Prompt: How successful was organized labor in improving the position of workers in the period from 1875 to 1900? Analyze the factors that contributed to the level of success achieved

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Group 5B DBQ: Labor Unions

Prompt: How successful was organized labor in improving the position of workers in the period from 1875 to 1900? Analyze the factors that contributed to the level of success achieved.

DBQ Outline

Thesis: The organized labor union was relatively unsuccessful because labor unions were often not unified, there was general resentment towards organized labor and because most strikes were often futile because they ended in violence.

  • Disunion within Labor Groups

    • 5 of the 6 major labor unions did not accept people of all races and ethnic backgrounds.

    • Molly Maguires, AFL, American Railway Union, National Labor
      Union all discriminated against some group

    • Too many labor groups representing different interests.

    • Most women and minorities were not accepted into unions

    • AFL accepted skilled workers only and excluded women and minorities.

    • Low wage immigrants were not part of labor unions and replaced workers

    • Labor groups were sometimes made up of workers of different ethnic backgrounds and this resulted in little cohesion within labor groups.

    • Documents F, I, G

  • Negative View of Organized Labor

    • Documents B, C, H

    • Supreme Court was relatively hostile towards organized labor- In re Debs

    • People saw labor unions as socialist and trying to destroy capitalism

    • Communist and Anarchist labels undermined movements

    • Newspapers such as Harpers Weekly often branded labor movements as radical

    • Nast took a conservative position on labor unions

    • Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and Haymarket Riot sparked public contempt and gave labor movements appearance of being radical

  • Strikes came to nothing because of violence

    • Documents G, B

    • Great Railroad strike, Haymarket Riot, Homestead Strike, Pullman Strike all involved violence

    • Government often used troops to suppress violent strikes.

    • Police, state militia, Pinkertons, and federal troops were used to suppress strikes.

    • Violence almost always accomplished nothing and brought more contempt towards labor movements

Organized Labor DBQ

Labor Unions in America have had a history of being loud, messy, and relatively unsuccessful. One of their biggest problems were the wages and hours they received, this continued from 1875-1900 when they only saw slight changes in the average daily wages, and average daily hours (DocA). Workers found themselves facing a negative general consensus from the American public due to perceived anarchist and socialist relations. Disharmony among rivaled labor unions, violence of some labor strikes, and the availability of scrub workers led to unsuccessful strikes and weaker unions.

There were a good number of labor unions during the late 19th century and they all seemed to have different needs. This disunity within the labor movement was extremely detrimental and is without a doubt one of the reasons why organized labor was not successful in improving the position of workers. Discrimination based on race or gender within labor unions fueled much of the disunity in the labor movement of the late 1800’s. Almost every major labor union in the US during this time discriminated against some group. The Molly Maguires, AFL, American Railway Union, and National Labor
Union all refused to grant membership regardless of race, gender or skill level. If these labor unions were to grant membership to all workers, their movements would have a lot more support and they might have achieved something in their numerous strikes. When only one group of people was protesting for better working conditions, the power of the protest was inherently lower than a strike that included all workers. Most labor unions consisted of white males from different ethnic backgrounds. As seen in Document G, those who protested in the Homestead Strike were white immigrants from different parts of Europe. Having men who did not share a common identity and were from various European backgrounds also lead to disunity within labor groups and further hurt the labor movement.

The labor movement of the late 19th century also included too many individual labor unions each fighting for individual gains. The presence of so many unions hurt the unity of the labor movement as a whole and led to unsuccessful strikes and protests. In the cartoon of Document F, the disunity of the labor movement is shown and the point that having too many labor unions fighting for their own individual interests hurts the overall interests of the labor movement is emphasized. The cartoon shows different groups such as the Knights of Labor, “communists”, “anarchists” and labor unions fighting for their own interests instead of fighting for the betterment of working conditions in general. The Knights of Labor searched for utopian ideals while groups such as the AFL focused on “bread and butter” issues. The labor movement had disunity both within and between labor groups and as a result, the labor movement did not achieve much.

The organized labor movement was not popular with all American citizens and in fact there was a growing concern for the rise of organized labor throughout the country. As strikes and protests became more violent, more people started to see these movements as radical. The newspapers had a pivotal role in the labeling of labor movements as radical. In Document B, a New York Times editorial claims that the strike “is nothing more than a rash and spiteful demonstration of resentment by men too ignorant or too reckless to understand their own interests.” The Great Railroad Strike and the Haymarket Riot were both strikes that ended in the deaths of protesters and government officials. These protests sparked public contempt towards organized labor and solidified the radical label on organized labor.

Along with seeing labor movements as radical, many labor movements were labeled socialist by the media. In the cartoon in Document C, the labor movement is shown to be influenced by socialist controls. Considering the generally negative connotation that came with communism in the United States, when newspapers like Harper’s Weekly labeled organized labor as socialist, many people developed a negative attitude towards organized labor. The disapproval of organized labor was not exclusive to the American public but also the federal government. During the late 20th century, the Supreme Court became increasingly conservative on the issue of organized labor. In the Supreme Court case In re Debs, the court ruled that federal government controlled interstate commerce and was obligated to keep the railroads from obstructions and in that specific case, strikes or protests. The fact that a good portion of the American public and the federal government saw organized labor as a detriment; it was no surprise that organized labor did not accomplish much during the late 20th century.

As organized labor grew in the United States, there were more strikes and protests for improvements in working conditions. Not all of these protests were carried out peacefully however. One of the sole reasons for why organized labor did not succeed was because the violence that came with many of the strikes and protests. The Great Railroad Strike, Haymarket Riot, Homestead Strike and the Pullman Strike were all important strikes during the late 20th century and all involved some sort of violence on the part of protesters and government officials. Document G shows a firsthand account of the result of labor violence. In the Haymarket Riot, protesters threw bombs at police to protest the killings of workers by policeman. In the Homestead Strike, Pinkerton agents were brought in to suppress the violent protesters. An outsider could hardly tell that people were protesting wages and working conditions when it looked like the police and protesters were fighting a war. Protesters using violence to gain rights in the workplace was not an effective technique by any means and as a result none of the violent strikes resulted in gains for organized labor groups. When people were being killed and federal troops had to be called in to suppress the violence, it was hard for unions to gain any leverage on businesses.

The gilded age in America lead to an increase in the wage gap and a rise in organized labor unions. However many of these labor unions were unsuccessful in attaining their goals. Many groups struggled against public disdain and the fight for recognition. Many protests ended in violence either between workers or between business heads and union members. Labor unions also found themselves often fighting among other unions. There was no sense of cooperation between separate union groups. Between 1875 and 1900 most workers in the US didn’t make significant gains in their work, many of their aspirations did not come until the turn of the century and the progressive period that it was coupled with.


Gilded Age- rapid industrialization, urbanization, and immigration as a result of a rise in big business and the labor movement.

Industrialization- A mass movement towards the development of industry within a society

Urbanization- The mass influx of people to the city

Trust- A group of companies that control one good or service and work together to reduce competition

Labor Union- A group of workers who organize together to bargain with the employer

JP Morgan- A banker and industrialist known for his buying up of firms to increase his power and wealth

John D Rockefeller- An industrialist who ran the standard oil company. Through many trusts and puppet companies he was able to minimize cost and maximize profit. He became the world’s first US dollar billionaire

Andrew Carnegie- An industrialist and philanthropist who headed Carnegie steal company. His company was responsible for the massacre at Homestead during the steal worker’s strike

Laissez-Faire economics- A hands off economics policy that involves a hands off, non intervention style.

Social Darwinism- the idea that certain social groups are superior to others. This is applicable in the economic sphere by way of wage gaps. Many wealthy industrialists argued that this theory was the reason that they were so much more successful than their poorer workers

Terence V. Powderly- Grand Master Workman of the Knights of Labor in 1879 who through a number of strikes won an 8 hour work day.

Samuel Gompers- founded the AFL; he wanted a fair share of labor wither better wages, hours, and working conditions

Plutocracy- The rule of wealth and the wealthy

Bessemer Process- A new process invented in England that facilitated steal production and lead to an uptick in steel production

Yellow dog contracts- contracts that didn’t allow workers to join a union

National Labor Union- A huge union containing almost 6 million members. This union only lasted six years due to its exclusion of Chinese, black, and women workers. This union would be replaced by the Knights of labor

Haymarket riot- A bombing by anarchist in Chicago during a Knights of Labor protest. This lead to a fall in popularity of the Knights of Labor as many people began to consider them radical anarchists. Many members defected and those that remained were slowly absorbed into other labor unions.

AFL- “American Federation of Labor” this union was founded by Samuel Gompers. It fought for better wages, hours, and safer working environments

Frick- A chairman of US steel that ran Homestead in Rockefeller’s absent. He survived a assassination attempt and ran Homestead when guns were turned on striking workers.

Populist party- A glided age political movement that called for the rich elite to provide for the poor masses. The populists favored progressive legislation such as increased government regulation and a federal income tax

Famer’s Alliance- an organized agrarian economic movement that fought for progressive policy and government subsidization of crop prices

The Knights of Labor- This group, which peaked membership in 1886, grew rapidly because of a combination of their open-membership policy, the continuing industrialization of the American economy, and the growth of urban population; welcomed unskilled and semiskilled workers, including women, immigrants, and African Americans; were idealists who believed they could eliminate conflict between labor and managements. Their goal was to create a cooperative society in which laborers owned the industries in which they worked.

The Great Railroad Strike- 1877, provoked by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's decision to cut wages for the second time in a year; remembered as the first general strike in American history; paralyzed the nation's commerce for 45 days; forced governors in ten states to mobilize 60,000 militia to reopen rail traffic.

Description of Documents

Document A

From 1875 to 1879, average daily wages decreased to 137.9 which picked back up ending with 172.5 in 1891. Due to the panic in 1873 wages decreased significantly because management cut wages of their employees. Average daily hours decreased slightly to 9.4 in 1891, a milestone in the campaign for an 8 hour workday.

Document B

In the editorial in the New York Times, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 is undermined frequently, the writer states it to be “apparently hopeless” and caused by men “too ignorant or too reckless to understand their own interests…”

Document C

In the cartoon entitled “Always Killing the Goose That Lays the Golden Egg” an industrial worker known as labor is stunned to see the dead goose branded as capital. Communism is standing in the back along with a mother and her child showing obvious signs of melancholy. There are multiple signs in the center of the cartoon degrading and undermining labor strikes and efforts.

Document D

Document D is the testimony of a machinist before the Senate Committee on Labor and Capital. The machinist describes the difference between machinery during the time and machinery that existed ten years ago. The trade has been subdivided so that workers become unskilled due to their status being deprived of a skilled worker.

Document E

This is a contract for employment for the Western Union Telegraph Company. This contract clearly states that all ties to unions, organizations, or societies must be broken in order to legally and lawfully work for Western Union Telegraph Company.

Document F

In the cartoon entitled “Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth” 4 different men are fighting amongst each other. They represent the many groups striving to represent the laborers and this actually hurts the labor movement due to the disharmony.

Document G

This document refers to the Homestead Strike and Lockout; a list of men that died. Many were part of Homestead but only one was regarded as a striker. The coming of the panic & depression of 1893 & how it hurt organized labor.

Document H

This document states that the federal government has the power to regulate interstate commerce which includes railroads. Therefore it is implied that the government has to remove any obstructions from the railroad which means stopping the railroad strike.

Document I

In this document, Samuel Gompers, the leader of the AFL, claims that workers find that improvements in methods of production and distribution are constantly being made so it is necessary that workers strike occasionally or the employers will receive all the benefits of innovation.

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