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Progressive Era: 1891–1920

Labor Movement

Pre-Union Labor Conditions

Before unions fought for labor reform, laborers (including children) worked long hours for extremely low wages in unsanitary and unsafe conditions, with no support for those injured on the job.

Before the advent of labor unions, laborers worked in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. Mills had no dust-collection devices, and steel mills lacked any safety measures. Employers also did not provide enough compensation for loss of life or limb, ranging from paying nothing at all to only covering a worker's funeral. The loss of life and of ability to work exerted a huge cost on families, plunging them deeper into poverty.

Laborers also worked extremely long hours. Steelworkers worked 12-hour days six days a week, and it was not uncommon for mill workers to have 100-hour workweeks. Children were also pressed into service. Wages for unskilled labor were at subsistence level, providing only the bare necessities, and many skilled workers made barely enough to get by. Thus, the average working-class family needed every family member to contribute financially, which meant many children could not attend school. If adult workers were paid a fair wage, children could then go to school, but employers kept wages low.

Poor working conditions also came to light in reports by muckraking journalists such as photographer Lewis Hine, who documented the working conditions of children across the country. Safety regulations and attempts to improve working conditions were published in annual reports of each state's Bureau of Labor Statistics. Tales of the filth workers coped with as well as dramatic stories of death and dismemberment were common. One such report, called the Pittsburgh Survey, undertook an investigation of high-risk jobs and work accidents in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1907. The Pittsburgh Survey revealed the dangers of working in industries such as mining, railroad, and steel and found the major causes of injuries were related to lack of safety measures. The Pittsburgh Survey also revealed how low the wages were for workers in high-risk industries and found the weekly wage did not compensate adequately for the risk undertaken. Most men who succumbed to work-related accidents earned less than $30 per week. The findings were published in 1910 in a book titled Work Accidents and the Law, by Crystal Eastman.

Compensation Paid by Employers to Dependents of 235 Married Employees Killed in Work-Accidents

Total Cases Compensation Paid by Employer
None $100 or Less $101–$500 $501–$1000 $1001–$2000 $2000–$3000 Over $3000 Suit Pending Amount Unknown
235 59 65 40 30 10 4 4 13 10
235 124 40 71
Per cent 53 17 30

Weekly Earnings of 440 Men Killed in Work-Accidents

Weekly Earnings Number Per Cent
Under $10 71 16
$10.00–$11.99 71 16
$12.00–$14.99 89 20
$15.00–$19.99 158 36
$20.00–$29.99 44 10
$30.00 or over 7 2
Total 440 100

Source: Eastman, Crystal. Work Accidents and the Law. Russell Sage, 1910.

Eastman, one of the cofounders of the American Civil Liberties Union, was also active in women's suffrage. Her report earned her a position on the New York State Commission of Employee's Liability and Causes of Industrial Accidents, Unemployment and Lack of Farm Labor. Eastman was the author of New York state's first workers' compensation law. Other states followed as the financial burden of losing workers became an issue for employers.

Samuel Gompers and the Rise of Labor Unions

Samuel Gompers helped establish the American Federation of Labor, one of the most prominent labor unions for native-born white Americans, while unions such as the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World welcomed new immigrants and African Americans.
Forced to endure terrible working conditions, the only way for workers to bring their case to those in power was through organization. Unions were a natural next step for workers. A union is an association formed by workers in a particular industry or trade to fight for improved working conditions collectively. The Knights of Labor (KOL) was the first national labor organization formed in the United States. It was founded in 1869 by Uriah Stephens, the organization's first leader. The KOL was originally formed in secret to protect employees from retaliations by their employers. While the KOL focused on industry and unskilled labor, skilled workers felt shunted aside. Skilled workers, in turn, formed the American Federation of Labor (AFL), a collection of craft unions (unions based on skills) organized by Samuel Gompers in 1886, dedicated to ensuring acceptable working conditions for skilled workers. Samuel Gompers, the first president of the AFL, was an American labor leader who used strikes and walkouts to force employers to improve working conditions. He focused on wages and working conditions, rather than on social issues. When he became president of the AFL in 1886, Gompers organized a nationwide strike in favor of an eight-hour workday.
Samuel Gompers (center) in the office of the American Federation of Labor, 1887
Credit: American Federation of Labor; Roberts, William Clark, 1856/Cornell University Library/
The AFL did not grant membership to African Americans or immigrants, whereas the KOL welcomed them. The exclusive nature of the AFL led to the formation of other unions more accepting of racial differences. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was a labor organization founded in 1905 in Chicago. It brought together 43 groups of workers and came into being as a response to the AFL's capitalist focus and the fact the AFL would not accept unskilled workers into craft unions. The AFL's president, Samuel Gompers, often garnered criticism because of his close working relationship with business leaders. Wobblies, as IWW members were known, welcomed African Americans as well as immigrants. The AFL also excluded women, noted by labor leaders Mary Kenney O'Sullivan and Leonora O'Reilly. In response, these women formed the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) in 1903, assisted by Jane Addams and Lillian Wald, two settlement workers. The WTUL fought for a minimum wage, an eight-hour workday, and an end to child labor. They also investigated the causes of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The 146 workers who perished in the fire caused a public outcry. The WTUL's investigations led to the passage of new regulations to improve factory conditions. It also led to the founding of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a federal organization dedicated to ensuring safety in the workplace.

Conflict and Laborer Strikes

Conflicts between laborers and business owners often led to violent confrontations, as in the case of the Homestead Strike.

Laborers used strikes and boycotts to force their employers to improve working conditions and wages, but employers did not often do so. The Homestead Strike was a violent conflict between strikebreakers hired by the Carnegie Steel Company in Homestead, Pennsylvania, and striking workers from the company. When members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers who worked for the Carnegie Steel Company learned their operations manager, Henry Frick, was determined to break the union by first lowering wages and then firing thousands of workers, they rebelled. On July 6, 1892, private police officers hired from Pinkerton Detective Agency, an American independent police force started by Allan Pinkerton in 1850 to take on the problem of railway theft, were brought in to guard the steel plant. Frick put up a wall of barbed wire around it to keep workers out. But the worst of the conflict was yet to come: the next step to break the union was to hire nonunion workers to replace them, known as "scabs." Knowing what Frick was determined to do, the workers attacked the Pinkerton agents, who relented and were taken away for their own protection, and the workers took over the plant. However, Frick was not to be outdone. As a factory owner, Frick had the support of the federal government, and he used this leverage to bring in the National Guard to retake the plant. The fact that people had been killed in this conflict reduced the level of sympathy people had for the strikers, and eventually, some of them went back to work for Carnegie.

The Pullman Strike was a railroad employee strike and boycott that lasted over two months in 1894 and interfered with rail transport in the Midwest. This was another case of an employer not only refusing to make conditions better but also firing employees when they complained. The Pullman Palace Car Company cut wages by 25% but did not cut prices in the company stores or reduce rent in company housing. Employees were sometimes required to rent company housing to maintain their jobs. Workers panicked, knowing they could not live on their wages. The American Railway Union supported the workers' decision to strike and called for a boycott, which interrupted rail service around Chicago. President Grover Cleveland instituted Labor Day to try to assuage the workers, but the strike continued. Eugene Debs, the president of the American Railway Union, feared angry workers would become violent, so he spoke to a crowd of strikers to try to calm them down. However, after he left, the workers set fire to some of the trains, damaging a U.S. Postal Service car.

Once the workers had damaged federal property, President Cleveland decided it was time to end the strike and boycott. He issued an injunction preventing the ARU from contacting workers and sent in troops. Illinois had already sent in state troops, and the combination of forces attempted to stop the boycott and force workers to run the trains. The workers responded by destroying railcars and setting up barricades so they could protect themselves from being shot. National Guard troops fired into the crowd. Debs was arrested, and the workers could only get their jobs back if they promised never to join a union. The violence of the riots and the interruption caused by 250,000 workers from 27 states stopping work and destroying trains caused the union and workers to lose the public's support.
Unemployed rail workers sit beside a shack during the Pullman Strike, which occurred in response to a wage cut without a reduction in rent or expenses.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-96506

Labor Reform Measures

Numerous reform measures and labor laws were passed to improve working conditions, including restrictions on child labor and working hours.

Many employers resisted the idea of improving the wages and working conditions of their employees. However, the general consensus was that in order to run a profitable business and not lose workers to accidents and work-related deaths, conditions had to be improved. With the help of labor unions and collective bargaining, or negotiations between a group of workers and their employers in order to create working conditions acceptable to both, conditions began to change. The work of the Women's Trade Union League and other labor organizations led to restrictions on working hours for adults and stringent restrictions on child labor. Adult wages rose enough for many children to be able to attend school, and factory managers were punished with fines if they did not comply with the limits on hours children could work. States began requiring children to spend time in school and inspected factories to make sure they were not trying to get around the regulations.

By the end of the 19th century, some states had already put laws in place that not only limited child labor but also continued to improve conditions and safety measures in the workplace. At the beginning of the 20th century, the majority of states had labor bureaus and were committed to reducing work-related injuries and deaths. The International Association of Factory Inspectors (IAFI), which first met in 1905 in Detroit, had yearly conventions to compare regulations and safety measures from state to state as well as in other countries. While the United States consistently fell behind European countries in its response to work-related injuries, the IAFI determined that study of what other countries were doing well could assist in improving regulations in the United States. Studies like the Pittsburgh Survey also helped to show where improvements were necessary.

U.S. Union Membership, 1897-1923

Throughout the Progressive Era, union membership rose steadily. This rise was particularly noticeable during World War I (1914-18), when industry grew to support the war effort. In the postwar industrial slump, however, employment fell, and so did union membership.