Unions and the Labor Movement

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What impact did labor unions have on the American industrial worker between 1865-1900?

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Labor unions impacted workers in several ways between 1865-1900. Workers were unhappy with the long hours, low pay, and the substandard working conditions that they faced in many factories. Unions gave workers an opportunity to unite to collectively to achieve their goals. An individual worker would have had little chance...

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Labor unions impacted workers in several ways between 1865-1900. Workers were unhappy with the long hours, low pay, and the substandard working conditions that they faced in many factories. Unions gave workers an opportunity to unite to collectively to achieve their goals. An individual worker would have had little chance to bring about changes, but collectively, the odds of making changes could possibly increase.

Unfortunately, most union actions weren’t successful during this time period. Too often, politicians, business owners, and the police worked together to prevent union workers from improving the conditions they faced. The government sided with business owners when disputes arose, and the police often arrested striking workers. When some strikes led to violence, public opinion turned against workers. Many people viewed union members as anarchists, and therefore much of the public didn’t support the actions of the strikers. The violence associated with the Haymarket Riot led to the decline of the Knights of Labor.

Eventually, unions such as the American Federation of Labor began to focus on issues directly affecting workers. As the mood of the country shifted by 1900, a growing support for workers existed. More people began to see business owners as greedy, and there was more support for people who had little power. There was a growing concern about the use of child labor in factories. These factors led to a growing number of people who wanted to take action to curb perceived abuses by business owners. By 1900, the mood was ripe for implementing changes that the Progressive Movement brought about in the early 1900s including improving working conditions, raising pay, and restricting the use of child labor—all goals of the labor movement.

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The impact that labor unions had on American industrial workers during this period was mixed at best. Most business owners in heavy industry took a hard line against unions in their factories, mills, and mines, and generally speaking, during this period, state governments, as well as the federal government, notably the courts, supported them. Indeed, it was during this period that the Sherman Antitrust Act, passed with the intent of curbing the formation of monopolies, was usually invoked to curb the formation of unions. Labor disputes often became violent, as a host of examples, including Homestead Steel, Ludlow, and the Pullman factory strikes attest. Labor unions were portrayed as un-American and radical, and the position of the federal government toward them was almost unfailingly hostile until Theodore Roosevelt's intervention in the anthracite coal miners' strike of 1902.

On the other hand, some state governments, particularly in areas with a heavy immigrant population, passed laws that met many industrial workers' broad demands for maximum work hours, better working conditions, and other reforms. But generally speaking, industrial labor unions struggled for existence before the turn of the century. While the Knights of Labor boasted a vast membership, its influence was somewhat limited, and the most powerful unions during the time were the more moderate craft unions, organized into the American Federation of Labor under Samuel Gompers. 

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