The second half of the 19th Century was a time of great transition in the United States. The Industrial Revolution was at its core a series of technological innovations that would forever change the nature of production. Formerly, the dominant mode of production in most trades was household based. Skilled Artisans with years of experience worked and created by hand. This was the era of craft guilds and apprenticeships. Employers, or ‘owners of the means of production’ and employees, or ‘laborers’ found themselves as two labels for the same person. Machines and factories changed all this. Work that was formerly done by hand at home could now be done much quicker and more efficiently by machine. But these machines were expensive. Something new was required- an individual with a sufficient stock of wealth (capital) to be invested by purchasing a number of these machines and then going out and employing people to work them. The modern capitalist was born. Yet this creates a vexing opposition. The capitalist owns the factory and the machines therein and is therefore entitled to their outputs- yet it is the laborer who does all the work, without which no value will be created at all. So how are the profits to be split? For the capitalist the solution is simple: the lowest wage that enough workers will accept to fully employ the means of production. But what if the laborer wishes for more? If only one worker feels they are entitled to a better wage and there are others to take their place if they refuse to work, then this is nothing. But if a group of workers and those unemployed who might replace them all agree to not work unless something more is offered by the capitalist, that is something. That is Power in a Union.

“If workingmen and capitalists are equal co-partners, why do they not share equally in the profits? Why does capital take to itself the whole loaf, while labor is left to gather up the crumbs? Why does capital roll in luxury and wealth, while labor is left to eke out a miserable existence in poverty and want? Are these the evidences of an identity of interests, of mutual relations, of equal partnership? No … on the contrary they are evidences of an antagonism … a never-ending conflict between the two classes, [where] capital is in all cases the aggressor.”

-William Sylvis (pg. 74)

“They were dynamic organizations that took on life-and-death issues: economics, government policy, workers’ health and safety, and fair pay. To do this they stood up to the powerful. They made demands and caused inconvenience. Yet they did so as parties to a kind of covenant: behind their strong language and equally strong actions, they shared the same goals as management- productivity and national prosperity.”

Author Philip Dray on Unions (pg. 6)

Chapter One

The Oppressing Hand of Avarice

The birth of American industry. As a still fairly new country and the industrial revolution having far from run it’s course, a notable working class took time to form. Many looking for opportunity looked not the factory of the city but out west, where they might settle land of their own and labor for themselves and their families. For many who did work in factories and in mill towns, the opportunity to work for a wage instead of the on the farm or in other domestic pursuits was exciting, especially for many young women, who found a sense of independence in it.

By the 1840’s however some of the novelties of the wage system began to wear thin. People began to react against the monotony of factory life, and the grueling 12 and 14 hour shifts many worked that left little time to do other than rest and prepare for the next day. Many were startled at this vision of the future. There was however, little that could be done to better the conditions of so many workers. Collective bargaining between employees and their employers was not yet an established institution. Strikes were ignored, the right to strike was non existent as were union backed strike funds, and agitators were easily fired and removed by employers. Courts largely viewed unions as unlawful conspiracies.


Right to organize

10-hour day


Organizations and Individuals

Sarah Bagley

The Voice of Industry

Manchester Female Labor Reform Association

Lowell, Massachusetts

Legislation/Government Action

Commonwealth v. Hunt

What! … deprive us, after working thirteen hours, of the poor privilege of finding fault- of saying our lot is a hard one! Intentionally turn away a girl unjustly persecuted … for free expression of honest political opinions! We will make the name of him who dares the act stink with every wind, from all points on the compass … he shall be hissed at in the streets, and in all the cities of this widespread republic; for our name is legion though our oppression is great.” 

-Sarah Bagley, reacting to learning that mill operators were being threatened with the blacklist for becoming involved in the ten-hour movement (pg. 46)

Chapter Two

Hell With the Lid Off

By now the industrial revolution was in full swing. Most home-based handicraft production had been moved into factories, and a large working class was starting to emerge. 1860 saw what one newspaper termed the “Beginning of Conflict Between Capital and Labor” when in Lynn, Massachusetts 20,000 shoemakers walked off their jobs for three months after business owners reduced wages in response to a nation wide recession. No formal agreement was reached between capital and labor, but it did eventually see wages rise. It wasn’t a conventional victory, but labor had been given a vision of what it could accomplish when it acted in concert.

Comparisons were drawn between the ‘wage-slave’ system of northern manufacturing and the slavery on southern plantations. Workers were free, but between long hours and scant pay, not free to do much. “We are free, but not free enough, we want the liberty of living.” (Massachusetts shoemaker, pg. 44). On the promise of “free labor, free soil, free men”, laborers and Unions swept Lincoln into office. In return, laborers enlisted en masse when Civil War broke out. Many working class immigrants post victory left the army feeling they had won for themselves respect and a place in a burgeoning American society. War production also galvanized industrialization in the north: by 1870 more people were working in manufacturing than in agriculture. On capital’s side, large monopolies had formed in Oil, Steel, and Sugar. On labor’s side, fewer than 100 worker’s organizations in 1860 had grown to close to 300 by 1870. The first national trade unions began to emerge. In 1866 William Sylvis, an organizer for the Iron Molders’ International Union, founded the National Labor Union, the first national labor federation (union of unions).

Some Unions attempted to form and run worker-owned factories, or cooperatives. These largely failed due to under capitalization.

A strike broke out on July 16th 1887 in Martinsburg, West Virginia when Baltimore and Ohio Railroad announced a 10% pay cut. Railroad workers left a live cattle train stranded and uncoupled the cars. State militia and then the National Guard were called in to clear the men from the track. The strike then spread to the Pennsylvania Railroad in Pittsburgh, a major crossroads and a major industrial city. Sympathy strikes and sabotage spread out across the country in ‘The Great Railroad Strike of 1877’, with notable confrontations in Chicago and St. Louis. The strike evolved into a general strike in some places, with workers demanding an 8 hour work day and a ban on child labor. The strike was eventually put down after having run 45 days with the deployment of several thousand federal troops. Dozens were killed in various skirmishes. The strike was technically a failure, but the public and laborers across the country were in awe of the scale it had grown to. Organized labor had finally come of age.



8-hour day

‘The leveling of American Society’

Workers Cooperatives

Inclusion of women and blacks in the labor movement

Notable Events

Lynn Shoemaker’s Strike of 1860

Marx’s Das Kapital published in 1867

Avondale Mine Disaster 1869

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877

Prominent Organizations and Individuals

Iron Molders’ International Union

William Sylvis

International Workingmen’s Association

Workers Benevolent Association

Allan Pinkerton

National Labor Union

Legislation/Government Action

May 1869 Proclamation by President Grant that government workers would not see a move to the 8 hour work day met with a reduction of wages

Pennsylvania Mine Safety Act of 1870

President Hayes deployment of federal troops to end The Great Railroad Strike of 1877

“I am glad to see that a system of labor prevails in New England under which laborers can strike when they want to, where they are not obliged to labor whether you pay them or not. I like a system which lets a man quit when he wants to, and wish it might prevail everywhere.”

-Abraham Lincoln, in response Frederick Douglas’s categorization of a work stoppage as ‘disruptive’ (pg. 70)

Chapter Three

We Mean to Have Eight Hours

The National Labor Union dissolved not long after its founder and leader William Sylvis passed away. In its absence two new organizations stepped up to the plate. The Knights of Labor, headed by Terence Powderly, and the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, headed by Samuel Gompers. Powderly was an avowed teetotaler and skittish on strikes, advocating whenever possible negotiation with management first. Samuel Gompers came from a Socialist background, but in observing the various bickering of different cells and organizations over minor differences in ideology focused more on the everyday struggles of unions with minimum emphasis on socialist politics. Gompers also sought to use the strike more strategically, noting that strikes in poor economic times were often unsuccessful, with the higher unemployment in these time replacement workers (scabs) were easily found; strikes would be most effective in good financial times, when work stoppages would have a greater impact on managements profits.

On May 4th 1886 as a labor rally for an 8 hour workday was winding down, a bomb exploded when police arrived to disband the demonstration. Seven policemen were killed and sixty-seven wounded, of the workers four killed and fifty wounded. Its shockwaves would reverberate throughout the nation and the affair would end it what many would hold to be the greatest miscarriage of justice in American history.

Newspapers painted the bombing as the result of an anarchist conspiracy and a Chicago hungry for revenge, though unable to find a bomb thrower or any indication as to who the bomb thrower might have been, quickly arrested and held as ring leaders August Spies, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden, and Oscar Neebe. Only Fielden and Spies were actually present at the time of the bombing, but all seven were known labor agitators and political radicals. Albert Parsons had fled the state fearing arrest but later showed up once the trial was underway to stand with his “innocent comrades”.

The trial was held weeks after the bombing and in Chicago. Not an immigrant or laborer was to be found in the jury and they were instructed by the prosecuter that, as to identifying the bomber “it is not necessary in this kind of case … that the individual who commits the particular offense- for instance, the man who threw the bomb … be in court at all. He need not even be indicted. The question for you to determine is, having ascertained that a murder was committed, not only who did it, but who is responsible for it, who abetted it, assisted it, encouraged it.” (pg. 151) As the givers of inflammatory speeches and publishers of radical newspapers that it was argued inspired the attack, the accused then were not on trial for actually committing the crime, but rather for their political beliefs. After short deliberation the jury unanimously voted to convict all of the defendants and sentence them to death save Neebe, for whom they recommended a 15 year sentence. A retrial was asked for and denied, an appeal to the State Supreme Court failed and an appeal to the Federal Supreme court was refused. Field and Schwab had their sentences commuted to life in prison. Ling committed suicide. On November 11 1887 Engel, Fischer, Parson and Spies were executed by hanging.

The biggest consequence of the affair was that from then on the labor movement in America moved away from more outspoken and radical political ideologies and instead focused on day to day quality of life improvements for the working class. “We have no ultimate ends … We are fighting only for immediate objects that can be realized in a few years. We are opposed to theorists … we are practical men.” (pg. 161)


8 hour day



Notable Events

Haymarket bombing and trial

Prominent Organizations and Individuals

Terence Powderly

Knights of Labor

Samuel Gompers

American Federation of Labor

Johann Most

“What does labor want? It wants the earth and the fullness thereof … labor wants more schoolhouses and less jail cells: more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures, and to make manhood more noble, womanhood more beautiful, and childhood more happy and bright.”

-Samuel Gompers (pg. 126)

Chapter Four

Pullman’s Town

By 1890 national labor organizations had come into their own. The American Federation of Labor, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, and the American Railway Union coordinated thousands of locals between them. Accumulation of power on both sides of capital and labor was becoming unignorable, and the federal government was increasingly finding itself involved in labor disputes. An economic crises in 1893 and the resulting rising levels of unemployment also served to turn the public eye to the jobless and poor. The very visible masses of unemployed also drew doubt upon the American ethos of self reliance that underpinned capitalism. If so many are without jobs it must not be luck or laziness, but perhaps some systemic fault as the cause. Jacob S. Coxey advocated a federal works program that foreshadowed the New Deal, but his proposals were viewed as government handouts and summarily dismissed.

Tensions mounted in Homestead, Pennsylvania as the expiration of a contract between Carnegie Steel and the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers drew near. Amalgamated proposed a sliding wage scale tied to product sales and recent increased productivity. However, recent changes in the steel production process meant that a much smaller percentage of skilled laborers were required to run the plant than before, and the unskilled laborers were mostly non-union. Henry Clay Frick, leading negotiations for Carnegie Steel, wanted to do away with Amalgamated and make Homestead a non-union plant, where wages could be set as management saw fit. On June 28th 1892 Frick locked out the workforce, announcing that it would be re opened July 1st as a non union plant. The workers, union and non union, went on strike and surrounded the plant. Two boats filled with Pinkerton agents employed by Carnegie with instructions to secure the plant were dispatched though repelled by strikers. The agents eventually surrendered, but were set upon by a mob that had formed during the conflict. The mob abuse of the agents colored public perception of the union and Governor Pattison sent in 8,000 troops to secure the plant. The plant was re opened and fully staffed with replacement workers by fall. In November Amalgamated admitted defeat, and it’s members went back to work, accepting Frick’s wage structure. Homestead was paralleled by a similar action in Coeur d’Alene in which a miners’ union attempt to prevent the importation of scab workers was crushed by government armed forces.

Integrating African Americans into the Union movement continued to be an issue. White Union members repeatedly voted against their inclusion, but this had the self damning effect of creating an alternate pool of labor for employers to draw from to break union strikes.

Railroad Innovator George Pullman, inspired by the Model Tenement Movement, set about creating a company town outside of Chicago where workers could work and live. Rents and utilities were deducted from workers paychecks. Pullman’s moral views were also imposed upon the workers- no alcohol in Pullman’s town. A network of spies and informants regulated life in the town. “We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shop, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman church, and when we die we shall be buried in the Pullman cemetery and go to the Pullman hell” (pg. 191) was the protest of one worker. When Pullman lowered wages in response to a national economic downturn, many Pullman workers found they were no longer making enough, and went on strike. Recently founded by Eugene Debs, the American Railway Union stepped up to bat for them. On June 21st a convention decided that the Union’s members across the country would no longer handle Pullman cars if the company continued to refuse arbitration. Pullman did, and the boycott went into effect June 26th. Within a week a hundred thousand men had voluntarily stopped work. Interstate commerce was paralyzed across the nation. In response, the boycott was eventually defeated when the court issued an injunction against the ARU based on the Sherman Antitrust Act (initially designed to combat corporations) with the stated aim of preventing tampering with the US mail system and troops were deployed to enforce it.



Sherman Antitrust Act and Unions

Notable Events

Homestead Strike

Coeur d’Alene

Pullman Strike

Prominent Organizations and Individuals

Carnegie Steel

Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers

Henry Clay Frick

Emma Goldman

George Mortimer Pullman

Jacob S. Coxey

Eugene V. Debs

“We have no power of the government behind us … no recognized influence in society on our side … On the other side the corporations are in perfect alliance; they have all of the things that money can command, and that means a subsidized press … the clergy almost steadily united in thundering their enunciations, then the courts, then the state militia, then the federal troops.”

-Eugene Debs (pg. 218)

Chapter Five

Industrial Democracy

Visible roving masses of unemployed during the economic hardships of the 1890’s had begun to cast doubt on the ethos of self-reliance and social Darwinism. Around the turn of the century millions of immigrants were pouring into America and urban squalor was a notable social concern. This was also the age of technology. Reason and analysis had done so much for industry. Might they also be employed to right social ills? Progressivism was born. Progressivism, standing in contrast to ideologies such as socialism and anarchism which proposed to better the workers conditions by over throwing capitalist society, sought to improve the life of the working class by working within the system.

Influential within the movement were sociologist Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who in 1897 published a book title Industrial Democracy. They saw unions as organizations that could check the excesses of large scale corporations, and coined the term ‘collective bargaining’. They believed the nation’s democratic principles should be applied to capital and labor’s relation to one another, and as labor conflicts were a social concern, legislators, the press, and the public should all seek more active roles in their resolution. Managers began to hop on board the reform movement by establishing a program of welfare capitalism which involved benefits such as pensions, profit sharing, and various other perks.

President Roosevelt spoke in favor of unions and the working out of conflicts between capital and labor through conference as opposed to confrontation, stating that avoiding strikes was “really in the interest of property, for it will save it from the danger of revolution.” (pg. 236)

A major issue of the time was the ‘closed shop’/’open shop’ debate. A closed shop was a unions’ exclusive right to represent all the workers on a particular job sight, essential to collective bargaining. Employers advocated ‘open shops’ using democratic language and painted unions as controlling, but really just sought to lessen their power. The ‘right to work’ laws of our time have a similar theme.




Open shop/closed shop

Yellow Dog Contracts

Child Labor

Notable Events

Triangle Shirtwaist Disaster

Prominent Organizations and Individuals

United Mine Workers

National Civic Federation

Legislation/Government Action

Erdman Act

Lochner v. New York

Loewe v. Lawlor

Clayton Act

Duplex Printing Press Co. v. Deering

Creation of the Department of Labor

U.S. Commision on Industrial Relations

A man who won’t meet his men halfway is a God-damn fool! My plan is to have organized union labor Americanized in the best sense, and thoroughly educated to an understanding of its responsibilities, and in this way to make it the ally of the capitalist, rather than a foe with which to grapple.”

-Marcus Alonzo Hanna


AFL-CIO Minnesota Web Site Article: “Right to Work” Laws: Get the Facts

When I was reading about the Open Shop/Closed Shop debates I couldn’t help but be reminded of the ‘right to work laws’ of our day. ‘Closed shops’ are work sites where a union has obtained an agreement from the employer to only hire members of the union, and employees must maintain membership in the union while employed. Close shops were made illegal in 1947, but were replaced by the ‘Union shop’, in which employees who were not already part of the union selected by the workforce at a given site to represent them had to join as a condition of employment. Total or as near total membership of a workforce in a union is vital to that union’s ability to perform its basic functions. A union can’t claim to represent a workforce if workers aren’t members. Actions like strikes require strike funds to pay for lost wages, and this requires union dues.

Employers and anti union forces tried to sell the ‘Open Shop’ the same way ‘Right to Work’ is being sold today. Unions are painted as autocratic entities preventing the worker from selling their labor as they see fit. Deceptively democratic language is used and somehow being on less equal footing with your employer is painted as an issue of individual liberty. That’s why I chose this web page. It’s a union site (AFL-CIO) and you can see straight away the first thing they have to do in the fight against right to work laws is try to clear up the misconception left by the use of deceptive language.


This is the publisher’s page for the book. There’s a link to a page for the author, Philip Dray, but it appears to be down at the moment.

Dray, Philip. There Is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America. First Anchor Books Edition, September 2011 ed. New York: Anchor , A Division of Random House, 2011. Print.

The ISBN is 978-0-307-38976-3

Copyright 2010 by Philip Dray

Schaubach, Jennifer. “”Right to Work” Laws: Get the Facts.” Minnesota AFLCIO. Web. 25 Nov. 2015.