American Labor on the Rise



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American Labor on the Rise


American workers had begun organizing into unions following the Civil War, and by the 1880s many thousands were organized into unions, most notably the Knights of Labor.

In the spring of 1886 workers struck at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in Chicago, the factory that made farm equipment including the famous McCormick Reaper. The workers on strike demanded an eight-hour workday, at a time when 60-hour work weeks were common. The company locked out the workers and hired strikebreakers, a common practice at the time.

On May 1, 1886, a large May Day parade was held in Chicago, and two days later, a protest outside the McCormick plant resulted in a person being killed.

Protest Against Police Brutality


A mass meeting was called to take place on May 4, to protest what was seen as brutality by the police. The location for the meeting was to be Haymarket Square in Chicago, an open area used for public markets.

At the May 4th meeting a number of radical and anarchist speakers addressed a crowd of approximately 1,500 people. The meeting was peaceful, but the mood became confrontational when the police tried to disperse the crowd.


The Haymarket Bombing


As scuffles broke out, a powerful bomb was thrown. Witnesses later described the bomb, which was trailing smoke, sailing above the crowd in a high trajectory. The bomb landed and exploded, unleashing shrapnel.

The police drew their weapons and fired into the panicking crowd. According to newspaper accounts, policemen fired their revolvers for a full two minutes.

Seven policemen were killed, and it’s likely that most of them died from police bullets fired in the chaos, not from the bomb itself. Four civilians were also killed. More than 100 persons were injured.

Labor Unionists and Anarchists Blamed


Public outcry was enormous. Press coverage contributed to a mood of hysteria. Two weeks later, the cover of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Magazine, one of the most popular publications in the US, featured an illustration of the "bomb thrown by anarchists" cutting down police and a drawing of a priest giving the last rites to a wounded officer in a nearby police station.

The rioting was blamed on the labor movement, specifically on the Knights of Labor, the largest labor union in the United States at the time. Widely discredited, fairly or not, the Knights of Labor never recovered.

Newspapers throughout the US denounced “anarchists,” and advocated hanging those responsible for the Haymarket Riot. A number of arrests were made, and charges were brought against eight men.

Trial and Executions of the Anarchists


The trial of the anarchists in Chicago was a spectacle lasting for much of the summer, from late June to late August of 1886. There have always been questions about the fairness of the trial and the reliability of the evidence. Some of the evidence presented did consist of early forensic work on bomb building. And while it was never established in court who had built the bomb, all eight defendants were convicted of inciting the riot. Seven of them were sentenced to death.

One of the condemned men killed himself in prison, and four others were hanged on November 11, 1887. Two of the men had their death sentences commuted to life in prison by the governor of Illinois.


Haymarket Riot a Setback for American Labor


It was never officially determined who threw the bomb in Haymarket Square, but that didn't matter at the time. Critics of the American labor movement pounced on the incident, using it to discredit unions by linking them to radicals and violent anarchists.

The Haymarket Riot resonated in American life for years, and there is no doubt it set back the labor movement. The Knights of Labor had its influence plummet, and its membership dwindled.

At the end of 1886, at the height of the public hysteria following the Haymarket Riot, a new labor organization, the American Federation of Labor was formed. And the A.F.L. eventually rose to the forefront of the American labor movement.

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Pullman strike

The Pullman Strike of 1894 was a milestone in American labor history, as the widespread strike by workers was put down by the federal government.

President Grover Cleveland ordered federal troops to crush the strike and dozens were killed in violent clashes.

The strike was an intensely bitter battle between workers and company management, as well as between two major characters, George Pullman, owner of company making railroad passenger cars, and Eugene V. Debs, leader of the American Railway Union.

The significance of the Pullman Strike was enormous. The strike affected much of the country, and it had great influence on public opinion on the rights of workers, the role of management, and the role of government in mediating labor unrest.

George M. Pullman, Businessman and Inventor of the Pullman Car


George M. Pullman was born in 1831 in upstate New York, the son of a carpenter. He learned carpentry himself, and moved to Chicago, Illinois in the late 1850s. During theCivil War he began building a new kind of railroad passenger car, which had berths for passengers to sleep.

Pullman's cars became popular with the railroads, and in 1867 he formed the Pullman Palace Car Company.


Pullman's Idea for a Planned Community for Workers


In the early 1880s, as his company prospered and his factories grew, George Pullman began planning a town to house his workers. The community of Pullman, Illinois, was created according to his vision on the prairie on the outskirts of Chicago.

In the new town of Pullman, a grid of streets surrounded the factory. There were row houses for workers, and foremen and engineers lived in larger houses. The town also had banks, a hotel, and a church. All were owned by Pullman's company.

A theater in the town put on plays, but they had to be productions that met moral standards set by George Pullman.

The emphasis on morality was pervasive, as Pullman wanted to create an environment vastly different from the rough urban neighborhoods that he viewed as a major problem in America's rapidly industrializing society.

Saloons, dance halls, and other establishments that would have been frequented by working class Americans of the time were not allowed within the city limits of Pullman. And it was widely believed that company spies kept a watchful eye on the workers during their hours off the job.

Pullman Cut Wages While Not Reducing Rents Paid By Workers


George Pullman's vision of a paternalistic community organized around a factory fascinated the American public for a time. And when Chicago hosted the Columbian Exposition, the World's Fair of 1893, international visitors flocked to see the model town created by Pullman.

Things changed dramatically with the Panic of 1893, a severe financial depression that affected the American economy. Pullman cut the wages of workers by one-third, but he refused to lower the rents in the company housing.

In response, the American Railway Union, the largest American union at the time, with 150,000 members, took action. The local branches of the union called for a strike at the Pullman Palace Car Company complex.

The Pullman Strike Spread Nationwide


Outraged by the strike at his factory, Pullman closed the plant, determined to wait out the workers. The A.R.U. members called on the national membership to get involved. The union's national convention voted to refuse to work on any train in the country that had a Pullman car, which brought the nation's passenger rail service to a standstill.

The American Railway Union managed to get about 260,000 workers nationwide to join in the boycott. And the leader of the A.R.U., Eugene V. Debs, was at times portrayed in the press as a dangerous radical leading an insurrection against the American way of life.


The U.S. Government Crushed the Pullman Strike


The U.S. attorney general, Richard Olney, became determined to crush the strike. On July 2, 1894 the federal government got an injunction in federal court which ordered an end to the strike.

President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops to Chicago to enforce the court ruling. When they arrived on July 4, 1894, riots broke out in Chicago and 26 civilians were killed. A railroad yard was burned.

On July 10, 1894 Eugene V. Debs was arrested. He was charged with violating the court injunction, and was eventually sentenced to six months in federal prison. While in prison, Debs read the works of Karl Marx and became a committed radical, which he had not been previously.

Significance of the 1894 Pullman Strike


The use of federal troops to put down a strike was a milestone, as was the use of the federal courts to curtail union activity. In the 1890s the threat of more violence inhibited union activity, and companies and government entities relied on the courts to suppress strikes.

As for George Pullman, the strike and the violent reaction to it forever diminished his reputation. He died of a heart attack on October 18, 1897.

He was buried in a Chicago cemetery, and tons of concrete were poured over his grave. Public opinion had turned against him to such a degree that it was believed Chicago residents might desecrate his body.

homestead strikers took pinkertons prisoner - getty images
The Homestead Strike, a work stoppage at Carnegie Steel's plant at Homestead, Pennsylvania, turned into one of the most violent episodes in the American labor struggles of the late 1800s.
A planned occupation of the plant turned into a bloody confrontation when hundreds of men from the Pinkerton Detective Agency exchanged gunfire with workers and townspeople along the banks of the Monongahela River.

The battle on July 6, 1892 ended with a truce, but the state militia arrived a week later to settle things in favor of the company.

And two weeks later an anarchist outraged by the behavior of Henry Clay Frick, the vehemently anti-labor manager of Carnegie Steel, tried to assassinate Frick in his office. Though shot twice, Frick survived.

Other labor organizations had rallied to the defense of the union at Homestead, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. And for a time public opinion seemed to side with the workers.

But the attempted assassination of Frick, and the involvement of a known anarchist, was used to discredit the labor movement. In the end, the management of Carnegie Steel won.

Background of the Homestead Plant Labor Problems


In 1883 Andrew Carnegie bought the Homestead Works, a steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, east of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela River. The plant, which had been focused on producing steel rails for railroads, was changed and modernized under Carnegie's ownership to produce steel plate, which could be used for production of armored ships.

Carnegie, known for uncanny business foresight, had become one of the richest men in America, surpassing the wealth of earlier millionaires such as John Jacob Astor andCornelius Vanderbilt.

Under Carnegie's direction, the Homestead plant kept expanding, and the town of Homestead, which had about 2,000 residents in 1880, when the plant first opened, grew to a population of about 12,000 in 1892. About 4,000 workers were employed at the steel plant.

The union representing workers at the Homestead plant, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, had signed a contract with Carnegie's company in 1889. The contract was set to expire on July 1, 1892.

Carnegie, and especially his business partner Henry Clay Frick, wanted to break the union. There has always been considerable dispute about how much Carnegie knew of the ruthless tactics Frick planned to employ.

At the time of the 1892 strike, Carnegie was at a luxurious estate he owned in Scotland. But it seems, based on letters the men exchanged, that Carnegie was fully aware of Frick's tactics.


The Beginning of the Homestead Strike


In 1891 Carnegie began to think about reducing wages at the Homestead plant, and when his company held meetings with the Amalgamated union in the spring of 1892 the company informed the union that it would be cutting wages at the plant.

Carnegie also wrote a letter, before he left for Scotland in April 1892, which indicated that he intended to make Homestead a non-union plant.

In late May, Henry Clay Frick instructed the company negotiators to inform the union that wages were being reduced. The union would not accept the proposal, which the company said was non-negotiable.

In late June 1892, Frick had public notices posted in the town of Homestead informing union members that since the union had rejected the company's offer, the company would have nothing to do with the union.

And to further provoke the union, Frick began construction of what was being called "Fort Frick." Tall fences were constructed around the plant, topped with barbed wire. The intent of the barricades and barbed wire was obvious: Frick intended to lock out the union and bring in "scabs," non-union workers.

The Pinkertons Attempted to Invade Homestead


On the night of July 5, 1892, approximately 300 Pinkerton agents arrived in western Pennsylvania by train and boarded two barges which had been stocked with hundreds of pistols and rifles as well as uniforms. The barges were towed on the Monongahela River to Homestead, where Frick assumed the Pinkertons could land undetected in the middle of the night.

Lookouts saw the barges coming and alerted the workers in Homestead, who raced to the riverbank. When the Pinkertons tried to land at dawn, hundreds of townspeople, some of them armed with weapons dating back to the Civil War, were waiting.

It was never determined who fired the first shot, but a gun battle broke out. Men were killed and wounded on both sides, and the Pinkertons were pinned down on the barges, with no escape possible.

Throughout the day of July 6, 1892, townspeople of Homestead tried to attack the barges, even pumping oil into the river in an attempt to set fires atop the water. Finally, late in the afternoon, some of the union leaders convinced the townspeople to let the Pinkertons surrender.

As the Pinkertons left the barges to walk to a local opera house, where they would be held until the local sheriff could come and arrest them, townspeople threw bricks at them. Some Pinkertons were beaten.

The sheriff arrived that night and removed the Pinkertons, though none of them were arrested or indicted for murder, as the townspeople had demanded.

Newspapers had been covering the crisis for weeks, but the news of the violence created a sensation when it moved quickly across the telegraph wires. Newspaper editions were rushed out with startling accounts of the confrontation. The New York Evening Worldpublished a special extra edition with the headline: "AT WAR: Pinkertons and Workers Fight at Homestead."

Six steelworkers had been killed in the fighting, and would be buried in the following days. As the people in Homestead held funerals, Henry Clay Frick, in a newspaper interview, announced that he would have no dealings with the union.


Henry Clay Frick Was Shot


A month later, Henry Clay Frick was in his office in Pittsburgh and a young man came to see him, claiming to represent an agency that could supply replacement workers.

The visitor to Frick was actually a Russian anarchist, Alexander Berkman, who had been living in New York City and who had no connection to the union. Berkman forced his way into Frick's office and shot him twice, nearly killing him.

Frick survived the assassination attempt, but the incident was used to discredit the union and the American labor movement in general. The incident became a milestone in U.S. labor history, along with the Haymarket Riot and the 1894 Pullman Strike.

Carnegie Succeeded in Keeping the Union Out of His Plants


The Pennsylvania militia (similar to today's National Guard) took over the Homestead Plant and non-union strikebreakers were brought in to work. Eventually, with the union broken, many of the original workers returned to the plant.

Leaders of the union were prosecuted, but juries in western Pennsylvania failed to convict them.

While the violence had been happening in western Pennsylvania, Andrew Carnegie had been off in Scotland, avoiding the press at his estate. Carnegie would later claim that he had little to do with the violence at Homestead, but his claims were met with skepticism, and his reputation as a fair employer and philanthropist was greatly tarnished.

And Carnegie did succeed in keeping unions out of his plants.


depiction of the beginning of the 1877 great railroad strike - ann ronan pictures/print collector/getty images
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 began with a work stoppage by railroad employees in West Virginia who were protesting a reduction in their wages. And that seemingly isolated incident quickly turned into a national movement.

Railroad workers walked off the job in other states and seriously disrupted commerce in the East and Midwest. The strikes were ended within a few weeks, but not before major incidents of vandalism and violence.

The Great Strike marked the first time the federal government called out troops to quell a labor dispute. In messages sent to President Rutherford B. Hayes, local officials referred to what was happening as “an insurrection.”
The violent incidents were the worst civil disturbances since the New York Draft Riotswhich had brought some of the violence of the Civil War into the streets of New York City 14 years earlier.

One legacy of the labor unrest in the summer of 1877 still exists in the form of landmark buildings in some American cities. The trend of building immense fortress-like armories was inspired by the battles between striking railroad workers and soldiers.


Beginning of the Great Strike


The strike began in Martinsburg, West Virginia, on July 16, 1877, after workers of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad were informed that their pay would be cut 10 percent. Workers grumbled about the loss of income in small groups, and by the end of the day railroad firemen began walking off the job.

Steam locomotives could not run without the firemen, and dozens of trains were idled. By the next day it was apparent that the railroad was essentially shut down and the governor of West Virginia began to ask for federal help to break the strike.

Approximately 400 troops were dispatched to Martinsburg, where they scattered protesters by brandishing bayonets. Some soldiers managed to drive some of the trains, but the strike was far from over. In fact, it began to spread.

As the strike was starting in West Virginia, workers for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had begun walking off the job in Baltimore, Maryland.

On July 17, 1877, news of the strike was already the lead story in New York City newspapers. The New York Times coverage, on its front page, included the dismissive headline: "Foolish Firemen and Brakemen on the Baltimore and Ohio Road Cause of the Trouble."

The position of the newspaper was that lower wages and adjustments in working conditions were necessary. The country was, at the time, still stuck in an economic depression which had been triggered originally by the Panic of 1873.


Violence Spread


Within days, on July 19, 1877, workers on another line, the Pennsylvania Railroad, struck in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. With the local militia sympathetic to the strikers, 600 federal troops from Philadelphia were sent to break up protests.

The troops arrived in Pittsburgh, faced off with local residents, and ultimately fired into crowds of protesters, killing 26 and wounding many more. The crowd erupted in a frenzy, and trains and buildings were burned.

Summing it up a few days later, on July 23, 1877, the New York Tribune, one of the nation's most influential newspapers, headlined a front-page story "The Labor War." The account of the fighting in Pittsburgh was chilling, as it described federal troops unleashing volleys of rifle fire at civilian crowds.

The New York Tribune reported:



"The mob then began a career of destruction, in which they robbed and burned all the cars, depots, and buildings of the Pennsylvania Railroad for three miles, destroying millions of dollars worth of property. The number of killed and wounded during the fighting is not known, but it is believed to be in the hundreds."

End of the Strike


President Hayes, receiving pleas from several governors, began moving troops from forts on the East Coast toward railroad towns such as Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Over the course of about two weeks the strikes were ended and workers returned to their jobs.

During the Great Strike it was estimated that 10,000 workers had walked off their jobs. About a hundred strikers had been killed. 

In the immediate aftermath of the strike the railroads began to forbid union activity. Spies were used to ferret out union organizers so they could be fired. And workers were forced to sign "yellow dog" contracts that disallowed joining a union.

And in the nation's cities a trend developed of building enormous armories that could serve as fortresses during periods of urban fighting. Some massive armories from that period still stand, often restored as civic landmarks.



The Great Strike was, at the time, a setback for workers. But the awareness it brought to American labor problems resonated for years. And the work stoppages and fighting in the summer of 1877 would be a major event in the history of American labor.


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