Unions and the Labor Movement

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What demands were made by workers' unions during the period from 1850 to 1900?

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Industrial workers in mid-nineteenth century America had a very difficult life, so unions were created in an attempt to alleviate their plight. Workers' grievances included long hours, low pay, hazardous working conditions, the pervasive use of child labor, and the exploitation of female employees.

In 1850, there were no labor...

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Industrial workers in mid-nineteenth century America had a very difficult life, so unions were created in an attempt to alleviate their plight. Workers' grievances included long hours, low pay, hazardous working conditions, the pervasive use of child labor, and the exploitation of female employees.

In 1850, there were no labor regulations anywhere in the US. In 1874, Massachusetts passed the the first legislation. This legislation limited working hours to a maximum of ten per day. In fact, many Americans believed that labor conditions should not be regulated. Proponents of laissez-faire capitalism argued that the economy was the result of Social Darwinism—survival of the fittest—and that regulation was unnatural.

In 1869, the Knights of Labor became the first national labor union. It represented all workers. The Knights began as a secret organization and sought to replace capitalism with a socialist goal of workers' cooperatives. By 1886, membership reached a peak of 700,000. The union went into decline after 1886.

The American Federation of Labor was founded in 1886. It abandoned the socialist undertones of its predecessor and focused on achieving the following goals: increased wages, decreased working hours, benefits, and improved working conditions. This union focused on skilled workers.

Employers were not ready to grant concessions to workers, and the result was violent confrontations: the Great Railroad Strike (1877), Haymarket Square (1886), the Carnegie Riot (1892), and the Pullman Palace Car Strike (1894).

The eight-hour workday and other employee benefits in contemporary America stem from the historic labor movement.

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During this time period, there were a number of different unions with different demands. Some, like the Knights of Labor, wanted to completely reform the system and give the workers ownership of the factories. Others, like the AFL, simply wanted better treatment within the system.

Overall, though, the basic demands were for better working conditions and higher pay. For example, the National Labor Union formed in 1866 to push for a law mandating that workers would not have to work more than eight hours per day. The Knights of Labor and other unions wanted higher wages. The AFL wanted laws mandating workplace safety. All of these are examples of the sorts of demands for better pay and better conditions that were made by unions in general during the time you mention.

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