Organized labor brought tremendous positive change to working Americans. Today, many workers enjoy higher wages, better hours, and safer working conditions. Employers often pay for medical coverage and several weeks’ vacation.

These changes were hard-won. Jobs and lives were lost in the epic struggle for a fair share. The fight sprouted during the Gilded Age, when labor took its first steps toward unity.

But of course, when workers united, they took away some of the power of industrialists to control their own businesses. How can a captain of industry be the most successful possible if the workers are interfering by striking? This power sharing can be difficult, messy, and sometimes ends up hurting a business.

In a purely socialist society, workers are in total control. Those who do the work, share in the benefits. America has never tried such a system, but we know from the 20th century that it failed in other countries.

What do you think? Who should be in charge, workers or owners?


In the mid-19th century, the vast majority of American work was still done on the farm. By the turn of the 20th century, the United States economy revolved around the factory.

Most Americans living in the Gilded Age knew nothing of the life of millionaires such as Rockefeller, Carnegie and Morgan. They worked 10-hour shifts, 6 days a week, for wages barely enough to survive. Children as young as eight years old worked instead of attending school. Men and women worked until their bodies could stand no more, only to be released from employment without retirement benefits. Medical coverage did not exist. Women who became pregnant were often fired. Compensation for being hurt while on the job was zero.

Laborers realized that they needed to unite to demand change. Even though they lacked money, education, or political power, they knew one critical thing. There were simply more workers than there were owners.

Unions did not emerge overnight. Despite their legal right to exist, bosses often took extreme measures, including intimidation and violence, to prevent a union from taking hold. Workers, too, often chose the sword when peaceful measures failed.

Many Americans believed that a violent revolution would take place in America. How long would so many stand to be poor? Industrial titans including John Rockefeller arranged for mighty castles to be built as fortresses to stand against the upheaval they were sure was coming.

Slowly but surely unions did grow. Efforts to form nationwide organizations faced even greater difficulties. Federal troops were sometimes called to block their efforts. Judges almost always ruled in favor of the bosses.

Often, workers could not agree on common goals. Some flirted with extreme ideas like Marxism. Others simply wanted a nickel more per hour. Fights erupted over whether or not to admit women or African Americans into the ranks of union membership.


It started with a 10% pay cut. When leaders of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company ordered this second reduction in less than eight months, railroad workers in Martinsburg, West Virginia decided they had had enough. On July 16, 1877, workers in that town drove all the engines into the roundhouse and boldly declared that no train would leave until the owners restored their pay. The local townspeople gathered at the railyard to show their support for the strikers. A great showdown was on.

Strikes or other actions seen as disturbances are usually handled at the local level. The mayor of Martinsburg tried in vain to threaten the striking workers, but the crowd merely laughed and booed. The local police were far too insubstantial to match the numbers of the rabble. In desperation, the mayor turned to the governor of West Virginia for support. The governor sent units of the National Guard to Martinsburg to accompany the trains out of town by force of arms. There was little support for the effort among the Guardsmen. The majority of them were railroad workers themselves. After two people were killed in the standoff, the Guard simply lay down their weapons and began chatting with members of the crowd.

Only when federal troops sent by President Hayes arrived did the trains leave the station. Even then they were sabotaged and harassed along their routes. Only one train reached its destination.

Primary Source: Print

An artist’s depiction of the destruction of the railroad depot at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia during the Great Upheaval.

The Martinsburg Strike might have gone down in history as one of many small local strikes put down by force, but this time the strike spread. Soon other B&O units joined the Martinsburg strike. The movement spread into Pennsylvania, when workers on the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads joined their compatriots. Pittsburgh is the gateway to the Midwest, and so the strike widened to that region.

The police, the National Guard, and the United States Army clashed with angry mobs throughout America. Throughout the land, wealthy individuals feared that the worst had finally come. A violent revolution seemed to be sweeping the nation.

But then it stopped. In some cases the strikes were ended by force. In others, the strikers simply gave up. After all, most workers were not trying to overthrow the government or the social order. They simply wanted higher wages and more time to spend with their families. The Great Upheaval was not the first strike in American History; it was the first mass strike to involve so many different workers separated by so much space.

What did this mean for America? From a distance, the strike seems to have failed. However, in many cases, workers did have their demands met. There is no telling how many future pay cuts were avoided because of fear of reprisal from the laborers.

The Great Upheaval was spontaneous. There was absolutely no advanced planning, showing how many rank and file workers had the same concerns about quality of life, as well as the same anger at those who controlled the wealth. More than 100,000 workers had gone on strike, shutting down nearly half of the nation’s rail systems.

When the strike ended in the first week in August, over 100 people had been killed and a thousand more were imprisoned. Untold millions of dollars of damage was caused to rail lines, cars, and roundhouses. The fight was over, but America had not seen the last of the mass strike.


The battle lines were clearly drawn. People were either workers or bosses, and with that strong identity often came an equally strong dislike for those who were on the other side. As the number of self-employed Americans dwindled in the Gilded Age, workers began to feel strength in their numbers and were greater and greater demands of their bosses. When those demands were rejected, they plotted schemes to win their cases.

Those who managed factories developed strategies to counteract those of labor. At times the relationship between the camps was as intellectual and tense as a tough chess match. Other times it was as ugly as a schoolyard fight.

The most frequently employed technique of workers was the strike. Refusing to work would, in theory, force the company to suffer great enough financial losses that they would agree to worker terms. Strikes had been known in America since the colonial age, but their numbers grew larger in the Gilded Age.

Because of poor organization and government support for owners, 19th century strikes were not successful, so unions thought of other means. If the workers at a shoe factory could garner enough sympathy from the local townspeople, a boycott could achieve desirable results. The union would make its case to the town in the hope that no one would buy any shoes from the factory until the owners agreed to a pay raise. Boycotts could be successful in a small community where the factory was dependent upon the business of a group of people in close proximity

In desperate times, workers would also resort to illegal means if necessary. For example, sabotage of factory equipment was not unknown. Occasionally, the foreman or the owner might even be the victims of worker-sponsored violence.

Owners had strategies of their own. If a company found itself with a high inventory, the boss might afford to enact a lockout, which is a reverse strike. In this case, the owner tells the employees not to bother showing up until they agree to a pay cut. Sometimes when a new worker was hired the employee was forced to sign a yellow-dog contract, or an ironclad oath swearing that the employee would never join a union.

Strikes could be countered in a variety of ways. The first measure was usually to hire strikebreakers, or scabs, to take the place of the regular labor force. Here things often turned violent. The crowded cities always seemed to have someone hopeless enough to cross the picket line during a strike. The striking workers often responded with fists, occasionally even leading to death.

Prior to the 20th century the government never sided with the union in a labor dispute. Bosses persuaded the courts to issue injunctions to declare strikes illegal. If the strike continued, the participants would be thrown in prison. When all these efforts failed to break a strike, the government at all levels would be willing to send a militia to regulate as in the case of the Great Upheaval.

Primary Source: Drawing

An artist’s rendition of the arrival of the National Guard to break the Homestead Strike.

What was at stake? Each side felt they were fighting literally for survival. The owners felt if they could not keep costs down to beat the competition, they would be forced to close the factory altogether. They said they could not meet the workers’ unreasonable demands.

What were the employees demanding? In the entire history of labor strife, most goals of labor can be reduced to two overarching issues: higher wages and better working conditions. In the beginning, management would have the upper hand. But the sheer numbers of the American workforce was gaining momentum as the century neared its conclusion.


Divide and conquer. That simple strategy gave the owners the advantage over labor until the dawn of the 20th century. Laborers did not all have the same goals. By favoring one group over another, the bosses could create internal dissent in any union. Unions were spread from town to town. Unity among them might make a more effective boycott or strike, but bringing diverse groups together across a large area was extremely difficult.

Owners were smart enough to circulate blacklists. These lists contained the names of any workers active in the union. If anyone on the list would show up in another town trying to get hired (or to start another union), the employers would refuse to give them a job. Still, the ratio of labor to management was so large that national organizations were inevitable. The first group to clear the hurdles was the National Labor Union.

By 1866, there were about 200,000 workers in local unions across the United States. William Sylvis seized the opportunity presented by these numbers and established the first nationwide labor organization, named the National Labor Union. Sylvis had very ambitious goals. Not only did the NLU fight for higher wages and shorter hours, Sylvis took labor activity into the political arena. The NLU supported legislation banning prison labor, land reform laws to keep public holdings out of the hands of speculators, and national currency reform to raise farm prices.

It brought together skilled and unskilled workers, as well as farmers. The National Labor Union stopped short of admitting African Americans. Racist tendencies of the times prevailed, despite the wisdom of bringing as many workers as possible into the fold. Unfortunately, for the NLU, it tried to represent too many different groups. Farmers had their own agenda, and skilled workers often had different realities than the unskilled. When the Panic of 1873 hit America, the union was severely disabled. Soon after, the National Labor Union withered away.


The Knights of Labor soon inherited the mantle of organized labor. Begun by Uriah Stephens as a secret society in 1869, the Knights admitted all wage earners into their ranks, including women and African Americans. The philosophy was simple: class was more important than race or gender. For such a group to influence the federal government, complete solidarity would be required.

The Knights supported the entire political agenda of the NLU and more. They advocated limits on immigration, restrictions on child labor, and government ownership of railroads, telegraphs, and telephones. At the height of its membership in 1886, the Knights boasted 750,000 workers. Then disaster struck.

On May 1, 1886, International Workers Day, local chapters of the Knights went on strike demanding an eight-hour day for all laborers. At a rally in Haymarket Square in Chicago on May 4, someone threw a bomb into the crowd. One police officer died and several crowd members sustained injuries.

It was impossible to be sure who was responsible, but the American press, government, and general public blamed the Knights of Labor. Leader Terence Powderly condemned the bombing to no avail. Americans associated labor activity with anarchists and mob violence. Membership began to fall. Soon the Knights were merely a shadow of their former size. But labor leaders had learned some valuable lessons. The next national organization of workers would endure.

Primary Source: Drawing

An artist’s rendition of the explosion at Haymarket Square in Chicago, Illinois on May 4, 1886. One police officer was killed. The violence turned many Americans against the labor movement and limited support for the Knights of Labor.


Keep it simple. That was the mantra of labor leader Samuel Gompers. He was a diehard capitalist and saw no need for a radical restructuring of America. Gompers learned that the issues that workers cared about most deeply were personal. They wanted higher wages and better working conditions. These bread and butter issues would always unite the labor class. By keeping it simple, unions could avoid the pitfalls that had drawn the life from the National Labor Union and the Knights of Labor.

In December of 1886, the same year the Knights of Labor was dealt its fatal blow at Haymarket Square, Gompers met with the leaders of other craft unions to form the American Federation of Labor. The AFL was a loose grouping of smaller craft unions, such as the masons’ union, the hat makers’ union or Gompers’s own cigar makers’ union. Every member of the AFL was therefore a skilled worker.

Gompers had no visions of uniting the entire working class. Tradespeople were in greater demand and already earned higher wages than their unskilled counterparts. Gompers knew that the AFL would have more political and economic power if unskilled workers were excluded. He served as president of the union every year except one until his death in 1924.

Although conservative in nature, Gompers was not afraid to call for a strike or a boycott. The larger AFL could be used to support these actions, as well as provide relief for members engaged in a work stoppage. By refusing to pursue a radical program for political change, Gompers maintained the support of the American government and public. By 1900, the ranks of the AFL swelled to over 500,000 tradespeople. Gompers was seen as the unofficial leader of the labor world in America.

Simplicity worked. Although the bosses still had the upper hand with the government, unions were growing in size and status. There were over 20,000 strikes in America in the last two decades of the 19th century. Workers lost about half, but in many cases their demands were completely or partially met. The AFL served as the preeminent national labor organization until the Great Depression when unskilled workers finally came together. Smart leadership, patience, and realistic goals made life better for the hundreds of thousands of working Americans it served.

Primary Source: Drawing

An artist’s rendition of the violent clash between the National Guard and striking Pullman Car Company workers.


Despite the success of the American Federation of Labor, American radicalism was not dead. The number of those who felt the American capitalist system was fundamentally flawed was in fact growing fast.

American socialists based their beliefs on the writings of Karl Marx, the German philosopher. Many asked why so many working Americans should have so little while a few owners grew incredibly wealthy. No wealth could exist without the sweat and blood of its workforce. They suggested that the government should own all industries and divide the profits among those who actually created the products. While the current management class would stand to lose, many more people would gain. These radicals grew in number as industries spread. But their enemies were legion.

Eugene Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1855 to a family of French immigrants. Making his way in the railroad industry, Debs formed the American Railway Union in 1892.

Two years later he found himself leading one of the largest strikes in American history, the great Pullman Strike. When its workers refused to accept a pay cut, The Pullman Car Company fired 5,000 employees. To show support, Debs called for the members of the American Railway Union to refrain from operating any trains that used Pullman cars. When the strike was declared illegal by a court injunction, chaos erupted. President Cleveland ordered federal troops to quell the strikers and Debs was arrested. Order was restored and the strike failed.

Primary Source: Campaign Poster

1904 poster celebrating Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs.

Debs was not originally a socialist, but his experience with the Pullman Strike and his subsequent six-month jail term led him to believe that drastic action was necessary. Debs chose to confine his activity to the political arena. In 1900 he ran for President as a socialist and garnered some 87,000 votes.

The following year, leading sympathizers joined with him to form the Socialist Party. At its height, the party numbered over 100,000 active members. Debs ran for President four more times. In the election of 1912 he received over 900,000 votes. After being arrested for antiwar activities during World War I, he ran for President from his jail cell and polled 919,000 votes. Debs died in 1926 having never won an election, but over one thousand Socialist Party members were elected to state and city governments.


Even more radical than the Socialists were the members of the Industrial Workers of the World. This union believed that compromise with owners was no solution. Founded in 1905 and led by William “Big Bill” Haywood, the Wobblies as they were called, encouraged their members to fight for justice directly against their employers. Although small in number, they led hundreds of strikes across America, calling for the overthrow of the capitalist system. The IWW won few battles, but their efforts sent a strong message across America that workers were being mistreated.

When the United States entered World War I, the Wobblies launched an active antiwar movement. Many were arrested or beaten. One unlucky member in Oregon was tied to the front end of an automobile with his knees touching the ground and driven until his flesh was torn to the bone. Membership declined after the war, but for two decades the IWW was the anchor of radical American activism.

Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon

A cartoon critical of the IWW as destroyers of America.


Workers rarely found a helping hand in the White House. President Hayes ordered the army to break the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. President Cleveland ordered federal troops to disrupt the Pullman Strike of 1894. Governors and mayors used the National Guard and police to confront workers on strike.

When Pennsylvania coal miners went on strike in 1902, there was no reason to believe anything had changed. But this time things were different. Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House.

John Mitchell, president of the United Mine Workers, represented the miners. He was soft-spoken, yet determined. Many compared his manner to Abraham Lincoln’s. In the spring of 1902, Mitchell placed a demand on the coal operators for better wages, shorter hours, and recognition of the union. The owners, led by George Baer, flatly refused. On May 12, 1902, 140,000 miners walked off the job, and the strike was on.

Mitchell worked diligently behind the scenes to negotiate with Baer, but his efforts were rejected. According to Baer, there would be no compromise. Even luminaries such Mark Hanna and J.P. Morgan prevailed in vain on the owners to open talks. As the days passed, the workers began to feel the pinch of the strike, and violence began to erupt.

As summer melted into fall, and President Roosevelt wondered what the angry workers and a colder public would do if the strike lasted into the bitter days of winter. He decided to lend a hand in settling the strike.

No President had ever tried to negotiate a strike settlement before. Roosevelt invited Mitchell and Baer to the White House on October 3 to hammer out a compromise. Mitchell proposed to submit to an arbitration commission. In arbitration, all sides presented their arguments to an outside person, the arbitrator, and then agree to abide by the arbitrator’s decision. Baer resented the summons by the President to meet a “common criminal” like Mitchell, and refused any sort of concession.

Roosevelt despaired that the violence would increase and spiral dangerously toward a class-based civil war. After the mine operators left Washington, he vowed to end the strike. He was impressed by Mitchell’s gentlemanly demeanor and irritated by Baer’s insolence. Roosevelt remarked that if he weren’t president, he would have thrown Baer out of a White House window.

He summoned Secretary of War Elihu Root, and ordered him to prepare the army. This time, however, the army would not be used against the strikers. The coal operators were informed that if no settlement were reached, the army would seize the mines and make coal available to the public. Roosevelt did not seem to mind that he had no constitutional authority to do any such thing.

J.P. Morgan finally convinced Baer and the other owners to submit the dispute to a commission. On October 15, the strike ended. The following March, a decision was reached by the mediators. The miners were awarded a 10 percent pay increase, and their workday was reduced to eight or nine hours. In exchange, the owners were not forced to recognize the United Mine Workers.

Workers across America cheered Roosevelt for standing up to the mine operators. It surely seemed like the White House would lend a helping hand to the labor movement.


Owners held the upper hand that the start of the Gilded Age, but as they grew in number, workers began to form unions and fought for more control over their pay and working conditions. In the beginning, government usually supported the owners, but by the 1900s, politicians viewed themselves as arbitrators, trying to help the two sides come to agreement.

There were other options. Men like Eugene Debs wanted to eliminate owners entirely and give all the profits to the workers. These socialists never won enough support to put their ideas into practice in America, but they offered an alternative.

What do you think? Who should be in charge, workers or owners?



BIG IDEA: Organized labor unions emerged in the late 1800s, although their efforts were often limited because government generally sided with business owners.

The period after the Civil War saw a growth of labor unions. The Great Upheaval of 1877 was the nation’s first mass strike as workers in the railroad industry started a strike that spread and was supported by striking workers across the nation.

Labor unions used boycotts and strikes to stop work and try to force owners to meet their demands. Owners locked out workers and hired scabs to break strikes. Most strikes in the late 1800s went badly for workers. A large number of immigrants were willing to work for low wages and take the place of striking workers. Government usually supported owners and the police and army broke strikes at Carnegie’s steel plant in Pittsburg and a strike at the Pullman railroad car factory in Chicago.

The first major union was the Knights of Labor. They lost support after the Haymarket Square Riot.

A new union grew as the Knights of Labor fell out of favor. The American Federation of Labor was led by Samuel Gompers and focused on basic issues like wages and working conditions instead of political reform. The AFL was a composite of many smaller craft unions, so they did not represent unskilled workers.

Eugene Debs led the American Socialist Party. This group wanted to change America’s system of government. They wanted to take leadership of the nation’s industries away for the rich. Although they were popular with workers, they never gained the support of more than a small percentage of all Americans.

A more extreme group were the Industrial Workers of the World.  They wanted a violent revolution to take power away from the wealthy and the overthrow the government.  Although Americans rejected these ideas, they eventually caught on in Russia and led to the Communist Revolution there in 1917.



Union: An organization of workers. They work together to negotiate for better pay, hours, working conditions, etc. Sometimes they organize strikes or other forms of protest.

Mass Strike: A strike in which the workers in many locations stop work at the same time. One example was the Great Upheaval in 1877 when nearly all railroad operations in America stopped.

Boycott: When workers convince consumers to not purchase goods from a particular business. If it succeeds, the business owners capitulate to the workers’ demands because of the fear of lost revenue.

Sabotage: Purposeful destruction of property as a form of protest.

Lockout: When owners close the doors to their business and refuse to let workers in. It is a way of limiting the power of unions.

Yellow-Dog Contract: An agreement a worker must sign when starting a job agreeing not to join a union.

Scab: A replacement worker hired during a strike.

Picket Line: The line made up of striking workers outside a business. Workers usually carry signs, chant, and try to prevent scabs from entering to take their jobs.

Blacklist: A list of union leaders passed around among business owners. These men and women would not be hired because they might cause problems for the owners.

Bread and Butter Issues: Nickname for the basic concerns of works such as better pay, fewer working hours, and safety. In contrast to larger concerns such as racial or gender equality.

Socialist: A follower of Karl Marx. They believed that workers should share the financial rewards of their labor and companies should be owned collectively.

Arbitration: A way of solving disputes in which both sides agree to abide by the decision of an outside, non-biased party.


National Labor Union: Early national union formed in 1866. It failed because the organizers tried to include too many different workers who did not always agree on objectives or strategy.

Knights of Labor: Early successful union formed by Uriah Stephens. They admitted all wage earners including African Americans and women. They grew in popularity but weakened after the Haymarket Square incident in 1886.

Samuel Gompers: Founder of the American Federation of Labor

American Federation of Labor: Labor union founded by Samuel Gompers in 1886. It was formed by joining smaller unions of skilled workers.

Eugene Debs: Socialist union leader. He led the Pullman strike and ran unsuccessfully for president as a Socialist Party candidate.

Socialist Party: Small political party in America that was popular for a short time in the late 1800s. Eugene Debs led the party and ran for president as its candidate.

Industrial Workers of the World: Socialist political party led by Big Bill Haywood. Nicknamed the Wobblies, they advocated violent overthrow of the government and capitalist system.

William “Big Bill” Haywood: Founder and leader of the International Workers of the World.


Great Upheaval: Mass strike in 1877 that started in West Virginia but spread as many railroad workers went on strike.

Haymarket Square Incident: Sometimes called a riot, it was a labor rally in Chicago in 1886 in which a bomb exploded killing a police officer and injuring many others. Labor leaders were blamed for the violence and it led to reduced public support for unions, and especially for the Knights of Labor.

Pullman Strike: Strike by workers at the Pullman Car Company (which built railway cars) in 1894. It turned violent and failed when the government ordered federal troops to end the strike.

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