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A Study on 19th Century Labor Organizations

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Labor Unions in the Late 19th Century

In the late 19th Century, many industrial workers were working long hours in terrible working conditions for an extremely low pay. Individual workers could not protest for a raise or better working conditions as they were easy to replace with many others who were willing to have a job for a lower wage. Between 1875 and 1900, workers began to join labor unions to protest and fight against the poor working conditions. The labor unions, however, were mostly unsuccessful in improving the conditions of industrial workers.

The failure of strikes was a major reason as to why labor unions were unsuccessful in improving the conditions of industrial workers. Because of many unsuccessful strikes, labor unions gained a bad reputation and were deemed to be radical and violent. In the Haymarket Riot, city police was trying to disperse a crowd of strikers when a bomb was thrown killing 7 officers and injuring 67 others. In the Homestead Strike, several Pinkerton detectives and Homestead workers were killed. Newspapers were only reporting on the negatives of labor unions and never the terrible working conditions of the laborers. A list of the names of the dead was published in The New York Times following the Homestead Strike depicting the violence of labor unions (G). Responding to the Great Railroad Strike, New York Times labeled strikers as “too ignorant or too reckless to understand their own interests” (B). In a cartoon by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly, a laborer is shown killing a goose that lays golden eggs in reference to the fable in which a farmer kills his goose that laid a golden egg everyday hoping to find more gold inside the goose (C). This cartoon depicts the laborer as ungrateful to the source of his income and his greed of wanting more money.

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Also contributing to its failure in improving the conditions of industrial workers, labor unions in itself were generally unsuccessful during the late 19th century. A cartoon in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on January 8, 1887 shows four cooks representing four labor union groups cooking a “labor interest broth” with a caption saying “too many cooks spoil the broth” (F). This shows the lack of unity of labor union groups who are fighting amongst themselves to represent laborers which does not contribute to any progress with the labor movement. Certain radical groups such as socialist and anarchist allowed critics of labor unions to deen all groups to be radical and violent, giving labor unions a worse reputation. Because laborers were highly replaceable, they were reluctant to join unions due to fear of losing their jobs or being “blacklisted” and never being able to get a job again. In a Western Union Employee Contract, a worker is reemployed by signing a contract agreeing to abandon membership with any labor unions (E). Employers could easily find a worker that was not part of an union and is willing to work for lower wage which would save them money and trouble of dealing with a labor union. Another reason why labor unions itself were not successful was because the government had always sided with businesses and not unions. The Supreme Court decision In re Debs, concerned Eugene V. Debs and the Pullman Strike (H). Debs, who led the American Railway Union, challenged a federal injunction that ordered the strikers of the Pullman Strike back to work. In In re Debs, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government had a right to issue the injunction because the government had a right to regulate interstate commerce.

Although the labor unions were mostly unsuccessful in improving the conditions of industrial workers between 1875 and 1900, it did have a moderate amount of success. From a historical statistic of average daily work hours and wages in the United States, the average work hour decreased from 9.9 hours in 1875 to 9.4 hours in 1891 while the average wage increased from 169.2 in 1875 to 172.2 in 1891 (A). Labor unions also placed pressure on the government to protect workers with minimum wages, 40 hour work weeks, Child Labor Laws, and Safety Codes. Workers in an union had the benefit of leverage and job security against more powerful employers though union actions.

Between 1875 and 1900, labor unions were mostly unsuccessful in improving the conditions of industrial workers. Labor unions were not held in favorable light, mostly because of their failed strikes, and were viewed as radical and violent. Labor unions were not supported by the government and laborers were reluctant to join due to their fear of losing their jobs. However, labor unions did have moderate success in pressuring the government to protect workers.


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