A Modest History of American Labor




The deck had been stacked, and the odds always favored management.

I grew up in a union household. My dad, an active member of the United Steel Workers, tended white-hot pots of molten metal for Kaiser Aluminum. Because of his job, and union activities, I, his only daughter earned a university degree, and found a fulfilling, professional calling.

Because of the time and the place, (1950’s, Spokane) my dad provided for me the luxury of opportunity, with options neither my mother nor grandmother enjoyed. College, a degree in American History, and a professional career as a teacher.

I am eternally grateful.

Of course at the time, I didn’t fully grasp the actual price paid for my good life, but that four-year degree studying the past opened my eyes.

A fierce drama had played out generations before.  Courageous and determined workers faced relentless dangers, and open violence  litters America’s industrial past. Eventually the sacrifice contributed to the nation’s emergence as the world’s mightiest economic power with the highest standard of living.

Organizing could be particularly lethal. Union backers were threatened, assaulted, and eventually blacklisted, meaning no one else would hire them. It didn’t help that the general public bought into “The Gospel of Wealth,” a secular-sacred creed that insisted the rich were chosen by by God, and entitled to lord over the working class. equating laborers as no more than a cheap commodity, a disposable cog in the wheel of production.

Government at all levels fell in line with powerful owners, quashing any attempt by workers to organize, let alone strike for better conditions.

Andrew Carnegie particularly detested the working class, and even more the activists who threatened his control. For example, as a remedy to thwart organizers, he placed workers of different nationalities next to one another in his steel mills. Language barriers effectively frustrated organizers. Then there were corporate spies, and hired guns. When those measures failed, Carnegie locked out strikers, filling jobs with scab labor.

The Injunction proved a particularly nasty legal measure owners used. A state governor would claim interference of interstate commerce; meaning the Feds could move in to ensure the free transfer of mail and freight. Once sanctioned, federal troops were deployed, guns blazing into crowds of strikers, not much different than recent Civil War battles.

The most significant use of the injunction concerned the Pullman Strike of 1894. Workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company (think Wild Wild West railcar) sold their freedom to the company’s powerful owner, George Pullman. Laborers lived in his company town, Pullman, Illinois, where their wages were docked for utilities, rent, and other fees each month. During the Panic of 1893, when hourly wages were drastically cut, Mr. Pullman still deducted his same monthly payments. Demanding leniency the Pullman workers voted to strike.

Union leaders knew they had to avoid an injunction or the game was up. Seeking to avoid the possibility of military intervention, strikers took extra care that the trains continued to roll through Illinois. In solidarity, rail workers helped by unhooking Pullman Cars, parking them on side tracks, and reconnecting the rest of the train. Off they chugged leaving Mr. Pullman unamused.

Inevitably, the U.S. Attorney General at the time issued an injunction, ordering federal troops into the fray. Soldiers poured out of rail cars and opened fire, killing some thirty strikers, and wounding many more. The strike was broken, but the heavy-handed tactics used by Pullman left the general public uneasy.

Not that he cared.

Could a land that aspired to liberty, also check the tyranny of powerful industrialists?

Other disputes followed the same pattern; The Haymarket Riot, the Homestead Strike, the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado, and the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911 which killed nearly 150 immigrant girls.

Still, despite many violent setbacks, change began to come about for the working class. When Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, he championed some real reforms. In 1902 when a coal strike threatened the coming winter supplies, TR stepped in.

At first the mine owners refused to recognize the United Mine Workers as an authority and refused to budge.

In response, Roosevelt essentially sided with the mine workers. He threatened the owners, warning he was willing to send the army in, but this time to work coal fields, and calm a worried public. In short the owners were obliged to sit down with leaders and negotiate.

This President was not blind to the threat of social and economic unrest in Europe, and he did not want it to happen here.

Today Unions are still vilified by many. But organized labor has played an important role in the nation’s development. The suffering and sacrifice of those before, must be remembered.

In partnership with capital, unions shaped an American middle class where a blue collar guy could send his daughter to college.

BTW, industrial workers demanded and won the right to hold the Sabbath as a day of worship, not work. Those of the Jewish faith and Christian, securing the tradition of weekends, Saturday and Sunday.

Have a thoughtful Labor Day

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle.


Gail Chumbley


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…

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