Labor Wants More

“We do want more, and when it becomes more we shall still want more. And we shall never cease to demand more until we have received the results of our labor.”

Samuel Gompers, 1890

Main gate, Pullman Palace Car Works, 1893

Main gate, Pullman Palace Car Works, 1893

Factory jobs brought economic opportunity, but, without the clout of skilled jobs or strong unions, wage workers were often at the mercy of managers.

Courtesy of Newberry Library

As business got big, workers organized into unions to gain power and protect their interests. Unions negotiated the pace of work, the length of the workday, a less arbitrary hiring and firing system, safer workplaces, and a bigger share of profits. Unions benefitted from a growing working-class identity, but struggled with divisions based on skill, race, gender, and nationality. Labor also confronted companies that used the courts, government, and violence to discourage workers from unionizing.

Organizing Labor

Workers gained power through unions but organizing workers was challenging. Different leaders followed a variety of fundamental approaches to form lasting and effective groups.

Knights of Labor trade card, 1880s

Knights of Labor trade card, 1880s

Terrence Powderly transformed the Knights of Labor from a fraternal society stressing the dignity and value of work to a national trade union.

AFL badge, 1896

AFL badge, 1896

Samuel Gompers organized the American Federation of Labor (AFL) by skilled crafts, continually seeking higher wages. The AFL was attacked by both courts and companies.

Beer tray, about 1905

Beer tray, about 1905

Unions’ power was built on worker solidarity. This beer tray shows a driver and a brewer working together. It says in German “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”

Advertisement, Saturday Evening Post, March 8, 1902

Advertisement, Saturday Evening Post, March 8, 1902

Strikes were not labor’s only weapon. Unions also enlisted public support by organizing boycotts and issuing special union labels.

IWW promotional sticker, 1930s

IWW promotional sticker, 1930s

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) sought to abolish capitalism. Founded by socialists and anarchists, it did not limit membership by skill, race, or gender. 

CIO badge, 1930s

CIO badge, 1930s

John L. Lewis followed a new approach in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). He unionized skilled and unskilled workers both within and across industries.

Strikes

Workers gained power by withholding work and striking. Managers sometimes responded violently.

Lynn, Massachusetts, shoemakers’ strike, 1860

Lynn, Massachusetts, shoemakers’ strike, 1860

In an early display of regional unity, shoemakers, including women, protested both wage cuts and the rise of factories.

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Railroad strike, Baltimore, Maryland, 1877

Railroad strike, Baltimore, Maryland, 1877

The 1873 depression prompted the B&O Railroad to cut wages twice in one year. When workers struck, federal troops quelled the dispute, which had become national.

Courtesy of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
 

Granite street paver from 1877 Baltimore riot

Haymarket broadside, 1886

Haymarket broadside, 1886

Immigration complicated efforts to organize workers. Competition for jobs, language barriers, ethnic differences, and national divisions made forming unions difficult.

Haymarket Riot, Chicago, Illinois, 1886

Haymarket Riot, Chicago, Illinois, 1886

After a bomb exploded at a rally to demand an eight-hour work day, the police opened fire on the crowd. Many felt the nation was coming apart.

The New York Uprising of 20,000, 1909

The New York Uprising of 20,000, 1909

Immigrant garment workers went out on strike against New York garment shops. The women proved that ethnic and gender solidarity could bring about change.

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Strike broadside, 1931

Strike broadside, 1931

Painters in Chicago sought to keep members belonging to other locals from crossing their picket line.

Flint sit-down strike, 1936

Flint sit-down strike, 1936

Striking GM workers refused to leave the GM factory, preventing the company from bringing in replacement workers. The success of the strike helped build the union.

Courtesy of Library of Congress