Segment descriptions
Topics in American History Series
Labor, Part 1    

                Description: Labor 3

Labor, Part 1
        sampler  6-14   (83 lecture)

What is the wide range of ways workers respond
to the abysmal living and working conditions of
the Early Industrial Era in America?

                          play sampler


Pre-Industrial Era


The U.S. is an agricultural country until the industrial era.  In Colonial America, the work force consists mainly farm labor including indentured servants who can become independent farmers after they work off their debt.  In the coastal cities there are some low level industrial jobs in shipping and businesses.  The beginning of worker associations in response to harsh conditions. 


After the American Revolution.  America is not a classless society.  In the North the merchants in urban areas are the Master Class with its underclass workers called Mechanics.  In the South planters are the Master Class with poor whites and slaves as its underclass. 


Beginnings of manufacturing.  At the end of the 18th and beginning of 19th centuries mill towns spring up along the rivers.  The rivers are a source of power, transportation, source to dump manufacturing wastes, and paradoxically, a source of drinking water. 


Beginnings of labor unrest.  Women are recruited to work in the Lowell mills from the age of 15 until 30.  Men are working in nearby factories.  Labor associations begin to organize for bread-and-butter issues, leaving a history of labor unrest.




Industrial Era


The Civil War is a turning point for major industrialization, with the rise of technology and the birth of the factory system, especially in the last 1/3 of the 19th century.


New immigration to fill labor needs, 1880 to early 1900s, mainly from southern and eastern Europe and Irish peasants.  Competition for jobs including railroad building and coal mining with earlier immigrants from western and southern Europe.  Catholics are despised by earlier Protestant arrivals.  The issues behind the draft riots of 1863 by Irish. 


Blossoming of the industrial giants.  Now there is a full-fledged industrial labor, including housing for workers.  Workers are living in primitive conditions.  Working conditions are very harsh -- long workdays and workweeks with extremely low wages, and child labor.  There is no protection from or compensation for disease or accidents.  Factory tasks are fragmented, offer no pride in work, in contrast with farming. 




The Labor Movement


Workers respond to conditions with apathetic hopelessness, upward aspirations (although there is little prospect for improvement in the early industrial era), rags-to-riches fantasy reflected in the popularity of the Horatio Alger stories, and also resistance. 


Unions organize to provide collective leverage not available to individual workers.  Reconstruction ends in the South in 1877 and federal troops are shifted for strike-breaking in the North. 


The violent episode of the Molly McGuires. 


The AFL is formed in 1880s incorporating skilled workers, and led by Samuel Gompers for 40 years.  It accepts the capitalist system, wants a bigger piece of the pie.  Gompers is enticed to cooperate with newer more sophisticated business leaders which emerge later in the 19th century. 


Socialist movements from Europe, utopian or individual, believe the capitalist system is inherently unjust, is also homegrown by Eugene Debbs. 


The pattern of repeated strike violence by either side, but always blamed on the workers by upper class-controlled media, turns the public against labor.  Pullman Car workers strike in 1894 during a then depression and are joined by railroad workers.  The governor of Illinois chooses not to intervene but President Cleveland finds a reason to send troops.  Violence occurs and union leaders are jailed.  Debbs comes out of prison, runs for President and shows surprising strength early in the 20th century.   


The union defeats in 1886 Chicago Haymarket strike and especially the Carnegie iron and steel plant strike in Homestead, Pennsylvania, set back union efforts until1919 when they are defeated again, not to succeed until 1937. 


Early 20th century.  The 1902 Anthracite Coal Strike is led by John
Mitchell against a wage cut and is opposed by a company that believes its property rights are God-given.  President Theodore Roosevelt intervenes, forces the owners to negotiate and a settlement is reached.
President Roosevelt's motives are questioned. 


Family size. The number of children in higher class families decreases.  Family size increases in working class families because a child is put out to work at the age of 6 to add family income. 


Family church attendance.  Despite the comfort of religion promising an after-life, family church attendance declines.  The sermon's messages include: obey the owners, life is suffering, living in sin, accept your fate.