United States, labor History
By 1900, according to (Norton et al 472), the condition of labor shifted significantly with the introduction of technological innovations and assembly line productions that created new jobs. Workers acclimatized to mechanization to the best of their ability, but anxiety over lost independence and a desire for better wages, working conditions and better working hour’s disgruntled workers into unions. Trade unions for skilled workers in crafts like painting and iron molding dated from the early 1800s, but their influence was limited. The National Labor Union, founded in 1866, claimed 640,000 members from various industries, but it collapsed in 1873 due to legislative problems.
At about the same period as the railroad strike, the Knight of Labor tried to attract a broad base of laborers. This movement was founded by Philadelphia garment cutters in 1869 and they started enlisting other people in the early1870s. As compared to other craft unions, Knights recruited both unskilled as well as semiskilled workers, including African Americans and immigrants, but not Chinese. The Knights wanted a workers’ alliance that offered a substitute to profit-oriented industrial capitalism. They had every intention of eliminating conflict between management and labor by setting up a cooperative society where laborers owned mines, factories and railroad with the goal of making every man self employed. The cooperative proposal was theoretically, but was unachievable because employers could out-compete laborers who might have tried to start businesses. Strikes could have achieved immediate goals, but the leaders argued that strikes diverted attention from the long term goal of a cooperative society and that workers lost more by striking (Norton et al 476).
Established in 1886, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) came into sight from that year’s upheavals as the main workers’ association. A coalition of national craft unions, the AFL had approximately140, 000 members, and generally skilled workers. Guided by Samuel Gompers, the former head of the Cigar Makers’ Union, the AFL pushed for higher wages, the right to bargain communally and shorter hours. Contrasting the Knights, the AFL acknowledged capitalism and worked to advance situations within it. The AFL avoided party politics adhering instead to Gompers’ dictum to support labor friends and oppose its enemies regardless of party.
AFL membership grew to about a million by 1900, when it consisted of 111 state unions and approximately 27,000 locals. Member unions controlled by crafts lacked interest in enlisting unskilled workers or women. Male unionist streamlined women’s segregation by maintaining that women should not be employed. Frequently unionists were concerned that, the low pay of women would lead to lowering of wages for men or they would loose their jobs to cheaper female laborers
Influenced by racism, organized labor barred most African American and immigrant worker, with fear that they too would lower wages. A small number of trade unions recruited skilled immigrants. Long-held discriminations were reinforced at the time when blacks and immigrants, willing to work, substituted striking whites. The AFL and the labor movement experienced setbacks in the 1890s when AFL- affiliated Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steelworkers went to strike due to pay cuts in Homestead, Pennsylvania. State troops interceded and after a few months the strikers gave in and by then public outlook turned against the union.
As explored in (Norton et al 480), the millions of men, women as well as children who were not unionized tried to cope with machine age pressures. Many natives and immigrants workers joined fraternal societies such as the Polish Roman Catholic Union and the African American Colored Brotherhood and Sisterhood of Honor. For little contributions, members were provided with sickness benefits, life insurance and burial costs by these organization. Throughout the machine age, wages improved, boosting purchasing power and generating a market for standardized goods. Yet, in 1900 the majority of employees were required to work about sixty hours a week at low wages. Even with the increase of wages, the living standards were sky-rocketing.
Norton Mary, Sheriff Carol, Blight David, Katzman David. A People and a Nation: A History of the United States. New York: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2007. Print.
(Norton et al 480)
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