In the latter part of the nineteenth century the United States experienced rapid industrial growth. While the captains of industry accumulated huge amounts of wealth, the workers who toiled in their factories experienced no real rise of standard of living. Factory workers faced dangerous conditions, long work days, low pay and little or no control over the fate of their jobs. Children and women were exploited; women earned less than men for the same work, and children worked long hard days in the nations factories and fields. In response to these terrible conditions many workers attempted to unionize. The first attempt to create a national union was the Knights of Labor.
Membership to the Knights of Labor was open to anyone who "toiled", this included all workers, virtually all women, and most business and professional people. The only people who were excluded were lawyers, bankers, liquor dealers, and professional gamblers. With such a broad base the Knights of Labor were able to claim a membership of 700, 000 in 1886. The broad base also made the Knights loosely organized, lacking a central direction. The organization championed the eight hour work day and the abolition of child labor. What they were most interested in was the long range reform of America's economy, away from the "wage system" an towards a "competitive system" were workers controlled a large part of the economy.
The Knights of Labor were discredited after a series of failed railroad strike in 1880's. In 1881 a number of small unions organized into what would become the American Federation of Labor. The AFL was an association of smaller craft unions that represented mainly skilled workers. Under the leadership of Samuel Gompers, the AFL fought for increased wages, shorter hours, and safer working conditions. On May 1, 1886 the AFL called for a national strike for a eight hour work day. The same day at a strike at the McCormick Harvester Company someone threw a bomb at police men who had ordered the crowd to disperse.
Seven police officers were killed and thirty six others wee injured, the police fired into the crowd killing four more people. The bombing was blamed on a group of eight anarchist. The association with radical groups like anarchist became a constant obstacle for labor groups in the 1890's. A division of the AFL was the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. The Amalgamated was made up of skilled workers who were in high demand, making them the most powerful trade union in the country. As the methods for steel production changed the power of the Amalgamated began to waiver.
In an attempt to completely destroy the unions power Andrew Carnegie repeatedly cut wages at the last foothold of Amalgamated, the Homestead plant near Pittsburgh. When the company began even discussing wage cuts with the union, the Amalgamated called for a strike. The factory was shut down and 300 guard from the Pinkerton Detective Agency were brought in to break up the strike. As the Pinkertons approached by the factory by river, the workers set the water on fire and met the strike breakers at the docks.
A pitch battle broke out. Three guards and ten strike workers were killed, the Pinkertons surrendered and were escorted out of the factory. Then the governor of Pennsylvania sent in the national guard, strike breakers now had protection, and production resumed at the factory. Four months after the strike began Amalgamated surrendered.
After the failed strike membership shrank, and by 1900 all of the major steel plants had broken away from the union. When the Pullman Palace Car Company slashed the wages of its workers by 25 percent without lowering the rent on factory housing, workers went on strike. The American Railway Union, led by Eugene Debs, supported the Pullman workers by refusing to handle Pullman cars and equipment. Within days thousand of railroad workers were on strike and transportation from Chicago to the West coast was paralyzed. President Grover Cleveland called 2, 000 troops to the Chicago area.
A federal court issued an injunction that forced the union to end the strike. When Debs and his associates defied the injunction they were arrested. Federal troops protected the strike breakers and without leadership the strike collapsed. The efforts of labor in the nineteenth century produced few gains.
The Contract Labor Law was abolished, government employees were granted eight hour work days, and some workers compensation was established. The wages of the average industrial worker rose very little, and at the end of the nineteenth century workers had no more power that they had in the 1860's. Labor failed to achieve its goals for many reasons. The largest union, the AFL, excluded unskilled workers, who mad up the majority of the work force.
Divisions in the work force also held back the labor movement. Tensions among the newly arrived immigrant kept labor divided. The continues movement of the population also kept labor weak. Workers often move from town to town and from job to job, making it difficult for them to establish themselves in organizations.
The main reason that the labor movement was largely unsuccessful was the power of the big businesses that they faced. Corporations had vast amounts of wealth and power, and they were willing to remove the efforts of labor if they got in the way of their business goals. Business also had the support of government, which was willing to send troops to stop workers uprisings. While the efforts of the nineteenth century labor movement was not very effective, they did set the stage for the success of labor in the twentieth century. The struggles of the labor movement but the plight of the industrial worker into the national conscience. The support of labor among the population grew, and as this occurred government was forced to step up and protect labor in the twentieth century.
In the twentieth century the power of large corporations waned and their support from government eroded. The descendants of workers who immigrated to the U. S. in the nineteenth century increasingly saw themselves as Americans in the twentieth century, ending much of the ethnic divisions that plagued the labor movement in the nineteenth century. Labor was able to take advantage of the new industrial environment and gain many of their objectives that they had fought so hard for in the nineteenth century, in the twentieth century.