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Workers Organize
Lesson 14-3
The Main Idea
Grim working conditions in many industries led workers to
form unions and stage labor strikes.
Reading Focus
• What was the relationship between government and business in
the late 1800s?
• What were working conditions like for industrial workers?
• How did workers seek change?
Government and Business
• Hands-off policy
– Government did not interfere with business in the late 1800s,
but as corporations expanded and gained power, that policy
began to change.
• Controlling the giants
– The Sherman Antitrust Act was passed in 1890, making it
illegal to form trusts that interfered with free trade. It
prohibited monopolies and activities hindering competition.
– The law was vague, however, and it was seldom enforced.
• Workers
– The government paid less attention to workers, who scraped by
on small wages. By 1890, 10 percent of the population
controlled 75 percent of the nation’s wealth. The rich were very
rich, and many industrial workers made less than $500 per
Industrial Workers
The workforce
• Many factory workers were
immigrants or rural
Americans moving to the
cities for jobs.
• The best jobs went to
native-born whites or
European immigrants.
• Less well-paying jobs were
open to African Americans,
as household help or
• By 1900, one in six
children between the ages
of 10 and 15 held factory
Working conditions
• Most unskilled laborers
worked 10-hour days, six
days a week.
• They had no paid vacation
and no sick leave.
• Speed of production led to
terrible accidents. Injured
workers were replaced.
• Sweatshops were
common. These cramped
workshops set up in
shabby tenement buildings
were common in the
garment industry.
Workers Seek Change
The Great
In 1794, Philadelphia shoemakers formed a trade
union. Over decades, unions formed for skilled
trade workers, but they remained small and local.
After the Civil War, things changed. The Knights
of Labor formed in 1869. Under the leadership of
Terence V. Powderly in the 1880s, they began to
accept unskilled workers, women, and African
Americans as members. They campaigned for
reforms, such as eight-hour workdays and the end
of child labor through boycotts and negotiations.
After wage cuts, the first railroad strike occurred in
1877. Initial strikes quickly spread, and state
militias were called out. Violence ensued, lives
were lost, and costly damage was done. The arrival
of U.S. Army troops put an end to the strike.
Strikes and Turmoil
The Haymarket Riot
• 1886 was a difficult year for
• One of the worst clashes was at
Haymarket Square in Chicago. A
bomb was thrown in a crowd
gathered to protest violent police
action. Gunshots rang out, and
eleven people were killed and
hundreds injured before it was
• Foreign-born unionists were
blamed for the violence, and the
press fanned xenophobia.
– Fear of foreigners
The American Federation of
• Employers struck back at
organized labor, forcing
employees to sign documents
saying they would not join a
– Yellow dog contract
• Blacklists of people deemed
troublemakers were made and
shared by employers, who
refused to hire anyone listed.
• Striking workers were replaced
with “scabs,” or strikebreakers.
• Eight men were charged with
conspiracy, but no evidence
connected them to the crime.
• Samuel Gompers led a group of
skilled workers to form the
American Federation of Labor
in 1886.
• All eight were convicted and
sentenced to death. After four
hangings and one suicide, the
last three were pardoned.
• Using strikes and other tactics,
the AFL did win wage increases
and shorter workweeks.
The Homestead Strike
Unions made some gains, but conflicts continued. Carnegie
Steel workers in Homestead, Pennsylvania, refused to work
faster, and the manager tried to lock them out. The workers
seized the plant. Gunfire erupted when private guards hired by
the company tried to take control. After a 14-hour battle and
fourteen deaths, the governor called out the state militia. The
steelworkers’ union withered within months.
The Pullman Strike
After laying off a third of its employees in 1893, the Pullman
Company cut the wages of remaining workers by 25 percent
without lowering their rents. Workers went on strike with the
support of Eugene V. Debs, the leader of the American
Railway Union. The government ordered the strike be called
off, but the union refused. President Grover Cleveland called
in federal troops, and the strike collapsed. The late 1800s
would remain an era of big business.