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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class



Learning Objective III:


Discuss the double standard of social morality for labor and capital-and show how this double standard led to industrial conflict. Be sure to identify the challenging conditions workers faced in the work place. In your discussion, highlight the challenges and successes of labor activists Mother Jones.


The late 19th century had a double standard of social morality for labor and capital. A combination of capital was regarded as in accordance with natural laws, but a combination of labor was regarded as a conspiracy. It as the duty of government to protect corporate interests, but government aid to labor or protection of individuals within society from exploitation was viewed as socialism.


Property had a natural right to a fair return on its value, but the return which labor was to enjoy was ""strictly regulated by the law of supply and demand. This worked fine for labor until 1860 while there were more jobs than people. After 1860, when the reverse occurred and unemployment became a permanent aspect of society, industrial conflict became more prominent as a solution to solving. the questions raised by the double standard of social morality.


As industrial conflict developed between labor and management the reform unionists failure to meet the needs of the workers led to the emergence of trade union tactics. Trade union tactics consisted of the strike and boycott . The direct result of the strike and boycott was a back lash against labor and a loss of support and sympathy for its cause .


As labor came up with the strike and boycott, business retaliated with the

(1) lockout,

(2) blacklist,and

(3) injunction (Sherman Anti Trust Act) and the use of company police or National Guard.


These tactics resulted in uninterrupted industrial conflict that frequently broke out into violence which assumed the characteristics of warfare.



An example of this can be seen with the "Great Strike" of 1877. It was the first major industrial conflict in our history and occurred when four eastern railroads announced a planned wage cut of 10%, the second since the panic of 1873. Most freight and even some passenger traf- fic, covering over 50,000 miles, was stopped for more than a week. After several state governors asked President Rutherford B. Hayes to intervene, saying that the strikers were impeding interstate commerce, federal troops ended the strike.




Encouraged by the impact of the 1877 strike, labor leaders continued to press for change. On the evening of May 4, 1886, 3,000 people gathered at Chicago’s Haymarket Square to protest police brutality—a striker had been killed and several had been wounded at the McCormick Harvester plant the day before. Rain began to fall at about 10 o’clock, and the crowd was dispersing when police arrived. Then someone tossed a bomb into the police line. Police fired on the workers; seven police officers and several workers died in the chaos that followed. No one ever learned who threw the bomb, but the three speakers at the demonstration and five other radicals were charged with inciting a riot. All eight were convicted; four were hanged and one committed suicide in prison. After Haymarket, the public began to turn against the labor movement.




Despite the violence and rising public anger, workers continued to strike. The writer Hamlin Garland described conditions at the Carnegie Steel Company’s Homestead plant in Pennsylvania. The steelworkers finally called a strike on June 29, 1892, after the company president, Henry Clay Frick, announced his plan to cut wages. Frick hired armed guards from the Pinkerton Detective Agency to protect the plant so that he could hire scabs, or strikebreakers, to keep it operating. In a pitched battle that left at least three detectives and nine workers dead, the steelworkers forced out the Pinkertons and kept the plant closed until the Pennsylvania National Guard arrived on July 12. The strike continued until November, but by then the union had lost much of its support and gave in to the company. It would take 45 years for steelworkers to mobilize once again.




Strikes continued in other industries, however. During the panic of 1893 and the economic depression that followed, the Pullman company laid off more than 3,000 of its 5,800 employees and cut the wages of the rest by 25 to 50 percent, without cutting the cost of its employee housing. After paying their rent, many workers took home less than $6 a week. A strike was called in the spring of 1894, when the Pullman company failed to restore wages or decrease rents. Eugene Debs asked for arbitration, but Pullman refused to negotiate with the strikers. So the ARU began boycotting Pullman trains. After Pullman hired strikebreakers, the strike turned violent, and President Grover Cleveland sent in federal troops. In the bitter aftermath, Debs was jailed. Pullman fired most of the strikers, and the railroads blacklisted many others, so they could never again get railroad jobs.




Although women were barred from many unions, they united behind powerful leaders to demand better working conditions, equal pay for equal work, and an end to child labor. Perhaps the most prominent organizer in the women’s labor movement was Mary Harris Jones. Jones supported the Great Strike of 1877 and later organized for the United Mine Workers of America (UMW). She endured death threats and jail with the coal miners, who gave her the nickname Mother Jones. In 1903, to expose the cruelties of child labor, she led 80 mill children— many with hideous injuries—on a march to the home of President Theodore Roosevelt. Their crusade influenced the passage of child labor laws. 

Who was Mother Jones? 

Other organizers also achieved significant gains for women. In 1909, Pauline Newman, just 16 years old, became the first female organizer of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). A garment worker from the age of eight, Newman also supported the “Uprising of the 20,000,” a 1909 seamstresses’ strike that won labor agreements and improved working conditions for some strikers. The public could no longer ignore conditions in garment factories after a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City on March 25, 1911. The fire spread swiftly through the oil-soaked machines and piles of cloth, engulfing the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. As workers attempted to flee, they discovered that the company had locked all but one of the exit doors to prevent theft. The unlocked door was blocked by fire. The factory had no sprinkler system, and the single fire escape collapsed almost immediately. In all, 146 women died; some were found huddled with their faces raised to a small window. Public outrage flared after a jury acquitted the factory owners of manslaughter. In response, the state of New York set up a task force to study factory working conditions.

Without adequate organization the railway employees struck, and with the support of a huge army of hungry and desperate unemployed, the strike flared up into something that seemed, to respectable folks, like rebellion. In Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Chicago, San Francisco, and elsewhere, there were pitched battles waging between militia and the mob. Order was restored only by federal troops. American complacency received a shock which was only partially alleviated by the notion that foreign agitators alone were responsible for the disorder.


As a result, the courts clamped down, the police became more ruthless, and the public began to withdraw its sympathy from the labor movement.


Only the most far-sighted realized that the country had reached a stage of industrial evolution which meant that the Great Strike of 1877 would be only the first of a long series of battles between labor and capital. Management believed that the workers were holding back progress by resisting technological changes, while the workers argued that the company was refusing to share fairly the fruits of more efficient operation. The indirect result of industrial conflict was labor and social legislation.