Labor and Labor Movements

views updated


By the time of the Civil War, most American workers were wage earning employees, rather than independent farmers or business owners. Although only a minority of these workers belonged to unions, organized labor movements had powerful effects on American economy and politics throughout this period. Especially for agricultural workers in the South, but also for Northern workers, the Civil War and its aftermath served as an important turning point in the history of American labor and business-labor relations.

before the civil war

During the antebellum era, most Americans worked on farms. In the North and the Southern upcountry, men tended to work with grain production and larger animals, while women oversaw poultry, dairying, and gardening, as well as sewing and housework. On the plantations of the Southern low country, most of the work was performed by African-American slaves. By 1860, most slaves were occupied with the work of planting and harvesting cotton, the nation's number one export.

Even as millions of people continued to be occupied with agricultural work, more Americans came to be employed in services and industry. Among the first manifestations of the industrial revolution in the United States were early textile mills, such as those built in Lowell, Massachusetts. By the 1820s, hundreds of young women from New England farm families had moved to Lowell, where they ran the machines that turned raw cotton into finished textiles. In the years that followed, more textile mills and other factories were built in the North. By the 1850s, many of the workers in these factories were the men, women, and children of immigrant families from Ireland.

Industrialization, which pushed many kinds of manufacturing out of small workshops and into mechanized factories, threatened the livelihoods of skilled artisans. During the 1820s and 1830s, artisans in Northern cities formed General Trades' Unions, which resisted wage cuts and fought for a 10-hour workday and public schools. The high point of organized labor activism before the Civil War was during the period from 1834 to 1836, when there were major strikes by male and female workers in New York, Philadelphia, Lowell, and other cities and towns in the North.

war workers, 1861–1865

The Civil War demanded the labor of hundreds of thousands of Americans, who served as soldiers on the front lines and worked in military industries on the home front. Over the course of the war, three million men left farms and factories to serve as soldiers in the Northern and Southern armies. Hundreds of thousands more worked for government-run supply operations, military contractors and subcontractors in the private sector, and soldiers' aid organizations. In the end, few working adults in the North and South failed to contribute directly or indirectly to the mobilization for the Civil War.

In the North, where inflation caused prices to double by 1864, many workers suffered because their wages did not rise as fast as the cost of living. Workers responded to this problem by forming new organizations and demanding change. The thousands of seamstresses who were employed making soldiers' uniforms petitioned President Lincoln and the War Department to raise wages at government-run clothing plants. Other workers carried out strikes, which became increasingly common during the second half of the war. Some strikes by workers in military industries, such as one 1864 strike by employees of the North's largest cannon manufacturer, were ended forcibly by troops. The Civil War experience led more Northern workers to join unions for they saw themselves as having distinctly different interests from their employers.

revolutionary change in the post-emancipation south

Between 1863 and 1865, nearly four million African Americans in the South were freed. For them, the Civil War was a revolutionary event. Because former slaves refused to return to working in gangs on large plantations, families now farmed on smaller plots of rented or sharecropped land. Free from the direct coercion of slavery, many former slaves chose to work fewer hours; mothers and children now performed less heavy labor in the fields. Despite these changes in the organization of work and the lives of workers in the South, however, many African Americans found themselves trapped in poverty by debts owed to landlords and merchants.

Many poor white farmers in the South, who turned to cotton production in the postbellum years, also found themselves trapped in a cycle of long-term tenancy and debt. Because state laws protected the property rights of landlords and merchants and because world cotton prices stayed low, most tenant farmers stayed poor. By the 1880s, many black and white farmers in the South (like their counterparts in the West) were attracted to the programs of the Farmers' Alliance, which encouraged cooperation among small farmers to free them from debt. During the early 1890s, many Farmers' Alliance members voted for the People's Party (Populists), an important third party movement that represented the interests of small farmers, farm workers, and factory workers.

organized labor in late nineteenth century america

In the post-Civil War North, as more workers moved to cities and worked in factories, open conflict between labor and business became more common and more violent. The most important labor organization in the early Reconstruction period was the National Labor Union (NLU), created in 1866, which fought for the 8-hour day and tried to organize workers' cooperatives. Although the NLU fell apart by 1873, many former NLU members worked during the 1870s to support the Greenback party, which argued that the Republicans' plan for returning to the gold standard was good for rich bankers but bad for most farmers and workers.

The twenty-year period after the national centennial in 1876 witnessed the most violent labor-business conflicts in American history. In 1877, after railroad workers around the country used strikes to protest wage cuts, over 100 people were killed in clashes between workers, police, and soldiers in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and other cities. Other bloody labor-business conflicts during this period, each of which left at least ten people dead, included disputes associated with strikes and lockouts at the large factories of the McCormick Harvester Company (Chicago, 1886), Carnegie Steel (Homestead, Pennsylvania, 1892), and the Pullman Company (Chicago, 1894).

In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, hundreds of thousands of immigrants came annually to this country, seeking job opportunities and a better life from what they had known at home. Many immigrants, especially Catholics, were not welcome in existing labor organizations; in other cases, labor disputes arose over misunderstandings between newly arrived immigrant workers and those who considered themselves true Americans. Some immigrants, such as German workers, formed their own labor unions.

The two largest national labor organizations during the late nineteenth century, the Knights of Labor (KOL) and American Federation of Labor (AFL), had distinct programs and strategies. The KOL, which started as a secret society of Philadelphia workers in 1869, was organized by workers into mutual aid societies and cooperatives. By 1886, when it was led by Terence Powderly and counted 700,000 members, the KOL had become an inclusive national organization that welcomed women and African Americans as well as socialists and trade unionists. By this time, the KOL had entered the field of electoral politics and succeeded in winning dozens of local elections across the country. But in the late 1880s, the power of KOL declined sharply due to poor leadership decisions and counterattacks by employers. By 1890, the biggest national labor organization was the AFL, founded in 1886 by Samuel Gompers. A less diverse organization than the KOL, the AFL stayed out of electoral politics and concentrated on improving wages and working conditions for members of craft unions. It would continue to be the most important national labor organization in the United States into the twentieth century.

From the cotton South to the industrial North, the Civil War and the three decades that followed proved to be the most dramatic period in the history of American labor. While historians do not credit the Civil War with making America an industrialized society, that war nevertheless remains a watershed marking the transformation of the United States. In general terms, prior to the war the nation was divided between a planter economy based on slavery in the South and a Northern economy based on agriculture and small manufacturing enterprises. The period after the Civil War saw not only the end of slavery, but the rise of influential new labor organizations across the country and business-labor disputes of unprecedented violence. These key developments of the late nineteenth century defined the history of American labor until the years of the Great Depression and New Deal in the 1930s, which would redefine the relationship between American workers, employers, and government.


Laurie, Bruce. Artisans into Workers: Labor in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Hill and Wang, 1989.

Licht, Walter. Industrializing America: The Nineteenth Century. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Montgomery, David. Beyond Equality: Labor and the Radical Republicans, 1862–1872. New York: Knopf, 1967.

Palladino, Grace. Another Civil War: Labor, Capital, and the State in the Anthracite Regions of Pennsylvania, 1840–68. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Reidy, Joseph P. From Slavery to Agrarian Capitalism in the Cotton Plantation South: Central Georgia, 1800–1880. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Voss, Kim. The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Mark R. Wilson

See also:Economic Change and Industrialization.