Labor history in the United States

The organization of labor as a political force culminated in the National Labor Congress of 1870, which formulated demands for cheap money, the creation of a labor department, the exclusion of Chinese immigrants, and an eight-hour working day. The Department was formed in 1888. Many causes contributed to the disturbances, some being veritable labor wars, which began in the seventies. Among these were unwise immigration facilities, demagogism, and short-sighted policy by some large employers. Workmen combined against wholesale importation of illiterate foreigners who were content with a wagescale which meant humiliation if not starvation to American competitors. Employers combined to assert and maintain their legal right to buy labor in the cheapest market. The conditions made bad blood inevitable. It showed first and fiercely in the mining districts of Pennsylvania. A few years before these outbreaks there had been a government investigation in England into a series of deliberate atrocities perpetrated at the instance of certain tradesunion leaders in the cutlery district, where employers and workmen had been killed by explosions and air-guns for disregarding the organization's rules in the matter of wages, apprentices, and "scabs." A number of the suspects came to this country, and, as a coincidence, the same machinery of intimidation soon got at work in Pennsylvania.

A thousand men en masse forced certain mines to shut down in June, 1875. Coal "breakers" were set on fire, trains had to be guarded by armed men to prevent derailing, watchmen and officials were shot, and harmless passengers were fired at in this reign of terrorism. Policemen and employers received the usual tragi-burlesque illustrated "warnings," and the threats were usually carried out, often with fatal results. This was the infamous "Mollie Maguire" organization. Its members not only murdered at pleasure, but were able to control elections and stop business. The State railway companies preferred to do the national duty of ferreting out and punishing the leaders of the Maguires, distrusting the local police machine. By the efforts of a detective spy, who entered the organization, the conspiracy was crushed, nine leaders were hanged and others imprisoned for life.

The management of sundry railway companies in those years was not noted for wisdom, economy, or considerateness in dealing with workmen. Bad as times were, their attitude towards their employees was ill-graced, irrespective of the merits of the questions at issue. Wages were reduced ten per cent, employment was irregular, and other irritating grievances were alleged by the army of men, in justification of the strike of 1877. No pleas of this sort justify the excesses that made this conspicuous as a reckless crusade of destruction. On July 14 the railway men and "sympathetic strikers" from other bodies opened hostilities by suspending freight traffic completely, and passenger trains partially. The Baltimore and Ohio line in West Virginia was first attacked, and this was quickly followed by operations against the Pennsylvania, Erie, and New York Central. New hands were deterred by guns. Pittsburg was the storm centre. The Philadelphia militia were besieged in a roundhouse which was fired by burning cars. They escaped with four killed. Elsewhere the local militia sympathized with the rioters and refused to fire. When the President sent United States troops to the three affected States, Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia, the rioters gave in. During the two weeks of lawlessness nineteen were killed at Chicago, nine rioters at Baltimore, eleven of the crowd killed at Reading, and two hundred soldiers wounded. Pittsburg had $10,000,000 worth of property destroyed, of which Allegheny county alone refunded $3,000,000. A hundred thousand workingmen are said to have had part in the rioting, and they controlled some six thousand miles of railway for the time.

Sparks from the Eastern explosion set California aflame. Labor was in a discontented state. A notice to lower wages was withdrawn by the railway corporation on hearing of the consequences in Pennsylvania, but a meeting was convened at which the working men recorded their sympathy with the strikers. It happened that a simultaneous attack was made that night on some Chinese laundries, of which a number were burnt within a few days and several men were killed. A vigilance committee was formed to suppress violence, and the agitation developed into the "sandlots" meetings under the lead of Denis Kearney, whose war-cry was "The Chinese must go!" It rose, flourished, and died, but left its mark in the legislation forbidding further immigration of the Chinese.

Other notable strikes and riots were those of 1892, at Homestead, Pennsylvania, where the militia was sent to quell the ironworkers, the affair costing several lives; and the Chicago strike at Pullman, where property valued at millions was destroyed and railway traffic suspended, being finally quelled by Federal troops. There were less extensive but very destructive labor wars in 1884 and 1886 in Cincinnati and St. Louis. Chicago had its memorable tragedy when the anarchist members of a mass-meeting, agitating for short hours and sympathizing with a local strike, discharged a bomb killing several policemen, for which four anarchists were hanged. The labor party polled seventy thousand votes for Henry George in the mayoralty election of New York city in 1887, but the Hon. Abram Hewitt was elected. Despite all agitation and honest attempts on both sides to reconcile capital and labor the century closed with little appreciable progress towards so desirable an ending of disputes, which would be easier of solution were inventions and combinations and population on the downward plane.

Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 3)