Modern history

Workers and Farmers in the Age of Organization



John McLuckie worked at the Edgar Thompson Steel Works, Andrew Carnegie's plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania. A former miner, McLuckie earned $65 a month as an assistant steel roller. In this town of some eleven thousand residents, where nearly everyone worked for Carnegie, the popular McLuckie was twice elected mayor and headed the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, one of the largest unions in the country. Although McLuckie earned a relatively decent income for that time, steelworkers and other industrial laborers had little power over the terms and conditions under which they worked. Visiting fraternal lodges and saloons, where steelworkers congregated after grueling twelve-hour shifts, he spread the message of standing up to corporate leaders. "The constitution of this country," McLuckie declared, "guarantees all men the right to live, but in order to live we must keep up a continuous struggle."

In 1892 McLuckie faced the fight of his life when he battled with Carnegie and his plant manager, Henry Clay Frick, over wages and working conditions at the Homestead plant. Like Carnegie, the owners of a host of industries— including railroads, petroleum, textiles, cigarettes, communications, and electric power—had created giant organizations that produced great wealth but also reshaped the working conditions of ordinary Americans. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, workers who labored for these industrial giants sought greater control over their employment by organizing unions to increase their power to negotiate with their employers. The events that unfolded in Homestead in 1892 revealed that workers were vastly outmatched in their struggle with management.

Mary Elizabeth Clyens was the daughter of Irish Catholic parents who came to the United States as part of the great wave of Irish immigration that began in the 1840s. The sixth of eight children, Mary was raised in western Pennsylvania but moved to Kansas in 1870 to teach at a Catholic girls' school. There she met and married Charles L. Lease, a pharmacist turned farmer. The couple, however, could not support themselves and their four children through farming, and in 1883 the Leases moved to Wichita, where Charles returned to his original profession. In Wichita, Mary found a much wider scope to express her interests and beliefs than she had on the farm. She joined a variety of organizations and worked in support of Irish independence, women's suffrage, and movements to advance the cause of industrial workers and farmers exploited by big business, railroads, and banks.

Lease entered state and national politics through the Populist Party, which formed in 1890 to challenge the power of large corporations and their political allies, promote the interests of small farmers, and create an alliance between farmers and industrial workers. A mesmerizing speaker, she urged her audiences, according to reporters, to "raise less corn and more hell." In her book The Problem of Civilization Solved (1895), Lease offered a variety of remedies for late-nineteenth-century America's economic and political ills, including nationalizing railroad and telegraph lines, increasing the currency supply, and expanding popular democracy. She briefly served as president of the Kansas State Board of Charities when the Populists came to power in 1893, but her tendency to "raise hell" with elected officials in her party led to her removal from office. Following the collapse of the Populist Party in 1896, Lease and her family moved to New York City. She worked as a journalist, divorced her husband, and remained active as a speaker for educational reform and birth control until her death in 1931.

THE AMERICAN HISTORIES of John McLuckie and Mary Elizabeth Lease were linked by the economic and political forces that shaped the lives of both factory workers and farmers in industrialized America. Even though the culture of rural America was quite different from that of the nation’s industrial towns and cities, farmers and workers faced many of the same problems. Over the course of the late nineteenth century, both groups had seen control over the nature and terms of their work pass from the individual worker or farmer to large corporations and financial institutions. Both groups felt marginalized, dependent, and devalued. McLuckie and Lease were part of a larger effort by laborers and farmers to fight for their own interests against the concentrated economic and political power of big business and to regain control of their lives and their work.

Working People Organize

Industrialists were not the only ones who built organizations to promote their economic interests. Like their employers, working men and women also saw the benefits of organizing to increase their political and economic leverage. Determined to secure decent wages and working conditions, workers joined labor unions, formed political parties, and engaged in a variety of collective actions, including strikes. However, because workers’ organizations were beset by internal conflicts over occupational status, race, ethnicity, and gender and were no match for the powerful alliance between corporations and the federal government, they failed to become a lasting national political force. Workers fared better in their own communities, where family, neighbors, and local businesses were more likely to come to their aid.

Striking coal miners' wives protest the arrival of Pinkerton detectives in Buchtel, Ohio, 1884. The Granger Collection, New York

The industrialization of Labor

The industrialization of the United States described in chapter 16 transformed the workplace, bringing together large numbers of laborers under difficult conditions. In 1870 few factories employed 500 or more workers. Thirty years later, more than 1,500 companies had workforces of this size, including General Electric, International Harvester, Pullman Palace Car Company, and U.S. Steel. Just after the Civil War, manufacturing employed 5.3 million workers; thirty years later, the figure soared to more than 15.1 million. Most of these new industrial workers came from two main sources. First, farmers like the Leases who could not make a decent living from the soil moved to nearby cities in search of factory jobs. Although mostly white, this group also included blacks who sought to escape the oppressive conditions of sharecropping. Between 1870 and 1890, some 80,000 African Americans journeyed from the rural South to cities in the South and the North to search for employment. Second, the economic opportunities in America drew millions of immigrants from Europe over the course of the nineteenth century. Immigrant workers initially came from northern Europe, mainly from England, Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, the number of immigrants from southern and eastern European countries, such as Austria- Hungary, Greece, Italy, and Russia, had surpassed those coming from northern Europe.

Inside factories, unskilled workers, those with no particular skill or expertise, encountered a system undergoing critical changes, as small-scale manufacturing gave way to larger and more mechanized operations. Immigrants, who made up the bulk of unskilled laborers, had to adjust both to a new country and to unfamiliar, unpleasant, and often dangerous industrial work. A traveler from Hungary who visited a steel mill in Pittsburgh that employed many Hungarian immigrants compared the factories to penitentiaries. “In making a tour of these prisons,” he wrote, “wherever the heat is most insupportable, the flames most choking, there we are certain to find compatriots bent and wasted with toil.” Nor were any government benefits—such as workers’ compensation or unemployment insurance—available to industrial laborers who were hurt in accidents or laid off from their jobs.

Skilled workers, who had particular training or abilities and were more difficult to replace, were not immune to the changes brought about by industrialization and the creation of large-scale business enterprises. In the early days of manufacturing, skilled laborers operated as independent craftsmen. They provided their own tools, worked at their own pace, and controlled their production output. This approach to work enhanced their sense of personal dignity, reflected their notion of themselves as free citizens, and distinguished them from the mass of unskilled laborers. Mechanization, however, undercut their autonomy by dictating both the nature and the speed of production through practices of scientific management (see chapter 16). Instead of producing goods, skilled workers increasingly applied their craft to servicing machinery and keeping it running smoothly. One example of workers’ resistance to this loss of independence on the shop floor occurred in Lowell, Massachusetts. Responding to a new regulation requiring all employees to report to their jobs in work clothes at the opening bell and to remain there with the door locked until the closing bell, a machinist promptly packed his tools, quit, and told his boss that he had not “been brought up under a system of slavery.” While owners reaped the benefits of the mechanization and regimentation of the industrial workplace, many skilled workers saw such “improvements” as a threat to their freedom.

Still, most workers did not oppose the technology that increased their productivity and resulted in higher wages. Compared to their mid-nineteenth-century counterparts, industrial laborers now made up a larger share of the general population, earned more money, and worked fewer hours. During the 1870s and 1880s, the average industrial worker’s real wages (actual buying power) increased by 20 percent. At the same time, the average workday declined from ten and a half hours to ten hours. From 1870 to 1890, the general price index dropped 30 percent, allowing consumers to benefit from lower prices.

Yet workers were far from content, and the lives of industrial workers remained extremely difficult. Although workers as a group saw improvements in wages and hours, they did not earn enough income to support their families adequately. Also, there were widespread disparities based on job status, race, ethnicity, sex, and region. Skilled workers earned more than unskilled workers. Whites were paid more than African Americans, who were mainly shut out of better jobs. Immigrants from northern Europe, who had settled in the United States before southern Europeans, tended to hold higher-paying skilled positions. Southern factory workers, whether in textiles, steel, or armaments, earned less than their northern counterparts. And women, an increasingly important component of the industrial workforce, earned less than men. On average, women earned only 25 percent of what men did.

Between 1870 and 1900, the number of female wageworkers grew by 66 percent, accounting for about one-quarter of all nonfarm laborers. The majority of employed women, including those working in factories, were single and between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four. Overall, only 5 percent of married women worked outside the home, although 30 percent of African American wives were employed. Women workers were concentrated in several areas. White and black women continued to serve as maids and domestics. Others took over jobs that were once occupied by men. They became teachers, nurses, clerical workers, telephone operators, and department store salesclerks. Although these jobs were initially seen as opening up new opportunities for women, they soon became identified as “women’s work,” which meant lower pay and less potential for professional advancement. Other women toiled in manufacturing jobs requiring fine eye-hand coordination, such as cigar rolling and work in the needle trades and textile industry.

Women also turned their homes into workplaces. In crowded apartments, they sewed furs onto garments, made straw hats, prepared artificial flowers, and fashioned jewelry. Earnings from piecework (work that pays at a set rate per unit) were even lower than factory wages, but they allowed married women with young children to contribute to the family income. When sufficient space was available, families rented rooms to boarders, and women provided meals and housekeeping for the lodgers. Some female workers found other ways to balance work with the needs and constraints of family life. To gain greater autonomy in their work, black laundresses began cleaning clothes in their own homes, rather than their white employers’ homes, so that they could control their own work hours. In 1881 black washerwomen in Atlanta conducted a two-week strike to secure higher fees from white customers.

Manufacturing also employed many child workers. By 1900 about 10 percent of girls and 20 percent of boys between the ages of ten and fifteen worked, and at least 1.7 million children under the age of sixteen held jobs. Employers often exposed children to dangerous and unsanitary conditions. Although some children got fresh air working as newsboys, shining shoes, and collecting junk, most worked long, hard hours breathing in dust and fumes as they labored in textile mills, tobacco plants, print shops, and coal mines. In Indiana, young boys worked the night shift in dark, windowless glass factories. One of the adults working in a Rhode Island textile mill lamented: “Poor, puny weak little children are kept at work the entire year without intermission or even a month for schooling.” Children under the age of ten, known as “breaker boys,” climbed onto filthy coal heaps and picked out unprocessed material. Working up to twelve-hour days, these children received less than a dollar a day.

Women and children worked because the average male head of household could not support his family on his own pay, despite the increase in real wages. As Carroll D. Wright, director of the Massachusetts Bureau of the Statistics of Labor, reported in 1882, “A family of workers can always live well, but the man with a family of small children to support, unless his wife works also, has a small chance of living properly.” For example, in 1883 in Joliet, Illinois, a railroad brakeman tried to support his wife and eight children on $360 a year. They rented a three-room house for $5 per month and ate mainly bread and potatoes. A state investigator described the way they lived: “Clothes ragged, children half dressed and dirty. They all sleep in one room regardless of sex. The house is devoid of furniture, and the entire concern is as wretched as could be imagined.” Although not all laborers lived in such squalor, many wageworkers barely lived at subsistence level.

Although the average number of working hours dropped during this era, many laborers put in more than 10 hours a day on the job. In 1890 bakers worked more than 65 hours a week, steelworkers more than 66, and canners 77. In the steel industry, blast-furnace operators toiled 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. They received a day off every 2 weeks, but only if they worked a 24-hour shift. Given the long hours and backbreaking work, it is not surprising that accidents were a regular feature of industrial life. Each year tens of thousands were injured on the job, and thousands died as a result of mine cave-ins, train wrecks, explosions in industrial plants, and fires at textile mills and garment factories. Railroad employment was especially unsafe—accidents ended the careers of one in six workers.

Agricultural refugees who flocked to cotton mills in the South also faced dangerous working conditions. Working twelve-hour days breathing the lint-filled air from the processed cotton posed health hazards, especially for the very young and the elderly. Textile workers also had to place their hands into heavy machinery to disentangle threads, making them extremely vulnerable to serious injury. Wages scarcely covered necessities, and on many occasions families did not know where their next meal was coming from. North Carolina textile worker J. W. Mehaffry complained that the mill owners “were slave drivers” who “work their employees, women, and children from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. with a half hour for lunch.” The company supplied houses, but the occupants had “very little furniture, just a couple of beds. Just enough to get by on is about all we had.” Their meals usually consisted of potatoes, cornbread, and dried beans cooked in fat. This diet, without dairy products and fresh meat, led to outbreaks of pellagra, a debilitating disease caused by niacin (vitamin B3) deficiency.

Although wages and working hours improved slightly for some workers, employers kept the largest share of the increased profits that resulted from industrialization. In 1877 John D. Rockefeller collected dividends at the rate of at least $720 an hour, roughly double what his average employee earned in a year. Despite some success stories, prospects for upward mobility for most American workers remained limited. Unskilled workers might climb up the economic ladder during their lifetime, but usually not more than one rung. A manual worker might rise into the ranks of the semiskilled but would not make it into the middle class. And to achieve even this small upward mobility required putting the entire family to work and engaging in rigorous economizing, what one historian called “ruthless underconsumption.” The Horatio Alger “rags to riches” stories (see chapter 16) proved a myth for nearly all workers. Despite their best efforts, most Americans remained part of the working class.

Organizing Unions

Faced with improving but inadequate wages and hazardous working conditions, industrial laborers sought to counter the concentrated power of corporate capitalists by joining forces. They attempted to organize unions—groups of workers seeking rights and benefits from their employers through their collective efforts. Union organizing was prompted by attitudes that were common among employers. Most employers were convinced that they and their employees shared identical interests, and they believed that they were morally and financially entitled to establish policies on their workers’ behalf. They refused to engage in negotiations with labor unions (a process known as collective bargaining) and rejected unions as illegitimate organizations. Although owners appreciated the advantages of companies banding together to eliminate competition or to lobby for favorable regulations, similar collective efforts by workers struck them as unfair, even immoral. It was up to the men who supplied the money and the machines—rather than the workers—to determine what was a fair wage and what were satisfactory working conditions. In 1877 William H. Vanderbilt, the son of transportation tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, explained this way of thinking: “Our men feel that although I . . . may have my millions and they the rewards of their daily toil, still we are about equal in the end. If they suffer, I suffer, and if I suffer they cannot escape.” Needless to say, many workers disagreed. One of labor’s central demands was the institution of the eight-hour workday. The idea came from Great Britain, which had industrialized earlier in the nineteenth century. In 1817 the British socialist Robert Owen had summarized this demand as “Eight hours labor, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest.” This goal had not yet been achieved in Britain or the rest of industrial Europe when American labor activists picked it up in the 1860s, spreading the message through parades and rallies sponsored by Eight-Hour Leagues.

A growing number of working people failed to see the relationship between employer and employee as mutually beneficial. Increasingly, they considered labor unions to be the best vehicle for communication and negotiation between workers and owners. Though not the first national workers’ organization, the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor, founded by Uriah Stephens in 1869, initiated the most extensive and successful campaign after the Civil War to unite workers and challenge the power of corporate capitalists. “There is no mutuality of interests . . . [between] capital and labor,” the Massachusetts chapter of the Knights proclaimed. “It is the iron heel of a soulless monopoly, crushing the manhood out of sovereign citizens.” In fact, the essential premise of the Knights was that all workers shared common interests that were very different from those of owners. Thus the union excluded only those it believed preyed on citizens both economically and morally—lawyers, bankers, saloonkeepers, and professional gamblers.

The Knights did not enjoy immediate success. Their participation in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 (see chapter 14) drew some attention to the union, but the Knights did not really begin to flourish until Terence V. Powderly replaced Stephens as Grand Master of the organization in 1879. Powderly advocated the eight-hour workday, the abolition of child labor, and equal pay for women. Under his leadership, the Knights accepted African Americans, immigrants, and women as members, though they excluded Chinese immigrant workers, as did other labor unions. As a result, the Knights experienced a surge in membership from 9,000 in 1879 to nearly a million in 1885 (including John McLuckie), about 10 percent of the industrial workforce.

Rapid growth proved to be a mixed blessing. As membership grew, Powderly and the national organization exercised less and less control over local chapters. In fact, local chapters often defied the central organization by engaging in strikes, a labor tactic Powderly had officially disavowed. Nonetheless, with Powderly standing mainly on the sidelines, members of the Knights struck successfully against the Union Pacific Railroad and the Missouri Pacific Railroad in 1885. The following year, on May 1, 1886, local assemblies of the Knights joined a nationwide strike to press for an eight- hour workday, again without Powderly’s approval. However, this strike was soon overshadowed by events in Chicago that would prove to be the undoing of the Knights (Figure 17.1).

For months before the general strike, the McCormick Harvester plant in Chicago had been at the center of an often violent conflict over wages and work conditions. On May 3, 1886, police killed two strikers in a clash between union members and strikebreakers who tried to cross the picket lines. In response, a group of anarchists led by the German-born activist August Spies called for a rally in Haymarket Square to protest police violence. Consisting mainly of foreign-born radicals, anarchists believed that government represented the interests of capitalists and stifled freedom for workers.


Union Membership, 18701900 Union membership fluctuated widely in the late nineteenth century. After reaching a low point in 1880, the number of union members rebounded after organizing by the Knights of Labor. Membership plummeted in the years after the Haymarket Square incident of 1886 but soared again in the 1890s through the efforts of the American Federation of Labor and western miners.

Source: Data from Richard B. Freeman, "Spurts in Union Growth: Defining Moments and Social Processes" (working paper 6012, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, 1997).

Anarchists differed among themselves, but they generally advocated tearing down government authority, restoring personal freedom, and forming worker communes to replace capitalism. To achieve their goals, anarchists like Spies advocated the violent overthrow of government.

The Haymarket rally began at 8:30 in the evening of May 4 and attracted no more than 1,500 people, who listened to a series of speeches as rain fell. By 10:30 p.m., when the crowd had dwindled to some 300 people, 180 policemen decided to break it up. As police moved into the square, someone set off a bomb. The police fired back, and when the smoke cleared, seven policemen and four protesters lay dead. Most of the fatalities and injuries resulted not from the bomb but from the police crossfire after the explosion. A subsequent trial convicted eight anarchists of murder, though there was no evidence that any of them had planted a bomb or used weapons; four of them, including August Spies, were executed. Although Powderly and other union leaders denounced the anarchists and the bombing, the incident greatly tarnished the labor movement. Capitalists and their allies in the press attacked labor unionists as radicals prone to violence and denounced strikes as un-American. Following the Haymarket incident, the membership rolls of the Knights plunged to below 500,000. By the mid-1890s, the Knights had fewer than 20,000 members.

As the fortunes of the Knights of Labor faded, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) grew in prominence, offering an alternative vision of unionization. Instead of one giant industrial union that included all workers, skilled and unskilled, the AFL organized only skilled craftsmen—the labor elite—into trade unions. In 1886 Samuel Gompers, a British-born cigar maker, became president of the AFL. Gompers considered trade unions “the business organizations of the wage earners to attend to the business of the wage earners” and favored the use of strikes. No social reformer, the AFL president concentrated on obtaining better wages and hours for workers so that they could share in the prosperity generated by industrial capitalism. By 1900 the AFL had around a million members. It achieved these numbers by recruiting the most independent, highest-paid, and least replaceable segment of the labor force—white male skilled workers. Unlike the Knights, the AFL had little or no place for women and African Americans in its ranks.

As impressive as the AFL’s achievement was, the union movement as a whole experienced only limited success in the late nineteenth century. Only about one in fifteen industrial workers belonged to a union in 1900. Union membership was low for a variety of reasons. First, the political and economic power of corporations and the prospects of retaliation made the decision to sign up for union membership a risky venture. Second, the diversity of workers made organizing a difficult task. Foreign-born laborers came from many countries and were divided by language, religion, ethnicity, and history. Moreover, European immigrants quickly adopted native-born whites’ racial prejudices against African Americans. Third, despite severe limitations in social mobility, American workers generally retained their faith in the benefits of the capitalist system. The pervasive doctrine of success defined workers not as laborers locked into the lower class but as businessmen on the rise, each with the potential to become a Rockefeller or a Carnegie. Finally, the government used its legal and military authority to side with employers and suppress militant workers.

Southern workers were the most resistant to union organizing. The agricultural background of mill workers left them with a heightened sense of individualism and isolation. In addition, their continued connection to family and friends in the countryside offered a potential escape route from industrial labor. Finally, employers’ willingness to use racial tensions to divide working-class blacks and whites prevented them from joining together to further their common economic interests.

Clashes between Workers and Owners

Despite the difficulties of organizing workers, labor challenged some of the nation’s largest industries in the late nineteenth century. Faced with owners’ refusal to recognize or negotiate with unions, workers marshaled their greatest source of power: withholding their labor and going on strike. Employers in turn had powerful weapons at their command to break strikes. They could recruit strikebreakers and mobilize private and public security forces to protect their businesses. That workers went on strike against such odds testified to their desperation and courage.

Workers in the United States were not alone in their efforts to combat industrial exploitation. In England, laborers organized for better wages and working conditions. In 1888 in London, young women who worked as matchmakers staged a walkout to protest the exorbitant fines that employers imposed on them for arriving even one minute late to work. With community support, they won their demands. From 1888 to 1890, the number of strikes throughout Europe grew from 188 to 289. In 1890 thousands of workers in Budapest, Hungary, rose up to protest unsafe working conditions. European workers also campaigned for the right to vote, which, unlike white male American workers, they were denied on economic grounds.

In the United States in the 1890s, labor mounted several highly publicized strikes. Perhaps the most famous was the 1892 Homestead strike. Steelworkers at Carnegie’s Homestead, Pennsylvania, factory lived seven miles east of Pittsburgh and, like John McLuckie, played an active role in local politics and civic affairs. Residents generally believed that Andrew Carnegie’s corporation paid decent wages that allowed them to support their families and buy their own homes. In 1892 craftsmen earned $180 a month, and they appeared to have Carnegie’s respect. Others, like McLuckie, earned less than half that amount, and unskilled workers made even less.

In 1892, with steel prices falling, Carnegie decided to replace some of his skilled craftsmen with machinery, cut wages, save on labor costs, and bust McLuckie’s union, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, with which he had voluntarily negotiated in the past. Knowing that his actions would provoke a strike and seeking to avoid the negative publicity that would result, Carnegie left the country and went to Scotland, leaving his plant manager, Henry Clay Frick, in charge.

Fiercely anti-union, Frick prepared for the strike by building a three-mile, fifteen- foot-high fence, capped with barbed wire and equipped with searchlights, around three sides of the Homestead factory. A hated symbol of the manager’s hostility, the fence became known as “Fort Frick.” Along the fourth side ofthe factory flowed the Monongahela River. Frick had no intention of negotiating seriously with the union on a new contract, and on July 1 he ordered a lockout. Only employees who rejected the union and accepted lower wages could return to work. The small town rallied around the workers, and the union members won a temporary victory. On July 6, barge-loads of armed Pinkerton detectives, hired by Frick to protect the plant, set sail toward the factory entrance alongside the Monongahela. McLuckie, the head of the Amalgamated, denounced the Pinkertons as “a band of cutthroats, thieves, and murderers in the employ of unscrupulous capital for the oppression of honest labor.” From the shore, union men shot at the barges and set fire to a boat they pushed toward the Pinkertons. When the smoke cleared, the Pinkertons surrendered and hastily retreated onshore as women and men chased after them.

This triumph proved costly for the union. The battle left nine strikers and three Pinkerton detectives dead. Although community officials were on the workers’ side, Frick convinced the governor of Pennsylvania to send in state troops to protect the factory and the strikebreakers. On July 23, Alexander Berkman, an anarchist who had no connection with the union, entered Frick’s office and shot the steel executive in the neck, leaving him wounded but alive. The resulting unfavorable publicity, together with the state’s prosecution of the union, broke the strike. Subsequently, steel companies blacklisted the union leaders for life, and McLuckie fled Pennsylvania and wound up nearly penniless in Arizona. Ever the philanthropist, when Carnegie heard of McLuckie’s plight in 1900, he tried to give his former adversary some money anonymously. The proud and still defiant McLuckie declined the offer, but a friend of Carnegie’s arranged for an Arizona railroad to hire him as a machinery-repair superintendent.

Like Andrew Carnegie, George Pullman considered himself an enlightened employer who took good care of the men who worked in his luxury sleeping railcar factory outside Chicago. However, also like the steel titan, Pullman placed profits over personnel. In 1893 a severe economic depression prompted Pullman to cut wages without correspondingly reducing the rents that his employees paid for living in company houses. This dual blow to worker income and purchasing power led to a fierce strike the following year. The Pullman workers belonged to the American Railway Union, headed by Eugene V. Debs, who believed that labor organizing was an integral part of a worker’s rights of political and economic citizenship. After George Pullman refused to negotiate, the union voted to go on strike.

In the end, the Pullman strike was broken not by the Pullman company but by the federal government. The railroad managers association persuaded President Grover Cleveland’s attorney general, Richard Olney, a former railroad lawyer, that strikers were interfering with delivery of the U.S. mail transported by train. Cleveland ordered federal troops to get the railroads operating, but the workers still refused to capitulate. Olney then obtained an injunction (a court order) from the federal courts to restrain Debs and other union leaders from continuing the strike. The government used the Sherman Antitrust Act to punish unions for conspiring to restrain trade, something it had rarely done with respect to large corporations. Refusing to comply, Debs and other union officials were charged with contempt, convicted under the Sherman Antitrust Act, and sent to jail. The strike collapsed.

Debs remained unrepentant. After serving his jail sentence, he became even more radical. In 1901 he helped establish the Socialist Party of America. German exiles who came to the United States following revolutions in Europe in 1848 had brought with them the revolutionary ideas of the German philosopher Karl Marx. Marx argued that capital and labor were engaged in a class struggle that would end in a victory for the proletariat, the abolition of private property, and socialist rule. This revolution would come about through the violent overthrow of capitalist government and its replacement by communism. Marxist ideas attracted a small following in the United States, mainly among the foreign- born population. By contrast, other types of European socialists, including the German Social Democratic Party, which Marx denounced, appealed for working-class support by advocating the creation of a more just and humane economic system through the ballot box, not by violent revolution. Debs, born and raised in Terre Haute, Indiana, favored this nonviolent, democratic brand of socialism and managed to attract a broader base of supporters by articulating socialist doctrines in the language of cooperation and citizenship that many Americans shared. Debsian socialism appealed not only to industrial workers but also to dispossessed farmers and miners in the Southwest and Midwest.

Western miners had a history of labor activism, and by the 1890s they were ready to listen to radical ideas. Shortly after the Homestead strike ended in 1892, silver miners in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, walked out after owners slashed their wages by 15 percent. Employers refused to recognize any union, obtained an injunction against the strike, imported strikebreakers to run the mines, and persuaded Idaho’s governor to impose martial law, in which the military took over the normal operation of civilian affairs. The work stoppage lasted four months, resulting in the arrest of six hundred strikers, including their leader, Ed Boyce. Although the workers lost, the following year they succeeded in forming the Western Federation of Miners, a radical union that continued their fight.

The industrial Workers of the World (iWW), which emerged largely through the efforts of the Western Federation of Miners, sought to raise wages, improve working conditions, and gain union recognition for the most exploited segments of American labor. The IWW, or “Wobblies” as they were popularly known, offered an alternative to Samuel Gompers’s American Federation of Labor by attempting to unite all skilled and unskilled workers in an effort to overthrow capitalism. The Wobblies favored strikes and direct-action protests rather than collective bargaining or mediation. At their rallies and strikes, they often encountered government force and corporation-inspired mob violence. Nevertheless, the IWW had substantial appeal among lumberjacks in the Northwest, dockworkers in port cities, miners in the West, farmers in the Great Plains, and textile workers in the Northeast. Of their 150 strikes, the most successful ones involved miners in Goldfield, Nevada (1906—1907); textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts (1912); and silk workers in Paterson, New Jersey (1913).

Even though industrialists usually had state and federal governments as well as the media on their side, workers continued to press for their rights. Workers used strikes as a last resort when business owners refused to negotiate or recognize their demands to organize themselves into unions. Although most late-nineteenth-century strikes failed, striking unionists nonetheless called for collective bargaining, higher wages, shorter hours, and improved working conditions—an agenda that unions and their political allies would build on in the future.

Working-Class Leisure in industrial America

Despite the economic hardships and political repression that industrial laborers faced in the late nineteenth century, workers carved out recreational spaces over which they had control and that offered relief from their backbreaking toil. Time clocks, often viewed as an annoying part of scientific management, nevertheless clearly emphasized the difference between working and nonworking hours. For many, Sunday became a day of rest that took on a secular flavor.

Working-class leisure patterns varied by gender, race, and region. Women did not generally attend spectator sporting events, such as baseball and boxing matches, which catered to men. Nor did they find themselves comfortable in union halls and saloons, where men found solace in drink. Working-class wives preferred to gather to prepare for births, weddings, and funerals or to assist neighbors who lost their homes because of fire, death, or greedy landlords.

Once employed, working-class daughters found a greater measure of independence and free time by living in rooming houses on their own. Women’s wages were only a small fraction of men’s earnings, so working women rarely made enough money to support a regular social life along with paying for rent, food, and clothes. Still, they found ways to enjoy their free time. Some single women went out in groups, hoping to meet men who would pay for drinks, food, or a vaudeville show. Others dated so that they knew they would be taken care of for the evening. Some of the men who “treated” on a date assumed a right to sexual favors in return, and some of these women then expected men to provide them with housing and gifts in exchange for an ongoing sexual relationship. Thus emotional and economic relationships became intertwined in complicated ways.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, dance halls flourished as one of the mainstays of working-class communities throughout the nation. Huge dance palaces that held three thousand to five thousand people were built in the entertainment districts of most large cities. They made their money by offering music with lengthy intermissions for the sale of drinks and refreshments. Women and men also attended cabarets, some of which were racially integrated. In so-called red-light districts of the city, prostitutes earned money entertaining their clients with a variety of sexual pleasures.

Not all forms of leisure were strictly segregated along class lines. A number of forms of cheap entertainment appealed not only to working-class women and men but also to their middle-class counterparts. By the turn of the twentieth century, most large American cities featured amusement parks. Brooklyn’s Coney Island stood out as the most spectacular of these sprawling playgrounds of fun and excitement. In 1884 the world’s first roller coaster was built at Coney Island, providing thrills to those brave enough to ride it. Chicago residents could enjoy the Ferris wheel, which appeared at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Designed by George Ferris, who operated a firm specializing in structural steel, the wheel rose 250 feet in the air, was propelled by two 1,000-horsepower steam engines, and accommodated 1,440 riders at a time.

Vaudeville houses—with their minstrel shows (whites in blackface) and comedians, singers, and dancers—brought howls of laughter to working-class audiences. Nickelodeons charged five cents to watch short films. Live theater generally attracted more wealthy patrons; however, the Yiddish theater, which flourished on New York’s Lower East Side, and other immigrant-oriented stage productions appealed mainly to working-class audiences.

Southern workers also enjoyed music in their leisure time. Cheap banjoes and fiddles were mass-produced by the end of the nineteenth century. Pianos also became readily available, and one mountain boy, on hearing a piano for the first time, commented that it was the “beautifullest thing he had ever heard.”

Trocadero Music Hall, 1893 The Trocadero Music Hall in Chicago opened in 1893 to attract people attending the city's upcoming World's Fair. It provided a mix of classical music and exotic European variety acts, as shown above, but drew really huge audiences with the appearance of Eugene Sandow, a body builder who exhibited feats of great physical strength. Library of Congress

Itinerant musicians entertained audiences throughout the South. Lumber camps, which employed mainly African American men, offered a popular destination for these musicians. Each camp contained a “barrelhouse,” also called a “honky tonk” or a “juke joint.” Besides showcasing music, the barrelhouse also gave workers the opportunity to “shoot craps, dice, drink whiskey, dance, every modern devilment you can do,” as one musician who played there recalled. From the Mississippi delta emerged a new form of music—the blues. W C. Handy, “the father of the blues,” discovered this music in his travels through the delta, where he observed that southern blacks “sang about everything. Trains, steamboats, steam whistles, sledge hammers, fast women, mean bosses, stubborn mules.” They performed these songs of woe accompanying themselves with anything that would make a “musical sound or rhythmical effect, anything from a harmonica to a washboard.” Meanwhile in New Orleans, an amalgam of black musical forms evolved into jazz. Musicians such as “Jelly Roll” Morton experimented with a variety of sounds, putting together African and Caribbean rhythms with European music, mixing pianos with clarinets, trumpets, and drums. Blues and jazz spread throughout the South, appearing in juke joints in Atlanta and Memphis, where men and women danced the night away.

In mountain valley mill towns, southern white residents preferred “old time” music, but with a twist. Originally enjoyed by British settlers, traditional ballads and folk songs concerned the deeds of kings and princes; rural southerners modified the lyrics to extol the exploits of outlaws and adventurers. Country music, which combined romantic ballads and folk tunes to the accompaniment of guitars, banjoes, and organs, emerged as a distinct brand of music by the twentieth century. As with African Americans, in the late nineteenth century working-class and rural whites found new and exciting types of music to entertain them in their leisure. Religious music also appealed to both white and black audiences and drew crowds to evangelical revivals held in tents on acres of grass fields.

Mill workers also amused themselves by engaging in social, recreational, and religious activities. Women visited each other and exchanged confidences, gossip, advice on child rearing, and folk remedies. Men from various factories organized baseball teams that competed in leagues with one another. Managers of a mill in Charlotte, North Carolina, admitted that they “frequently hired men better known for their batting averages than their work records.”


• How did industrialization change the American workplace? What challenges did it create for American workers?

• How did workers resist the concentrated power of industrial capitalists in the late nineteenth century, and why did such efforts have only limited success?

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