Opening Remarks

American Labor's
Second Century

Toward a Federation of Labor

Federation of Organized Trades & Labor Unions

A Testing Period and Growth

Women in the Unions

Wartime Gains
and Post-War Challenges

From Murdered Miners to Shiny Dimes

Depression, War and
A Labor Schism Healed

The AFL-CIO Years

On the Farm:
Workers Seek Equality






The first practical step in response to the need for a united labor movement was a meeting of workers' representatives from a few trades and industries at Pittsburgh on Nov. 15, 1881.  The delegates came from the carpenters, the cigar makers, the printers, merchant seamen, and the steel workers, as well as from a few city labor bodies and a sprinkling of delegates from local  units of the Knights of Labor.

The new Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions which they created had a constitution inspired by that of the British Trades Union Congress -which then was about a dozen years old.  Its principal activity was legislative, its most important committee was concerned with legislation.  The chairman of that committee was 31-year-old Samuel Gompers of the Cigar Makers Union, serving in the earliest phase of a career that was to make him the principal leader and spokesman for labor in America for the next four decades.

The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions was a good deal less than a strongly effective organization. In its third year, it collected just $508 in dues, and its 1884 convention brought together merely 18 delegates.  Yet its fingers were clearly on the pulse of America's working class; it passed a resolution decreeing that "eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor from and after May 1, 1886."  It recommended to its affiliated unions that they "so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution by the time named."  In the words of a much later cliché, the federation's call for the eight hour day was clearly "an idea whose time had come."  It touched off, or accelerated, a strong and vociferous national clamor for the shorter work week.

Despite the popularity of that call for action, Gompers and a number of his associates-among them, particularly, Peter J. McGuire of the Brotherhood of Carpenters-felt the time had come for reorganizing the Federation to make it a more effective center for the trade unions of the country.  So, on Dec. 8, 1886, they and a few other delegates met in Columbus, Ohio, to create a renovated organization.

It was at this meeting that the American Federation of Labor evolved from the earlier Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions.  The action was a giant step forward toward the development of a modern trade union movement in America.  Gompers was elected president, McGuire secretary.  Gompers, born in 1850, came as a boy with his parents to America from the Jewish slums of London; he entered the cigar-making trade and received much of his education as a "reader"-a worker who read books, newspaper stories, poetry and magazine articles to fellow employees to help break the
monotony of their work in the shop-and became a leader of his local union and of the national Cigar Makers Union.

A statement by the founders of the AFL expressed their belief in the need for more effective union organization. "The various trades have been affected by the introduction of machinery, the subdivision of labor, the use of women's and children's labor and the lack of an apprentice system-so that the skilled trades were rapidly sinking to the level of pauper labor," the AFL declared. "To protect the skilled labor of America from being reduced to beggary and to sustain the standard of American workmanship and skill, the trades unions of America have been established."

The leadership of the early labor movement showed a keen awareness that the unions could not succeed with a "men only" philosophy, even though men were then the clearly dominant element in the labor force.  In 1882 the Federation extended to "all women's labor organizations representation . . . on an equal footing."  Even more explicitly-and rather grandiloquently-the AFL convention in 1894 adopted a resolution that "women should be organized into trade unions to the end that they may scientifically and permanently abolish the terrible evils accompanying their weakened, unorganized state; and we demand that they receive equal compensation with men for equal services performed."

The new AFL, with its 300,000 members in 25 unions, came on the national scene in a time of discord and struggle.  Earlier in 1886, railroad workers in the Southwest had been involved in a losing strike against the properties of Jay Gould, one of the more flamboyant of the so-called "robber barons" of the post-Civil War period.  On May 1, 1886, some 200,000 workers had struck in support of the effort to achieve the eight hour day.

While the national eight hour day strike movement was generally peaceful, and frequently successful, it led to an episode of violence in Chicago that resulted in a setback for the new labor movement.  The McCormick Harvester Company in Chicago, learning in advance of the planned strike, locked out all its employees who held union cards. Fights erupted and the police opened fire on the union members, killing four of them.  A public rally at Haymarket Square to protest the killings drew a large and peaceful throng.  As the meeting drew to a close, a bomb exploded near the lines of police guards, and seven of the uniformed force were killed, with some fifty persons wounded.  The police began to fire into the crowd; several more people were killed and about 200 were wounded.

Eight anarchists were arrested and charged with a capital crime.  Four were executed; four others were eventually freed by Gov. John P. Altgeld of Illinois after he concluded that the trial had been unfairly conducted. No one knows for certain who planted the bomb.  But as Gompers ruefully commented some time later: "The bomb not only killed the policemen, but it killed our eight hour movement for a few years after."

The new AFL, breaking with the cloudy organizational structure that had hampered the Knights of Labor and other previous attempts at federation, placed emphasis on the autonomy of each affiliated union in its jurisdiction, and encouraged the development of practical collective bargaining to gain improvements for the membership.  But it takes two to make collective bargaining work - employers and workers - and as American industry moved into a period of immense growth and power in the latter part of the 19th century, the lords of industry were little inclined to negotiate with the unions of their employees.  The Sherman Antitrust Act, designed to break up the power of monopoly corporations, was used very strongly against small unions, contrary to its intent.  And so, the companies grew in strength while their lawyers fought successful rearguard actions to make the law inoperative.

Thus the decade of the 1890s and the early years of the 20th century witnessed many intense struggles between essentially weak unions seeking to liberate their members from back-breaking toil under often unsafe and unhealthy working conditions for very low wages, and powerful corporations with heavy financial resources, the active or passive support of the government and its police forces, and the backing of much of the press and the
general public.  It was a perfect climate for union-busting and violence.

In 1891 steel boss Henry C. Frick broke a Pennsylvania strike of coke oven workers seeking the eight hour day. But that was just a warm-up event for Frick, who as head of the Carnegie Steel Company in 1892 ordered a pay cut ranging from eighteen to twenty-six percent.  The Amalgamated Association of Iron & Steel Workers, one of the stronger unions of the period-called a strike at the Carnegie plant at Homestead, Pa., to seek a rescinding of the cut in wages.  Pitched battles followed between the strikers and a boatload of 300 armed Pinkerton detectives.  The strikers won the battle and the Pinkertons retreated, with a death toll of seven workers, three strikebreakers and scores of wounded.  The state militia then took over the town.  Indictments poured
out, but no one was convicted; and Frick had succeeded in breaking the strike.

The next big confrontation, in 1894, was at the Pullman plant near Chicago.  The American Railroad Union, not affiliated with the AFL and led by Eugene V. Debs, a leading American socialist struck the company's manufacturing plant, and called for a boycott of the handling of Pullman's sleeping and parlor cars on the nation's railroads.  Within a week, 125,000 railroad workers were engaged in a sympathy protest strike.  The government swore in 3,400 special deputies; later, at the request of the railroad association, President Cleveland moved in federal troops to break the strike-despite a plea by Gov. Aitgeld of Illinois that their presence was unnecessary.  Finally a sweeping federal court injunction forced an end to the sympathy strike, and many railroad workers were blacklisted.  The Pullman strikers were essentially starved into submissive defeat.

The strike illustrated the increasing tendency of the government to offer moral support and military force to break strikes.  The injunction, issued usually and almost automatically by compliant judges on the request of government officials or corporations, became a prime legal weapon against union organizing and action.

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