A Brief History of Labor in America - Part I

The following article was originally published in the Fall 1996 issue of Working People.

"History gives us a kind of chart, and we dare not surrender even a small rushlight in the darkness. The hasty reformer who does not remember the past will find himself condemned to repeat it."

John Buchan, The Nations of Today, 1923.

Most American workers are uneasy about the condition of work in todayís economy. They worry about job security, stagnant wages, longer work hours and shrinking benefits. But the desire for better working conditions is part of a continuum that traces back to the beginnings of the American labor movement.

If workers expect to see their lot improve, reforms need to be considered in terms of todayís economic and political environments. In addition, however, workers must also consider the often turbulent history of the American labor movement and the struggles of their forebears who won many of the benefits they enjoy today.

The Early Days of the New Nation

Some historians trace the roots of the labor movement to the guilds of the middle ages. But guilds were more akin to trade associations, largely limited to dealing with such issues as setting standards for product quality and the length of service apprentices would serve before becoming journeymen. The modern labor movementís roots are more accurately reflected in the breakdown of cottage industries, which occurred in the United States in the early 1800s.

The cottage industries that developed in colonial America were small businesses run by craftsmen working primarily out of their own homes. These businesses, largely dominated by males, included the production of such goods as furniture, pottery, baked goods, clothing, glass and shoes. In general, the goods produced were limited to only what was ordered by local townspeople and farm families who lived in the immediate vicinity.

Although the population of the U.S. was predominately rural at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the growth of the cities, particularly Americaís bustling seaports, lead to an increasing demand for laborers. Cottage industries relied largely on the apprentice system for its workers.

Under that system, a young man was accepted by a master craftsman to live with his family and learn a trade. The apprentice worked for the master craftsman for several years in exchange for his training and room and board.

After a designated number of years, the apprentice became a journeyman, who was then paid wages. Journeymen who were able to save enough money were then able to open their own shops and became master craftsmen.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, journeymen were beginning to form some local trade societies, the origin of the first labor unions and what was to become the organized labor movement. About this time, however, the pattern of work was also beginning to change. As settlers moved westward and the cities began their rapid expansion in the east, there was a considerable increase in the demand for goods.

The production of goods had to be expanded to supply a growing cadre of salesmen, known as "Yankee Traders," who began to carry goods to western settlers. These middlemen not only drove an increase in production but an increase in competition among craftsmen as these Yankee Traders looked for the lowest price for the goods they purchased. These salesmen were the original middlemen, buying goods at the lowest possible cost from producers in the cities and selling them on the frontier for as much as the market would bear.

While the demand for goods was increasing, the available pool of workers was increasing even faster. Waves of immigrants, seeking to escape poverty in Europe, streamed to American shores. Increased competition to sell goods to the Yankee Trader middlemen resulted in falling prices.

The availability of a large pool of immigrant labor resulted in fierce competition for jobs and a lowering of wages. Master craftsmen began to expand their shops in what was the beginning of the factory system in America. The close family type relationship that had characterized the colonial workshop, where apprentices learned a trade and became journeymen and eventually master craftsmen, began to rapidly fade into history.

The Factory System

It was the rise of the factory system that resulted in the real beginnings of the American labor movement. At the beginning of the 1800s, workers often labored 80 hours a week for pitifully low wages. But with the emergence of factories, conditions for workers actually got worse.

The first factories in the United States were textile mills, the first of which was built in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in 1790. Early factories employed large numbers of children and young women. During the early 1800s, it is estimated that as many as half of the workers in the mills were children, who worked the same hours as adults but for less wages.

While life in 1800s America is sometimes romanticized in the media, particularly through television, the reality is that for most Americans, life was a harsh existence. Most of the new immigrants who crowded into the major eastern cities had living conditions that were plainly awful.

With production by hand giving way increasingly to production in the factory, having a skill set was no longer a major requirement for work. A new class of unskilled laborer, called "free workers," worked 80 or more hours a week for pitifully low wages. After working long hours in the factories or on the docks, men, women and children would return to the run-down tenements that housed them, with whole families often living in one or two rooms. The names given to these slums often characterized the associated living conditions: Hellís Kitchen, the Bottoms, Shantytown.

The beginnings of the factory system, to become known as the Industrial Revolution, drastically changed the way in which Americans worked and lived. The new economy that was brought about by the Industrial Revolution was more complex and was to go through a series of growing pains on its way to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

A major economic recession known as the Panic of 1837 resulted in a general drop in wages during a time of rapidly increasing prices for essential goods. At the same time, some of the heaviest waves of immigrants were arriving in the U.S., reaching half a million per year by the mid-1800s.

With the drop in wages and accompanying increase in prices, particularly for food, it was necessary that every able bodied member in the family work in order to survive. Child labor continued to grow, with children not only populating the factories but the mines as well. And factory workers, in particular, found that their job didnít end when they left the factory.

During what were some of the darkest days in American labor history, workers, particulary in the garment industry, would often take their work home with them. It was common for families, after a twelve hour day in the factory, to continue work at home after dinner. The fininshed goods would then be turned in to the employer when the workers returned to the factory the next day.

While most workers suffered a life of hard labor, low wages and the ups and downs of a precarious economy, the nation continued to expand at a great rate. The second half of the nineteenth century saw the huge waves of immigration continue, including a large number of Chinese immigrants, who became the muscle for the building of the railroads across the West. Thousands of low-paid Chinese immigrants died from the hazardous and demanding work of laying rails through the mountains and across the deserts.

Although working conditions varied from one industry to another, most workers shared the condition of long hours, low pay and no job security. Through the mid-1800s, there were virtually no unions and no laws to provide worker protections.

Working conditions, whether in the factories, mines or building the railroads, were often hazardous. With the constant flood of immigrants (3 million arrived between 1846 and 1855) and no laws providing worker protections, employers had little incentive to pay attention to worker concerns. But that began to change in the 1850s when trade unions, much as we know them today, began to develop.

Under the leadership of William Sylvis, the head of the Iron Molders Union, the National Labor Union emerged in the early 1860s as a federation of local unions which established a reform agenda that included reducing work hours. He and the National Labor Union have been credited with the establishment of an eight hour day for federal employees, approved by Congress in 1868. Sylvis, however, died in 1869 and within three years, the National Labor Union had been dissolved.

In 1874, a group of coal operators in Pennsylvania broke a contract they had with the coal miners by ordering a wage cut. The coal miners responded by walking out of the mines, which came to be known as the Long Strike of 1875. The operators, in retaliation, brought in strikebreakers and a paid security force to open the mines by force.

In the days and weeks that followed, the labor dispute turned violent. In was believed that violent acts committed by the miners were being carried out by a group of Irish immigrants known as the "Molly Maguires." Eventually, a group of 24 men were arrested and convicted, ten of which were hanged. The outcome severely dampened the minersí spirit and broke the strike and it was to be a long time before unions were to re-gain any power in the mining industry.

Before the National Labor Union had dissolved, another attempt to form a national federation of unions had already begun. By the early 1880s, the Knights of Labor, led by Pennsylvanian Terrence Powderly, boasted over 700,000 members.

The Knights of Laborís ambitious agenda included an eight-hour workday and an end to child labor. Like its precedessor the National Labor Union, however, the Knights of Labor was a relatively weak organization, in spite of its 700,000 members. The Knightís leadership was generally opposed to strikes but had little control over its regional organizations. After a successful strike against the Wabash Railroad in 1885, the Knights suffered a series of setbacks.

The most serious event which most prominently signalled the impending decline of the Knights of Labor was known as the "Haymarket Riot." In 1886, four workers were shot at the McCormick International Harvester Company plant in Chicago. During a protest meeting being held at Haymarket Square, a bomb went off, killing a policeman. A panic followed and the police opened fire on the crowd, killing ten people and wounding hundreds more. Branded as anarchists and socialists, public opinion turned against the unions. As a result, membership in the Knights of Labor began a rapid decline and in 1893, Terrence Powderly resigned, marking the end of the Knights of Labor.

In Part II of A Brief History of Labor in America, weíll begin with the start of the modern labor movement - the creation of the American Federation of Labor in 1886.