Labour unions, history of Essay

This essay has a total of 3227 words and 14 pages.

Labour unions, history of

In Lowell, Massachusetts, the construction of a big cotton mill started in 1821. It was
the first of many that would be built there in the next 10 years. The machinery to spin
and weave the cotton into cloth would be driven by waterpower. All that the factory owners
needed was a cheap source of labor to run the machines. Most jobs in cotton factories
did not require strength or special skills, the owners believed women could do the work as
well as or better than men. The New England region was home to many young, single farm
girls, but would New England farmers allow their daughters to work in factories? Many of
them would not. They believed that eventually factory workers would be taken advantage of
and would eventually wind up in poverty. Though the owners did succeed in attracting many
of them 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, and taught to read and to write.

The factory workers did not earn very much; the usual pay was around $3.50 a week. The
hours worked in the factories were long. Often, the girls worked 11 to 13 hours a day, six
days a week. Workers and businessmen would both profit 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 to around 30,000 in just 25 years. But eventually surroundings in
Lowell's factories had started to change. Faced with bigger competition, factory owners
started to lower wages in order to lower costs. They increased the number of machines that
each girl had to operate and began to overcrowd the houses in which the girls lived,
sometimes packing eight girls to one room. Factory conditions degraded, and unsafe working
conditions were everywhere.

In 1836, 1,500 factory girls went on strike to protest wage cuts. (The girls called this a
"turn out.") But it did not help. 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. i

In colonial America, most manufacturing was done by hand at home. Some was done in
workshops attached house. As the demand for manufactured goods increased, some workshop
owners began hiring helpers. Relations between the employer and helper were mostly good.
They worked side by side, had the same interests and held similar political views.

As the factory system grew, many specialized workers began to form guilds to protect their
interests. The first union in America 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 3. Members of a union
would agree on the wages that they thought were fair, they pledged to stop working for
employers who would not pay that amount. They also sought to force employers to hire only
union members.

Employers found the courts to be a good 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.

In 1842 the way opened again for workers to organize. That year union shoemakers in Boston
were charged with refusing to work with non-union shoemakers. A lower court judge found
the men guilty of conspiracy. But an appeal to a higher court resulted in a victory for
labor unions in general. Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw ruled that it was not illegal for
workers to engage peacefully in union activity. "It was their right to peaceably
assemble", he said.1

In the next twenty years, unions campaigned for a 10-hour working day, and also against
child labor (mostly because it would take away from their jobs). In 1851, for example, New
Jersey passed a law calling for a 10-hour working day in all factories. It also did not
allow the employment of children under 10 years old. ii

In the years after the Civil War, the United States was changed by the growth of industry.
Earlier the United States was mostly a nation of small farms. By 1900, it was a nation of
cities, coal and steel. Though living standards rose, millions of workers lived in
crowded, unsanitary tenements. Their conditions became desperate during depressions. Then
it was common for workers to go on strike and battle their employers.

Between 1865 and 1900, violence during strikes occurred on several occasions. Probably the
most violent conflict between workers and employers was the Great Railway Strike of 1877.
The country had been under a severe depression for four years. The railroads had decreased
the wages of railway workers by 20 percent. Many trainmen complained that they could not
support their families. There was little that they could do about the pay decreases.
During that time unions were weak and workers were afraid of going on strike; there were
too many unemployed men who might take their jobs. Though some workers secretly formed a
Trainmen's Union to oppose the railroads.

In 1877, four big railroads announced that they were going to decrease pay another 10
percent. Also, the Pennsylvania line ordered freight train conductors to handle twice as
many cars. On July 16, a strike began on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in West Virginia.
The strike spread to other lines. On July 19, Pennsylvania Railroad workers at Pittsburgh
refused to let freight trains move. (They let passenger trains move freely because they
carried United States mail.) The next day the governor sent state militiamen to remove the
strikers from the freight yard. But these militiamen were from Pittsburgh. They had many
friends and relatives with strikers. Soon they were conversing 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 moved toward the crowd and shooting started. In
the end, 20 people in the crowd died. Many more were wounded. News of the killings incited
rioting and fires in the Pittsburgh rail-yards. President Hayes ordered federal troops to
Pittsburgh to end the violence. When they arrived, the fighting had already ended. In the
ruins, they found the wrecks of more than 2,000 railroad cars and many of the buildings
lay in ashes.

Many strikers were sent to jail and others lost their jobs. Some people were convinced
that miners, railroad workers and other laborers were common criminals. Many states passed
new conspiracy laws to try and stop the unions. But the Great Railway Strike of 1877
helped the workers in some ways. A few railroads took back the pay cuts. More support was
given to the strike by miners, ironworkers and others. It gave labor an awareness of its
strength and solidarity.

The Railway Strike led many workers to join a new national labor organization-the Noble
and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor. Founded in 1869 by a small group of Philadelphia
clothing workers, their union had been unable to organize. 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. ii

Membership in the Knights of Labor was open to wage earners over 18 years of age no matter
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, laws to protect the health and safety of
workers, 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. Reports of their activities reached the press. Newspaper stories usually
exaggerated the strength of the group. Under pressure from the public, the Knights began
to work openly. But they were still not allowed to reveal the name of any member to an

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. As the Knights declined, a new
labor organization began to challenge it for supremacy. This was the American Federation
of Labor (AFL). Samuel Gompers, a leader of the Cigarmakers' Union, formed it in 1886.

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. The American Federation of Labor began with six craft unions. They were
cigarmakers, carpenters, printers, iron molders, steel molders and glassmakers. The new
group was not an immediate success. For 10 years, the AFL and the Knights fought each
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