Early Strikes Of The American Labor Movement EARLY STRIKES OF THE LABOR MOVEMENT In the mid-nineteenth century and early twentieth century, industry in America was growing at an alarming rate. This growth brought about basic changes in the way things were produced and in the lives of those who produced them. It was the Civil War that first started to change industrial landscape of the nation. “More than a million dollars a day were spent on weapons, ammunition, machinery, clothing, boots, shoes, [and] canned goods” (Meltzer, 3). The high demand for so many different items brought bigger, newer and more efficient factories.
The factories were producing cheaper products than the small, independent, hand-made specialists were. As a result of this industrialization a shoemaker, for example, no longer made the whole shoe. Instead the “new” shoemaker only made the heel, or shoelace. “Mass production left no place for the individual craftsman” (Meltzer, 4). The new assembly line organization had several side effects.
One was condition for the workers. Factories often provided inadequate housing which lead to bad living conditions. The working conditions were usually dirty, uncomfortable, and unsafe. By 1900 nearly one out of every five in the labor force was a woman. Conditions for women and children were often much worse.
“They [women] were used to hard work. In the home they put in 12 hours a day or more, cleaning, cooking, sewing, rearing children, and helping with the men’s chores as well,” (Foner, Women 8). Industry owners sent people to rural parts of the country to recruit women. They promised the women high wages, leisure hours, and silk dresses. Instead, the women worked 14 to 16 hours a day for an average wage of $1.56 a week.
They received no silk dresses. “Some of the hands never touch their money from month’s end to month’s end. Once in two weeks is payday. A woman had then worked 122 hours. The corporation furnishes her house.
There is rent to be paid; there are also the corporation stores from which she has been getting her food, coal .. and [other] cheap stuff on sale may tempt her to purchase..” (Meltzer, 21). Factory employers also cheated women, believing they were defenseless. Some employers did not pay them at all, or deducted a large part of their pay for “imperfect” work. An 1870 survey showed that 7,000 of the working women could only afford to live in cellars and 20,000 were near starvation. For children in the nineteenth century, idleness was considered a sin.
And the factory was a God sent protector against the evils into which idleness might lead children. In the 1830’s in Massachusetts, children in the factory worked 12 to 13 hours a day. In 1845, the mills in Lowell set hours for children from sunup to sunset. In New England two fifths of all workers were children. The Census of 1870 reported 700,000 children ages ten to fifteen at work.
By 1910, nearly 2 million children ages ten to fifteen were at work. In addition to the extremely high hours, the conditions children were forced to work in were atrocious. The factories were often dirty, unsanitary, cramped, dark, and unsafe. As difference in wealth between workers and owners increased, there was a greater need for the worker to be able to improve their circumstances. There were several key strikes through which the workers fought to improve conditions.
In this paper I will investigate the issues, events, and outcomes surrounding three important strikes. The Homestead Strike: 1891, Steel Industry, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Conditions in the steel mills were difficult, dangerous and wages were low. “Everywhere in the enormous sheds were pits gaping like the mouth of hell, and ovens emitting a terrible degree of heat, with grimy men filling and lining them. One man jumps down, works desperately for a few minutes, and is then pulled up exhausted. Another immediately takes his place; there is no hesitation,” (Meltzer, 137).
The accident rate in the steel mills of Pittsburgh was very high. In 1891 there was a total of 300 deaths and over 2,000 injuries. People died or were injured from explosions, burnings, asphyxiation, electric shocks, falls, crushing, etc. In 1889 the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers organized to seek higher wages and better conditions for steel workers. In that same year the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers achieved a three-year contract from Andrew Carnegie, the steel owner.
Nearing the end of the contract, the union began negotiations to renew it. In response to the workers union, Andrew Carnegie formed an association of manufacturers. Henry Clay Frick was a famous union buster, and had just finished dissolving a union in the coke fields when Carnegie gave him the position of being in charge at Homestead. Negotiations began in 1892. Steel prices had greatly increased and the union asked for a raise. Frick responded by cutting wages.
Negotiations continued and Frick started building high fences around the mill, cutting gun slits in it, and topping it with barbed wire. Soon after the men learned of his plan to smash the union, they were left with a proposition: settle on his terms in one month, or the company would stop dealing with the union. Angered by his inflexibility, the workers held a mock public hanging of Frick. Using this as an excuse, he shut down the mill, and locked the workers out two days before the end of the contract. Frick quickly hired as many scabs as he could and brought in 300 Pinkerton guards to get them through the picket line and protect the plant. What was to happen in the next thirteen hours is considered one of the bloodiest battles in American Labor history.
It started very early in the morning when some of the workers sighted two barges of Pinkertons a mile below Homestead. Ten thousand men, women, and children rushed to the riverbank. When the Pinkertons disembarked from the boats, they saw hordes of men holding carbines, rifles, shotguns, pistols, revolvers, clubs, and stones. The firing started when one of the ships began to lower their gangplank. When the plank reached shore, a striker lay down upon it to keep people from getting off. When a Pinkerton tried to kick him out of the way, the striker shot him in the thigh.
Almost immediately both side began firing at each other. The Pinkertons shot from the plank and top of the barge instantly shooting down thirty Homestead strikers. It is estimated that 20 Pinkertons and 40 strikers were shot. Finally, the Pinkertons surrendered, and march upon the shore, unarmed just to be severely beaten by the enraged wives of several of the workers. Instead, a few days later, 8,000 members of the Pennsylvania National Guard took over the town.
According to the commanding general, their aim was to restore law and order. They stayed for three months while the company continued to bring in more and more scabs. There were nearly 2,000 operating the steel mill. Though locked out, and holding firm for almost five months, the strikers gave in. The troops, scabs, costly court action, evictions from company houses, press attacks, and hunger forced the men to give in.
The unskilled workers, whose jobs were easily replaced, voted to return back to work. And a few days later, the union joined them. Frick’s response was simple, “This outbreak settles one matter forever, and that is that the Homestead mill hereafter will never again recognize the Amalgamated Association nor any other labor organization,” (Meltzer, 142). After the strike, life got even harder for the union. Frick stayed so he could watch the members of the union ask for their old jobs back. Almost all of them were denied.
The once indispensable skilled workers saw their places taken by new men, who were quickly trained. The mechanization of the mills also reduced the value of skilled labor. These union members had trouble finding jobs anywhere. The industry-wide blacklist kept the union men out of every steel mill. Within two years, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers lost half of its national membership. By 1910, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers had only one contract with a small company.
The 1892 defeat of Homestead meant a twelve-hour day, seven days a week for almost all the workers. Pinkerton spies were installed everywhere. Wages were slashed more than anyone had ever expected them to be, and grievance committees were done away with. Workers meetings were also banned. And working and living conditions sank lower than they had ever been before.
“As for Mr. Carnegie, he wired a friend in 1899, ‘Ashamed to tell you profits these days. Prodigious!’ In 1900 the company’s net worth was $40 million,” (Meltzer, 146). The Pullman Strike: 1894, Railroad Industry, Chicago, Illinois The Pullman Strike had many causes. Pullman workers lived in a company town described as, “bordered with bright beds of flowers, and green velvety stretches of lawn, shaded with trees, and dotted with parks and pretty water vistas,” (Meltzer 148). This, however, was not a complete truth. Though was a section of the town that included this.
The houses in it were designated only for the Pullman officials. There were ten large tenements designated for the workers. They were each three stories tall containing flats of two to four. Each building accommodated twelve to forty-eight families. Bathrooms were shared between two or more families, and there were water faucets for each group of five families.
The Pullman Corporation appointed all the town officials. The Pullman Journal backed all corporation policies. The company reserved the right to deny labor organizers and radical speakers rental or use of public halls. And, a spy system sought out any sign or word critical of the authorities. The Pullman Corporation …