Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States from 1801-1809 had his eyes set on an agrarian society. Jefferson ideals supported that Americans should concentrate on farming as the economy’s base for production. This ideology remained in the early-nineteenth century when most Americans were still working on farms, Yeoman farmers were the center of the republican vision and Jefferson knew that agriculture was a vital factor that would determine the United States’s future.
Despite this America began industrializing and creating machines to make work easier, so many people left the farms and headed over to factories. Although the standard of living rose for the moderate well-to-do, laborers were still underpaid and left in gruesome conditions. With the boom-and-bust economy, all workers were susceptible to losing their job. The National Labor Union of 1866 was the first national organization to help support workers unionize, however, this attempt failed with the Panic of 1873 which had caused a recession and spike unemployment rates.
People of the upper and middle class became skeptical of union and associated them with radical views and anarchy. Especially those associated with the Molly Maguires. The ten hour work day persisted and laborers were desperate for unions since their working conditions were horrid. Bosses would intimidate workers from forming unions, workers and labor unions would use Karl Marx’s theory to challenge the growing capitalist economy. Tension would arise with strikes and riots which led into the Progressive era, a time in which social activism eradicated the problems caused by the Gilded Age. Organized labor was somewhat successful in improving the position of workers in the time period from 1875 to 1900.
Despite the strikes and minor improvements for industrial workers, big businesses took advantage of laborers with the introduction of new machinery, and corporations controlled the government molding them into pro-business factions in favor of a capitalist economy. When workers came together in unions they were set on increasing wages and shorter hours with a five day work week. These were called by the bread and butter goals, (Document A) represents the achievement of these goals by showing a push to the eight hour work day.
This was an overall success since the average daily hours were decreasing while the average daily wages were increasing. The chart shows a correlation between hours and wages and even though workers were seeing improvement from the raw scores, the change wasn’t drastic. In a span of 16 years the average daily hours only decreased by thirty minutes and over that same span, the average daily wages slowly increased by only 1.9 percent.
Samuel Gompers the leading man of the American Federation of Labor knew that in order to receive better treatment, striking occasionally by sacrificing could bring about change. He states “no tangible right has yet been achieved in the interest of the people unless it has been secured by sacrifices and persistency” (Document I). Gompers believed in bread and butter goals, since his union was exclusive, theoretically only skilled white men could be apart of it and they didn’t want to challenge the capitalistic ideals going on in the end of the 19th century, and that’s one of the reasons why the AFL was more successful than other unions. Even though organization such as the AFL were reaping some benefits, it is important to note that labor unions only contained around one-tenth of the industrial workers. While the union men were going on strikes in order to voice their opinions on the treatment they received in the workplace, people began to associate unions with violence. The result of the Homestead strike reported in (document G) shows the aftermath as violence between detectives and the laborers of Homestead turned into multiple fatalities.
In the end, the union took a strong defeat when the governor of Pennsylvania sent the National Guard around 8,000 men to Homestead. This was all because Henry Clay Frick announced another wage cut allowing turmoil to erupt at Homestead. In (document F) entitled “too many cooks spoil the broth” is another reason why labor unions were unsuccessful. Here we see a group of people fighting for the same purpose, but different for different reasons. It only goes to show that if unions try to compete with one another the result will not be substantial because they are fighting with emotion and not looking at the bigger picture.
Perhaps if they all worked as a cohesive front the result would be different but because of selfish reasons, labor unions couldn’t unite as one so they were destined for division since they all had different motives. “The strike is apparently hopeless, and must be regarded as nothing more than a rash and spiteful demonstration of resentment” (Document B). Since labor unions were approaching things with their own interests, only to realize that they were easily replaceable because of the shifting nature of the workplace. Many immigrants who were unskilled were here for the opportunity and after they made a buck they return to their native country.
The Great Railroad strike of 1877 which this document alludes to failed to accomplish its initial goal and damaged the reputation of labor organizations. Innovations like the Bessemer process which provided cheaper steel production and the mechanical reaper that made the cutting of grain uncomplicated can all be catalysts to the failure of labor unions. The reason being, workers were easily replaceable since machines could simply get the job done. Employees began signing contracts since big businesses wanted loyal workers who would drop their ties to labor organizations. ” I hereby further agree that I will, while in the employ of said company, render good and faithful service” (Document E). This idea placed workers in a set position since they couldn’t disobey their contract. If they did they would be unemployed and wouldn’t be able to work for a decent wage to support their families. In (document C), entitled “always killing the goose that lays the golden egg” show the ungratefulness of the workers.
In the cartoon the goose symbolizes capitalism. Since these big businessmen agreed with the ideas expressed surrounding capitalism, it just shows the egg which means a form of payment would be cut off since workers were killing the ones who were in control of the compensation. Shortly after he realizes what he’s done and the dead goose can’t supply him with his income, he won’t be able to survive and support his family. The final reason that deemed the union unsuccessful is the Pullman strike where “the national government, given power by the Constitution to regulate interstate commerce, has by express statute assumed jurisdiction over such commerce when carried upon railroads” (Document H).
Eugene V. Debs would encourage workers to walk off their jobs, however, George Pullman called the federal government to get the rail up and running. Debs and his followers were jailed for not abiding by the federal court’s injunction. This was a turning point that capitalized on the sources of labor weaknesses. It is safe to say labor unions were successful to a minimal extent. Labor unions were created due to big businesses cutting wages and this did not go well with the people.
During this time wealth was distributed and while corporations dominated the government. This allowed the prosperity to only help the elites and middle class. The laborers were cheated from the system since the government was pro-business. There was corruption in national, state and local government. Even with urban politics and the emergence of political machines, groups of bosses like William Tweed encouraged judicial corruption, and use the American people as his pawns. This was a way for Congressmen and big businessmen to concentrate all the money in the top 10% and widen the wealth gap, while workers formed unions to improve their working conditions.
Labor unions couldn’t have been a major success because of the industrialization that was taken place during this time period, a time of cutthroat competition to elevate those who were already fortunate.