A Modest History of American Labor


I grew up in a union household. And truth be told, the benefits of the Steel Workers Union saw me through college, making my career in education possible. Through a combination of post-war prosperity, cheap hydro power from the Columbia River, and full industrial production at Kaiser Aluminum, my life took an affirming and enriching path. Of course at the time, I didn’t understand the real cost paid for my good life, until I taught Labor History to high school juniors. What I found in my research was a story of real people enduring violence and intimidation that, in the end, made possible the emergence of America as the world’s greatest economic power.

Labor strikes in the 19th Century were especially bitter, bathed in violence and bloodshed. Operating under the creed of “The Gospel of Wealth,” entitled industrialists viewed workers as a cheap and plentiful commodity, no more than a cog in mass production. Governments at all level consistently lined up with owners to quash any attempts labor made to organize or strike for better conditions.

Andrew Carnegie detested upstart workers, and to preclude organizing placed workers of different nationalities next to each other on the line. Languages barriers removed the threat.

Another handy legal device, the Injunction, permitted a way for state governors to utilize Federal troops in quelling labor’s efforts. A governor could claim interstate commerce was blocked impeding state to state transportation of mail and freight. Once troops were deployed, guns blazing into crowds of strikers, any chance for resolution ended violently.

The most vivid use of the injunction concerned the Pullman Strike of 1894. Employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company found their lives dominated by the company’s powerful owner, George Pullman. Workers lived in his company town, Pullman, Illinois, paying utilities, rent, and other fees each month to the industrialist. When workers wages were drastically cut in the Panic of 1893, Mr. Pullman still demanded his same monthly payments. Assisted by the American Railway Union, the Pullman workers voted to strike demanding fairness during the economic downturn. Strike leaders knew they had to avoid an injunction at all costs. So to avoid the possibility of inviting trouble, the strikers took care that the trains continued moving through the state. Rail workers aiding the Pullman strikers simply unhooked the Pullman Cars, parking them on side tracks, reconnecting the rest of the train cars and continuing business. Mr. Pullman was not amused.

Soon the U.S. Attorney General issued the inevitable injunction, dispatching federal troops to enter the fray. In the end, soldiers opened fire, killing some thirty strikers, and wounding many more. This strike ended, but this time the heavy-handed tactics used by Pullman left the general public uneasy. In a land that touted liberty and freedom, the imperial power flexed by the powerful industrialist seemed un-American.

Other labor disputes followed the same pattern; The Haymarket Riot in 1886 resulted in a number of hangings, the Homestead Strike of 1892 was broken up by an army of hired guns, and the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911 that killed nearly 150 immigrant girls, and so many more.

Still, despite many violent setbacks, the suffering endured by labor had a positive effect. When Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, he brought about remarkable changes. In 1902 an anthracite coal strike threatened the well being of a nation facing the coming winter with scarce coal supplies. The miners were demanding recognition of their union, better wages and safety conditions, and a shorter work day. But the mine owners wouldn’t budge, refusing to dignify the authority of the union to represent anyone. But those owners didn’t understand who they were dealing with in Theodore Roosevelt.

Essentially TR, aided by his native sense of justice, sided with the workers. Through a convoluted set of ongoing circumstances the President pressured the owners to acquiesce to miner demands. At bottom, Roosevelt, (who referred to many capitalists as “the wealthy criminal class,”) worried about a socialist revolution in America similar to the unrest in Europe, especially in Russia. His mantra, The Square Deal meant all Americans; even the lowliest day laborer, native born or immigrant, should not suffer unjust exploitation from the rich.

Today Unions are frequently vilified by many. Yet the affirming role to the nation’s development is essential to remember. Labor Unions in partnership with capital made the American middle class possible, and in return the middle class has made the prosperity of this nation possible.

We all owe much to American Labor traditions, and not just on this particular three day weekend. Very early industrial workers demanded and won the Sabbath off as a day of worship—both Jews and Christians alike. Today we still enjoy that tradition in our weekend, Saturday and Sunday.

Have a thoughtful Labor Day

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January

One comment on “A Modest History of American Labor

  1. Reblogged this on Gail Chumbley and commented:

    Enjoy the weekend, compliments of the Labor Movement.

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