Labor Unions & Strikes
Early Unions
 First trade unions in the U.S. organized in the late 18th
 Women started organizing in the 1820s.
 Unions did not become significant until after the Civil
 In 1834-36 women worked 16-17 hours a day to earn
$1.25-$2 a week.
 A girl weaver in a non-union mill would get $4.20/wk
versus $12/wk in a union mill.
 Workers had to buy their own needles and thread and
were fined for being a few minutes late to work
 Pulmonary ailments were common due to dust
accumulation on the floors and tables.
1842 – Commonwealth v. Hunt
 Before this labor unions that attempted to “close” or
create a unionized workplace could be charged with
 The Supreme Court ruled that unions were not
necessarily criminal or conspiring organizations if they
did not advocate violence or illegal activities
 Legalized the existence of trade organizations
 Right to establish “closed shops” = have to belong
the union to work there
Yellow-Dog Contracts
 An agreement between an employer and an
employee in which the employee agrees, as a
condition of employment, not be a member of a labor
 Were widely used by employers to prevent the
formation of unions by permitting employers to take
legal action against union organizers
 Outlawed in 1932 by the Norris-LaGuardia Act
1866 – National Labor Union
 Dissolved in 1873
 Paved the way for other labor unions
 Drew support from construction workers and skilled
 Campaigned for the exclusion of Chinese workers
from the U.S. and did little to defend the rights of
women and blacks
 The depression of the 1870s drove down union
Railroad Unions
 After 1870, union organizations started
 By 1901, 17 major railway unions (brotherhoods) were
in operation
 Their main goals was building insurance and medical
packages for their members and negotiating work
rules like seniority and grievance procedures
 They were successful in securing the passage of the
Adamson Act, a federal law that provided 10 hours
pay for an 8 hour day.
Molly Maguires
 Terrorists or working class heroes?
 Molly Maguire was, supposedly, the leader of riots in
Ireland against English landowners during the 1840s
and 1850s
 Irish coal miners brought the organization with them
when they came to work in the coal mines of PA
 Working conditions were awful, safety regulations
were non-existent or neglected
Molly Maguires
 20 executed between 1877 and 1879
 Evidence provided by James McParland, a Pinkerton detective who
infiltrated them
 During the Civil War, Irish immigrant miners killed a number of coal
mine supervisors who attempted to draft them into the Union
 It is not known whether the murderers were members of the Molly
 The Pinkerton Agency used the publicity to attract clients
 Civil Rights: A private corporation initiated the investigation using
a private detective agency; a private police force arrested the men
and coal company attorneys prosecuted them. The state only
provided the courtroom and carried out the execution
1877 – Great Railroad Strike
 The country’s first major rail strike
 The strikes and violence briefly paralyzed trade
 Governors in 10 states mobilized state militia and
National Guard troops to reopen rail traffic
 Violent confrontations took place including in
Philadelphia where troops fired on a crowd – killing
20 civilians, including women and at least 3 children
 The strike was broken within a few weeks
 Many native-born Americans blame the violence on
foreign agitators
Knights of Labor
 1885 – Knights of Labor led railroad workers to victory
against Jay Gould and his entire Southwestern
Railway system.
 1886 – coordinate 1400 strikes involving over 600,000
workers spread over the country (double the
numbers from the year before)
 Some were peaceful and some were violent
 Demands were usually focused on the 8 hour day
1869 – Knights of Labor
 First effective labor organization on a national level
 The acceptance of all groups led to an explosion of
membership after 1880
 They hoped to make gains through political or
cooperative ventures rather than through strikes and
 Successful in developing a working class culture,
involving sports, leisure activities and educational
projects for their members
1886 – Bay View Tragedy
 Milwaukee, Wisconsin
 Building trades workers and Polish laborers were striking
against their employers demanding an 8 hour day. Workers
were camping in a nearby field.
 Gov. Jeremiah Rusk ordered the National Guard to “shoot
to kill” any strikers who attempted to enter the Milwaukee
 The next day a crowd of people, including children
approached the mill and were fired upon.
 7 people died, including a 13 year old boy and several more
were injured
1886 – Haymarket Square Riot
 Strikers rally against the McCormick plant
 A team of political anarchists, who were not Knights
of Labor, tried to join in support
 A bomb exploded as police were dispersing the
peaceful rally, killing 7 policemen and wounding
 The anarchists were blamed and their spectacular trial
gained national attention
 The reputation of the Knights of Labor was tarnished
by the false accusation that they promoted anarchism
and violence. Many members left and joined other
unions that were considered more respectable
1881 - American Federation of Labor
 A federation of different unions, did not directly
enroll workers
 Skilled workers – no unskilled, no women, no AfricanAmericans
 Thought women threatened the jobs of men since
they worked for lower wages
 Goals: prohibit child labor, 8 hour day, exclusion of
foreign contract workers
 Grew steadily as the KOL all but disappeared
1893 – American Railway Union
 Led by Eugene Debs
 Unionized all railway workers
regardless of craft or service
 Organized a number of strikes but
only the first was successful
1894 – Pullman Strike
 Pullman Railroad Cars – Made luxury sleeping
 During depression of 1890s the company cut
 Company town – rent and product prices
remained the same
 Discontented workers joined the American
Railway Union
 The entire union went on strike to support
the Pullman workers
 Within 4 days, 125,000 workers on 29
railroads were refusing to work
Pullman Strike
 A federal court issued an injunction - an order to go back to
 Based on the Sherman Anti-Trust Act – prohibited “every
contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or
conspiracy in restraint of trade or commerce among the several
 Debs and the union leaders ignored the injunction
 Strike was broken when U.S. Marshals and 2,000 Army troops
were sent in by President Cleveland on the premise that the
strike interfered with the delivery of the U.S. Mail.
 By the end, 13 strikers were killed, 57 wounded. An estimated
$340,000 worth of property damage and Debs went to prison
for 6 months for violating the federal court order
 The ARU disintegrated
Eugene Debs
Left school at age 14 and went to work for railroad
Worked his way up to being a railroad fireman
Became active in labor movement
Read Karl Marx while in jail for Pullman Strike
1897 – co-founded the Social Democratic Party
Presidential candidate in 1900
1901 – the SDP merged with the Socialist Party of
 1904, 1908, 1912, 1916, 1920 – presidential candidate
for the SPA
Debs’ Quotes
 “While there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a
criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in
prison, I am not free”
 “It is better to vote for what you want and not get it
than to vote for what you don’t want and to get it”
 “The most heroic word in all languages is revolution”
 “…those who work the hardest, and at the most
difficult and menial tasks, have the least”
Socialist Party
 Between 1901 and 1912 membership grew from 13,000
to 118, 000
 Its journal Appeal to Reason was selling 500,00 copies
a week
 Prominent members: Bill Haywood, Margaret Sanger,
Helen Keller, Upton Sinclair, A. Philip Randolph,
W.E.B. DuBois, Claude McKay, Sinclair Lewis, Jack
London, Mary “Mother” Jones
Johnstown Flood
 Henry Clay Frick and a group of wealthy businessmen
purchase an abandoned reservoir and modify it into a
private resort lake
 The dam was lowered and widened to allow a road across
the top. A fish screen was put across the spillway to retain
fish for fishermen. These actions weakened the dam.
 Over 50 wealthy Pittsburgh industrialists belonged to the
 The dam showed many signs of weakness prior to its
ultimate failure but these were ignored by the industrialists
who did not want to pay for costly repairs
Johnstown Flood
 May 31, 1889 after a large rainstorm men noticed the dam was failing
and worked to stop it and officials didn’t believe the warnings
because there had been too many false alarms before
 When it was over, several towns had been wiped out
 2,209 were dead including 95 entire families, 396 children – 98
children lost both parents and 1 in every 3 bodies found were never
 1,600 homes were destroyed and $17 million in property damage
meant clean-up continued for years
 The club was never held legally responsible in the trials that
followed. The flood was ruled an “act of God” and survivors got no
 Club members contributed little to the relief efforts but Andrew
Carnegie did build a library in Johnstown
1892 – Homestead Strike
 Henry Clay Frick, Superintendent of Carnegie Steel
proposed to cut workers’ wages
 Contract talks with the union broke down
 Frick shut the mill, installed 3 miles of wooden fence
topped with barbed wire around the mill and hired 300
guards from the Pinkerton Detective Agency
 Guards were confronted by hundreds of workers and
townsfolk. A gun battle broke out and 7
workers and 3 Pinkertons were killed.
 Within days 8,500 National Guard troops
took control of the plant
Homestead Strike
 Public opinion turned against the steel workers’ union
when Frick was seriously wounded in an assassination
 By November 1892, the union was broken and the mill reopened as a non-union plant using African- American and
eastern European workers
 Union leaders were blacklisted from the steel industry for
 The steel mills went from an 8 hour day to a 12 hour day, 6
days a week with a 24 hours shift followed by a day off,
every two weeks.
 The steel industry did not unionize again for 44 years
Alexander Berkman & Emma
Goldman – American Anarchists
 Active in the union movement – travelled the country making speeches
 Upset with the use of Pinkertons and the death of strikers in Homestead,
PA, Berkman decided to kill Henry Frick
 Berkman shot Frick three times and stabbed him twice but Frick survived
the attack
 Berkman was sent to prison
 Goldman was imprisoned a year later for urging the unemployed to steal
food they needed
 After her release, Goldman campaigned for women’s suffrage and birth
control information
 Berkman was sent back to jail during WWI for violating the Espionage Act
for publishing material against the war
 On the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution, 10,000 suspected
communists and anarchists were arrested in the U.S. The majority were
released but Goldman, Berkman and 245 others were deported to Russia
Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman
United Mine Workers
 Founded in 1890
 Goals – mine safety, independence
from company towns and collective
 Won 8 hour day in 1898
 Associated with a number of violent
clashes with authorities
 Lattimer Massacre 1897 – 19 miners
killed by police in PA during a march
to support unions
Sixteen Tons
1902 – Anthracite Coal Strike
 President Theodore Roosevelt favored a compromise
solution and the nation was facing a coal shortage heading
into the winter
 The strike ended after 163 days and a commission set up by
TR held hearings for 3 months hearing from all sides
 The miners got a 10% raise rather than 20% and a 9 hour day
rather than an 8 hour day and a panel was set up to settle
future disputes
 Lawyer for the mine managers - “These men don’t suffer.
Why, hell, half of them don’t even speak English.”
Mary “Mother” Jones
“Pray for the dead and
fight like hell for the living”
 Born in Ireland, moved to Canada as a teen and then to
Michigan, teacher & dressmaker
 Lost her husband and all 4 children to yellow fever and her
workshop was destroyed in a fire
 She began a career as a labor organizer for the Knights of
Labor and then the United Mine Workers
 Very effective speaker
 Called “the most dangerous woman in America” for her
success in organizing mine workers against mine owners
1903 - Children’s Strike
 Organized by Mary “Mother” Jones
 Protesting lax enforcement of child labor laws
 Marched from Philadelphia to the home of President
Theodore Roosevelt in New York
 Carried banners that said “We want to go to school
and not the mines!”
 Showed children missing fingers and other disabilities
caused by work to newspapers to draw attention to
her cause
1905 – Industrial Workers of the
World (IWW)
 43 groups opposed to the AFL formed a radical labor
 Goal – promote worker solidarity in the revolutionary
struggle to overthrow the employing class
 Led by William “Big Bill” Haywood – charged with
murdering the governor of Idaho & defended by
Clarence Darrow. Despite a Pinkerton detective
getting a coerced statement blaming Haywood, there
was no evidence he or the union was involved.
 Popular with immigrants
One Big Union –
Workers of the
World Unite
IWW (The “Wobblies”)
 Split in two in 1908
 One group headed by Eugene Debs advocated political
 The other headed by William Haywood advocated strikes,
boycotts and even sabotage
 Leaders of the IWW were attacked, lynched, framed for
crimes for their union activities and imprisoned for
opposing World War I
 Bill Haywood fled to the Soviet Union
 Because of the attacks and the loss of their strongest
leader, the union membership declined dramatically during
the 1920s.
1909 – NY Shirtwaist
 About 1/5th the workers – mostly women – working at the
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory walked off their jobs
 The owners locked them out and hired prostitutes to
replace the strikers
 The strike spread to other garment industry shops in
Manhattan and came to be called the “Uprising of Twenty
Thousand” – estimated that 40,000 participated by the
 The strike lasted 14 weeks and workers from other shops
won concessions on wages and working conditions but
the managers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory refused to
sign the agreement
1911 – Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
 Saturday, March 25, a fire broke out in the Triangle Factory
located on the top 3 floors of a 10 story building
 Fueled by combustible garments, cloth & dust it spread
 500 workers were there that day – mostly immigrant women,
some as young as 12 and mostly from Russia, Italy, Germany
or Hungary
 Although a few escaped, most were trapped by the flames
and the locked doors
 More than 60 chose to jump rather than die in the flames and
24 died when a fire escape collapsed under the weight of the
women on it
 146 people died and thousands watched as women flung
themselves from the windows of the burning building
 Video
1912 – Bread &
Roses Strike
 Textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts – 25,000
 Slogan appeals to both fair wages and dignified
 Workers won pay increases and time and a quarter
pay for overtime and the promise of no discrimination
against the strikers
1914 – Ludlow Massacre
 An attack by the Colorado
National Guard on a tent colony
of 12,000 striking coal miners
and their families
 19-25 people died including at
least 2 women and 11 children
who were asphyxiated and
burned to death in a single tent.
 The leader of the strike and two
other miners were found - shot
in the back
 Congress responded to the
public outcry by launching an
 Big Bad John
1915 – Joe Hill – IWW martyr
 Union organizer and IWW activist
 Convicted of murder in a Utah court
 International campaign to have his conviction reversed
– the daughter of a former Mormon church president,
Samuel Gompers, President Woodrow Wilson
 Executed by firing squad – according to a member of
the firing squad, Hill gave the command “Fire” himself
 “Goodbye Bill, I die a true rebel. Don’t waste time
mourning, organize!”
 Became bigger in death than in life
1919 – Boston Police Strike
1919 – Steel Strike
1919 - Deportations

Labor Unions & Strikes