or formal order, to stop the boycott. Both the strike and the ARU collapsed. The Supreme Court later upheld the right to issue injunctions. This gave business a tool against labor unrest.

New Unions Emerge

 How were the new industrial unions different from the older trade unions?

Workers often shared the same complaints about wages and working hours. But unions used different ways to improve workers’ lives. Trade unions stayed the most common type of labor organization, but unskilled workers were not represented by trade unions. New types of unions emerged to support these workers.

The Rise of the AFL

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was the main labor organization of the late 1800s. In 1886 leaders of many national trade unions came together to create the AFL. This union focused on promoting the interests of skilled workers.

Samuel Gompers was the first president of the AFL. He held the position almost continuously until 1924. Gompers tried to stay focused on "pure and simple" unionism. He focused on wages, working hours, and working conditions. He was willing to use strikes to create change, but he preferred to negotiate.

The AFL had three main goals. First, it tried to make companies recognize unions and agree to collective bargaining. Second, it pushed for closed shops. This meant that companies could hire only union members. Third, it wanted an eight-hour workday. By 1900, the AFL was the biggest union in the country with more than 500,000 members. The AFL represented less than 15 percent of all nonfarm workers. Most AFL members were white men. The unions discriminated against African Americans, and only a few would allow women.


In 1905 a group of labor radicals created the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Many of these laborers were socialists. Nicknamed “the Wobblies,” the IWW wanted to organize all workers according to industry. They did not want to say there was a difference between skilled and unskilled workers. The IWW was in favor of using strikes. The IWW believed all workers should be organized into “One Big Union.” The IWW tried to organize the unskilled workers who were ignored by most unions.

In 1912 the IWW led a successful strike of 25,000 textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, to protest wage cuts. The companies reversed the wage cuts after 10 weeks. The Lawrence strike was the Wobblies’ greatest win. Most IWW strikes failed and the IWW never got a lot of members. Its philosophy and strikes led many to criticize the organization.

Women and Organized Labor

The number of female wage earners began to increase after the Civil War. By 1900, women made up more than 18 percent of the labor force. The type of jobs women did outside the home showed society’s ideas about what constituted “women’s work.” About one-third of women wage earners worked as domestic servants. Another third worked as teachers, nurses, and sales clerks. The remaining third were industrial workers who often worked in the garment industry and food-processing plants.

Women were paid less than men even when they did the same jobs. It was assumed that a woman had a man helping to support her, and that a man needed higher wages in order to support a family. Most unions did not allow women.

One of the most famous labor leaders of the era was Mary Harris Jones, who was also known as “Mother Jones.” Jones worked as a labor organizer for the Knights of Labor before helping organize mine workers. Her public speaking abilities made her a very successful organizer.

In 1900 Jewish and Italian immigrants who worked in the clothing business in New York City founded the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). This union represented both men and women workers in the women’s clothing industry. Membership expanded rapidly. In 1909 a strike of some 20,000 garment workers won the ILGWU recognition in the industry, better wages, and benefits for employees.

In 1903 Mary Kenney O’Sullivan and Leonora O’Reilly decided to make a union for women. They made the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) with the help of Jane Addams and Lillian Wald. This union pushed for an eight-hour workday, a minimum wage, an end to evening work for women, and the end of child labor.

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