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Labor in Late 19th Century America Essay

In the nineteenth century, the life of the working class in America was not easy. The wages were low. The working conditions were hazardous and sometimes even dangerous. People had to work long hours just to be able to make ends meet. Even women and children were involved in the working process. However, despite all workers’ efforts, they had “little of the wealth which the growth of the nation had generated” (“The Struggle of Labor” par. 1). This period of American history is characterized by the mass discontent of the population and numerous labor strikes. What were the causes of those, how did they emerge, and how successful they were?

The Background: Factors that Led to the Rise of the Labor

Industrialization and Deskilling

One of the primary reasons for labor unions to emerge was the technological development. It resulted in the situation when machines made the majority of goods and products, so highly skilled craftspeople were no longer needed (“Rise of Industrial America” par. 2). Instead of doing their works, those highly skilled craftspeople watched machines knitting socks and sewing dresses, “seeing a product through from beginning to end” (“Rise of Industrial America” par. 3). Factories at that time wanted only ordinary workers who were supposed to do one or two simple and routinely repetitive tasks. Additionally, the pace of work became faster and faster, and all of this resulted in workers doing too much of work for too long hours.

Increased Number of Women and Children in the Work Force

The process of deskilling, in its turn, lead to another problem – an increasing number of women and children among factory workers. Since they were able to do simple work, which demanded practically no skills, and could be paid with lower wages than men usually had, factories willingly recruited them. Because of the high level of poverty, women and children simply had not any other option than to take that offer. After 1880, the women’s employment almost doubled in comparison with previous years, and by the end of the nineteenth century, they made up more than one-fifth of all manufacturing workers (“Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Economic Trends” par. 10). The number of working children doubled by the end of the century as well (“The Struggle of Labor” par. 5).

Active Flow of Immigrants

The third most significant cause of the emergence of labor unions was the flow of immigrants coming to the United States from non-English-speaking countries of Europe, particularly from its southern and eastern parts. Between 1880 and 1920, the total number of immigrants was more than 23 million (“Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Economic Trends” par. 10). The majority of those immigrants could not speak English and were unskilled factory workers who came to America for better work conditions. The immigrants were considered as the cheap labor force. Besides, considering the high demand for workplaces, factory managers provided people with even more unpleasant working conditions enforcing them to work hard, for long hours and low wages.


As one of the consequences of the process of immigration, the urbanization came. The immigrants headed mainly to industrial cities, since those offered the opportunities for work. At the same time, many native-born Americans lived in the cities as well. Because of a huge number of newcomers, cities became too crowded and overpopulated. As statistics showed, by 1990, “fewer than 1 in 4 Americans lived in a rural area” (“Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Economic Trends” par. 9). All of this made a demand for workplaces even higher and working conditions even more unpleasant and contributed to the overall discontent among the population.

The Quality of Life and Health-Related Problems

As the result of all mentioned above there were poor life conditions and high levels of poverty. Although people worked for 10 or even 12 hours a day, they still got 20-40% percent less than it was needed for a decent life. Additionally, more and more health-related problems among workers appeared. According to “The Struggle of Labor”, by 1990, the US had “the highest job-related fatality rate of any industrialized nation in the world” (par. 5).

Finally, all these factors resulted in the emergence of labor unions, which strived for justice and better work conditions, and many of them were quite resolute and even aggressive. Between 1881 and 1905, more than 37,000 labor strikes occurred in the US, and more than 7 million of workers took part in those (“Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Economic Trends” par. 8).

The Emergence of Labor Unions

The first relatively successful labor union, which “enjoyed any longevity”, was formed in Philadelphia in 1869 and was called The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor (Olson 151). This union welcomed all kinds of workers: blacks and whites, men and women, skilled and unskilled. The organization was rapidly growing: from 9,000 people in 1872 to 111,000 people in 1885 (Olson 151). After a successful strike against the Wabash Railroad, the number of members reached a point of 700,000 individuals. However, after the union changed its leader, and a new one tried to compete with large corporations and launched several unsuccessful strikes, its credibility was lost.

The second successful union was called the American Federation of Labor. It was organized in 1886, and instead of giving the possibility of membership to everyone, it focused on gathering only skilled workers (Olson 7). Besides, it was very apolitical and from the very beginning clarified its primary goals. Those were higher wages for workers, shorter working days and weeks, and better working conditions. Additionally, the AFL had a strong leader who launched only well-thought and “well-timed labor strikes” (Olson 7). As a result, by 1924, the union had almost three million of members and became the most powerful in the United States.

Although some progress was achieved, “the unwillingness of capital to grant” unions’ demands caused many violent labor conflicts (“The Struggle of Labor” par. 8). As a prime example, the Great Rail Strike occurred in 1877. This one happened as a response of the workers to 10% cut in wages. The government tried to break the strike, and that resulted in “a large-scale destruction” in many cities, such as Chicago, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and others (“The Struggle of Labor” par. 8). Besides the Great Rail Strike, there were numerous other incidents, during which many people were killed and injured.

Why Were Labor Unions Viewed as Un-American?

Many people saw the unions’ activity as “un-American in every sense of that word” (Richards 15). That is because the working class was not only made up mainly of the immigrants and their children but was also guided by foreign ideologies, which most commonly were radical. In the nineteenth century, middle and upper classes in America considered proletariat as “barbarians” (Richards 15). After the Great Rail Strike and many other subsequent events, the fears of radical foreign ideologies were confirmed.

Was the Labor Movement Successful?

It should be admitted that the labor movement at the end of the nineteenth century had many disadvantages and drawbacks. First of all, although people who took part in those indeed had good intentions and goals, the methods used to achieve those goals were not always good. As it has already been said before, many strikes resulted in confrontations, destructions, and even deaths and injuries.

Besides, many of the first labor unions were doomed to fail since those were local, limited geographically, and that is why not very influential and efficient. Business owners who did not want to deal with such kind of organizations could easily relocate their business to another city. However, being a large and global organization was not enough as well. The Knights of Labor had more than 700,000 members and still failed because of a poor leadership of its second grand master and his ill-conceived decisions. Besides, another big mistake of this union was an attempt to unite too different kinds of workers, particularly skilled and unskilled ones, and dabbling in politics. Finally, the conflict between unregulated immigration and patriotic opposition also played its part (Parfitt 484).

Still, it would be wrong to say that the labor movement was entirely unsuccessful. In the end, due the efforts of the labor unions, people finally got better working conditions, higher wages and shorter working days.

Works Cited

n.d. Web.

Olson, James Stuart. Encyclopedia of the Industrial Revolution in America, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002. Print.

Parfitt, Steven. “Brotherhood From a Distance: Americanization and the Internationalism of the Knights of Labor.” International Review of Social History 58.3 (2013): 463-491. Print.

Richards, Lawrence. Union-free America: Workers and Antiunion Culture, Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2008. Print.

n.d. Web.

2012. Web.

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