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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class



THE LABOR MOVEMENT: 1860 - Present

A Response to Industrial Capitalism

Learning Objective One: Discuss the division within the labor movement and show how labor had a hard time adjusting to industrial capitalism.

Labor Unions Emerge

As business leaders merged and consolidated their forces, it seemed necessary for workers to do the same. Although Northern wages were generally higher than Southern wages, exploitation and unsafe working conditions drew workers together across regions in a nationwide labor movement. Laborers—skilled and unskilled, female and male, black and white—joined together in unions to try to improve their lot.



One of the largest employers, the steel mills, often demanded a seven-day workweek. Seamstresses, like factory workers in most industries, worked 12 or more hours a day, six days a week. Employees were not entitled to vacation, sick leave, unemployment compensation, or reimbursement for injuries suffered on the job. Yet injuries were common. In dirty, poorly ventilated factories, workers had to perform repetitive, minddulling tasks, sometimes with dangerous or faulty equipment. In 1882, an average of 675 laborers were killed in work-related accidents each week. In addition, wages were so low that most families could not survive unless everyone held a job. Between 1890 and 1910, for example, the number of women working for wages doubled, from 4 million to more than 8 million. Twenty percent of the boys and 10 percent of the girls under age 15—some as young as five years old—also held full-time jobs. With little time or energy left for school, child laborers forfeited their futures to help their families make ends meet.


In sweatshops, or workshops in tenements rather than in factories, workers had little choice but to put up with the conditions. Sweatshop employment, which was tedious and required few skills, was often the only avenue open to women and children. Jacob Riis described the conditions faced by “sweaters.”


Not surprisingly, sweatshop jobs paid the lowest wages—often as little as 27 cents for a child’s 14-hour day. In 1899, women earned an average of $267 a year, nearly half of men’s average pay of $498. The very next year Andrew Carnegie made $23 million—with no income tax




Skilled workers had formed small, local unions since the late 1700s. The first large-scale national organization of laborers, the National Labor Union (NLU), was formed in 1866 by ironworker William H. Sylvis. The refusal of some NLU local chapters to admit African Americans led to the creation of the Colored National Labor Union (CNLU). Nevertheless, NLU membership grew to 640,000. In 1868, the NLU persuaded Congress to legalize an eight-hour day for government workers. NLU organizers concentrated on linking existing local unions. In 1869, Uriah Stephens focused his attention on individual workers and organized the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor.


Its motto was “An injury to one is the concern of all.” Membership in the Knights of Labor was officially open to all workers, regardless of race, gender, or degree of skill. Like the NLU, the Knights supported an eight-hour workday and advocated “equal pay for equal work” by men and women. They saw strikes, or refusals to work, as a last resort and instead advocated arbitration. At its height in 1886, the Knights of Labor had about 700,000 members. Although the Knights declined after the failure of a series of strikes, other unions continued to organize 


In the years after the Civil War, two rival approaches fought for the allegiance of - /

the American working man:

  • Radical unionism
  • Trade unionism

American labor failed to achieve satisfactory adjustment to industrial capitalism during the years following the Civil War largely because it was unable to act as a unit or to agree upon three issues: nature of problems , proper objective, and instrument of action.


Throughout ·the 19th century and well into the 20th, labor debated whether to accept or reject capitalism, and whether to trust laissez-faire and try to make it on their own or seek government patronage.


Machinery made enormous savings in manufacturing and a vast increase in productivity , but only a small portion of these savings were passed on to labor in the form of wages .


It is estimated workers' purchasing power increased nearly 40% between 1850 and 1880.

However, labor argued it was not getting its fair share of the fruits of industrial growth. Instead, the rich were getting richer.


As machinery came to represent a large part of capital investment, it was thought necessary to have the worker adjust to the machinery rather than have the machinery adjust to the worker. Thus, if efficiency required that machines be run 24 hours a day and seven days a week, workers were expected to adjust themselves to that requirement, regardless of the social undesirability of such a schedule. The steel industry had a 12-hour day and a 7-day week. This schedule was maintained for many workers until 1923.


The change from individual employer to impersonal corporation sharply lessened the workers' bargaining power.


When machines took the place of handicrafts, jobs became monotonous.

Mechanization undermined both the craftsman's pride and his bargaining power.

The old familiar relations between employer and employee were passing.


A few generations before the boss had known every person in his shop because in the small establishment there had been a friendly human relationship between employer and employee.

There was no such relationship between the great mines or steel producers who controlled the coal industry and the 150,000 men who worked in the mines.


As a result of industrialization and the rapid growth of the industrialized work force the problem of a loss of identity within society for a large number of workers developed. The individual became less significant. Labor unions, appealing to the individual as a person, fulfilled the worker's need to work within a group.



In an attempt to solve the problems faced by workers, Eugene Debs and some other labor activists eventually turned to socialism, an economic and political system based on government control of business and property and equal distribution of wealth. Socialism, carried to its extreme form— communism, as advocated by the German philosopher Karl Marx—would result in the overthrow of the capitalist system.


Most socialists in late-19th-century America drew back from this goal, however, and worked within the labor movement to achieve better conditions for workers. In 1905, a group of radical unionists and socialists in Chicago organized the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or the Wobblies. Headed by William “Big Bill” Haywood, the Wobblies included miners, lumberers, and cannery and dock workers. Unlike the ARU, the IWW welcomed African Americans, but membership never topped 100,000. Its only major strike victory occurred in 1912. Yet the Wobblies, like other industrial unions, gave dignity and a sense of solidarity to unskilled workers.