Please Don’t Write On.
Please Return to Me.
The growth of American industrial might in the 1870s and 1880s was paralleled by the emergence of unions representing the workers. Foremost among the early labor organizations was the Knights of Labor, which listed more than 700,000 members by the mid-1880s. Working conditions at the time were abysmal—little concern for safety existed in most factories, pay was low, benefits were nonexistent and the work day was often 10 to 12 hours, six days a week. The immediate focus of the K.O.L. and other unions was to achieve the eight-hour day.
On May Day 1886, the workers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. in Chicago began a strike in the hope of gaining a shorter work day. On May 3, police were used to protect strikebreakers and a scuffle broke out; one person was killed and several others injured.
The following day, May 4, a large rally was planned by anarchist leaders to protest alleged police brutality. A crowd of 20,000 demonstrators was anticipated at Haymarket Square, where area farmers traditionally sold their produce. Rain and unseasonable cold kept the numbers down to between 1,500 to 2,000. The gathering was peaceful until a police official, in contravention of the mayor's instructions, sent units into the crowd to force it to disperse. At that juncture, a pipe bomb was thrown into the police ranks; the explosion took the lives of seven policemen and injured more than 60 others. The police fired into the crowd of workers, killing four.
A period of panic and overreaction followed in Chicago. Hundreds of works were detained; some were beaten during interrogation and a number of forced confessions was obtained. In the end, eight anarchists were put on trial and seven were convicted of conspiracy to commit murder. Four were hanged in November 1887, one committed suicide and three were later pardoned by Illinois governor, John Peter Altgeld.
Clearly the ranks of the Knights of Labor and other unions were filled with many socialists and anarchists; some were committed to violent disruption of the capitalist system. However, no evidence was provided at the time, nor has any been discovered since, which connected the eight convicted workers to the bomb-throwing. Widespread fear of unionism and other radicalism influenced most of the public to support harsh treatment of the accused.
The Haymarket Riot was a signal event in the early history of American Labor. It was largely responsible for delaying acceptance of the eight-hour day, as workers deserted the K.O.L. and moved toward the more moderate American Federation of Labor. For many years the police at Haymarket Square were regarded as martyrs and the workers as violent anarchists; that view moderated to a large extent in later times.
The Pullman Strike was a disturbing event in Illinois history. It occurred because of the way George Mortimer Pullman, founder and president of the Pullman Palace Car Company, treated his workers. Organized in 1867, the company manufactured sleeping cars and operated them under contract to the railroads.
Pullman created Pullman City to house his employees. It was on a three-thousand-acre tract located south of Chicago in the area of 114th Street and Cottage Grove. His workers were required to live in Pullman City. They were also expected to accept cuts in pay and not criticize workloads. Pullman charged money for use of the library. Clergy had to pay rent to use the church. "He wasn't a man to let you pray for free," it was claimed in The Call, a socialist newspaper.
In 1893, because of a depression, factory wages at the company fell about twenty-five percent, but the rents George Pullman charged did not decrease. If a Pullman worker went into debt, it was taken from his paycheck.
On May 11,1894, three thousand Pullman workers went on a "wildcat" strike, that is, without authorization of their union. Many of the strikers belonged to the American Railroad Union (ARU) founded by Eugene V. Debs. Debs, who was from Indiana, had moved to Chicago where he became a railroad fireman. He became aware of the working conditions of his fellow laborers. He saw men working for low wages, some of whom were injured or killed because of unsafe equipment. He was determined to make things better.
On June 26, 1894, some ARU members refused to allow any train with a Pullman car to move, except those with mail cars. Debs did not want federal troops to get involved, and he knew that if the U.S. mail was tampered with, the troops would be there immediately.
The railroads had formed an organization called the General Managers Association. They announced that no one could tell them whom to hire, whom to fire, or how they should pay their workers. The twenty-four railroads that were part of the General Managers Association immediately tried to end the strike. They announced that any switchman who refused to move rail cars would be fired.
Debs's union announced that if a switchman was fired because he refused to move Pullman cars all the union members would walk off the job. By June 29, fifty thousand men had quit their jobs. Crowds of people who supported the strike began stopping trains. Soon there was no movement on the rails west of Chicago. In some places, fights broke out.
In order to break the strike, the railroads needed help from federal troops. Getting their assistance, however, was a difficult task. The railroads could only get help from federal troops if the President agreed. President Grover Cleveland said that he would only send the aid of government troops if a governor requested them.
The governor of Illinois was John P. Altgeld. He did not want to request troops because he believed that workers should have the same rights as their bosses. These ideas made the General Managers Association uneasy. The railroad managers started flooding the newspapers with stories that made Debs's American Railroad Union seem like a violent and lawless gang and portrayed Eugene Debs as a radical. They claimed that unrest had always ended in violence and threatened that this strike would be the same.
The railroads began sending people to work on railroads as strike breakers or scabs.
Attorney General Richard Olney supported the General Managers Association because he believed that the railroads had the right to do things their way, and if the workers disagreed with the treatment they were receiving, they could quit. On June 29, 1894, Debs went to Blue Island and asked the railroad workers there if they would support the strike. The railroad workers there felt they were being discriminated against. Angry railroad workers in Blue Island began destroying the yards and burning anything that was flammable. Attorney General Olney requested President Cleveland to send federal troops into Chicago to break the strike.
On July 2, 1894, Olney obtained an injunction from a federal court saying that the strike was illegal. When the strikers did not return to work the next day, President Cleveland sent federal troops into Chicago. This enraged strikers, and rioters began stopping trains, smashing switches, and, again, setting fire to anything that would burn. On July 7, another mob stopped soldiers escorting a train through the downtown Chicago area. Many people were killed or wounded from bullets.
On July 10, 1894, Debs and three other union leaders were arrested for interferring with U.S. mail. They were released within a few hours, but Debs realized that continuing the strike would be a lost cause because of the federal troops.
Most railroad workers resumed their old jobs and received the same wages as before. Some workers were put on a blacklist, which meant that no railroad in the United States was allowed to hire them. On July 17, 1894, Debs was sent back to jail and served a term of six months in jail. The union he had created no longer existed when he got out of jail.
The Pullman Strike was important because it was the first time a federal injunction had ever been used to break up a strike. George Pullman was no longer regarded as an enlightened employer who took care of his workers, but as a greedy and intolerant man. He was offended by his workers' ingratitude. Pullman worried that people would try to steal what was his from him. Shortly before he died in 1897, he requested that his grave be lined in concrete to keep looters from robbing him.
The Homestead Strike
The main players
Andrew Carnegie, one of the wealthiest capitalists in American history, was borne in Scotland and immigrated to the United States in 1848. Carnegie grew up in a poor family who believed that the British working class should vote and run for Parliament to improve workplace conditions. This belief made an impression on Carnegie early in life and later Carnegie claimed to support the working class and unions. However, he was also a businessman and knew that successful business practices did not always favor employees or union activities. Therefore, he did not always conform to the union’s demands and even cut his workers' wages.
Henry Clay Frick was born in Pennsylvania to a poor family. However, he became very wealthy by manufacturing Coke (not the beverage but a type of coal) and by using harsh strike-breaking strategies. In 1881 he decided to undergo a merger with Carnegie. Frick soon lost control of his company’s stock to Carnegie. Friction continued to develop as Carnegie tried to express his pro-labor sentiment in opposition to Frick’s strike-suppressing beliefs.
The 1800’s were a time of many labor conflicts and an uncertain economy. Many labor conflicts ended in violence as employees tried to make their voices heard by both their employers and the general public. The city of Homestead, on the Monongahela River just east of Pittsburg, wanted to remain unionized with favorable working terms and conditions. Even though Homestead depended on the steel industry for its livelihood, the employees were willing to fight to the death for their union. The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers had about 750 members out of the 3,800 steel mill workers, but when Frick insisted that he negotiate independent contracts with the employees, about 3,000 of the steel members voted to strike. This vast number of employees prevented strikebreakers from guarding the steel mill.
The steel workers’ contract, tied to a sliding scale wage based on the price of 4 x 4 standard Bessemer steel billets, expired in 1892. At the same time, Andrew Carnegie was on vacation in Loch Rannoch, Scotland, where he communicated only with Henry Clay Frick. Frick first offered the employees a pay cut and later said that he would not negotiate with the union. Instead he would negotiate with individual employees. The employees refused to negotiate without the union and Frick responded by surrounding the steel mill property with a solid board fence with rifle ports and topped with barbwire. The steel mill compound soon became known as "Fort Frick". Frick began to shutdown operations on June 28, 1892. Although deputy sheriffs were sworn in to guard the property, they were ordered out of town by the workers. Because the employees felt that they had a right to work, they began guarding the steel mill.
Frick then called the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency of New York and requested 300 strikebreakers to protect the company property and equipment3. However, the workers were alerted by employees stationed at the river and quickly rushed to prevent the Pinkertons from coming ashore. The workers exchanged gunfire with the Pinkertons, rolled freight train cars on fire at the barges of Pinkertons, tossed dynamite, and pumped oil onto the Monongahela River. For about 14 hours, the workers tried to set fire to the river 4. The death toll rose as the fight wore on, and the Pinkertons eventually gave up. The Pinkertons were forced to run through a gauntlet formed by the workers and their families. Three Pinkertons and seven employees were killed during the fight. Six days later 8,500 members of the Pennsylvania National Guard were ordered into Homestead under the orders of Governor Robert E. Patterson. A very small percentage of employees returned to work after the union called off the strike, but by this time most of the employees and all of the strike leaders had been black-listed.
Why did it end in violence?
During the 1800’s workers had limited mobility and limited employment opportunities. Because employees could not migrate to jobs with better terms of employment, they were forced to make the most of the jobs that they had -- even if this meant fighting to the death over the terms and conditions of employment. In addition, the industrialization of the workplace had lead to the alienation of the crafts. The employees took pride in their work and even though they did not own the company, they felt that they had a right to work there. When Frick refused to negotiate with the union and closed down the mill the employees were willing to fight to the death for this right.
What were the outcomes?
After the Homestead strike, Andrew Carnegie was viewed as being responsible and he was never able to recover from the public scrutiny. Carnegie, who publicly expressed his pro-labor sentiment, was well aware of Frick’s anti-union sentiment. However, Carnegie left Frick in charge of the contract negotiations and remained inaccessible to the employees and media during negotiations. Carnegie’s support of Frick began in the spring of 1892 when Carnegie ordered maximum production of armor plate before the union’s contract expiration date in June. Carnegie further told Frick to close the steel mill until the employees gave in to management’s demands during contract negotiations. While in England, Carnegie instructed Frick to do anything necessary to break the strike. In a letter Carnegie also wrote that this was Frick’s chance to change things for management’s benefit because too many workers were required under the union’s rules.
Because the violence of the Homestead Strike was viewed as management's fault, the view of unions in the United States improved. The public thought the employees had reasonable requests (the employees were willing to give into all of Frick’s demands, except for eliminating the union) and the employees were peacefully demonstrating until strikebreakers entered the picture.