Madelyn Baez Mr. KazlausAP United States History22 January 2107The Downfall of Labor UnionsFollowing the Reconstruction, American society began to develop technological advancements that would mark the beginning of the Second Industrial Revolution. In this newly developed society, the way that factories were run as well as the way consumer goods were produced would acquire a drastic change. Factory life in the late 19th century was by no means easy. Workers were often exploited by their employers and forced to work long hours in an unhealthy setting.
These factories would be unsanitary and dimly lit, making it a hazardous place to be, especially when working with heavy machinery. During this time, workers were either given an extremely short or non-existing break during their 10-hour shifts. With these increasingly unfair work conditions, came the rise of labor unions such as The Knights of Labor and The American Federation of Labor (AFL). The purpose of these unions was in to fight against employers in order to fix what were called “bread and butter” issues. These issues were things that all unions were fighting for, such as shorter work days and higher pay.
While they were meant to be a benefit to the workers, labor unions were generally unsuccessful. During their efforts to help laborers, the unions ended up becoming a disorganized group of people who could not come together with a long list of failed strikes. They were also portrayed in a negative light by the media/general population even though their intentions were good.
And in the end, the government would support businesses rather than the unions. When it came to achieving what were called “bread and butter” goals, labor unions were marginally successful at best. One of the main goals that labor unions wanted were shorter work days and higher pay. The general goal for the hours each worker had during their shift was generally 8 hours per day. As shown in Document A, a document that provides hours and wages of industrial workers, at the beginning of 1875, the average was 10 hours and during the span of 16 years, the hours decreased by a total of 30 minutes. The first shift in the hours occurred in the year of 1886, where labor unions went to strike for a shorter workday. Unfortunately, their 8 hour work day was not accomplished. For the next 5 years, the average workday continued to decrease by 10 minutes each year till the year of 1891, which is where the data stops.
It is also important to keep in mind that these averages include both skilled and unskilled laborers. Although it looks like the hours are slowly decreasing, this is only because skilled laborers worked fewer hours than the unskilled, therefore their data is slightly diluting the average even though there were more unskilled laborers employed than those that were skilled. During the same 16 year span, the average number for wages would increase and decrease from a total of 169.2 dollars to a total of 172.5 dollars in 1891. Although this may seem like a good thing, it’s not.
The chart omits two very important years. The first would be the year of the Panic of 1873. During this year promoters had ended up going beyond the markets ability to support them which in turn cause banks to give out too many loans that would not be paid back. This cause a national depression that would decrease wages. From the year 1897, where wages were at their lowest in this chart, and for the next decade, wages would increase by 34.6 dollars.
Despite this being a good thing, the next event to follow would not be. The next date that the chart omits is the year 1892. This year marks the start of one of the worst depressions in the 19th century. During this 4-year depression, caused by a number of factors including labor disorder, the wages would decrease again, much like the Panic of 1873. Another reason why labor unions weren’t successful was because of the fact that they couldn’t come together as one as well as bad media representation of them. In order for unions to succeed, they needed to find strength in numbers. Initially, with the Knights of Labor, led by Terence Powderly, there was a large number of workers who were able to come together.
The Knights of Labor did not reject people because of their skill level, race or gender. Samuel Gompers, the leader of the American Federation of Labor, realized this when he created his labor union. Due to the fact that the AFL was more exclusive, only accepting skilled workers and declining the unskilled, women and African Americans. This exclusion gave the AFL a small amount of leverage over employers since skilled workers were harder to replace.
But this small leverage did nothing to stop the media and population from seeing them in a negative light. In Document F, “Too Many Cooks Spoil The Broth”, which was published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, which tended to be biased and in favor of businesses, four different men are pictured fighting each other over a boiling pot labeled “labor interest”. Since there are too many groups trying to represent, their lack of unity ends up hurting their cause. To further weaken the image of the AFL, their involvement in the Haymarket Riot in 1887 further pushed the public’s perception of unions in a negative direction. During this strike for 8 hour work days, violence had erupted between protesters and the police.
It was during this time that anarchists, because of the usage of a bomb, became associated with labor unions. And because of the involvement, albeit a small one, of the anarchists and socialists, the public used that as their reasoning to paint labor unions as a common enemy. Another document that portrays the labor unions in a bad light is Document C, “Alway Killing the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs”. In this document, Thomas Nast has drawn Labor standing over an open goose labeled “Capital”. Labor has taken the golden eggs (wages) that the goose laid in his pocket and in the basket near his family. Behind him stands a man labeled “Communism” and in the back stands his family. In this document, Communism is portrayed as influencing Labor to go against capitalism and destroy it.
After Labor had cut open Captial and found nothing inside, Communism tells him, “Nothing in it after all, and here I thought it was full of them.” The quotation on the wall, “STRIKE STRIKE STRIKE AS THEY DID LAST JULY” is in reference to the Great Railroad strike which according to the Editorial of The New York Times is,”apparently hopeless, and must be regarded as nothing more than a rash and spiteful demonstration of resentment by men too ignorant or too reckless to understand their own interest…” (Document B). This document represents labor unions in a bad way because it points out its involvement with communism, a political theory in which there is no government, no social classes and there’s total equality, which sharply contrasts the current capitalist state of the nation. When it came to labor unions, striking was a major part of their agendas.
Samuel Gompers had advocated that “…unless they occasionally strike, or have the power to enter upon a strike, the improvements will all go to the employer and all injuries to the employees.
” (Document I). The strikes organized by the various labor unions during that time could have had the potential to create favorable conditions for workers but due to the way they were executed, most of them failed. Many of these strikes resulted in less support from the government and unfavorable conditions for workers. Just like newspapers, the government had favored businesses over the labor unions. In the 1894 Pullman strike, The American Railroad Union, led by Eugene V. Debs, had halted railway traffic- a major necessity during that time for the economy- when the Pullman Company town cut wages and left while leaving rent and prices on goods high. Riots had broken out and in the end, the strike failed.
When Eugene was brought into court, the Supreme Court had chosen to side with Pullman, claiming that, “…with the duty of keeping those highways of interstate commerce free from obstruction, for it has always been recognized as one of the powers and duties of a government to remove obstructions from the highway under its control…”(Document H) The lack of support from the government had caused the credibility of the labor unions to decrease. Failed strikes had also lead to ironclad oaths being created. An example of this would be in Document E, a Western Union Telegraph Company employee contract.
This contract, in short, states that the person applying for the job will remain loyal to their employer and give up any affiliation they might have with labor unions. Those who refused to comply with the terms laid out were blacklisted by employers making it increasingly difficult to find another job. Although labor unions had the right intentions when deciding to go on strike, they ended up doing a lot more harm than was needed. In conclusion, labor unions were marginally successful at best.
When it came to achieving the “bread and butter” goals they had started the process but didn’t come close to achieving the real goal. In the process of trying to achieve said goals, they became increasingly divided and disorganized. When they striked, they often failed which made the conditions for workers a lot worse than it needed to be and gave the media reason to portray them in a negative light to the public eye. They also didn’t have support when it came to the government. Just like the media, the government was very hostile towards labor unions.
Overall, labor unions had the right mindset with their goals but didn’t try to execute them in the right way.