Which side did the federal government choose to support in the major strikes of the late 1800s?
During the major strikes in the 19th century, the federal government sided with business owners over the unions or strikers. For example, in the Great Railroad Strikes of 1877, railroad workers were protesting wage cuts in the aftermath of the Panic of 1873 and downward pressure on wages from immigration and the urbanization of formerly rural workers. The strikes began in West Virginia after the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) cut workers' wages, and the strikes were put down by state militias and federal troops about a month and a half later.
During the Pullman Strike of 1894, workers at the Pullman factory in Chicago conducted a wildcat strike when the company cut wages following the Panic of 1893. Eugene Debs, the head of the American Railroad Union (ARU), called for a national boycott against railroads that used Pullman cars, effectively ending shipping west of Detroit. President Grover Cleveland passed an injunction against the union, which refused to stop preventing railroad traffic. In the end, federal troops were called in to put down the strike, and the union collapsed.
During the major strikes of the 1800s, the government viewed labor unions as impediments to the development of the economy and sided with the company owners. Unions were also seen as parallel bases of power and authority because of their influence among workers and their families. Thus, the government was always suspicious of their activities, and the situation during the strikes only served to confirm their fears.
For instance, during the Pullman strike, the railroad companies enlisted help from the federal government to break the strike led by the American Railway Union. The railway companies claimed that the striking workers were obstructing the delivery of the US Mail, which forced the government to seek an injunction against the union. The courts upheld the move by the government. The union leaders were arrested, and the strike ended in favor of the railway companies.
In the late 1800s, the federal government (as well as most state and local governments) invariably took the side of management in dealing with large strikes.
In those days, the federal government and most mainstream thinkers were firmly opposed to labor unions. Unions were seen as a possibly illegal way to coerce employers into giving in to worker demands. They were also seen as subversive entities that might undermine the basic foundations of US democracy and capitalism. This was particularly so as more and more anarchists and other radicals came to join unions.
Therefore, the federal government took the side of employers, doing such things as issuing injunctions against strikes and even sending in troops to help break strikes up.