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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.Ó 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.