American Workers and the Labor Movement in the Late Nineteenth Century

Changes in the Worker's World

The Costs of Industrialization

The Composition of the Workforce

The Knights of Labor

The American Federation of Labor

The Homestead Strike


The locomotive firemen and brakemen who walked off their jobs on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in July 1877 could not have predicted that their actions would precipitate the largest labor uprising that the nation had ever experienced. Protesting yet another round of wage cuts, this one coming in the fourth year of a severe economic depression, they quickly learned how deeply their grievances against corporate power resonated in many working-class communities. The strike "a protest against robbery, a rebellion against starvation" and "despotic control," as labor reformer George McNeill described it, spread spontaneously along principal railroad trunk lines over the course of the next two weeks. From Martinsburg, West Virginia, and Baltimore to Pittsburgh, Chicago, Louisville, and St. Louis, workers on all major railroad lines east of the Mississippi River were on strike within the week. Soon, even Galveston and San Francisco would be affected. Not just railroaders but coal miners, longshoremen, mill hands, and domestic workers were swept up in the rebellion. Violence erupted in many cities as police and state militiamen battled angry strikers and their sympathizers. In Pittsburgh, workers even burned down the yards and depot of the hated Pennsylvania Railroad. In the fighting that followed, hundreds of militiamen imported from Philadelphia (to replace local Pittsburgh militiamen who fraternized too much with the strikers to police them effectively) shot and killed some twenty protesters.

By August 1 the strikes were over, suppressed by company guards, local police, and federal troops ordered into action by President Rutherford B. Hayes. But the memory of "the insurrection," which both the president and the New York Tribune called the strike, lingered on, serving as a wake-up call to politicians, economic elites, and workers alike as to the human costs of capitalist industrialization in the United States. A journalist sympathetic to employers summed up their fears: "It seemed as if the whole social and political structure was on the very brink of ruin" as thousands of workers, "alleging that they were wronged and oppressed ... , bid defiance to the ordinary instruments of legal authority." America's middle and upper classes now stressed their belief in the need for order-for the rule of conservative law, the election of the "best men" to office, and the restraint of radical impulses. Only the "substantial, property-owning" classes could save "civilized society" from the spectre of "communism" revealed by the strike, the Tribune concluded.

Labor activists, not surprisingly, offered a very different interpretation. The strike was but "the Beginning of a Revolution" that would, "in the future history of this country, be designated as the beginning of the second American Revolution, which inaugurated the independence of Labor from Capital," as one labor newspaper argued. However contemporaries interpreted the strike, it constituted the largest labor upheaval to that time, one whose underlying causes did not promise to go away easily. The events of 1877, which included the final collapse of what was left of Reconstruction in the South, placed the "labor question" squarely and unavoidably on the nation's agenda. Over the next quarter of a century, workers and managers continued to debate and struggle over that question in the press, in local neighborhoods, at the ballot box, and at workplaces.

American workers of this period confronted an economy undergoing dramatic transformations. The last three decades of the century witnessed a sixfold increase in the nation's Gross National Product; the number of workers engaged in manufacturing quadrupled to 6 million between 1860 and 1900; and the United States emerged as the world's premier industrial power, surpassing even Great Britain as the vanguard of the Industrial Revolution. This achievement was made possible, in part, by the vast expansion of the nation's transportation system. Railroads grew at phenomenal rates, linking far-flung markets and drawing ever greater numbers of people into a unified system of commerce. New forms of business organization emerged, enabling companies to generate massive sums of capital and to expand on a hitherto unthinkable scale. This was also an era of cutthroat business competition that wreaked havoc on large numbers of firms. If laissez-faire was an official ideology, corporate leaders came to understand that competition could be more harmful than beneficial. Pooling arrangements, holding companies, and the merger movement of 1897-1904, which produced the first billion dollar corporations, were the mechanisms devised by industrial capitalists to restrain the centrifugal forces generated by the market system, which now threatened to tear it apart. By the century's end, modern corporate America was taking firm shape.

The emergence and consolidation of the new industrial order meant, first and foremost, that America was becoming a nation of wage earners for the first time. At the start of the nineteenth century, wage labor was but one of many competing forms or systems of organizing productive activity. Skilled artisans produced in small shops, textile operatives labored in large factories, rural men and women made goods at home through the putting-out system, farm families tilled their land, garment workers toiled in sweatshops, and African and African-American slaves performed forced labor on plantations or in rural industries and cities. While this diversity never completely vanished, it did change dramatically over the course of the century. According to the 1870 census, the United States remained a predominantly rural nation, but it had become a nation of employees. Some 67 percent of productively engaged people (involved in gainful occupations)-a majority of the population-now worked for somebody else, dependent upon another person or business for their livelihood. Self-employment was the exception, not the rule. By the century's end, the "wages system," as labor critics called it, was dominant.

Workers living through this period of economic transformation must have felt as if they were riding a roller coaster in slow motion. The economy grew in fits and starts in the late nineteenth century. The United States faced two major economic depressions from 1873 to 1877 and from 1893 to 1897-and in each crisis, unemployment rose to over 16 percent while substantial numbers of workers faced widespread underemployment and reduced wages. In an era before state-sponsored unemployment insurance or other benefits, losing one's job could mean being deprived of the means to survive. The mainstream press (not known for its sympathy for workers' activities) at times painted a stark picture of working class life during periods of depression. The New Orleans Daily Picayune, for instance, reported an "absolute destitution-not a thing of words but a hard reality" producing starvation among the unemployed in 1875. In February 1879 the poet Walt Whitman observed poor, unemployed tramps "plodding along, their eyes cast down, spying for scraps, rags, [and] bones." He believed that if "the United States, like the countries of the Old World, are also to grow vast crops of poor, desperate, dissatisfied, nomadic, miserably-waged populations, such as we see looming upon us of late years-steadily, even if slowly, eating into them like a cancer of lungs or stomach-then our republican experiment, notwithstanding all its surface-successes, is at heart an unhealthy failure." Unemployment during depressions might be most severe, but even in more prosperous times workers could and often did find themselves unexpectedly out of jobs when businesses went bankrupt or experienced sudden trade and production fluctuations.

The process of capitalist industrialization offered real benefits to some workers, but it also exacted a steep human price. By most accounts, the standard of living enjoyed by American workers rose, and rose significantly, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The gains, however, were unevenly distributed. At the top of the hierarchy within the working class, skilled craft workers, most often native-born white men or immigrants from England or Germany, reaped a disproportionate share of the benefits. Those below them fared worse. Sharp economic distinctions existed between skilled and unskilled laborers, men and women, whites and nonwhites, and native-born and most immigrant workers. For all the traditional celebrations of the rising standard of living and the fruits of plenty in the American economy, poverty remained a chronic, often inescapable feature of working-class life. Much of the research into workers' living standards concludes that most lived precariously close to the prospect of poverty. As one miner on the Mesabi Range in Minnesota expressed it in the early twentieth century, "If we eat we can't dress, and if we dress we don't eat." Not all workers were subject to such economic privation but millions were. Despite an overall upward trend in living standards, poverty remained a central facet of working-class life.

The conditions of work-low wages, long hours (the twelve hour day was not uncommon), harsh conditions, abusive managers, and high accident rates on the job-sparked repeated protests at places of employment and in workers' communities across the nation. The closing decades of the nineteenth century were marked by a degree of class conflict, much of it violent, as great as any in the industrialized world. During the 1880s, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States experienced almost ten thousand strikes and lockouts. In 1886 alone, a year that earned the title the "great upheaval," roughly seven hundred thousand workers either went out on strike or were locked out by their employers. Even larger numbers would participate in the titanic clashes of the early 1890s.

What were these industrial battles about? At issue were more than simply wages, hours of work, conditions on the job, and union recognition, although these remained of vital importance. The battles between labor and capital assumed meanings broader than the straightforward contest for economic supremacy. The new industrial order of the Gilded Age raised critical questions about the place and power of labor in a capitalist economy, the morality of capitalist industrialization, the compatibility of political democracy and economic concentration, and the very fate of the Republic. Workers offered a variety of answers to these questions, many of which sharply challenged those presented by the economic elite and the middle class. Given the high stakes, it is little wonder that these different visions and interests generated intense conflicts.

While never homogeneous, the American working class became even more diverse in the late nineteenth century. The process of capitalist industrialization required not only entrepreneurial skill, willingness to take risks, and capital investment but also a vast quantity of labor. Workers were drawn from a broad geographical spectrum. Native-born, white American men or male immigrants from northwestern Europe constituted the majority of the skilled labor force and formed the core of the craft unions in such trades as carpentry, iron puddling, locomotive engineering, glassblowing, and machine building. Yet these were years of an ethnic "remaking" of the working class. The "old" immigrants from England, Germany, Scandinavia, and Ireland were soon outnumbered by "new" ones from southern and eastern Europe and, to a lesser extent, from China, Japan, and Mexico. Some of these newcomers were fleeing religious or political persecution in Europe; others came to earn enough money to return home and purchase land (return rates for certain groups remained high); still others intended to stay and make the best of the opportunities that the United States had to offer. New immigrants performed unskilled work in basic industries (meat packing, iron and steel production, and textile manufacturing), the extractive sector (mining), common labor (railroad track work, longshoring, and construction), and domestic service, dominating the lower echelons of the expanding market economy.

Women played a growing role in the late nineteenth-century labor force. Despite a prevailing ideology that designated the home as the woman's true sphere, women worked for wages (as domestic servants, factory operatives, and as boardinghouse keepers, for example) for needed money as well as for a sense of personal independence. They constituted 14 percent of those gainfully employed in 1870 and 20 percent of this group in 1910. As historian Susan Levine has argued, aggregate percentages mask women's concentration in particular industries and communities. In 1880 in Fall River, Massachusetts, and Atlanta, Georgia, women made up 34 percent and 35 percent, respectively, of the labor force. In most cases, they were confined to textile and garment production and light manufacturing, domestic work, and, by the twentieth century, clerical work. Prior to 1900, most wage-earning women were unmarried; upon marriage, many withdrew from the paid labor market to manage the household economy. Whether or not they received wages for their efforts, women engaged in the social reproduction of the work force, performing the crucial unpaid labor of housework and child rearing.

Racial minorities occupied distinct positions within the working class. African Americans, the largest group of nonwhites, remained, for the most part, a southern, rural, and agricultural people. In the aftermath of the Civil War, a system of sharecropping replaced the institution of slavery. In exchange for little more than a modicum of personal and familial autonomy, black agricultural workers farmed the land belonging to southern whites, producing cotton in exchange for a portion of the final crop. Confronted by fraud, violence, and falling cotton prices, blacks remained trapped in poverty, enmeshed in an economic system that offered few possibilities for social mobility. Some African Americans did exchange farm labor for waged work. Many black women performed domestic service in white homes, while others found jobs in canning or tobacco factories. Excluded from most of the industrialized sectors of the economy, black men labored in southern turpentine and lumber camps, coal mines, and on the docks of port cities. In the West, Chinese immigrant workers helped construct the transcontinental railroad before immigration restrictions and white hostility reduced their numbers and limited their options. Japanese in the Pacific Northwest and Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the Southwest were agricultural and common laborers as well.

Given the diversity and continual recomposition of the American working class, it is not surprising that workers shared no common goals or understanding of their condition and advanced no single program for reform. Even in the best of times, they remained divided along cultural, national/ethnic, racial, religious, and gender lines. Undoubtedly, many believed that social mobility was a real possibility and strove hard to achieve economic success. Others struggled merely to survive, moving about the country in a constant search for security. Still others questioned the direction of economic trends, organizing associations of fellow wage earners to offer an alternative to the doctrine of laissez-faire and unrestrained corporate growth. In its place they sought to create a more humanitarian society that repudiated what reformers called the "soulless commercialism" of the Gilded Age and that overturned the "iron heel of a soulless monopoly [that crushed] ... the manhood out of sovereign citizens." While the labor movement that emerged in the 1880s and 1890s enrolled only a minority of the population (perhaps representing no more than 10 percent of the employed labor force), it nonetheless represented the aspirations, articulated the fears, and offered alternatives on behalf of large numbers of American workers. The Gilded Age's two most important movements were the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor was founded in 1869 by Philadelphia garment cutters. Its models were fraternal orders whose style and ritual forms appealed to midnineteenth century Americans. During its first decade of existence, the Knights of Labor was also a secret society. Initially, members were prohibited from revealing the Order's existence (to protect members from employers' retaliation), and reference to the Order was made through symbols. The notation * * * * *, for example, represented the Knights' name. According to one 1888 historian of the Order, these five stars placed in front of Philadelphia's Independence Hall, indicated a scheduled meeting. "This singular and mysterious sign," the author noted, "never failed to bring together thousands of the working class." For much of its first decade, the organization remained small, concentrated primarily in Pennsylvania and other eastern states.

It was only with the end of the depression of the 1870s that the Knights experienced significant growth. From 1877 to 1880 the Order grew to 30,000 members in sixteen hundred assemblies. By 1885 over 100,000 workers had joined the now public Knights. Over the course of the next year, the Order exploded in size. The Knights' victory over robber baron Jay Gould's Southwestern railroad system generated tremendous publicity and enthusiasm, winning the Order a large following. By 1886 as many as 750,000 workers had joined. Those numbers translated into temporary political success at the polls. Although the Knights officially steered clear of electoral politics, independent labor parties formed in many communities; between 1885 and 1888, historian Leon Fink has discovered, workingmen fielded their own slates in two hundred towns and cities. In 1886 one newspaper editorialist could declare that "never in all history has there been such a spectacle as the march of the Order of the Knights of Labor... It is an organization In whose hands now rests the destinies of the Republic... It has demonstrated the overmastering power of a national combination among workingmen."

By the mid-1880s the Knights had emerged as the largest and most inclusive labor organization in American history. Every state, major city, and sizable town boasted local assemblies. Between 8 and 12 percent of the industrial labor force were members of the roughly fifteen thousand assemblies across the country." The Order was also part of a larger, dense network of overlapping organizations and institutions. Through its sponsorship of libraries and reading rooms, lecture societies, newspapers, parades, sporting clubs, and cooperatives, it influenced a far greater number of people than just its immediate membership alone, thereby nurturing what historian Richard Oestreicher has called a broad "subculture of opposition."

The Knights' membership was also extremely diverse. "There is not a branch of labor, trade or profession that exists," the historian of the Order declared in 1888, "that cannot furnish material for a Knights of Labor assembly." Drawing no sharp division between workers and honest managers, the Knights welcomed all true "producers." (Only bartenders and lawyers were barred by definition.) Its social composition was extremely broad, its membership a heterogeneous lot. The Order was open to any producer over eighteen years of age regardless of race, sex, or skill. (The sole exception was Asian immigrants, for the Knights joined the chorus calling for the expulsion of the Chinese and bans on new immigrants.) This inclusiveness was unprecedented in American labor history. As many as sixty-five thousand women and sixty thousand African Americans joined the ranks.

The Knights represented many things to many people. The Order was home to solid trade unionists, middle-class reformers, various socialists and anarchists, unskilled immigrant laborers, female household workers, and black agricultural laborers in the South. With a membership so diverse, the Knights could not speak with only one voice. The Order, as one contemporary wrote, "is not a mere trade union, or benefit society; neither is it a political party.... Any and every measure calculated to advance the interests of the wage-workers, morally, socially, or financially, comes within the scope of the Order." Or, as one Arkansas member put it in 1886, the Knights of Labor was the "harbinger of a higher and better civilization, in which equal and exact justice shall be done all mankind-a civilization in which those who sow shall be permitted to reap the fruits of their toil, and the weary find rest and comfort as the reward of honest exertion." In historian Bruce Laurie's words, the Knights "offered a little something for just about everyone."

That said, the Knights did offer a set of pragmatic and idealistic proposals for restructuring the status quo, a strong critique of existing economic and political conditions, and a broad moral vision of what labor's place ought to be in an industrializing republic. The Knights called for the establishment of cooperatives, the reserving of public lands for actual settlers (not speculators), laws that applied equally to capital and labor, the replacement of strikes by arbitration, the abolition of child and convict labor, equal pay for equal work, more leisure time, a graduated income tax, and the eight-hour day "so that laborers may have more time for social enjoyment and intellectual improvement."

As "reformist" as many of these goals sound today, they directly challenged the dominant business creed of the Gilded Age, which staunchly upheld laissez-faire economics (notwithstanding some businessmen's and workers' support for the protective tariff); condemned any interference in the "natural" workings of the economy as unwise, dangerous, and immoral (notwithstanding managers' approval of and reliance upon local police or the military to suppress strikers); and celebrated the unbridled acquisition of material wealth. The Knights went even further. They called on the government to exercise its power of eminent domain to assume ownership of all telegraph, telephone, and railroad networks and promoted cooperative institutions to "supersede the wage system" altogether. In essence, the Knights proposed a different criterion for evaluating the health of the nation, seeking to "make industrial moral worth, not wealth, the true standard of individual and national greatness." In contrast to the conservative Gospel of Wealth, then, the Knights put forth a vision of cooperation and working-class mutualism. "There is much more in the labor question than mere wages and hours," one New York member insisted in 1887. "We propose that our organization shall dominate and control every institution in this country" on behalf of the "vast body of toilers."

Failure to act on its agenda, many Knights believed, would result in the triumph of a system that brutalized labor and dismantled the achievements of American democracy. The Order's Declaration of Principles laid out a well-developed analysis along this line. "The recent alarming development and aggression of aggregated wealth," it predicted, "unless checked, will inevitably lead to the pauperization and hopeless degradation of the toiling masses." It was thus "imperative, if we desire to enjoy the blessings of life, that a check should be placed upon-its power and upon unjust accumulation, and a system adopted which will secure to the laborer the fruits of his toil." In the previous decade labor journalist John Swinton, who would become an avid Knights supporter, had put the matter directly. "The power of money," he wrote in the New York Sun in 1876, "has become supreme over everything," securing "for the class who controls it all the special privileges" it required for "complete and absolute domination. This power must be kept in check ... it must be broken or it will utterly crush the people." Many Knights would agree. By 1884 the Order committed itself to "a radical change in the existing industrial system," adopting a stance that was "necessarily one of war."

The extreme concentration of economic power in Gilded Age America threatened the political liberty upon which the Republic was built, certain Knights leaders argued. Their portrait of the economic and political ruin wrought by capitalism drew upon an older tradition of labor republicanism that dated back to the era of the Revolutionary War. In its working-class variant, republicanism held that the health of the democratic system rested on the virtue of its citizenry and that virtue rested on independence. Americans associated both virtue and independence with the possession or ownership of productive property. Ideally, citizens should not be dependent on the patronage or favor of the well-to-do, which could only lead to corruption. Lack of ownership of productive property and, by extension, wage-earning itself reflected an abject, dependent status. The foundation of the strong, vigorous republic rested upon the widespread distribution of property, which ensured that independent producers participated as equals in the political process. By the 1880s such notions reflected the reality of an earlier era when self-employment and property ownership were more widespread for small farmers and artisans and before wage labor had become entrenched as the dominant employment relation. By midcentury, independence was giving way to dependence as "wage slavery" became the permanent condition of even more people and not simply a temporary sojourn en route to independence.

By the 1880s dependent workers were confronting increasingly powerful employers who seemed to exercise tremendous political influence. Notwithstanding their forays into the political arena, labor activists confronted a state protective of private property, supportive of business interests, and hostile to labor's basic demands. Increasingly, governors, federal officials, and courts obliged employers by unleashing extraordinary repression against workers' movements. State militias and federal troops crushed strikes; the federal judiciary repeatedly intervened in labor relations by outlawing crucial tactics (the citywide boycott of unfair employers, for example) and declaring unconstitutional any restrictions on employers' power, such as laws setting the working day at eight hours or banning tenement production.

To labor republicans, it appeared as if a new aristocracy had replaced the earlier democratic republic of producers. Could economic concentration and political democracy be reconciled? Could unrestrained capitalist industrialization and the republican experiment coexist? Many labor reformers answered no. George McNeill, a Knights supporter, put the matter succinctly when he stated that the "extremes of wealth and poverty are threatening the existence of the government. In the light of these facts, 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." To the Knights and other labor reformers, the very meaning of America-and the future of the Republic-was at stake in the fiercely contested struggles of the Gilded Age.

The Knights' organizational success proved to be short-lived. The year 1886 was the turning point. Employers mobilized and took the offensive, resisting the Knights' demands for wage increases and the eight-hour day. This concerted counterattack by business brought the Knights' forward momentum to a crashing halt. As employers drew ample support from local and state governments, the Knights lost strike after strike. Even Jay Gould got his rematch in 1886, and this time he won. And then there was Haymarket. When a bomb exploded in Haymarket Square in Chicago in May 1886 during a labor demonstration in support of strikers for the eight hour day, the police blamed, without evidence, the city's anarchist leaders. The national press intensified its antilabor crusade, linking the labor movement as a whole to the anarchists' alleged crimes and undermining its moral legitimacy. The "first major" Red Scare that followed the Haymarket explosion triggered "a campaign of radical-bating rarely if ever surpassed," in historian Paul Avrich's words. By the summer of 1887 the Knights' national membership had fallen by more than half, and it continued to plummet. That autumn, some ten thousand sugar workers on Louisiana plantations-nine thousand of whom were black-struck under the Knights' banner in an unprecedented interracial movement to correct long-standing abuses and raise wages. Local white planters, state politicians, the militia, and armed vigilantes fought back with a vengeance, crushing the strike with a reign of terror that left dozens of black strikers dead. Unable to protect or secure improvements for its members, the Knights had ceased to function as a viable labor organization. Although labor republicanism did not die with the Order-it would influence the American Railway Union in the 1890s and the Socialist party in the early twentieth century very different voices now spoke for organized labor in the decades after the 1880s.

Even as the Knights of Labor was struggling to survive, the American Federation of Labor emerged in 1886 to offer a competing organizational vision. In contrast to the Knights, which was built upon an alliance of skilled and unskilled workers, the AFL was founded on the principle of the superiority of craft unionism. Craft unions embraced specific groups of skilled workers, whose knowledge, experience, discipline, and solidarity enabled them to weather strikes and hold their own in conflicts with employers far better than could the unskilled. Their power, David Montgomery has shown, rested on the "functional autonomy of craftsmen," that is, the superior knowledge "which made them self-directing at their tasks" and allowed them to exercise a "broad discretion in the direction of their own work." Similarly, their adherence to their own codes of mutualism bound them together in a network of solidarity and prompted them to obey work rules governing the permanence of their labor. In many industries, skilled craftsmen, not their employers or managers, knew how to carry out the process of production, and they carefully set the terms under which they would perform their tasks, refusing to work beyond their endurance or custom or alongside former strikebreakers or other nonunion men.

By the 1880s and 1890s corporations began experimenting with new forms of management aimed at wresting control, or at least more control over the labor process from craftsmen. Toward that end, industrialists sought to divest workers of their skills, knowledge, and power and to invest them instead in management's own supervisory personnel. Labor activists sharply condemned the "rapidity with which machinery, the subdivision of labor, and cheap methods are displacing skilled labor and diminishing the earnings of wage-workers," as one correspondent to the labor weekly, John Swinton's Paper, wrote in 1885. Whether it involved the intensification of labor (simply forcing workers to work harder, faster, and longer), mechanization (using machinery to substitute less skilled labor for craftsmen), or the reorganization of the production process itself, the assault on the skilled craftsmen produced an ongoing battle for control of the shop floor that often would break out into large-scale battles between unions and managers in the 1890s and the early twentieth century.

Ideologically, the AFL rejected the broader social goals of the Knights and pursued what traditionally has been termed "pure and simple unionism," or "business" unionism. Samuel Gompers, who headed the Federation for virtually all of its first three and one half decades, initially led it away from the political arena. Championing the philosophy of "voluntarism," Gompers believed that his organization could best secure its goals not through legislation--he learned from bitter experience that the courts would undoubtedly strike down labor's laws--but through its own economic strength at the workplace. By the early twentieth century, however, the AFL advocated laws restraining the courts from interfering in labor-management affairs, because the judiciary increasingly undermined the AFLs ability to exercise its strength at the workplace. This campaign would lead it into an alliance with the Democratic party.

The AFL also abandoned the Knights' goal of replacing the "wages system" with one based upon cooperation. Accepting the permanency of wage labor, it instead sought to secure a place for skilled labor within the parameters of industrial capitalism. Even this aim was fiercely, and often successfully, resisted by modern corporate managers, who viewed unions as unnecessary interference in their right to set wages, determine conditions, and rule the workplace as they saw fit. The Federation's rank and file, of course, was never ideologically of one mind. Substantial numbers of socialists were members of craft unions that were affiliated with the AFL, and they sought to influence its direction. In 1893 and 1894 the organization debated and narrowly rejected the socialists' political program, which would have committed it to the collective ownership of all means of production and distribution and the creation of an independent labor party. The movement's radical impulses were by no means extinguished by this defeat, however. Within the AFL a number of important unions continued to nurture strong socialist tendencies. While pockets of radical influence persisted, AFL president Gompers steered his organization, which would dominate the labor movement well into the twentieth century, toward far more limited, conservative goals.

The ideology, structure, social basis, and function of the AFL's craft unionism generated exclusionary tendencies that made participation by African Americans, new immigrants, and women difficult. Its skilled white constituency often turned a cold shoulder toward the unskilled. On the one hand, craftsmen disparaged them as undisciplined and incapable of behaving in a proper trade-union manner. On the other hand, they often ignored those unskilled immigrants, blacks, and women who did demonstrate discipline and trade-union values. A central function of the craft union was to protect its members and preserve the dignity, skills, and wages of the craft by keeping potential competitors out of the labor market. To skilled white craftsmen, new immigrants, African Americans, and women constituted potential competition that had to be resisted. More than economics was involved, for ideological assumptions about race and gender contributed greatly to the shaping of AFL membership policies.

As a federation of skilled white workers, the AFL rarely welcomed unskilled blacks into its ranks. Reflecting and refining the racial ideology of the larger white society, some white unionists actively campaigned to keep their unions and their trades white. Numerous unions within the Federation barred nonwhites explicitly or in practice. Some blacks, however, enrolled in all-black locals of longshoremen, teamsters, and coal miners and sought affiliation with the AFL by the century's end. In 1892, AFL unions formed the interracial Workingmen's Amalgamated Council, which participated in a general strike in New Orleans on behalf of black freight teamsters. Some twenty thousand workers from forty-two unions struck in what one local newspaper called a "war of classes." The threat of military intervention broke the strike, destroying many unions and the broad cooperative spirit that had motivated them. However, examples of interracial collaboration on the New Orleans waterfront or in the mining camps of Alabama's Birmingham district proved to be the exception, not the rule. By the century's end, the AFL had grown more hostile toward black workers.

Women also found it difficult to secure a place within the ranks of the AFL. Male craft unionists had inherited and refined assumptions about gender that led them to disapprove of women's participation in the wage-labor market or labor movement. Since the early nineteenth century, male workers had advocated a "family wage," arguing that a man should earn a sufficient income to maintain his family without his wife or children having to work for wages. As historian Christine Stansell has argued, "The workingmen envisioned a nineteenth-century home not unlike the bourgeois ideal, a repository for women's 'true' nature as well as a refuge from the miseries of wage labor." Or, as one AFL member put it, "We believe that the man should be provided with a fair wage in order to keep his female relatives from going to work. The man is the provider and should receive enough for his labor to give his family a respectable living." Belief in the "family wage" was not restricted to men alone; some female labor activists believed that, ideally, women would not have to work for wages if men received the higher compensation they deserved. The consequences of female labor-market participation, its critics charged, could be particularly harmful. Women were exposed to hazardous and immoral working conditions; they placed themselves and their families at risk; and they "invaded" previously male trades, leading to lower overall wages, a deterioration of conditions, and the displacement of male trade unionists. In AFL leaders' thinking, "Every woman employed displaces a man and adds one more to the idle contingent that are fixing wages at the lowest limit." Such assumptions led some AFL unions to attempt to bar women from entering their trades, as opposed to organizing those who made it in. Given the AFL's stance that the "great principle for which we fight is opposed to taking ... the women from their homes to put them in the factory and the sweatshop"-in the 1905 words of the AFL's treasurer-it is not surprising that by the start of the new century only 3.3 percent of women in industrial occupations were union members, a figure that dropped to about 1.5 percent in 1910.

Just as the Knights of Labor encountered fierce employer resistance in the 1880s, the American Federation of Labor similarly engaged in do-or-die battles with corporate leaders in the 1890s. During that decade, capital handed the new Federation defeat after defeat. Even before the depression that began in 1893 sent unemployment skyrocketing, wages plummeting, and labor organizers packing, the fledgling AFL lost a series of crucial strikes that resulted in the destruction of many unions. In 1892 the powerful Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers squared off against the even more powerful industrialists Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie in western Pennsylvania. The strike/lockout at Homestead "stirred the labor movement as few other single events" had, in the 1922 words of labor economist Selig Perlman. Strikers and sympathizers successfully defended their town against an invasion by the company's armed, mercenary Pinkerton guards. Only the arrival of the state militia and the arrest and prosecution of strike leaders brought Frick and Carnegie the victory they desired. The union lay in ashes, wages and working conditions deteriorated rapidly, strikers lost their jobs, managers crushed overt dissent and effectively dominated local politics, and unionism in steel was wiped out for the next four decades. The debacle at Homestead, Perlman argued, taught the labor movement the "lesson that even its strongest organization was unable to withstand an onslaught by the modern corporation." Homestead was only the most famous of the labor upheavals of 1892. From the silver mines of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, to the waterfront of New Orleans, from the coal mines of East Tennessee and Birmingham to the railroad switching yards of Buffalo, trade unionists engaged in pitched battles with their employers over wages, conditions, work rules, union recognition, the control of the workplace, and the dignity of labor itself. In many cases, it was the employers who emerged victorious.

The decisive blow against organized labor occurred two years later during the Pullman boycott of 1894. The previous year, just as the depression was beginning and numerous railroads went bankrupt, the newly formed American Railway Union (ARU), led by the former locomotive fireman and future socialist Eugene V. Debs, swept as many as 150,000 railroad workers from a wide range of crafts into its ranks, thoroughly repudiating the narrow, conservative railroad brotherhoods that had previously dominated unionism on the rails. In contrast to the AFL, the ARU endorsed the Populist party and called for the nationalization of the railroads at its first convention. In the summer of 1894 striking Pullman Palace Car Company workers in the company town of Pullman, Illinois, turned to the ARU for assistance in their fight to reinstate fired union activists and to rescind severe wage cuts. The new industrial union responded with a vote of solidarity. When the company refused "all attempts at conciliation and settlement of differences" (as the U.S. Strike Commission subsequently phrased it), ARU members refused to handle any train carrying a Pullman car. The Pullman boycott was on.

Railroad workers' solidarity, however, was no match for the combined power of the General Managers' Association (the railroad employers' organization) and its allies in the press and in state and federal government. As the boycott spread, tying up the nation's major railroads, the companies placed thousands of armed deputies on railroad payrolls to combat the strikers. More serious was the response of the federal government. By placing U.S. mail cars at the end of all Pullman trains, it effectively transformed an efforts to halt rail traffic into interference with the mail, a federal offense. President Grover Cleveland dispatched companies of U.S. Army troops to Chicago and other cities to protect railroad property and to disperse strikers; dozens of strikers and sympathizers were shot by police and military troops. The judiciary also became an antilabor force. Judges issued sweeping injunctions banning ARU members from interfering with railroad activities in any way, from picketing, and even from meeting. ARU leaders were arrested, their offices broken into and their records seized. Unable to convince Gompers and the AFL to join it in a nationwide sympathy strike (Gompers viewed the strike as an "impulsive vigorous protest" that placed the labor movement in a position of "open hostility to Federal authority"), the ARU went down to utter defeat. In the Pullman boycott's aftermath, the union disintegrated, strike leader Debs was convicted and sentenced to prison, and hundreds of strikers permanently lost their jobs.

With the easing of the depression in 1897 the labor movement could claim few victories. The Knights and the ARU were effectively dead, and the AFL's chief accomplishment was its mere survival during the depression. At the century's end workers faced larger, ever more powerful corporations determined to resist unionization and to control the labor process. The most advanced sectors of the economy remained union free, and the state intervened aggressively on the side of capital. If the economic expansion of the postdepression years provided new opportunities for some American workers, others continued to labor in urban sweatshops and factories or undemocratic company towns. In some industries they put in a twelve-hour day, and for unskilled or common laborers, wage rates lifted few above the poverty line. From the perspective of labor republicans who feared the impact of economic concentration and political inequality, workers were the clear losers in the contest over the definition of labor's place in an industrializing republic.

The various groups drew different lessons from the crisis of the 1890s. Gompers and staunch craft unionists believed the AFL's very survival proved the wisdom of the Federation's structure and philosophy. It is noteworthy, as Gompers reported in 1899, "that while in every previous industrial crisis the trade unions were literally mowed down and swept out of existence, the unions now in existence have manifested, not only the power of resistance, but of stability and permanency. In the years between 1897 and 1904 one and one half million new members joined the AFL. Although few of these workers labored in the dynamic industrial core of the economy, the addition of so many skilled craftsmen testified to the staying power of Gompers's vision. To Debs and labor radicals the 1890s crisis revealed the tremendous power of capital, the importance of industrial unionism, and the validity of a socialist critique. In the early twentieth century, the Knights of Labor slogan -"an injury to one is an injury to all"-would find supporters in the newly formed Socialist party, which championed the collective ownership of the means of production in the political arena, and in the Industrial Workers of the World, which promoted working-class solidarity and radical industrial unionism. Despite the growing power of the corporate sector, the struggle for control in the workplace and the contest over labor's rights in an industrial capitalist economy continued. As long as the fundamental sources of workers' grievances persisted, the labor question that claimed so prominent a place on the nation's agenda in the Gilded Age remained unresolved.


Source: Eric Arnesen in The Gilded Age: Essays on the Origins of Modern America (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007), 53-70.