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HARD TIMES AND LABOR UNIONS

Even with some brave efforts, the working face of America wasn't what the founding fathers had imagined. The century started with Thomas Jefferson's dream of independent farmers creating a democratic utopia and ended with most Americans working for other people.

During the last 20 years of the 1800s, several hundred thousand unskilled workers a year landed on America's shores, looking for work. This influx of workers made it easy for bosses to hire people at low wages — pay so low that whole families had to work, kids included. Child labor went on until the 1930s, when photographs of children as young as 8 in dangerous jobs, taken by pioneering documentary photographer Lewis Hine (1910), finally made the government take action. Some employers also took advantage of workers by charging them high prices in company stores and threatening them if they tried to organize.

Labor-union organizations grew as a response to bad treatment and low wages. The Knights of Labor (see Chapter 13) had close to 1 million members by 1886. Terence Powderly of the Knights denounced multimillionaire businessmen for "laying the foundation for their colossal fortunes on the bodies and souls of living men."

A demonstration in that year in Chicago's Haymarket Square (1886) turned to violence when a bomb was thrown, killing a policeman. Eight union leaders were arrested. Even though no evidence showed that any of the leaders had anything to do with the bomb, five were sentenced to death and three to stiff prison terms.

Association with violence, even though the Knights of Labor didn't cause it, cooled support for the organization. When a new organization of skilled workers called the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was formed later that year, it gradually took over the union fight from the Knights. AFL President Samuel Gompers concentrated only on skilled workers organized by specialty. Gompers knew how to work within the system to improve the position of working people gradually.

Example

Question: What kind of labor unions made up the AFL?

Answer: Only skilled worker labor unions were admitted to the AFL.

Coxey's Army (1894), a small band of determined protestors, marched across the country to Washington, D.C., to demand jobs and federal help. During the Pullman strike (1894), in which workers blocked the railroad tracks to protest cuts in pay without cuts in company-housing rent, federal troops moved in against striking laborers for the first time. Union leader Eugene Debs, realizing that the system had to change, later ran for president.

For the time being, big business and big government appeared to have joined to keep poor people in their place. When progressive William Jennings Bryan ran against conservative William McKinley in 1896, the conservatives triumphed decisively. People with jobs and unmortgaged farms didn't want to take a chance of losing them to free silver and free trade. The Dingley Tariff Bill (1897) made imported goods cost more than ever, enabling domestic industries to charge more without foreign competition. Gold stayed the standard, but new gold discoveries in Alaska, Canada, and elsewhere helped the money supply. Although progressives had lost the election, the causes of women, workers, and blacks slowly edged toward acceptance in the public mind.

Example

Question: What was the cause of the Pullman strike?

Answer: Pullman cut workers' pay without a corresponding cut in workers' rent.

 
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