In the late 19th century, the emergence of a national market economy and rapid industrialization profoundly affected the politics, economy, and class relations of American society. Discuss the different ways workers and farmers attempted to confront the negative consequences of industrialization. Be sure to consider the specific issues or problems that each group wished to address or solve, the organizations and methods each used, and how effective (i.e., successes and failures) they were in doing so. Finally, how did Bellamy in his novel Looking Backward portray the changing nature of labor (workers) evident by the year 2000? Be sure to cite specific events and ideas in your answer. Where should I start this essay? Any suggestions?

The national market economy affected lower-class workers and farmers negatively, decreasing their living conditions and political influence. In response, these groups created unions and associations countering business involvement in politics. Farming associations helped pass bills protecting farmers, and labor unions helped pass the first labor protections. Bellamy imagined that these gains significantly empowered American workers. In his novel they created a classless society in response to the excesses of the Gilded Age.

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In the late 19th-century United States, rural agriculturists and urban industrial workers organized and engaged in political activism to improve working conditions and their lives overall.

Among farmers, the Grange, or the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry, was an important political and social organization. It was founded in New York, and it eventually became more influential in the Midwest. In the 1860s–1870s, the Grange was responsible for the passage of several state laws regulating charges for transporting and storing grain. Although the Granger Laws met with severe opposition from the railroads, they were an important step toward the passage of the federal Interstate Commerce Act of 1887. That act curbed fare discrimination against Midwest farmers. The organization also was instrumental in the formation of rural cooperatives, which lowered farmers's costs. It was notable as well for having numerous female officers and for supporting temperance and woman's suffrage.

Farmers also organized into the National Farmers Alliance and Industrial Union and the Chicago-based Northwest Farmers Alliance. By 1890, the Alliances had moved into politics. Their political engagement created the Populist Party. While the Populists primarily advocated policies that eased financial burdens on farmers, they also supported urban labor reforms such as the eight-hour-day.

In the cities, organizing addressed working conditions. Issues most focused on were those including safety, wages, and collective bargaining. In most industries, such as steel, monopolies and cartels held tight control of business. Strikes were increasingly frequent, but they were often severely repressed. During the 1892 Homestead strike at a Carnegie steel plant in Pittsburgh, armed enforcers shot and killed workers attempting to unionize.

As individual unions joined together with the American Federation of Labor, founded by Samuel Gompers in 1886, their bargaining power increased. Some saw the AFL as too conciliatory to owners. Responding to the AFL's percieved weakness, the socialist International Workers of the World was formed in 1905.


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Looking at the ways that workers and farmers confronted the negative consequences of industrialization, it is clear that both groups tried to defend themselves by organizing. Farmers in particular saw themselves as the victims of a system that was rigged against them. Railroads amassed valuable land and charged small farmers exorbitant rates. Banks, often in cahoots with big railroad companies, engaged in stringent credit policies that frequently caused farmers to lose their land.

All of this happened under a federal government that increasingly adopted a monetary policy that benefited creditors. In response, farmers sought to form organizations that would both educate farmers about the challenges they faced and attempt to effect political change. The Grange and Farmers Alliances promoted pro-farmer measures that included laws regulating the railroads, looser monetary policies that were more beneficial to debtors, and other democratic reforms. These efforts culminated in the Populist movement in the late nineteenth century.

Industrial workers also sought to organize in the face of business practices that included low wages, dangerous working conditions, and very long hours. They joined unions that attempted to collectively bargain for better conditions. Early efforts at mass organization included the Knights of Labor, who attempted to organize workers from a variety of occupations. But a national labor union that transcended class, race, and occupation proved difficult to establish and maintain.

Craft and industrial unions which often excluded minorities proliferated throughout the nation. Powerful unions in the railroad, steel, and garment industries clashed with management in a series of violent disputes. A large "union of unions," called the American Federation of Labor emerged, focusing on what became known as "bread and butter" unionism. It concentrated on achieving basic reforms like higher pay and shorter hours.

In Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy imagined that these movements fundamentally altered the condition of labor by the twentieth century. In short, he described a socialist utopia where workers had overthrown the capitalists in the late nineteenth century, paving the way for a classless society. All of the reforms that the left wing of the labor movement desired have become a reality, and the abuses of the Gilded Age are a distant memory.

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While some writing about the Gilded Age or Second Industrial Revolution in the United States emphasize that this period was one of great progress in wealth creation and industrial output, more recent studies have tended to emphasize that many different groups were harmed by these changes. Bellamy's novel and the Populist movement were among the expressions of frustration that industrialization did not benefit everyone equally; income inequality was rising rapidly, and workers and farmers were being exploited. 

If one thinks of the growth of transport systems, for example, one can argue that roads, canals, and railroads were beneficial forms of infrastructure that enabled US economic growth. On the other hand, the railroads were cutthroat monopolies in which a few owners and investors could become wealthy, while indentured or "coolie" laborers, especially the Chinese, lived in extreme poverty and inhumane working situations. The building of railroads also involved the displacement of Native Americans and encroachment on their traditional hunting grounds. Buffalo Bill Cody's slaughter of buffalo was a project to feed railroad workers—and deprive Native Americans of a food supply. Several groups opposed the excesses of railroads. The Populists, especially in Kansas, advocated for railroads being owned and run by the government, arguing that railroad owners overcharged farmers, creating unfair monopolies that made a few railroad owners rich while impoverishing small farmers; for more details see the discussion in the Kansas Historical Quarterly. The People's Party or Populist movement was a major political response by small farmers to exploitation by banks and railroads. 

Another major issue was the treatment of laborers in factories and mines, which often involved low wages and dangerous working conditions. The major responses to this were strikes and unionization, which attempted to use collective bargaining power to offset the wealth and controlling interests of factory owners. There were numerous labor battles in this period.

For Bellamy, the growth of industry could lead to a Utopian socialist future in which increased productivity would lead to shorter working hours, earlier retirement, and a system of public housing and food distribution that would reward workers instead of simply funnelling money into the pockets of a limited number of business owners. Rather than opposing industry, he argued that its growth should be used for the common good. 

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