Organized Labor from 1875-1900

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The movement in organized labor from 1875 to 1900 to improve the position of workers was unsuccessful because of the inherent weaknesses of unions and the failures of their strikes, the negative public attitudes toward organized labor, widespread government corruption, and the tendency of government to side with big business. After the Civil there was a push to industrialize quickly, and the rushed industrialization was at the expense of the workers as it led to bigger profits for big business and atrocious working conditions for them; conditions that included long working hours, extremely low wages, and the exploitation of children and immigrants.

In an effort to organize themselves to better their situation, laborers created unions that ultimately proved to be largely ineffective. Among the first to be organized was the Knights of Labor, which was open to all workers, even women. The Knights were poorly organized and lacked a central direction, so it was unsurprising when it declined and then, after a failed strike against Gould railroad, disappeared altogether. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) appeared even before the Knights began to decline and became the most important and enduring labor group in the country. It differed from the Knights in that it rejected the idea of one big union for everyone and embraced instead the idea of an association of essentially autonomous craft unions. It also differed in that it represented mainly skilled workers and was generally hostile to the idea of women entering the work force. The AFL supported the immediate objectives of most workers: better wages, hours, and working conditions. It hoped to attain its goals by collective bargaining, but was willing to use strikes if necessary. This willingness to strike resulted in the AFL being associated with radicalism and anarchism, an association that turned public sentiment against it, and doomed the organization to be widely ineffectual. Militant labor organizations like the "Molly Maguires," helped feed the belief that unions were dangerous and better left unformed.

The tactic of striking was an important technique that unions used to pressure companies into giving in to their demands. Unfortunately, strikes often turned the public against wanting to improve the position of workers. The Railroad Strike of 1877, America's first major labor conflict, was one such strike. It began when the eastern railroads announced a ten percent wage cut and workers responded by going on strike. The enraged strikers disrupted rail service from Baltimore to St. Louis, destroyed equipment, and rioted in city streets. State militias were called out to suppress the disorders and they did so by opening fire on the workers in several cities, killing over 100 people before the strike ended. The Railroad Strike of 1877 was indicative of many things; including the fact that disputes between workers and employers could no longer be localized in the increasingly national economy, the depth of resentment among many American workers toward their employers (and the government allied with them), the lengths they were willing to go to express that resentment, and the frailty of the labor movement. Rather than winning their ten percent wage cut back, the strike served to seriously weaken the railroad unions and damaged the reputations of labor organizations in other industries as well.

The Homestead Strike was another strike that turned bitterly violent. The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steelworkers was the most powerful trade union in the country, but in the Carnegie system (which was coming to dominate the steel industry) the union had a foothold in only one of the corporation's three major factories –the Homestead Plant. Carnegie and his chief lieutenant, Henry Clay Frick, decided that union's single foothold was one foothold too many and took action to get rid of the Amalgamated. They repeatedly cut wages at the Homestead and...
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