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Early Strikes Of The American Labor Movement

EARLY STRIKES OF THE LABOR MOVEMENT In the mid-nineteenth century and early twentieth century, industry in America was growing at an alarming rate. This growth brought about basic changes in the way things were produced and in the lives of those who produced them. It was the Civil War that first started to change industrial landscape of the nation. “More than a million dollars a day were spent on weapons, ammunition, machinery, clothing, boots, shoes, [and] canned goods” (Meltzer, 3). The high demand for so many different items brought bigger, newer and more efficient factories. The factories were producing cheaper products than the small, independent, hand-made specialists were. As a result of this industrialization a shoemaker, for example, no longer made the whole shoe. Instead the “new” shoemaker only made the heel, or shoelace. “Mass production left no place for the individual craftsman” (Meltzer, 4). The new assembly line organization had several side effects. One was condition for the workers. Factories often provided inadequate housing which lead to bad living conditions. The working conditions were usually dirty, uncomfortable, and unsafe. By 1900 nearly one out of every five in the labor force was a woman. Conditions for women and children were often much worse. “They [women] were used to hard work. In the home they put in 12 hours a day or more, cleaning, cooking, sewing, rearing children, and helping with the men’s chores as well,” (Foner, Women 8). Industry owners sent people to rural parts of the country to recruit women. They promised the women high wages, leisure hours, and silk dresses. Instead, the women worked 14 to 16 hours a day for an average wage of $1.56 a week. They received no silk dresses. “Some of the hands never touch their money from month’s end to month’s end. Once in two weeks is payday. A woman had then worked 122 hours. The corporation furnishes her house. There is rent to be paid; there are also the corporation stores from which she has been getting her food, coal… and [other] cheap stuff on sale may tempt her to purchase...” (Meltzer, 21). Factory employers also cheated women, believing they were defenseless. Some employers did not pay them at all, or deducted a large part of their pay for “imperfect” work. An 1870 survey showed that 7,000 of the working women could only afford to live in cellars and 20,000 were near starvation. For children in the nineteenth century, idleness was considered a sin. And the factory was a God sent protector against the evils into which idleness might lead children. In the 1830’s in Massachusetts, children in the factory worked 12 to 13 hours a day. In 1845, the mills in Lowell set hours for children from sunup to sunset. In New England two fifths of all workers were children. The Census of 1870 reported 700,000 children ages ten to fifteen at work. By 1910, nearly 2 million children ages ten to fifteen were at work. In addition to the extremely high hours, the conditions children were forced to work in were atrocious. The factories were often dirty, unsanitary, cramped, dark, and unsafe. As difference in wealth between workers and owners increased, there was a greater need for the worker to be able to improve their circumstances. There were several key strikes through which the workers fought to improve conditions. In this paper I will investigate the issues, events, and outcomes surrounding three important strikes. The Homestead Strike: 1891, Steel Industry, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Conditions in the steel mills were difficult, dangerous and wages were low. “Everywhere in the enormous sheds were pits gaping like the mouth of hell, and ovens emitting a terrible degree of heat, with grimy men filling and lining them. One man jumps down, works desperately for a few minutes, and is then pulled up exhausted. Another immediately takes his place; there is no hesitation,” (Meltzer, 137). The accident rate in the steel mills of Pittsburgh was very high. In 1891 there was a total of 300 deaths and over 2,000 injuries. People died or were injured from explosions, burnings, asphyxiation, electric shocks, falls, crushing, etc. In 1889 the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers organized to seek higher wages and better conditions for steel workers. In that same year the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers achieved a three-year contract from Andrew Carnegie, the steel owner. Nearing the end of the contract, the union began negotiations to renew it. In response to the workers union, Andrew Carnegie formed an association of manufacturers. Henry Clay Frick was a famous union buster, and had just finished dissolving a union in the coke fields when Carnegie gave him the position of being in charge at Homestead. Negotiations began in 1892. Steel prices had greatly increased and the union asked for a raise. Frick responded by cutting wages. Negotiations continued and Frick started building high fences around the mill, cutting gun slits in it, and topping it with barbed wire. Soon after the men learned of his plan to smash the union, they were left with a proposition: settle on his terms in one month, or the company would stop dealing with the union. Angered by his inflexibility, the workers held a mock public hanging of Frick. Using this as an excuse, he shut down the mill, and locked the workers out two days before the end of the contract. Frick quickly hired as many scabs as he could and brought in 300 Pinkerton guards to get them through the picket line and protect the plant. What was to happen in the next thirteen hours is considered one of the bloodiest battles in American Labor history. It started very early in the morning when some of the workers sighted two barges of Pinkertons a mile below Homestead. Ten thousand men, women, and children rushed to the riverbank. When the Pinkertons disembarked from the boats, they saw hordes of men holding carbines, rifles, shotguns, pistols, revolvers, clubs, and stones. The firing started when one of the ships began to lower their gangplank. When the plank reached shore, a striker lay down upon it to keep people from getting off. When a Pinkerton tried to kick him out of the way, the striker shot him in the thigh. Almost immediately both side began firing at each other. The Pinkertons shot from the plank and top of the barge instantly shooting down thirty Homestead strikers. It is estimated that 20 Pinkertons and 40 strikers were shot. Finally, the Pinkertons surrendered, and march upon the shore, unarmed just to be severely beaten by the enraged wives of several of the workers. Instead, a few days later, 8,000 members of the Pennsylvania National Guard took over the town. According to the commanding general, their aim was to restore law and order. They stayed for three months while the company continued to bring in more and more scabs. There were nearly 2,000 operating the steel mill. Though locked out, and holding firm for almost five months, the strikers gave in. The troops, scabs, costly court action, evictions from company houses, press attacks, and hunger forced the men to give in. The unskilled workers, whose jobs were easily replaced, voted to return back to work. And a few days later, the union joined them. Frick’s response was simple, “This outbreak settles one matter forever, and that is that the Homestead mill hereafter will never again recognize the Amalgamated Association nor any other labor organization,” (Meltzer, 142). After the strike, life got even harder for the union. Frick stayed so he could watch the members of the union ask for their old jobs back. Almost all of them were denied. The once indispensable skilled workers saw their places taken by new men, who were quickly trained. The mechanization of the mills also reduced the value of skilled labor. These union members had trouble finding jobs anywhere. The industry-wide blacklist kept the union men out of every steel mill. Within two years, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers lost half of its national membership. By 1910, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers had only one contract with a small company. The 1892 defeat of Homestead meant a twelve-hour day, seven days a week for almost all the workers. Pinkerton spies were installed everywhere. Wages were slashed more than anyone had ever expected them to be, and grievance committees were done away with. Workers meetings were also banned. And working and living conditions sank lower than they had ever been before. “As for Mr. Carnegie, he wired a friend in 1899, ‘Ashamed to tell you profits these days. Prodigious!’ In 1900 the company’s net worth was $40 million,” (Meltzer, 146). The Pullman Strike: 1894, Railroad Industry, Chicago, Illinois The Pullman Strike had many causes. Pullman workers lived in a company town described as, “bordered with bright beds of flowers, and green velvety stretches of lawn, shaded with trees, and dotted with parks and pretty water vistas,” (Meltzer 148). This, however, was not a complete truth. Though was a section of the town that included this. The houses in it were designated only for the Pullman officials. There were ten large tenements designated for the workers. They were each three stories tall containing flats of two to four. Each building accommodated twelve to forty-eight families. Bathrooms were shared between two or more families, and there were water faucets for each group of five families. The Pullman Corporation appointed all the town officials. The Pullman Journal backed all corporation policies. The company reserved the right to deny labor organizers and radical speakers rental or use of public halls. And, a spy system sought out any sign or word critical of the authorities. The Pullman Corporation tried and succeeded in dominating every aspect of its workers’ lives. The company owned land, plants, houses, tenements, hotel, stores, bank, school, library, church, water and gas systems. “As employer, George Pullman determined wages, as landlord he fixed rents, as banker he collected savings,” (Meltzer 150). George Pullman knew how to make a profit. He made his business highly profitable, and was running his town the same way. The town obtained its water from Chicago for four cents, but Pullman charged his workers ten. As for the gas he paid 33 cents for, he charged his workers $2.55. One worker said, “We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shop, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman church, and when we die we shall be buried in the Pullman cemetery and go to Pullman hell,” (Meltzer 151). Pullman managed to keep business good, even in the depression of 1893. In that year, he managed to earn a surplus of $4 million. He managed that by cutting wages 25 to 40 per cent while keeping rents and prices the same. In the first winter of the depression, every single Pullman worker was in debt. They felt they had taken all they could. The new American Railway Union, recently organized by Eugene V. Debs, was encouraging the workers to join them. The fact that Pullman ran a small railroad made the eligible. They managed to have secret meeting in adjacent town to avoid company spies. A year and a half after the start of the depression a committee was organized and sent to the company to ask that their wages be restored. The company claimed that they had lost a lot of money and were only keeping the plant going to give the men work. The men reluctantly returned to work assured by the company that that no member of the committee would be fired. The next day, three members of the committee were laid off. Turning to Debs for help, the of the American Railway Union in the company declared a strike. Pullman shut down the whole plant. His plan was to wait until the workers and their families starved, driving them back to work. In a few short weeks the workers’ families were starving. Debs tried repeatedly to settle the dispute. The company remained was not interested. The American Railway Union decided to boycott Pullman cars, refusing to handle them anywhere. On the first day of the boycott, switchmen detached all Pullman cars from the trains. They were all fired immediately. That act provoked other members of the American Railway Union to walk off the job in protest. The boycott evolved into a strike. By the second day 40,000 people refused to work. By the forth, 125,000. “Soon, nearly every train in the country was dead on its tracks,” (Meltzer 155). It was already deemed the most effective strike on this scale the country had ever seen. The union had grown in importance so that a strike against one company, the Pullman Company for example, escalated into an industry-wide strike. The General Managers Association, a semi-secret organization representing twenty-four of the nation’s biggest railroads, came to Pullman’s aid. Though the Association knew the strike was aimed at Pullman, they saw in the strike, a chance to destroy a new industrial union movement before it could dramatically influence American labor. From his years of experience with strikes, Debs knew that if the union were to win, they would need to keep it peaceful. He sent out numerous telegrams advising members of the union to stop no train by force. They would only refuse to handle Pullman cars. The Association was moving fast to end this one. Due to the depression and joblessness, the search for scabs was easy. The Association wanted to get federal troops involved making the problem was a labor-government problem instead of a labor-management problem. For help they turned to Attorney General Richard Olney, who was a former railroad lawyer and a member of the board of several lines. In order to use federal troops, President Cleveland needed to be enforcing a federal court order. To help him to get the court order, Richard Olney called on Edwin Walker. Walker claimed that the strike was in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. He said the union was meddling with the mail, interstate commerce, or the operation of twenty-three railroads now involved in the strike. When the injunction was read by the court marshal in front of a crowd of unionists, they went wild. They started hooting and rough-housing his deputies. Walker immediately wired Washington for troops. Federal troops were dispatched immediately by President Cleveland’s order on July 4th. The wild gang crowded into open streets and railway yards and fighting broke out. There were 14,000 armed men, and the militia was shooting into crowds killing about 20 people trying to keep them from moving the trains. By that night the city was fiery with burning freight cars lighting up the night sky. The union claimed that the riot was not cause by strikers, but with the presence of so many soldiers, the strikers soon became discouraged. Their boycott was near defeat. Knowing that by obeying the injunction would mean losing the strike, Debs wouldn’t and was indicted by a grand jury for conspiracy. The workers felt they couldn’t give up the strike. Striking was the only way for them to defend their interests as long as Pullman wouldn’t settle. The press blew the situation out of proportion getting 700 union leaders arrested. And Debs himself was thrown in jail for six months for violating the injunction. The strike was now broken, and the American Railway Union was no more. The use of the injunction against the workers in the Pullman strike became a powerful weapon against labor unions. The ruling of the Supreme Court meant that management no longer had to rely on violence to break a strike. All they had to do was claim that the striking, picketing, or boycotting was hurting profits. Ever since the Pullman strike, as soon as an industry-wide strike was called, it was followed by, in most cases, a state or federal court order. “One judge prohibited a craft federation from promoting or endorsing a strike ‘in any manner by letters, printed or other circulars, telegrams or telephones, word of mouth, oral persuasion, or suggestion, or through interviews to be published in the newspapers,” (Meltzer 158). This took away a worker's first amendment right to free speech. This strike made clear that the forces of the government could be used by the side of the management. Lawrence Textile Strike: 1912, Lawrence, Massachusetts, Textile Industry “Upon that day [first day of the strike], in the Washington mill of the so-called Woolen Trust, a handful of Italian operatives had gone to draw their pay envelopes. Of all the mingled peoples of Lawrence, none are so humble as the Italians, none so eager for work at any price, and none so ill paid. They are the last and poorest of the successive wave of people from Europe which have been surging upon our shores during the last thirty years. When these people opened their envelopes, they found that there was a reduction of pay corresponding to two hours of work in a week - the price perhaps of three or four loaves of bread,” (Lens 102). After receiving their pay, the enraged men went parading down the halls getting hundreds to join them. They broke a few windows in the factory and paraded down the main streets of the town, beginning the strike. The cause of this strike was wage cuts. The state had just passed a law reducing the hours of women and children from 56 a week to 54. The employers decided to cut wages proportionately. The difference to the factory owners was negligible, but the workers were already at the starving point. Their motto was, “Better to starve fighting, than to starve working.” One thing that was very unique to the Lawrence Textile strike was all of the different people involved. There were at least 30 different nationalities speaking 45 different languages. Only eight per cent of the mill was native-born. Each textile mill was trying to dominate the industry. They had first made the weavers attend to two looms instead of one. Then they gradually increased the speed of the machines. But most importantly, each man was being forced to work harder and do more per day. For the workers, it became and exhausting battle. Wages did advance slowly over the years, but not as much as the cost of living. The Lawrence Textile workers had never been organized. They had a few skilled workers in the American Federation of Labor, but not enough to strike. A different union came in to help them. It was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW had been trying to organize Lawrence for almost ten years. As the strike continued, the workers’ families started to go hungry. Supporters of the strike donated some food, but it was not enough for everyone to eat. In order to feed the children, the workers sent them to live with families in New York and Philadelphia. As one group of children was leaving Lawrence, the police arrested and beat them and their mothers. The nation was outraged. A congressional investigation was begun. Fearing all of the negative publicity, the mill owners settled the strike and met all the union demands. Soon every mill in New England raised wages from five to twenty per cent. The efforts of labor unions to get better wages and working conditions has been bloody. Fearing the unions’ power, management in several industries has used many devices to defeat strikers. They have locked workers out, hired scabs and security guards, and relied on the government to provide troops. Despite many defeats, unions continued to organize. As they saw the success of the strike in Lawrence, their power crossed many ethnic lines, and involved workers of many different backgrounds.


: Milton Meltzer, Bread and Roses, Vintage Sundial, New York, 1967 Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, International Publishers, New York, 1947 Philip S. Foner, Women and the American Labor Movement, Free Press, New York, 1980 Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Kids On Strike, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1999 Linda Jacobs Altman, The Pullman Strike of 1894, The Millbrook Press, Brookfield, Connecticut, 1994 Sidney Lens, Strikemakers & Strikebreakers, Lodestar Books, New York, 1985 David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987 Patricia and Fredrick McKissack, A Long Hard Journey: The Story of the Pullman Porter, Walker & Company, New York, 1989 William Z. Foster, American Trade Unionism, International Publishers, New York, 1970 John J. Flagler, The Labor Movement in the United States, Lerner Publications Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1990 Rosemary Laughlin, The Pullman Strike of 1894: American Labor Comes of Age, Morgan Reynolds Incorporated, Greensboro, 2000


: Milton Meltzer, Bread and Roses, Vintage Sundial, New York, 1967 Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, International Publishers, New York, 1947 Philip S. Foner, Women and the American Labor Movement, Free Press, New York, 1980 Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Kids On Strike, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1999 Linda Jacobs Altman, The Pullman Strike of 1894, The Millbrook Press, Brookfield, Connecticut, 1994 Sidney Lens, Strikemakers & Strikebreakers, Lodestar Books, New York, 1985 David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987 Patricia and Fredrick McKissack, A Long Hard Journey: The Story of the Pullman Porter, Walker & Company, New York, 1989 William Z. Foster, American Trade Unionism, International Publishers, New York, 1970 John J. Flagler, The Labor Movement in the United States, Lerner Publications Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1990 Rosemary Laughlin, The Pullman Strike of 1894: American Labor Comes of Age, Morgan Reynolds Incorporated, Greensboro, 2000

Word Count: 3466


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