LABOR IN AMERICA
By Ira Peck
The Industrial Revolution was dawning in the United States. At Lowell, Massachusetts,
the construction of a big cotton mill began in 1821. It was the first of several that would
be built there in the next 10 years. The machinery to spin and weave cotton into cloth
would be driven by water power. All that the factory owners needed was a dependable
supply of labor to tend the machines.
As most jobs in cotton factories required neither great strength nor special skills, the
owners thought women could do the work as well as or better than men. In addition,
they were more compliant. The New England region was home to many young, single
farm girls who might be recruited. But would stern New England farmers allow their
daughters to work in factories? The great majority of them would not. They believed
that sooner or later factory workers would be exploited and would sink into hopeless
poverty. Economic “laws” would force them to work harder and harder for less and less
THE LOWELL EXPERIMENT
How, then, were the factory owners able to recruit farm girls as laborers? They did it
by building decent houses in which the girls could live. These houses were supervised
by older women who made sure that the girls lived by strict moral standards. The girls
were encouraged to go to church, to read, to write and to attend lectures. They saved
part of their earnings to help their families at home or to use when they got married.
The young factory workers did not earn high wages; the average pay was about $3.50
a week. But in those times, a half-dozen eggs cost five cents and a whole chicken cost
15 cents. The hours worked in the factories were long. Generally, the girls worked 11 to
13 hours a day, six days a week. But most people in the 1830s worked from dawn until
dusk, and farm girls were used to getting up early and working until bedtime at nine o’clock.
The factory owners at Lowell believed that machines would bring progress as well as profit.
Workers and capitalists would both benefit from the wealth created by mass production.
For a while, the factory system at Lowell worked very well. The population of the town
grew from 200 in 1820 to 30,000 in 1845. But conditions in Lowell’s factories had already
started to change. Faced with growing competition, factory owners began to decrease
wages in order to lower the cost–and the price–of finished products.
They increased the number of machines that each girl had to operate. In addition, they
began to overcrowd the houses in which the girls lived. Sometimes eight girls had to share
In 1836, 1,500 factory girls went on strike to protest wage cuts. (The girls called their
action a “turn out.”) But it was useless. Desperately poor immigrants were beginning to
arrive in the United States from Europe. To earn a living, they were willing to accept low
wages and poor working conditions. Before long, immigrant women replaced the
“Yankee” (American) farm girls.
To many people, it was apparent that justice for wage earners would not come easily.
Labor in America faced a long, uphill struggle to win fair treatment. In that struggle, more
and more workers would turn to labor unions to help their cause. They would endure
violence, cruelty and bitter defeats. But eventually they would achieve a standard of
living unknown to workers at any other time in history.
GROWTH OF THE FACTORY
In colonial America, most manufacturing was done by hand in the home. Some was
done in workshops attached to the home. As towns grew into cities, the demand for
manufactured goods increased. Some workshop owners began hiring helpers to increase
production. Relations between the employer and helper were generally harmonious.
They worked side by side, had the same interests and held similar political views.
The factory system that began around 1800 brought great changes. The employer
no longer worked beside his employees. He became an executive and a merchant
who rarely saw his workers. He was concerned less with their welfare than with the
cost of their labor. Many workers were angry about the changes brought by the
factory system. In the past, they had taken great pride in their handicraft skills; now
machines did practically all the work, and they were reduced to the status of common
laborers. In bad times they could lose their jobs. Then they might be replaced by
workers who would accept lower wages. To skilled craft workers, the Industrial
Revolution meant degradation rather than progress.
As the factory system grew, many workers began to form labor unions to protect their
interests. The first union to hold regular meetings and collect dues was organized by
Philadelphia shoemakers in 1792. Soon after, carpenters and leather workers in Boston
and printers in New York also organized unions. Labor’s tactics in those early times
were simple. Members of a union would agree on the wages they thought were fair.
They pledged to stop working for employers who would not pay that amount. They also
sought to compel employers to hire only union members.
Employers found the courts to be an effective weapon to protect their interests. In 1806,
eight Philadelphia shoemakers were brought to trial after leading an unsuccessful strike.
The court ruled that any organizing of workers to raise wages was an illegal act. Unions
were “conspiracies” against employers and the community. In later cases, courts ruled
that almost any action taken by unions to increase wages might be criminal. These
decisions destroyed the effectiveness of the nation’s early labor unions.
Not until 1842 was the way opened again for workers to organize. That year several union
shoemakers in Boston were brought to trial. They were charged with refusing to work with
non-union shoemakers. A municipal court judge found the men guilty of conspiracy. But
an appeal to a higher court resulted in a victory for labor unions generally. Chief Justice
Lemuel Shaw ruled that it was not unlawful for workers to engage peacefully in union
activity. It was their right to organize, he said. Shaw’s decision was widely accepted. For
many years following this decision, unions did not have to fear conspiracy charges.
In the next two decades, unions campaigned for a 10-hour working day and against child
labor. A number of state legislatures responded favorably. In 1851, for example, New Jersey
passed a law calling for a 10-hour working day in all factories. It also forbade the
employment of children under 10 years old.
Meanwhile trade unions were joining together in cities to form federations. A number of
skilled trades organized national unions to try to improve their wages and working conditions.
The effort to increase wages brought about hundreds of strikes during the 1850s. None was
as extensive, however, as a strike of New England shoemakers in 1860. The strike started
in Lynn, Massachusetts, when factory workers were refused a three-dollar increase in their
weekly pay. It soon spread to Maine and New Hampshire. Altogether, about 20,000 workers
took part in the strike. It ended in a victory for the shoemakers. Similar victories were soon
won by other trade unions. These successes led to big increases in union membership. Yet
most American workers were generally better off than workers in Europe and had more hope
of improving their lives. For this reason, the majority did not join labor unions.
In the years following the Civil War (1861-1865), the United States was transformed by the
enormous growth of industry. Once the United States was mainly a nation of small farms. By
1900, it was a nation of growing cities, of coal and steel, of engines and fast communications.
Though living standards generally rose, millions of industrial workers lived in crowded,
unsanitary slums. Their conditions became desperate in times of business depressions. Then it
was not unusual for workers to go on strike and battle their employers. Between 1865 and
1900, industrial violence occurred on numerous occasions.
Probably the most violent confrontation between labor and employers was the Great Railway
Strike of 1877. The nation had been in the grip of a severe depression for four years. During
that time, the railroads had decreased the wages of railway workers by 20 percent. Many
trainmen complained that they could not support their families adequately. There was little that
the trainmen could do about the wage decreases. At that time, unions were weak and workers
feared going on strike; there were too many unemployed men who might take their jobs. Yet some
workers secretly formed a Trainmen’s Union to oppose the railroads.
Then, in 1877, four big railroads announced that they were going to decrease wages another 10
percent. In addition, the Pennsylvania line ordered freight train conductors to handle twice as many
cars as before. On July 16, a strike began on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in West Virginia. The
strike quickly spread to other lines. On July 19, Pennsylvania Railroad workers at Pittsburgh
refused to let freight trains move. (The strikers let passenger trains move freely because they
carried United States mail.) The next day the governor sent statemilitiamen to oust the strikers from
the freight yard. But these men were from Pittsburgh. They had many friends and relatives among the
strikers. Soon they were mingling with the crowd of men, women and children at the freight yard.
The next day 600 militiamen arrived from Philadelphia. They were ordered to clear the tracks at the
freight yard. The soldiers advanced toward the crowd and shooting erupted. In the aftermath, 20
people in the crowd lay dead. Many more were wounded. News of the killings triggered rioting and
fires in the Pittsburgh railyards. President Rutherford Hayes ordered federal troops to Pittsburgh to
end mob violence. When they arrived, the fighting had already ended. In the smoking ruins, they
found the wrecks of more than 2,000 railroad cars. Dozens of buildings lay in ashes.
Many strikers were sent to jail and others lost their jobs. A large part of the public was shocked by
the violence in Pittsburgh and other cities. Some people were convinced that miners, railroad
workers and other laborers were common criminals. Legislatures in many states passed new
conspiracy laws aimed at suppressing labor. But the Great Railway Strike of 1877 helped the
workers in some ways. A few railroads took back the wage cuts they had ordered. More important
was the support given to the strike by miners, iron workers and others. It gave labor an awareness
of its strength and solidarity.
KNIGHTS OF LABOR
The Railway Strike led many workers to join a growing national labor organization. It had a grand
name–the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor. It was founded in 1869 by a small group
of Philadelphia clothing workers. Their union had been unable to organize effectively. The reason,
they believed, was that its members were too well-known. Employers fired them and then put their
names on a “blacklist.” Other employers would not hire anyone whose name appeared on the list.
The garment workers came to two conclusions:
Secrecy was needed to protect union members against employer spies.
Labor organizations would fail if they were divided into separate craft unions. Instead, labor should
be organized in one big union of both skilled and unskilled workers.
Membership in the Knights of Labor was open to wage earners over 18 years of age regardless of
race, sex or skill. New members had to take an oath of secrecy. They swore that they would
never reveal the name of the order or the names of its members.
The program of the Knights of Labor called for: an eight-hour working day, laws establishing a
minimum weekly wage, the use of arbitration rather than strikes to settle disputes, laws to protect
the health and safety of industrial workers, equal pay for equal work, an end to child labor under
14 years of age and government ownership of railroads, telegraphs and telephones.
It was impossible for the Knights to operate in complete secrecy. Rumors of their activities
reached the press. Newspaper stories usually exaggerated the strength of the order. Under
pressure from public opinion, the Knights began to operate openly. But they were still forbidden
to reveal the name of any member to an employer.
Membership in the Knights increased slowly. By 1884, the order had only 52,000 members. But
that year workers led by Knights of Labor organizers went on strike against two big railroad
companies. Both strikes ended in complete victories for the Knights. Now workers everywhere
rushed to join the order. Within two years membership in the Knights rose to 150,000. Newspapers
warned their readers about the power of the Knights. One of them said, “Their leaders can shut
most of the mills and factories, and disable the railroads.” Many people associated the order with
Later railroad strikes by the Knights met with defeat. The order was not nearly as powerful as it
had seemed. Workers began to leave it in great numbers. Within 10 years of its greatest victories,
the Knights of Labor collapsed.