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Industrial Workers and Thier Union Movement - A historical overview

Updated on May 30, 2017

Labor in America – An Odd History

By Michael Mikio Nakade, M.A

(A Mock Q & A between a father and an 10th grade son regarding the Labor Movement in the United States. The father is a historian. Information cited in this work came mainly from 1:, and 2) The Great Course - The Skeptic’s Guide to American History, Lecture 12 “Labor in America – A Strange History”)

Son: Dad, I am learning about the rise of the labor union in America in my history class this week. I have so much to learn. It seems that this is a different kind of history.

Dad: How so?

Son: First of all, I thought history was about presidents, wars, treaties, and a bunch of laws and court cases. This unit on the labor union is about a bunch of ordinary workers demanding better pay and improved working conditions. It’s interesting, but different from anything else I’ve studied so far.

Dad: I see. The history of organized labor movement in the United States is odd in that it talks about thousands of ordinary folks getting involved in the actual shaping of a nation’s development. First, you will have to understand what an industrialized economy did to society as a whole.

Son: Will you explain it to me?

Dad: You probably know that the Industrial Revolution took place in England first. Then, it came over to the New England region of the United States. Factories were built and machines were used. Productivity soared. But, this led to the creation of a new class of unskilled industrial workers. As you probably know, those workers weren’t treated well. They attempted to organize into labor unions, using the strike as their key weapon to force factory owners to bargain with them.

Son: Yeah, I get that. But, I am confused by the labor union related jargon. I have never heard of them. Words like sabotage, lockout, yellow-dog contract, court injunction, and scabs.

Dad: Oh, I see. Those are grown-up words, I guess. Let me explain them one by one. Sabotage is the damaging of factory equipment by workers to hamper the production process. This is illegal, of course, but desperate workers did this sort of thing.

Son: I bet the management responded to unhappy workers with tactics of their own. Right?

Dad: Yes. Lockout was often used. The factory door was shut so that the workers could not earn their paychecks. The management hired workers only on the condition that those new workers would not join the union. This was called a yellow-dog contract. It is illegal today. The management also hired a bunch of substitute workers when the regular workers went on strike. Those substitutes were called scabs or strike breakers.

Son: Okay. Those make sense. But, I want you to know that I have never studied anything like this in history class. All of these ideas came across as kind of odd.

Dad: It’s different, yes. This just goes to show that the workers and the management fought hard against each other. This is an important part of American history, and it is important that you learn it.

Son: Correct me if I’m wrong, but the whole idea of unionization seems contradictory to the American belief in rugged individualism. In this country, we look up to men and women who accomplished big things on their own.

Dad: You’re right about that. The idea of negotiating one individual’s contract “collectively” was deemed strange at first because it meant that one worker alone could not do it. So, yes, the concept of collective bargaining through unionized workers was not an easy thing to sell in this country.

Son: One more thing, Dad. I think the unionized workers often turned violent. I bet some folks back in the day did not like this aspect of the labor movement.

Dad: One of the first nationally recognized labor organizations was the Knights of Labor. They embraced some radical ideas and actions. For instance, they advocated government ownership of railroads, telegraphs, and telephones. A socialist policy in a rigidly Capitalist nation! At the height of its membership in 1886, the Knights boasted 750,000 workers. (1) Then, an incident called the Haymarket Square happened in Chicago in 1886. Workers in Chicago were peacefully celebrating International Workers’ Day when someone threw a bomb into the crowd. All hell broke loose and shots were fired. When the dust settled, one police officer was dead, and several crowd members hurt. The media blamed the Knights of Labor for this incident, and the public agreed even when there was no evidence that tied the Knights to this incident. Foreign-born anarchists were arrested and convicted. Membership in the Knights of Labor quickly declined, and that was pretty much the end for them.

Son: That’s too bad. Not all labor union members were violent anarchists. I’m sure that many of them just wanted to improve their working conditions, rather than overthrow a capitalist system.

Dad: Yes. That’s true. But, those factory owners looked at labor unions with disdain. They didn’t want to give an inch in response to the demands of the workers.

Son: Tell me more about this, please.

Dad: Okay. One of the richest men on earth in the late 19th century had a huge steel plant in Pennsylvania. His name was Andrew Carnegie. He hired a man named Henry Clay Frick to break the union at the Carnegie plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Carnegie told Frick to sign no new union contract when the old one expired in June 1892. With that, the workers went on strike. Frick hired a whole bunch of strikebreakers (scabs) and called in a private police force called Pinkerton Detectives. The result was a miniature civil war in Pennsylvania.

Son: So, this guy Frick played hardball. Did the strike become violent?

Dad: Oh yes. Seven Pinkerton private soldiers and nine workers died after exchanging gunshots in the initial phase of the strike.

Son: Then what happened?

Dad: The strike, along with occasional violence, continued throughout the summer, but by November the union gave up. Frick and Carnegie won the battle. This spelled the end of any unionization in the steel industry for 40 years.

Son: That’s kind of depressing. I was hoping that the united workers defeated the rich and powerful. Tell me if there was any labor union victory.

Dad: I will tell you about Samuel Gompers and his American Federation of Labor (AF of L). Gompers was a very practical man. He refused to have anything to do with socialist ideas and anti-capitalist radicalism. His genius was to focus on asking for better wages, an eight-hour workday, and safer working conditions. He made sure that his AF of L was known to favor mediation and arbitration of labor disputes rather than violent strikes. The American public could stomach Gompers much easier than the Knights of Labor and other more radical groups.

Son: But, dad, Gompers came across as a compromiser. I bet he was criticized for being a sell out. Was he not?

Dad: Yes. Gompers was described as “a new generation’s capitulation to the corporate revolution.” But, he succeeded largely because many corporations were far more willing to work with a man like Gompers. (2 – 37d) Sometimes, a person with a conciliatory stance can achieve more than a person with a confrontational stance. I personally think that Gompers did the right thing in making a clean break from the radical elements of labor union movements.

Son: In all this, where did the federal government stand? You had mentioned that court injunctions were often used to stop workers from striking in those days.

Dad: Son, you ask a good question. It is true that the federal government was consistently hostile to organized labor in the beginning. The government did not wish to see something like the railroad industry going on a strike because a strike would mess up the entire transportation and delivery system. President Cleveland, for example, ordered federal troops to make sure that railroad workers would not go on strike. I am referring to the Pullman Strike of 1894 in Illinois.

Son: But, the government became nicer toward the workers later on, right?

Dad: Well, not right away. The Pullman Strike led to the arrest of a leader of the American Railway Union. He was arrested because he disobeyed a court injunction against the strike. His name was Eugene V. Debs. He spent six months in jail, and he declared that he was a socialist when he came out of jail. After that, he ran for President as a socialist four times. In the election of 1912, he garnered nearly one million votes. During World War I, he was arrested again for anti-war activities. From his jail cell, he ran for President. (3) What a guy!

Son: That’s kind of cool because the government of the U.S.A. respected his right to run for President even under those circumstances. I can’t imagine that China or Russia would ever allow something like that.

Dad: A good point. Now, going back to the topic of organized labor here. The crowning achievement was the passage of the Clayton Antitrust Act in 1914. The law said that “labor is not a commodity or article of commerce.” Plus, labor’s right to organize peaceful strikes, picketing, and boycotts was recognized. (4) So, after all those bloody strikes and arrests of many anarchists and communists, organized labor finally won recognition from the federal government.

Son: Well, that’s good. What is organized labor like these days? I don’t hear much about strikes and labor-related disputes in the news lately.

Dad: That’s because our nation’s economic base has moved away from heavy industry. (5) Many factory jobs went overseas, and the culture regarding employment changed dramatically in the last 30 years. Today, on average, Americans change jobs seven times during their lifetime. Union membership as a percentage of the workforce declined significantly as a result. However, the unionization of public school teachers and state government employees is still widespread. So, you may hear about public school teachers going on strike every now and then. Other than that, organized labor isn’t what it used to be.

Son: That’s interesting. Thanks, Dad. You are the best. I learned a lot from you today. I will ace the test on this unit.


  1. Chapter 37 c – Early National Organization
  2. “ “ Chapter 37 d – American Federation of Labor
  3. “ “ Chapter 37 e – Eugene V. Debs – American Socialism
  4. Mark A. Stoler, The Skeptic’s Guide to American History, Lecture 12 “Labor in America – A Strange History,” Course Guidebook, p. 85

The Great Courses, Chantilly, VA 2012

5. Ibid, p. 86


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