Labor battles in the Gilded Age

Gilded Age capitalism and the rise of unions

In the late nineteenth century, industrial capitalism was new and often dangerous. Workers lost their lives in accidents at work. Unions arose to represent the workers.

Strikes and strikebreaking: The Homestead Strike

In 1892, the manager of the Homestead Steelworks outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania wanted to break the union of skilled steel workers who controlled elements of the workflow and slowed output. He locked the members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (AA) out of the Homestead Steelworks. The AA called a strike.

The factory brought in strikebreakers (commonly called scabs). But they weren’t any old strikebreakers: they were armed men from the Pinkerton detective agency. They pushed past striking workers and forcibly reopened the steelworks.

At one point, gunfire broke out between striking workers and some of the three hundred Pinkerton detectives. Several people on both sides were killed. The Pinkertons gave up.

Five days later, the governor dispatched state militiamen to reopen the plant. The state government had sided with the owners, defeating the union.

The Pullman Strike

The Pullman was a popular railroad sleeping car. They were built in a company town outside Chicago, where the 12,000 employees worked and lived. In 1894, there was a general economic downturn. Pullman cut workers’ wages without also proportionally reducing rents on the company-owned houses or prices of goods sold in the company-owned stores. The workers called a strike.

The Pullman Strike spread and became a nationwide railroad strike. The American Railway Union called out workers on railroads across the country in sympathy with Pullman workers.

The railroad companies placed bags of US Mail onto trains and then declared that the American Railway Union was illegally obstructing the delivery of the United States mail. US President Grover Cleveland sent troops, allegedly to protect the US Mail. Strike leaders were imprisoned when they refused to abide by a court-ordered injunction to end the strike. The courts upheld the injunction, ending the strike. The federal government had sided with employers in a labor-management dispute.

The federal government and the labor movement

As a nation equally committed to both capitalism and the rights of individuals, the United States has struggled to balance the needs of corporations and the needs of workers.

Government in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often sided with management and against unions. The balance would shift somewhat during the twentieth century.

Source: Labor battles in the Gilded Age
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