Early Strikes of the American Labor Movement Essay

This essay has a total of 3674 words and 19 pages.


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 tried and succeeded in dominating
every aspect of its workers’ lives. The company owned land, plants, houses,
tenements, hotel, stores, bank, school, library, church, water and gas systems. “As
employer, George Pullman determined wages, as landlord he fixed rents, as banker he
collected savings,” (Meltzer 150).

George Pullman knew how to make a profit. He made his business highly profitable, and was
running his town the same way. The town obtained its water from Chicago for four cents,
but Pullman charged his workers ten. As for the gas he paid 33 cents for, he charged his
workers $2.55. One worker said, “We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the
Pullman shop, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman church, and when we
die we shall be buried in the Pullman cemetery and go to Pullman hell,” (Meltzer
151). Pullman managed to keep business good, even in the depression of 1893. In that
year, he managed to earn a surplus of $4 million. He managed that by cutting wages 25 to
40 per cent while keeping rents and prices the same.

In the first winter of the depression, every single Pullman worker was in debt. They felt
they had taken all they could. The new American Railway Union, recently organized by
Eugene V. Debs, was encouraging the workers to join them. The fact that Pullman ran a
small railroad made the eligible. They managed to have secret meeting in adjacent town to
avoid company spies. A year and a half after the start of the depression a committee was
organized and sent to the company to ask that their wages be restored. The company
claimed that they had lost a lot of money and were only keeping the plant going to give
the men work. The men reluctantly returned to work assured by the company that that no
member of the committee would be fired. The next day, three members of the committee were
laid off.

Turning to Debs for help, the of the American Railway Union in the company declared a
strike. Pullman shut down the whole plant. His plan was to wait until the workers and
their families starved, driving them back to work. In a few short weeks the
workers’ families were starving. Debs tried repeatedly to settle the dispute. The
company remained was not interested. The American Railway Union decided to boycott
Pullman cars, refusing to handle them anywhere.

On the first day of the boycott, switchmen detached all Pullman cars from the trains.
They were all fired immediately. That act provoked other members of the American Railway
Union to walk off the job in protest. The boycott evolved into a strike. By the second
day 40,000 people refused to work. By the forth, 125,000. “Soon, nearly every
train in the country was dead on its tracks,” (Meltzer 155). It was already deemed
the most effective strike on this scale the country had ever seen. The union had grown in
importance so that a strike against one company, the Pullman Company for example,
escalated into an industry-wide strike.

The General Managers Association, a semi-secret organization representing twenty-four of
the nation’s biggest railroads, came to Pullman’s aid. Though the Association
Continues for 10 more pages >>




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