The rise of large industry in the decades after the Civil
War yielded a rapidly growing population of wage workers in America.
Unlike farmers or craftsmen, who administered their own economic affairs in
the marketplace, these workers simply sold their labor for wages. Many held
special skills and enjoyed strong bargaining positions in their search for
higher pay, but the accelerating pace of technological change allowed
employers to reduce many production processes' reliance upon skilled labor.
Workers in this period faced a bevy of challenges and
potential threats. Many employers pressed their advantage by requiring
their employees to receive pay in company scrip rather than United
States currency or bank notes. This
scrip could only be redeemed at company stores, which often charged
considerably more than shops on the open market. Others required workers to
live in company housing. Many workers labored ten or more hours per day,
six days per week. Unsafe machines presented a threat to workers' health
and safety, but courts consistently ruled that a worker accepted the risks
of any job he accepted.
Organized workers had responded to the rise of national
business concerns like railroads by replacing their locally oriented groups
with new national craft unions. But in the early 1870s such groups still
represented fewer than five percent of all non-farm workers in America.
Many migrants from rural America
and immigrants from overseas took these unskilled positions, and naturally
came to resent employers' increasingly aggressive labor management
practices. Craft unions devoted to speaking for skilled tradesmen did
nothing for these workers, and by 1877 represented only one percent of
non-farm labor. As unskilled workers enjoyed less leverage in the
marketplace for labor, they found themselves increasingly unable to resist
employers' wage cuts and other demands.
Lacking real influence in either of the major political
parties, workers often resorted to work stoppages and even violence in
their attempts to win higher pay and better working conditions. When, in
the midst of the 1870s' severe depression the Baltimore
and Ohio Railroad cut wages by ten percent, workers refused to accept the
policy. Workers along the road stopped trains. Violence spread eastward
from Baltimore as workers and
sympathetic mobs destroyed railroad property in Pittsburgh,
Chicago and East
St. Louis. 2
Miners also began strikes in the Illinois
coalfields. Like railroads, mining companies sought to cut their expenses
in hard times and repeatedly cut miners' pay. Miners labored twelve to
fourteen hours a day, six hours a week, in hazardous conditions. Most were
paid in company scrip. In winter miners did not see daylight from one
Sunday to the next. Those who protested were fired and blacklisted.
At Braidwood, coal operators brought in 400 African-American
strikebreakers to replace striking miners. When strikers forced their
replacements to leave town, the National Guard reinstated them, and
eventually broke the strike. In the summer of 1877 the National Guard put
down other disturbances in Peoria,
East St. Louis, and LaSalle. In
Chicago the mayor enlisted five
thousand armed vigilantes, and police put down rioters, killing thirty and
wounding many more.
The Great Strike of 1877 convinced many employers, for the
time being, that wage cuts had reached their rock bottom. As prosperity
eventually returned to the American economy, labor troubles temporarily
receded from the national agenda. But workers continued to organize. In Chicago,
new mayor Carter Harrison reorganized the police department and produced a
force more sympathetic to workers' concerns. Vocal groups of workers
organized as socialists and anarchists, grounding their causes in
sophisticated analyses of class relations and the dynamics of industrial
The rise of the Knights of Labor, a national organization
welcoming all workers, marked a major change in labor organization as well.
Founded in 1869, The Knights were a secret organization founded in Philadelphia.
They had spread through Pennsylvania coal fields during the 1870s, largely
on their appeal as an inclusive union not restricted to the members of
The Knights first emerged in Chicago in 1877, when the
city's craftsmen and unions had largely disappeared during unskilled
workers' violent clashes with soldiers and police. The Knights' vision of
an inclusive union stood in sharp contrast, and offered the large numbers
of unskilled laborers (required by industrial economy) with an organization
of their own. Bringing together workers from diverse industries, Knights of
Labor organizers encouraged them to think of themselves as members of a
single working class. 3
In Chicago the Knights led workers to take up nonviolent
boycotts as a means to achieve their goals in public life. The boycott had
begun in Ireland, and the Knights' Irish-American leaders adapted it to
American conditions. In 1881 labor leaders organized a boycott of a west
side streetcar line after its leaders rejected workers' request for a pay
increase. The public, fed up with the streetcar line's inefficient service,
supported the strikers and forced the company to grant the workers'
The Knights of Labor stepped into the vacuum caused by the
decline of Chicago's socialists, who had enjoyed a brief electoral success,
and used the boycott to bring striking workers large community support.
These methods promised workers a way to compel their employers to negotiate
without violence, bloodshed, or wide public condemnation. Like the socialists,
the Knights provided workers with social and cultural activities, and also
maintained a city labor bureau matching workers to available jobs. 5
However, a flood of new members strained the Knights'
internal organization and leadership, and compromised their effectiveness.
As the new members agitated for higher wages, the Knights often failed to
deliver their promised benefits. By 1882 however, Chicago employers had
identified the Knights as a formidable adversary and began a stiff
opposition to the new boycotts. When local tanners went out on an
ill-advised strike, they compromised the Knights' devotion to organization
and arbitration over work stoppages. When they gave in to united employers,
the tanners ushered in non-union shops where union men had once worked. 6
While Chicago labor unions flourished under the protection
of a sympathetic city administration, downstate workers faced more
difficult conditions. Coal mining remained bitterly hard, dangerous work.
In 1883 state militia broke a miners' strike in Collinsville. Not content
to merely put down the work stoppage, the soldiers pursued fleeing strikers
across the county line, arresting twenty and killing one.
Not all Chicago workers accepted the Knights of Labor's
optimistic vision of progress. In the 1880s anarchists, outraged at
governments' long-standing record of intervening in labor disputes on the
side of employers, rejected the notion of peaceful negotiation. Many found
the notion of using violence to overthrow the oppressive system of
employers and government fascinating. While the city's police department
had come to tolerate and even tacitly support some workers' strikes, they
regularly broke up anarchists' meetings and alienated the largely immigrant
The Chicago anarchists had done nothing but present their
arguments in print, however, when the Chicago police broke up a peaceful
meeting at Chicago's Haymarket on May 4, 1886. As the police moved forward,
an unknown individual tossed a dynamite bomb into their ranks, killing four
officers. The police opened fire upon the assembled crowd, killing at least
four civilians and wounding many more.
Law enforcement officials quickly rounded up anarchists who
had published their inflammatory opinions and organized the meeting. In a
widely publicized trial, nine men were sentenced to death for the murder of
a police officer, and four were hanged. Six years later, Illinois Governor
John P. Altgeld pardoned the remaining defendants, ruling that the trial
had violated their constitutional rights. 7
By the late 1880s the railroad baron Jay Gould had broken
the Knights of Labor in an ill-fated strike against his southwestern lines.
But the railroads gave rise to Chicago's next great labor uprising in the
Pullman Strike of 1894. Again a major depression wracked the American
economy, and railroads demanded wage cuts. George Pullman had made a
fortune by building his celebrated, luxurious sleeper cars for passenger lines,
and he also demanded that his workers accept lower wages. Pullman had built
a well-known industrial community south of Chicago, in which he provided
his workers with a full slate of cultural and recreational activities. But
Pullman demanded that all of his workers live in his town, barred them from
owning their own homes or governing themselves, and charged rents 25%
higher than those paid nearby. 8
When Pullman slashed wages, he declined to reduce his
workers' rents. They responded by going out on strike. Despite the fact
that few Pullman workers belonged to the organization, the American Railway
Union supported the strikers by refusing to handle the ubiquitous Pullman
cars on the nation's rails. Federal officials leaped to squash the strike
with a court injunction and regular Army troops, and imprisoned ARU
president Eugene Debs for his role in the strike. 9
In the election of 1896 many urban workers rejected William Jennings
Bryan's case for an expanded currency and other government intervention on
behalf of farmers and workers. Many labor organizers charged that employers
had threatened their workers, and that they would be dismissed if Bryan
won the election. Other workers believed that Bryan's call for an inflated
currency might jeopardize their savings. 10
The victorious William McKinley espoused a familiar
Republican policy that encouraged employers to take up welfare work like Pullman's
on their employees' behalf. During his tenure aggressive industrialists and
financiers reorganized large sectors of the American economy by building
consolidated groups of companies, known as "trusts," that slowed
the pace of price competition and secured more stable profits. Many trusts
came to accept a limited role for labor unions and took up welfare
capitalism, but they also continued to emphasize new productive processes
and managerial techniques that consistently eroded workers' position at the
bargaining table. 11
1. Montgomery, David. The Fall of the House of Labor.
New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
2. Bruce, Robert V. 1877: Year of Violence.
Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1970.
3. Schneirov, Richard. Labor and Urban Politics: Class
Conflict and the Origins of Modern Liberalism in Chicago, 1864-97.
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.
4. See Schneirov.
5. See Schneirov.
6. See Schneirov.
7. See Carl Smith. "The Dramas of Haymarket" at http://www.chicagohs.org/dramas/.
8. Schneirov, Richard, Shelton Stromquist and Nick
Salvatore, eds. The Pullman Strike and the Crisis of the 1890s: Essays
on Labor and Politics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999;
Salvatore, Nick. Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist. Urbana:
University of Illinois Press, 1982.
9. See Salvatore.
10. See "1896: Chronology of a Campaign"
11. Lamoreaux, Naomi. The Great Merger Movement in
American Business, 1895-1904. New York: Cambridge University Press,