It began to dawn on me that we girls needed an organization. We were helpless; no one girl dare stand up for anything alone

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7. Labor Unions

As a teenager, Rose Schneiderman found work in a cap factory. After three years, she later wrote, “It began to dawn on me that we girls needed an organization. We were helpless; no one girl dare stand up for anything alone.”

Workers like Schneiderman had been forming unions since the 1830s. These early organizations were labor unions. They organized workers in the same trade, or job, to fight for better wages and working conditions. Sometimes workers in these unions went out on strike, refusing to work until their employers agreed to meet their demands.

Knights of Labor In 1869, Uriah Stephens organized a new union known as the Knights of Labor. Stephens hoped to unite “men and women of every craft, creed, and color” into “one common brotherhood.” The Knights led several successful strikes against telegraph and railroad companies. With such victories, the union grew to over 700,000 members.

In 1886, nearly 200,000 workers went on strike nationwide to demand an eight-hour workday. During a rally at Haymarket Square in Chicago, someone threw a bomb at the police. The police shot back, injuring many workers. Four workers were sentenced to death for the bombing, even though no evidence tied them to the bomb.

Fearing more violence, employers fired anyone associated with the Knights. Membership dropped quickly, and the organization faded away.

American Federation of Labor As the number of Knights declined, a group of local trade unions formed the American Federation of Labor. Led by Samuel Gompers, the AFL tried to negotiate agreements with employers on such issues as wages.

Despite the AFL’s peaceful approach, many employers made their workers sign pledges not to join unions. They also fired union members and exchanged lists of such “troublemakers” with other employers. These “troublemakers” were typically not hired by other employers.

The Homestead Strike Some business owners used force to defeat unions. When workers struck at a Carnegie steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, Henry Clay Frick, Carnegie’s partner, refused to talk about their demands. Instead Frick made plans to reopen his plant with non-union workers. To protect these strikebreakers, he hired 300 armed guards.

When the guards arrived in Homestead, they faced an angry crowd of strikers. A battle broke out in which both guards and strikers died. Still, Frick went ahead with his plan. When the Homestead plant reopened with strikebreakers, the union collapsed in defeat.

Working Women Organize Such tactics kept many women from joining unions, but not Rose Schneiderman. Upset by pay cuts, Schneiderman organized the women in her factory as part of the National Board of United Cloth Hat and Cap Makers. 

The largest women’s union was the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), which represented women in clothing factories. In 1909, thousands of New York City garment workers walked off their jobs to protest poor working conditions and low pay. As the strike grew, so did public sympathy for the young women. The newspapers called this movement “The Uprising of the 20,000.”

The strike ended months later when employers agreed to a shorter workweek and better pay. They also ended fees for the use of factory equipment. The employers refused, however, to meet the workers’ demands for safety improvements. Most garment factories remained unsafe.
Answer the following questions

1. What tactics did labor unions employ to improve working conditions?

2. How successful were labor unions in improving working conditions? Cite examples

3. Why did the Knights of Labor decline in membership and eventually disappear altogether?

4. How did business (employers) try to keep unions from growing in size and being successful?

5. How successful were women at organizing and getting changes made?

5. What happened during the Homestead Strike?

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