The Gilded Age (1865-1900) was a period of massive industrial expansion in America and, along with it, the development of the American labor-union movement. The relationship between bosses/government and workers was tense, and often erupted in violence.
As the number of self-employed Americans dwindled throughout the era, workers began to feel strength in their numbers and ask greater and greater demands of their bosses. When those demands were rejected, they plotted schemes to win their cases, but nearly all would end up failing. Those who managed factories developed strategies to counteract those of labor, ultimately muting their voice, often with the assistance of their allies in government (both state and national).
The most frequently employed technique of workers was the strike. Withholding labor from management would, in theory, force the company to suffer great enough financial losses that they would agree to worker terms, whether they were to raise wages, keep them the same (in response to a boss announcing a pay cut), or improve working conditions. Strikes have been known in America since the colonial age (1620s-1770s), but their numbers grew larger in the Gilded Age due to rapid urbanization and industrialization.
Owners had many strategies to deal with the growing labor/union menace:
If a company found itself with a high inventory and not enough demand on the market, the boss might afford to enact a lockout, which is a reverse strike. In this case, the owner tells the employees not to bother showing up until they agree to a pay cut.
When a new worker was hired, many Gilded Age employers compelled them to sign contracts swearing that they would never join a union. Since it was unions that organized strikes, removing the union removed the threat of strike for the employer and kept the worker “out of trouble.”
Countering strikes was fairly easy for employers during the Gilded Age for several reasons:
They could hire strikebreakers, or scabs, to take the place of the regular labor force. These strikebreakers were often immigrants, desperate and willing to work for any wage.
Prior to the 20th century the government never sided with the union in a labor dispute. Bosses persuaded the government to declare strikes illegal, throw participants into prison, or even send in troops when necessary. All bosses had to do was show that the strike hurt interstate trade, and the government would step in. Remember, the U.S. Congress has the right to legislate on interstate trade (see Article I Section 8 of the Constitution, excerpted below). Thus, government was a great friend to big business in the Gilded Age.
What was at stake? Each side felt they were fighting literally for survival. The owners felt if they could not keep costs down to beat the competition, they would be forced to close the factory altogether. They said they could not meet the workers' unreasonable demands.
What were the employees demanding? In the entire history of labor strife, most goals of labor can be reduced to two overarching issues: higher wages and better working conditions. In the beginning, management would have the upper hand. But the sheer numbers of the American workforce was gaining momentum as the century neared its conclusion. Some important labor reforms would come during the Progressive Era (1900-1920), but it would take until the Great Depression of the 1930s for unions to establish significant power.
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877—Case Study:
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 presents a prime example of the context discussed above: In July 1877, responding to an economic depression, the nation's largest railway, the Pennsylvania Railroad, twice cut employee wages by ten percent. It also doubled the length of trains without increasing the size of crews. Other railroads soon followed suit, including the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. In West Virginia, a number of Baltimore and Ohio railroad firemen refused to accept the cuts and walked off the job. Soon sympathetic employees of other rail lines went on strike in California, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and Pennsylvania. Before long, more than half of the nation's railroads were shut down.
The governors of several states were unable to get local militias to break the strike because the militias were sympathetic to the railroad workers. The governors requested assistance from the federal government, so President Rutherford B. Hayes dispatched troops to reopen the railroads. Violence erupted in a number of cities. In Pittsburgh federal troops fired into a crowd and killed ten strikers. The strikers then began destroying railroad property. In Baltimore the state militia fired on workers, leaving eleven dead and forty wounded. The shootings sparked a riot—at its height, more than fourteen thousand workers had taken to the Baltimore streets.
By the end of August 1877 the strike was over, primarily because of federal intervention, the use of state militias, and the employment of strikebreakers by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company. The availability of laborers to replace the strikers and government support for the railroads had limited the concessions that workers could gain from their employers.
Why were unions and strikes so unsuccessful during the Gilded Age? Generate a list of reasons below:
Do you agree or disagree with the way in which the U.S. government responded to strikes during the Gilded Age? Also consider how they justified their intervention. Did they “cherry-pick” the Constitution in an effort to support big business?
Throughout the rest of the course, the politics of labor will be a common theme. We will have to wrestle with important questions regarding labor, unions, and “fairness” at the workplace, which Americans still debate to this day as we try to figure out what American capitalism should look like. Try your hand at it by speculating on the following questions: What is the best way to ensure that productivity is maximized, strikes that could interrupt trade are minimized, workers are not exploited, workers are paid “fairly” for their work, bosses are rewarded “fairly” for their work, etc.?