Government and Labor

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Government and Labor


Labor Protests. Throughout the post-Civil War era, critics of monopolies and industrial capitalism protested the growing impersonality of the factory system and the long hours and grueling conditions workers endured for little pay. The membership of the largest workers organization, the Knights of Labor, founded in 1869, reached a high point during the 1880s, with about seven hundred thousand members in 1886. The Knights of Labor opposed the traditional wage system, favoring alternatives such as worker cooperatives in which there would be no employers or employees, and laborers would control the production and distribution of the produets they made. Many Americans viewed unions and other labor organizations as radical, fearing that they preached class warfare and called for too much governmental control over industry. Both houses of Congress, the presidents, and the courts objected to labor organizing and resisted any shift in power away from employers to workers. Those who controlled the two major parties at state and federal levels resisted any efforts to regulate hours, working conditions, or wages, arguing that the private contract between worker and employer could not be violated.

The Eight-Hours League. The campaign for a shorter workday gained momentum during the 1880s. The Eight-Hours League advocated a natural rhythm of eight hours for work, eight for sleep, and eight for leisure, a dramatic challenge to the typical twelve-hour workday and six-day workweek. League members boycotted produets made in shops with workdays of more than eight hours and attended social events supporting the eight-hour movement. During the first week of May 1886, more than 190,000 workers nationwide walked off their jobs to protest long hours, winning shorter workdays for more than 150,000 workers. Among them were workers at the McCormick Harvester plant south of Chicago, where violence erupted on 3 May, with police firing into a crowd of workers, killing one man and seriously wounding others. The shorter-hours campaign ended in tragedy on 4 May 1886 at Haymarket Square in Chicago. At a mass demonstration called to protest the

events at the Harvester plant and to support the eight-hour day, a bomb killed a policeman and wounded seventy-six others (six of whom later died from their injuries), and the Chicago police retaliated by starting to shoot into the crowd, killing one demonstrator and wounding at least twelve others, some of whom died soon after. The incident was widely described by newspapers as the first stirrings of a violent revolution by radical workers. After a dramatic, closely watched trial of eight anarchists, during which the prosecution produced no evidence linking the defendants to the riot, the court sentenced seven of the anarchists to death and one of them to fifteen years in prison. Four were hanged in 1887; one committed suicide; and three lingered in jail until Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld pardoned them in 1893.

Aftermath. The Haymarket incident, the trial, and the controversy surrounding Altgelds pardon brought to national attention the deep division of opinions on labor issues and the widening gaps between rich and poor, capitalist and worker. Labor supporters claimed that cities across the country used the Haymarket affair as an excuse to shut down workers legitimate expressions of their political will. Conservatives, on the other hand, saw the incident and the response of the Chicago police as necessary to ensure law and order. Employers associations shared information and resources in an attempt to rid their factories of troublesome union organizers. As the Knights of Labor went into decline as a result of these tactics, a rival trade organization, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), founded in December 1886 with Samuel Gompers as president, made significant gains in membership, especially after the economic depression of 1893. Unlike the Knights of Labor, the AFL organized only skilled workers and had a more cautious and conservative set of goals.

Government Response. During the 1890s state and federal governments increasingly responded to strikes by securing court injunctions against them and employing troops. The state militia ended the bloody strike at the Carnegie steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1892, and that same year federal troops were sent to enforce martial law during the silver strike at the Coeur dAlene mines in Idaho. President Grover Cleveland ordered federal troops to restore order during the Pullman strike of 1894, and Eugene V. Debs and other strike leaders were imprisoned.


Leon Fink, Working Mens Democracy: The Knights of Labor and American Politics (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983);

David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925 (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

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