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Failed Farm and Labor Organizations in the Late 19th Century

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Failed Farm and Labor Organizations in the Late 19th Century

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In the period of 1870-1900, labor unions and organizations were rarely successful in achieving their goals primarily because of problems with being able to organize large numbers of American Workers. The rare victories for labor were isolated incidents because there were no labor organizations on a national or even state-wide basis. The problems with organization arose because of five major factors - differences in union leadership, divisions between skilled and unskilled workers, ethnic and racial tensions, and employer, and government and public hostility.

The leader of the Knights of Labor, Terence Powderly, believed that the best means of organization was pooling a mass membership from unskilled and skilled workers. He stated, "The Knights of Labor extended the hand of fellowship to all mankind." Document A mentions the Haymarket riot in Chicago on May 4, 1886, but what it does not mention is that Albert Parson, a member of the Knights of Labor who was tried and hung for his involvement with the riot. This event linked the Knights of Labor to an unacceptable level of violence in the minds of the public. The American Public, feeling that the Knights of Labor did more harm than good, reacted with a feeling of mistrust. Reflecting the public's opinion is a sarcastic cartoon that appeared in Puck Magazine in 1886.

The divisions in skilled and unskilled workers also caused racial tensions. The different grouping of the AFL and Knights of Labor reflect the divisions between unskilled and skilled workers which contributed to the difficulty of organizing unions. Skilled workers, more valued because of their craft, had different interest and goals than unskilled laborers. These divisions were in part because skilled laborers tended to be native-born Americans or old immigrants whereas unskilled laborers tended to be from the poorer new immigrants or native blacks. Thus, divisions in skilled and unskilled labor related in part to religious, ethnic, and racial...