Labor in the Industrial Era
By David Montgomery
When the Skeffingtons left famine-ridden Ireland, they were determined to change their lives for the better. They did not rest until they reached the gold fields of California. Wealth eluded them, however, and they with their son, Harry, who was born in 1858, headed eastward to Philadelphia. When Harry was 13, they sent him to Portage, Wisconsin, to study for the priesthood. But he was destined to preach a different gospel from that which his parents had intended.
Within a year the lad had returned to Philadelphia to try his hand as an apprentice at a number of trades. He soon settled on shoemaking, because that "gentle craft" had become so thoroughly subdivided that even the most skilled operations, such as cutting the leather and guiding the lasted shoes through a McKay stitching machine, could be mastered in a few months.
At work he learned of a secret order, the name of which could not be told to Skeffington until he joined. Dedicated to the "Universal Brotherhood of Labor," it was the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor. Its leader was a garment cutter and one-time Baptist minister named Uriah Stephens. He preached that poverty and the competition for survival, which young Skeffington saw all about him in the city, represented "an artificial and man-created condition, not God's arrangement and order." It could be remedied only if working people learned "to respect industry in the person of every intelligent worker; beget concert of action by conciliation; confidence by just and upright conduct toward each other; mutual respect by dignified deportment; and wise counsels by what of wisdom and ability God, in his wisdom and goodness, has endowed us with."
Philadelphia's shoe industry was then dominated by thirty modern factories, despite the persistence of hundreds of custom shoemakers and more than 400 "sky parlors," where little groups stitched shoes in lofts. Competition from factories reduced the sky parlors to sweatshop conditions and drove custom shoemakers to the brink of despair. In the factories themselves workers complained that they were forced to bribe foremen for jobs, faced periodic layoffs, and had to submit to frequent reductions in piece rates.
When Harry applied for membership in Local Assembly 64 of the Knights of Labor, he was turned down as too young. So for two years he listened to the older Knights where he worked, who could discuss their beliefs if not the business of their secret order. He was spellbound by the public spokesman of the shoe workers' assembly, English immigrant Thomas Phillips, who was old enough to be Skeffington's father. A veteran of the Chartist movement in his home country and of antislavery activities in Philadelphia, Phillips had founded a group of cooperative stores during the Civil War years; he subsequently emerged as a guiding spirit in an earlier shoemakers' union and in the International Workingmen's Association. He and Skeffington were soon to form a partnership in organizing shoe workers, which would last until the great depression of the 1890s.
On his eighteenth birthday, Harry underwent the mysterious ritual which made him a Knight, and before the year was out he had been elected Master Workingman of Local Assembly 64. The local had more than 750 members in 1881, when it commissioned Harry to organize the city's largest shoe firm, John Mundell and Co. Obtaining a job in its sole cutting room, Skeffington soon discovered the most vexing grievance of its workers. After every seasonal layoff, the company welcomed back its old hands with the news that work was available, but at such low prices that workers would have to accept a temporary wage reduction. Invariably they agreed to produce at lower piece rates. After several. months the former rates were restored, as promised. But, as the workers soon learned, that meant the next seasonal layoff was at hand.
Harry stealthily enrolled the cutters into the Knights and convinced them to reject any wage reduction at the beginning of the next season. Taken by surprise, the company restored full pay to the cutters but tried to compensate for its loss by lowering rates of women who marked or stitched parts. That decision prompted Mary Stirling to jump onto her bench and summon the women with whom she worked to walk out. Waving their aprons defiantly, they marched off, vowing to return only at full wages. Skeffington then called upon the men not to be outdone by the women. Down the stairs tramped the cutters, singing and calling the other men out.
For several weeks none of Mundell's 700 employees came to work. The women formed a local assembly of their own (despite the fact that officially the Knights did not admit women) and named it the Garfield Assembly, in honor of the recently assassinated President. They combined picket duty with fundraising bazaars and concerts at the assembly's hall. Soon they had neighborhood employers raging at Mundell to settle, because their own workers were going to the strike festivities instead of their jobs. In September Mary Stirling and other women accompanied Skeffington to the Knights' General Assembly in Cincinnati and persuaded the delegates to open the Order's doors officially to women.
When victory came at Mundell, it established the power of the Knights of Labor firmly in Philadelphia's shoe industry. By 1884 eleven local assemblies, ranging in size from 55 members to 1,000 and each representing different crafts or cluster of occupations, formulated wage demands and work rules for their respective members. Each assembly sent three delegates to District Assembly 70, the highest governing body for Philadelphia shoe workers. Within each factory a "shop union" elected by the workers in that plant handled grievances and enforced the rules of the local assemblies. To keep track of the myriad piece rates spawned by all the styles in this business, each plant had one male and one female statistician. Grievances which could not be resolved by the shop union were sent to a city-wide arbitration committee, which sat seven Knights and seven employers.
The workers increased their demands steadily. They shortened the time given employers to reply through the arbitration system, and they refused to work in the same factory with any employee who did not belong to the Order. Sudden strikes, which the workers called "vacations," were chronic, as workers settled old scores and drove the employers to fury. Finally, in October, 1887, the Shoe Manufacturers' Association, responding to a stoppage by 160 hand sewing benchmen, fired all employees and refused to take any back until they repudiated the Knights of Labor. For a month and a half the hungry workers held out, then craft by craft they began to break ranks. By December the plants had reopened on the companies' terms.
The rise and fall of the power of organized workers in Philadelphia's shoe industry was duplicated in one industry after another during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Unionism achieved its greatest strength among coopers and anthracite coal miners in the early 1870s, among longshoremen, packinghouse workers, iron and steel workers, and bituminous miners in the mid-1880s, and among iron molders, railroad workers, and building tradesmen in the early 1890s. But the style of operation displayed by the shoe workers and their ultimate defeat when business organized for battle typified the age.
Labor activists of Skeffington's time were the offspring of the new America being created by modern industry. Few of them grew up on farms, and most were born in this country. A disproportionately large minority was made up of immigrants from England, it is true, for it was the home of the world's most highly developed union movement. The unions of coal miners, iron and steel workers, and northern textile workers adhered closely to many British practices. But most of the labor leaders of the time were raised in American towns or cities, were children of immigrant workers, and started working around the age of fourteen, after five or six years of schooling.
By the 1880s as many as half of them were Roman Catholics, though people active in the labor movement were reluctant to talk about religion.
These sons and daughters of early industrial America grew up in a world which, as Uriah Stephens had said, was "an artificial and man-created condition." The landmarks of their youth were not hills, springs, and oak groves, but taverns, meeting halls, market buildings, and roundhouses. Most workers lived close by countless chimneys which belched black smoke into the air. Their children swam in polluted rivers and ponds. Ironically, pollution in smaller factory towns was often worse than the notorious filth of New York and Chicago, because raw sewage was dumped directly into the local river, and barge canals made convenient trash dumps. Victorian town regulations often added to the bleakness of the surroundings. Robert Layton of Pittsburgh told Congress in 1883 that on Sundays, the workers' only day off, municipal ordinances in his town closed the libraries, while "our shop-keepers, who have pretty pictures or paintings in their windows, usually hang something over them in observance of the Sabbath."
When most of Skeffington's colleagues had been born, the population of the United States had just surpassed that of Great Britain, by reaching a total of some twenty million. Before most of them died, the country would have more than ninety million people. Between 1870 and 1910 the population rose by 132 percent, but the number of people involved in industrial labor soared even more rapidly-from 3,500,000 to 14,200,000. More than a fifth of the workers in 1870 were involved in construction alone, but their numbers over the next forty years did not increase as dramatically as those in other occupations. Iron and steel workers increased by over 1,200 percent between 1870 and 1910 to 326,000. Fabricators of goods from metals constituted almost twelve percent of the industrial labor force by 1910, after a forty-year growth of 437 percent. And more than half a million men were needed by the end of the century just to drive the horses and wagons delivering goods around congested city streets.
The growing economy drew millions of newcomers to jobs in American industry. Tens of thousands of French Canadians took trains to the textile, shoe, or paper towns of New England, where they lived in cramped tenements. For those migrants, one company official noted, the "country mill is generally a graduating school for the city mill." By the mid-1880s Manchester, Lowell, and Lawrence were each inhabited by several thousand Quebecois. Similarly, black laborers from Virginia and the Carolinas moved through the Appalachians as railroad track crews, artisans, and coal miners. Like the French Canadians, they tended to return home for harvests and holidays, but many contractors preferred them because, as one said, the blacks "had a wider experience than these roadside white people, who do not stir out of their woods." White farm youths who moved to the cities shunned factory jobs to drive wagon teams and streetcars. The sons of more prosperous farmers often took advantage of their rural schooling to become printers, telegraphers, and clerks.
Twelve million other people boarded ships to come to America between 1865 and 1900. About half were Germans and Irish, and almost a million were British, many of whom had gained industrial experience in Europe. Each period of economic boom drew thousands of unskilled workers to American industry. By the 1880s American steamship and railroad agents had combed southeastern Europe, luring passengers for their ships and trains with promises of abundant work in the New World. Young men from the villages of Croatia, Galicia, the Carpathians, and the Italian Mezzogiorno left home in search of industrial wages. Settled communities of Ukranians, Italians, Poles, and Magyars soon became familiar sights in the United States, as many migrants sent home for their families. After 1890 these new arrivals came to outnumber those from Germany and Ireland.
Although the many nationalities mingled daily at work, in matters close to home they tended to cling to their own traditions. Intermarriage rates were extremely low. The center of each neighborhood was its church, where on the Lord's Day was heard the familiar liturgy from a clergyman who knew the language and ways not only of the home country but of the home village. Fraternal associations arose quickly to provide mutual insurance against the unpredictable ravages of an industrial economy and a defense against the cultural condescension of native Americans. All of them sought at least to "take charge of the body" when a countryman died.
Understandably, immigrants organized their lives more along ethnic lines than those of occupation. At one level, every neighborhood had its rival gangs--Bulldogs, Modocs, Chain Gang, Invincible, Reedies, Schuylkill Rangers--which ruled the local turf to the terror of all strangers. At another, a crisis would bring the entire national community together, as happened when some newly arrived Germans were hooted by strikers for crossing picket lines at the Lackawanna Coal and Iron Company in 1872. In a mass meeting of Germans in the region, all vowed to defend each other and to march to work in a body. Joining strikes was as much a community action as breaking them. When thousands of Poles, Lithuanians, and Ruthenians walked out in support of the unions during the anthracite strike of 1888-89, the platform at an immigrant rally in the Shenandoah opera house was shared by a Greek Catholic priest, Lithuanian and Slovak merchants, the editors of the region's Lithuanian and Ruthenian papers, and a Polish shoemaker.
The concentration of industrial power was increasingly difficult for native and immigrant workers to resist. By the eve of the Civil War the United States had a manufacturing output second only to that of Great Britain. An elaborate railroad system, iron hulled steamships, and electric telegraphs linked the northern and central parts of the country into a single market. Factory production prevailed in textiles, paper, and farm equipment. Prodigious accumulations of capital were at the disposal of eastern merchants and bankers for industrial investment. During the four decades following the war, the fabrication of the metal machinery, rails, and utensils on which a modern economy rests became a mechanized factory process. The United States census, which counted only 55,000 machinists in 1870, listed 283,000 of them in 1900. Through their efforts reapers, sewing machines, locomotives, air brakes, electrical streetcars, incandescent lamps, and bicycles became common. Machine-made machinery allowed the country's industrial output to outstrip that of England by 1885.
Capital needed to purchase the new equipment and set it in motion was raised by the incorporation of manufacturing concerns and the arrangement of elaborate partnerships. Moreover, the new larger firms safeguarded themselves against the unpredictability of competitive markets by various combinations. Those supplying consumer goods to urban markets--meat packers, for example, usually linked themselves together in price-fixing arrangements called trusts. Manufacturers of producers' goods often formed "vertical" combinations, such as the partnership of Henry Clay Frick's coke and William B. Oliver's iron with Andrew Carnegie's steelworks. In these types of arrangements workers faced increasingly powerful employers.
Nevertheless, much of American manufacturing continued to be carried on in small, even tiny, units. The construction and clothing industries were mosaics of, small competitive enterprise, interlocked by elaborate webs of subcontracting. Although prefabrication of molding, doors, and other building parts was concentrated in large planing and rolling mills, the bricklaying, carpentry, plumbing, and plastering firms customarily remained small, providing avenues of upward mobility for immigrants and their children.
Men's clothing was mostly sewn by tailors in their homes, after the cloth had been cut to patterns in the manufacturer's shop. The invention of the sewing machine made the home a little factory. It even diminished the degree of control tailors had formerly exercised over their own hours of work, because, as tailor Conrad Carl pointed out, the "machine makes too much noise in the place, and the neighbors want to sleep, and we have to stop sewing earlier; so we have to work faster."
Carl sewed alongside his wife and daughter in their apartment. But many of the 18,000 tailors in New York were themselves employed by fellow tailors who, as Carl said, "get more work for themselves, and take it home and employ poor men and women." This was the infamous sweatshop system. By modifying the traditional pattern of working with his family only slightly, a tailor became a petty boss, obtaining his income from the difference between what he was paid for the sewing by the manufacturer and what he in turn paid his "helpers."
During the period between the Civil War and the end of the century most American workers enjoyed a significant rise in the standard of living. Wartime inflation was followed by the depression of 1873-78 and the economic boom of the early 1880s. However, the general trend between 1878 and 1898 was one of steady wage levels and slowly falling food prices. Because food consumed more than half of the family budget of most workers, a reduction in the price of meat, flour, and potatoes freed a growing share of workers' incomes for clothes, housing, and a few of the pleasures of life.
Despite the long-term trend of improvement, all workers and their families suffered tangibly from the chronic threat of unemployment, the contempt of their social "betters," and the squalor of urban life. Unemployment was endemic to the new industrial order. True, working people had always experienced alternating seasons of intense work and relative idleness. The regular winter layoffs of coal miners in the 1880s were caused by frozen waterways, and the huge Amoskeag textile mill in New Hampshire was shut down for three weeks when a local drought reduced the level of the Merrimac River, curtailing power. But such natural causes of unemployment were becoming far less important than those growing out of the workings of a modern economy. Shifting seasonal demands, crippling illnesses caused by industrial poisons, and alternating spasms of relentless work and forced idleness caused by the drive of each employer to capture as much of the market as possible--all these made for many long days without income.
In fact, the entire economy progressed in spurts. For example, record-breaking sales of American wheat to Europe in 1878 stimulated a boom. Coal and iron output soared as new railroad lines were laid at breakneck pace. Germans came to American factories in numbers matching those of the early 1850s. Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes immigrated at rates reaching 100,000 a year, and many of them headed straight for the wheat lands. As American grain began to undersell Hungarian wheat even at the port of Trieste, peasant youth from southeastern Europe boarded ships to seek work in the United States.
Early in 1883 the bubble burst. Dozens of railroads went bankrupt, and more than twenty-two banks failed. Immigration fell off by more than one-third, and thousands of newcomers returned home.
There were two major depressions--one lasting from 1873 to 1878 and the other from 1893 to 1897. In both crises, national levels of unemployment surpassed sixteen percent of the labor force. Although bread, soup, and old clothing were made available by private charities, many unemployed workers shared the defiant pride of the hungry miner who said: "We are American citizens and we don't go to hospitals and poorhouses." Most wandered from town to town in search of work. Municipal authorities complained the multitudes of "tramps," who would appear in their communities and, by an elaborate code of marks placed on walls or fences, leave notices about the location of generous householders or fierce dogs.
For many more workers depressions meant wage and short time. Between 1893 and 1898, for example, Pennsylvania's anthracite miners averaged no more than 178 workdays each year. Gardens and hunting helped them survive. A mule spinner from Fall River told a Senate committee in the f all of 1883 that he had worked only 113 days since the previous Thanksgiving. One of his sons had "one shoe on, a very poor one, and a slipper, that was picked up somewhere. The other has two odd shoes, with the heel out. He has got cold and is sickly now." His wife had a dress, the one in which she had been married, and saved it for church. Someone had given her a chemise and "an old wrapper, which is about a mile too big for her." The house was heated by driftwood, collected from the seashore, and the family dined largely on chowder, made from clams found in the same place, and bread. A friend once had the family over for a Sunday dinner of roast pork.
It was easy for the more fortunate members of society to blame such sufferings on the "ignorance, indolence, and immorality" of the poor. They believed that this was a land of "self-made men," in which earnest effort could carry any ambitious youth up the ladder of success. The upper and middle classes concluded that anyone who seriously wanted work could find it in America; those who failed were simply too demanding. In the literature of the age, workers were often portrayed as dullards or as dangerous, drunken louts. John Hay's "good workman" in The Breadwinners was "sober, industrious, and unambitious," and "contented with his daily work and wages." The story's labor agitator had eyes "too sly and furtive to belong to an honest man." Inhabitants of a city's tenements, described by Helen Campbell and two fellow civic reformers in Darkness and Daylight: Or, Lights and Shadows of New York Life, were depicted as ". . . a class apart, the poor Irish forming by far the larger proportion. They retain all the most brutal characteristics of the Irish peasant at home, but without the redeeming lightheartedness. . . . Sullen, malicious, conscienceless, with no capacity for enjoyment save in drink and the lowest forms of debauchery, they are filling our prisons and reformatories, marching in an ever-increasing number through the quiet country, and making a reign of terror wherever their footsteps are heard. With a little added intelligence they become Socialists, doing their heartiest to ruin the institutions by which they live."
The workers' sense of social class was forged as much by their awareness of the contempt in which they were held by "their betters" as by economic deprivation. When the worker is "at work," labor reformer George E. McNeill wrote, "he belongs to the lower orders, and is continually under surveillance; when out of work, he is an outlaw, a tramp,--he is a man without the rights of manhood,--the pariah of society, homeless, in the deep significance of the term."
Many small property holders in industrial towns were as resentful of the pretensions of the business elite as were the workers. In strikes local shopkeepers and professional men often sided with the strikers against "alien corporations," like railroads, and the town's own leading industrialists. They shared with the workers elements of a popular culture, in which one never spoke of "lower classes," but of the "working," "industrious," or "producing" classes.
The praise they bestowed on the "honest mechanics" of their communities echoed through the popular songs and dime-novel literature of the day. For ten cents, workers could find themselves heroically portrayed in stories like Larry Locke: Alan of Iron, Or, A Fight for Fortune, A Story of Labor and Capital, and Jasper Ray: The Journeyman Carpenter, Or, One Man as Good as Another in America. They could sing around the piano to the strains of "Daddy Was Killed by the Pinkerton Men," while the rugged face of Rolling Mill John Kelly, whose music hall performances had made the song famous, beamed at them from the title page. Although this culture was infused with a populist, rather than a strictly class consciousness, it clearly separated the nation into "the producers" and "the exploiters."
The burden of social condescension, deprivation, and toil fell most severely on the working-class woman. Although more than one-fourth of the nonagricultural wage earners of the country were women from 1870 onward, a study conducted by the Commissioner of Labor in 1885 found that eighty percent of the wage-earning women were single and lived in family homes. Even in such industries as textiles, shoes, and clothing, where forty to sixty percent of the workers might be women, most of them were young and childless, or widows. The leading occupation for women (in fact, the largest occupational group in the economy) was domestic service, at which almost 914,000 women worked in 1870. It was practically an expected part in the life cycle of teen-age Irish and German immigrants that they would serve in some prosperous household until they married.
A few women found their way into relatively skilled occupations. Significant numbers of women were in telegraph operating and printing, where they were often relatives of men working in the trades. The International Typographical Union not only admitted women to membership, but even boasted a woman Corresponding Secretary in 1870, The craft which produced the most effective unionism of women, however, was that of the collar starchers of Troy, New York. First organized in 1864 and subsequently represented in the National Labor Union by Kate Mullaney, the women of Troy briefly operated their own cooperative laundry and continued their unionism recurrently until they were crushed in the strike of 1905. In 1886 more than 8,000 laundry and shirt workers struck under the leadership of the collar starchers' Joan of Arc Assembly of the Knights of Labor.
The working woman with a family faced the double burden of household and factory double. "Let's swallow our dinner, and, when we have time, chew it," one such woman advised her companions in the factory. Male labor reformers advocated keeping married women home and paying their husbands enough to maintain the family in decency. "There is a greater necessity than all others that our industrial system shall be so regulated that the bead of a family shall be permitted to preserve his family intact," argued Frank K. Foster, "and that the labor of women and girls and children to the large extent which I have described shall not be so important a factor in the production of our manufacturing industries."
But even if workers accomplished that goal, the housewife hardly found the home a place of relaxation. The coal stove, which provided heat and cooking, needed endless stoking. Marketing had to be done daily. Mending clothes, baking bread, and other tasks consumed countless hours. If the home had any room to spare, it was likely occupied by boarders, for whom the housewife cooked and washed.
To make matters worse, most industrial towns financed their municipal improvements by levies on the residents of the areas which benefited directly from them. This meant that sewer systems, decent water supplies, lighting, and even paving were seldom available in workers' neighborhoods. Consequently, house keeping involved a ceaseless struggle against filth, fought with rags, ammonia, and buckets of water carried up staircases from outside hydrants.
A wide variety of living standards could be found among industrial workers in the latter part of the nineteenth century. It was evident that the gradual increase in real incomes was enjoyed more by some workers than by others. By the end of the 1880s an income of roughly $500 a year would have been necessary for a family of five in a middle-sized industrial town to enjoy any of life's amenities (newspapers, beer, lodge membership, outings, tobacco) without literally depriving themselves of basic necessities. About forty percent of the working-class families earned less than that. Those families, crowded into one or two rooms in poor tenements, depended heavily on the earnings of their children. About one-fourth of them lived in total destitution. Many found their living by scavenging, begging, and hustling.
The largest group of workers (some forty-five percent) had incomes which, in good times, clung precariously above the poverty level. Molders, carpenters, machinists, mule spinners, and coal miners might manage a house or flat of four to five rooms (more, if they took in boarders) and put plenty of cheaper meat, potatoes, bread, and vegetables on the table, if the mother managed the budget skillfully and the father avoided illness or injury. Recreation, largely that provided by the workers for themselves, included cards, dominoes, baseball, horseshoes, and a convivial pitcher of beer. Textile towns abounded in reading rooms, gymnasiums, and debating clubs, where drinking, gambling, and profanity were strictly forbidden. In summer, unions often threw grand parades and picnics for the entire community. Temperance societies and lodges of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Liederkranz, or the Caledonia Club provided for other outings. Many a worker might be indifferent to unions, observed William Strauss of the Tailors' Union, but "Mention to him an organization of the social club order, where political debates, occasional hops, entertainments, and receptions are the principal features, and he is all attention at once."
Among the most prosperous workers, including many iron rollers, locomotive engineers, pattern makers, and glass blowers, incomes ran from $800 to $1,100 yearly. Many union men within this top fifteen percent of the working class toiled at tasks both physically exhausting and demanding high levels of experience and judgment. James Parton, a columnist, saw iron craftsmen in Pittsburgh working so bard that they had "to stop, now and then, in summer, take off their boots and pour the perspiration out of them."
These men, said Parton, were the true "aristocracy of labor." Their wives tended tidy homes not far from the mills. When the availability of rapid transit systems enabled the middle classes to leave the smoky cities for quieter suburbs, working-class craftsmen replaced them as the recognized leaders of the urban communities.
Factory discipline and the neighborhoods in which they lived provided workers with a common core of experience. They had jobs while middle and upper classes had careers. The younger worker, after leaving school at age fourteen or younger, usually reached his highest earnings by the time he was in his mid-twenties. From that point on, barring calamity, his standard of living was molded by two things: the ages of his children and the fortunes of his trade As the number of mouths increased, the family would be forced to scrimp and save until the day when the children were old enough to work. "When people own houses," observed John Keogh, a printer of Fall River, "you generally find that it is a large family all working together." In old age, when few men could hold on to better-paying jobs, the worker was at the mercy of his children or the county poorhouse.
Children of business and professional families tended to stay in school longer. They began working at low incomes and moved by stages toward the expected prosperity of their class. Such expectations promoted a drive for achievement, at least for boys, and made it easy for them to accept the society's dominant code of acquisitive individualism. On the other hand, the optimistic mentality, fostered by middle-class life experience, made it difficult if not impossible to comprehend the demands of workers for regulation of working conditions by trade union and governmental action, both of which seemed to "stifle individual initiative." As E. L. Godkin editorialized in The Nation: "Labor never was, and never can be, injured by capital, so long as both are left free from governmental and other arbitrary interference or action." Unlimited opportunity to rise was the highest ideal of this segment of society, and the "self made man" was its cultural hero.
Spokesmen of the late nineteenth-century labor movement denounced the ideology of acquisitive individualism with ardor. "Whoever gets rich does so from other means than simply 'energy and perseverance' to earn," charged the editors of Boston's labor paper the Daily Evening Voice in 1867. "Something that he does not earn-something that another earns-must be added to give wealth, and therefore, in proportion as one grows rich, those who produce the riches he gets must become poor." It is wrong to inspire people with the desire to "be capitalists," the editorial concluded, because that aspiration sets everyone at war with his neighbor. "It is the high and holy mission of labor reform to show to men an object worthier than wealth," the creation of a more equitable society.
The time has come to stand erect
In noble, manly self-respect;
To see the bright sun overhead,
To feel the ground beneath our tread;
Unled by priests, uncursed by creeds,
Our manhood proving by our deeds.
So began a poem often recited by Knights of Labor orator Richard F. Trevellick. Its defiant egalitarianism reappeared incessantly in music-hall songs, speeches to workingmen's clubs, and odes recited by children at lodge picnics. The poem concluded by blending its evangelical theme of self-improvement into that of struggle for social reform:
Let Agitation come; who fears?
We need the flood; the filth of years
Has gathered round us. Roll then on.
What cannot stand had best be gone.
When the leaders of labor organizations in the late nineteenth century described their goals, they seldom limited their discussion to higher wages and shorter hours. Far more frequently they spoke of "the emancipation of the working class" or "the abolition of the wages system" as their ultimate purpose. To socialists such phrases implied the extinction of private ownership of industrial enterprise. More conservative figures, like President John Oberly of the Typographical Union--who believed that "capital is the golden egg that enriches labor"--advocated the thorough organization of workers, so that they might be able to command their own conditions and overcome "that cruel law of supply and demand." But radical and moderate labor advocates alike agreed that the most ominous menace to all they held dear was the growing concentration of business enterprise. An appeal of the American Federation of Labor in 1888 warned of "the fast-coming grand struggle between Capital and Labor, involving the perpetuation of the civilization we have so laboriously evolved." George E. McNeill stressed the political implications of that belief in The Labor Movement: The Problem of To-Day: "We declare that there is an inevitable and irresistible conflict between the wage-system of labor and the republican system of government--the wage-laborer attempting to save the government, and the capitalist class ignorantly attempting to subvert it."
During these decades, workers created a wide variety of institutions, all of them infused with a spirit of mutuality. Through their fraternal orders, cooperatives, reform clubs, political parties, and trade unions, American workers shaped a collectivist counter-culture in the midst of the growing factory system.
Fraternal orders and cooperative societies enjoyed great popularity, though neither restricted their membership to wage workers. In fact, fraternal lodges tended to group people along ethnic or religious lines. They brought some shopkeepers and professional men together with manual workers, as did the Ancient Order of Hibernians, St. Lawrence Society, Turnvereins, and Caledonian Society. Other orders, like the Knights of Pythias and the Father Matthew Total Abstinence Union, were tied to the temperance movement. Later in the century, several unions experimented with death and unemployment benefits, imitating the practice of major British unions; but they never became successful competitors of fraternal orders in this field. A greater threat to the benefit schemes of fraternal orders and unions alike was commercial life insurance, which became available in the 1880s for small weekly premiums.
Cooperatives faced similar challenge from installment credit and mail-order selling in commercial enterprise. Numerous cooperative stores appeared in the 1870s, especially in textile and mining areas heavily populated by British immigrants. They were encouraged by the spread of Granges among farmers, the formation of the Sovereigns of Industry, which had ninety-six councils promoting such stores, and later by the Co-operative Board of the Knights of Labor. Some of these enterprises were informal "dividing stores," where groups of families bought staples at wholesale prices. The giant Fall River store, which occupied an entire block, was described by the prominent British cooperator George J. Holyoake as larger than anything in England.
Factories cooperatively owned by their operatives sprang up like mushrooms between 1868 and 1873, and again between 1880 and 1885. Most of them were iron foundries, shoe companies, and cooperage works, though ship carpenters and caulkers founded two large dry dock companies. After 1880 the Cooperative Board of the Knights of Labor provided advice, advertising, and some financial assistance to such enterprises. Among those it aided were a tobacco factory in Raleigh, a barrel works in St. Louis, a piano company, a canning association, several cigar companies, a sardine packer, a paint works, a soap works, a broom manufacturer, and the Persian Cement and Handy Mucilage Company. Few of these concerns were successful raising working capital from their members. The enterprises that did turn a profit often saw their founders succumb to the lure of individualism, destroying the cooperative's original objectives. Yet the faith remained strong:
One sure way to make a cure
And solve this labor question;
With heads and hands to tie the bands
In steps of Co-operation.
Although both reformist and revolutionary workers' political parties played important roles in the development of the labor movement and its ideology, neither seriously threatened the hegemony of the Republican and Democratic parties in the electoral system. Labor reform parties arose locally in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and LaSalle, Illinois, in the late 1860s, and in dozens of communities between 1886 and 1888. The trade unionists who led them twice fused their efforts with those of farmers' organizations to produce effective national parties--the Greenback Labor (or National) Party of the late seventies and the People's Party of the early nineties. The enthusiastic crowds these parties often drew tended to return to their traditional party allegiances on Election Day.
During the 1880s the Democrats had risen steadily to the status of the majority party of the North on the basis of their defense of cultural diversity in local controversies over schooling, liquor licensing, and blue laws. The root of their failure lay in the variety of the ethnic groups which waves of immigration had brought to America. The depression of the 1890s reversed that trend, because the Democrats were blamed for the hard times.
Numerous trade unionists and Knights of Labor gained state and local political offices through nominations by the major parties. In the early 1870s and throughout the 1880s, Republicans and Democrats alike eagerly snatched up prominent workers to be candidates in their own neighborhoods. Here was an important avenue of social advancement for ambitious workers, which played a major role in inhibiting the development of a national labor party.
Revolutionary organizations exerted a much greater influence on agitational campaigns than on electoral activity. The Socialist Labor Party, formed in 1876 from the remnants of some fifty sections of the earlier International Workingmen's Association, envisaged trade unions which "keep pace with the progress of the age and with the march of advanced ideas" as containing "the seed for a new and better system." So heavily was its influence concentrated in the central labor unions of major cities that all ten of the party members who attended the 1890 AFL convention were delegates from those bodies. Two major anarcho-communist groups had followings greater than that of the SLP in the mid-eighties the Social Revolutionaries, led by Johann Most, and the Home Club of the Knights of Labor, whose fifty members were all leading officers of local assemblies in New York City. The Home Club's unique blending of revolutionary general unionism, cooperatives, and Irish nationalism gave it an important following during the upsurge of labor activity in 1885 and 1886.
The most durable of workers' organizations were the trade unions. They flourished when there was sufficient prosperity to provide them a fighting chance of success. Local unions numbering more than 1,000 members were rare, and many boasted no more than twenty to thirty people. There were few written contracts before the 1880s and fewer salaried officers. The members met frequently, decided on work rules and wage scales among themselves at the beginning of each session, and pledged not to work for less than they had resolved.
Although more than 300,000 workers participated in local unions of this type in 1872, their organizations often faced defeat and were short-lived. To increase their strength, unions combined both into national organizations of the same trade, like the Iron Molders' International Union, and into city-wide assemblies of delegates from many trades, like the Central Labor Union of New York. Eighteen national unions sent delegates, along with those of many local unions and other types of workers' societies, to annual sessions of the National Labor Union (later called the Industrial Congress) between 1866 and 1875, where a general program for the labor movement was formulated.
During those same years unions grew strong in the shoe, coal, construction, and mid-western iron industries. They staged spectacular strikes for the eight hour day, climaxed by a partially successful walkout Of 100,000 workers in New York during May and June, 1872.
The depression of 1873 wiped out these achievements, making so many people eager to work at any terms that few unions could enforce their rules. Secret societies often took the place of unions. In many coal patches, where the defeated miners' unions had once held sway, local assemblies of the Knights of Labor shielded their members from prying eyes by elaborate rituals and oaths of silence. A network of railroad brakemen's lodges remained unknown to the outside world until the great strikes of 1877. Sensational murder trials the previous year had brought the name "Molly Maguires" to the public eye and sent ten Irishmen to the gallows.
In late July, 1877, train crews on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad struck against a wage cut, triggering a chain reaction of events which President Hayes was to condemn as an "insurrection." Popular anger over the dispatch of troops to reopen the line spread the strike to Baltimore, where huge crowds clashed with the militia. Simultaneously, work stoppages followed the rail lines across Pennsylvania from both ends of the state into the smallest mill and mining towns. Thousands of Pittsburgh iron workers and other residents defeated soldiers sent from Philadelphia in pitched battle, subsequently burning all property of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Across Ohio and Indiana, workers' committees simply took over their towns, halting all work until their demands were met by employers. A quickly organized strike in Chicago brought troops and artillery to the city, and shots rang out at the Halstead Street viaduct. In St. Louis, thousands of workers closed down the city's industry for several days. Governmental authorities fled the town. In San Francisco, great crowds sacked railroad property and attacked Chinatown.
Amid the funerals and prosecutions which followed in the wake of the Great strikes of 1877, the Knights of Labor emerged as the most powerful organized body of workers in the land. A rapid influx of coal miners into what had been previously a secret society of Philadelphia craftsmen forced the Order to hold its first General Assembly in 1878, make its name public, and elect Terence V. Powderly of Scranton as General Master Workman. From then through 1883 it grew slowly, most of its members entering local assemblies of their own trades. But an important minority joined mixed assemblies, where all "producers" were welcomed. The Knights opposed strikes on principle and sanctioned them only in cases where members were victimized or employers refused to arbitrate. Those two categories, however, allowed hundreds of strikes to be waged under the Order's auspices. Craftsmen used their trades assemblies in much the same way as others used trade unions, and often sought to band their assemblies together into national trade districts, like those of the telegraphers and shoe workers. On the other hand, many prominent Knights, preferring to promote cooperatives and stress the educational role of the Order, were hostile toward strikes and union-type activity within their midst. In all, more than 15,000 local assemblies were organized between 1869 and 1895, at least one in almost every urban community in the land and 400 in New York City. Their members included glass blowers, domestics, and cowboys. Perhaps no other voluntary institution in America, except churches, touched the lives of as many people as did the Knights of Labor.
The organizing impulse of the eighties also brought a revival of national trade unions and the formation in 1881 of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions. The Federation had been a rather insignificant body, devoted primarily to lobbying for legislation of interest to labor. Then Frank Foster of the Typographical Union and Peter J. McGuire of the Carpenters and Joiners convinced it to bid for the leadership of the union's economic struggles by launching a nationwide campaign to secure the eight hours day by May 1, 1886. The ineffectiveness of the various state laws making eight hours "a legal day's work"--enacted in the 1860s--and the successful strikes of the New York building workers for shorter hours in 1884 convinced most unionists that only direct action could reduce their hours. But few leaders of national unions were prepared to commit themselves to an all-out battle, and Powderly warned the members of the Knights to remain aloof from the movement, which he considered foolhardy. Nevertheless, Eight-Hour Leagues sprang up in many cities, organizing local unions and Knights' assemblies alike for the crusade, and both Socialists and Social Revolutionaries threw themselves wholeheartedly into the agitation.
Huge parades were staged on May 1, in Chicago, Milwaukee, New York, San Francisco, Cincinnati, and other industrial centers. So many employers conceded some reduction of hours (usually a nine-hour day) that about 185,000 workers benefited. In addition to the many strikes for shorter hours, southern textile workers, Connellsville coke workers, southwestern railroad shop men, and others totaling more than 690,000 participated in strikes that year. Membership in both the unions and the Knights grew rapidly.
These strikes inspired great anxiety among the more prosperous members of society. Their attentions were focused on the trial of eight Social Revolutionaries accused of conspiring to hurl a bomb into the ranks of policemen who had sought to break up an open-air rally in Chicago's Haymarket Square. The trial concluded with four men, among them Albert Parsons and August Spies, being sent to the gallows in November, 1887, to the thunderous applause of most of the nation's commercial press.
The new-found strength and prestige of the national unions of coal miners, cigar makers, carpenters, molders, iron and steel workers, and printers, seconded by their need to defend themselves in jurisdictional conflicts with the rapidly expanding Knights, prompted them to create the American Federation of Labor in December, 1886. It replaced the moribund Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions. Although the new Federation recognized the autonomy of each national union in the control of its trade, it was better designed to wage economic struggles than the old Federation had been. Headed by Samuel Gompers and Peter McGuire, it set out to help the formation of new unions, lure national trade districts of the Knights into its fold, and mobilize its constituent unions for mutual assistance in a renewed campaign for the eight-hour day.
The six major unions of the AFL together had scarcely 200,000 members in 1888, and the Federation itself operated out of Gompers's tiny office. The key to its early strength lay not in its size or funds, but in the remarkable propensity of craftsmen to quit work when their union rules were violated and to engage in sympathy strikes to aid other workers.
Early in the 1890s, employers in one industry after another challenged this militant craft unionism frontally. None of the resulting conflicts captured public attention quite like the showdown in Andrew Carnegie's great steelworks at Homestead, near Pittsburgh. When the 700 craftsmen the Amalgamated Iron and Steel Workers' lodge were locked out, more than 3,000 nonunion workers stood by them through six months of striking and a furious gun battle with Pinkerton detectives. Four other Carnegie plants and several mills unrelated to the steel company also stopped work in sympathy. In the end, however, new hands were brought into the Homestead mill under the protection of the state militia, and the union was forced to surrender.
Less public attention was bestowed on an even more significant battle in the South that same summer. Because the weakest links in the chain of labor solidarity were found at the points where the white, black, and yellow races met, the numerous episodes of cooperation between white and black workers during the 1880s provided a noteworthy feature of the labor upsurge. Although a number of trade unions had appeared among blacks immediately after the Civil War, and some of them had participated in the National Labor Union, it was in the eighties that large numbers of blacks first unionized, especially among dock workers, coal miners, and construction workers in the South. The Knights alone had some 60,000 black members by 1886. More than a fifth of the early members of [the] United Mine Workers in the bituminous fields were black. In 1896, Richard L. Davis, a black leader from Ohio, won the highest vote of any candidate for that union's National Executive Board.
The New Orleans docks were a stronghold of biracial unionism. When the white scalemen and packers there allied with the black teamsters to strike for a ten-hour day in October, 1892, the city's Board of Trade offered concessions to the whites but refused to negotiate with blacks. In response, forty-nine unions shut down the entire city and kept it shut, despite venomous attacks on the blacks in the local press. In the end, the Board of Trade capitulated entirely, giving labor one of its greatest victories of the century. Immediately afterward, the newly enacted Sherman Antitrust Act was put to its first use, and the New Orleans unions were convicted of violating it.
The sympathy strike was the most provocative manifestation of mutuality in practice. Although it enraged businessmen, sympathetic action gave workers such strength that it was hailed by Eugene V. Debs of the American Railway Union as "the hope of civilization and the supreme glory of mankind." A battle waged by Debs's own union provided the ultimate confrontation between that weapon and the entire organized force of the new industrial establishment.
The ARU had grown rapidly after the outbreak of the great depression in 1893 as a new organization with an almost messianic appeal embracing all grades of railroad workers. When its convention met, in June, 1894, representatives of strikers at the Pullman Car Company asked for help. They received a pledge that the union would boycott all Pullman cars, allowing none to move on American railroads. The General Managers' Association of all railroads entering Chicago responded to the challenge by ordering that Pullman cars be attached to trains wherever possible and that any worker who refused to handle them be fired. By early July, a total strike had settled in over the railroads of the middle and far West, bringing in quick sequence a federal injunction against the strike, the stationing of troops at all vital junctions of the lines, martial law in Chicago, and the imprisonment of Debs and other strike leaders.
The great strike was crushed by the armed might of the government. Labor had to retreat or escalate the battle to a national strike of sympathy with the railwaymen. Several thousand workers had already walked out when the executives of thirty-four unions met in Chicago to consider their course of action. After intense debate, the leaders advised their members not to strike. Noting the "array of armed force and brutal monied aristocracy," represented by "United States Marshals, injunctions of courts, proclamations by the President, and . . . bayonets of soldiers," they concluded that it would be "worse than folly to call men out on a general or local strike in these days of stagnant trade and commercial depression" into confrontation with the government itself. The power of sympathy had been defused.
Hardly seven years later, union membership again rose rapidly in a setting of buoyant prosperity to levels unheard of in the nineteenth century. Chicago in 1900 saw more workers on strike than had been out during the Pullman Boycott. Two years later the coal miners won a major victory over the anthracite operators, with some help from government intervention. But the sympathy strike was then declared "outlaw" by the leaders of the AFL, who had come to rely upon "sacred contracts" and union labels for their security. In fact, Gompers and his colleagues were seeking to cooperate with eminent business leaders in search of a formula by which organized labor might become an accepted part of the new industrial order.
Titanic struggles lay ahead for labor, especially between 1916 and 1922 and between 1934 and 1941, but those efforts would require new styles of organization and activity. The workers' culture of the late nineteenth century, the militant craft unionism it produced, and its vision of a less acquisitive and competitive future society had all been relegated to history.