Labor in america Essay

This essay has a total of 5183 words and 17 pages.

labor in america



LABOR IN AMERICA
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 pay. 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 one room. 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. CONSPIRACY LAWS 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. UNION STRUGGLES 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 dangerous radicals. 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. "BREAD AND BUTTER" UNIONISM As the Knights
declined, a new labor organization began to challenge it for supremacy. This was the
American Federation of Labor (AFL). It was formed in 1886 by Samuel Gompers, a leader of
the Cigarmakers' Union. Gompers believed that craft unions of skilled workers were the
best kind. Unskilled workers were easily replaced when they went on strike. Craft workers
could not be replaced easily. Gompers had no use for the Knights of Labor, which combined
all workers in one big union. The American Federation of Labor began with a core of six
craft unions. They were cigarmakers, carpenters, printers, iron molders, steel molders and
glassmakers. The new organization was not an immediate success. For 10 years, the AFL and
the Knights battled each other. They invaded each other's territory, encouraged revolts
and welcomed each other's members into their own ranks. They even supplied strikebreakers
against each other. But the tide was running against the Knights. The AFL, led by Gompers,
grew steadily in size and power. By 1904, it had 1.75 million members and was the nation's
dominant labor organization. At this time, many workers in Europe were joining
revolutionary labor movements which advocated the abolition of capitalism and the
establishment of a new socialist economic system. Most American workers, however, followed
the lead of Gompers, with his highly pragmatic approach to problems of labor. They strove
to organize strong unions so that they could demand a greater share in the wealth that
they helped to produce. They were not interested in destroying the economic structure of
the country but in making it work more effectively for their benefit. Gompers believed
that unions should be primarily concerned with the day-to-day welfare of their members and
should not become involved in politics. He also was convinced that socialism would not
succeed in the United States but that practical demands for higher wages and fewer working
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