From 1875 to 1900 the United States was experiencing the free enterprise associated with the Gilded Age. This was the day of big business’s and “Captains’ of Industry.” Due to almost no government regulation, corruption was a recurring problem that Labor Unions tried to tackle. Despite good intentions, Labor unions were mostly unsuccessful in improving the position of workers during this time period because of their inability to organize successfully, the power of the employer, and the negative public opinion of labor unions.
The labor unions were founded with the goal of helping the wage earners gain power. The two labor unions, The Knights of Labor formed in 1877 and the AFL formed in 1886, sought worker rights, better wages, hours, and working conditions during this era. Although they never achieved the 8 hour workday they did manage to cut the average workday for industrial workers by 30 minutes from 1875 to 1891 (Doc. A). The labor union’s goal of better pay and working conditions was offset particularly by the immigration factor.
Due the new inventions industrial jobs that once took three to four hundred skilled workers now required 100 unskilled laborers (Doc. D). Although this new format produced cheaper products, it also transferred even more power to the employers. If an unskilled worker tried to join a union in attempt to better himself he was instantly fired and replaced by the abundant supply of immigrants. The labor unions were far too weak to be able to accomplish the goals they had set out for themselves.
Another factor that prevented labor union success was their inability to organize successfully. There were too many groups that were demanding change for successful reform to occur. The disorganization between the unions, socialists, and anarchists prevented these men from uniting under a common purpose and pursuing together (Doc. F). The Knights of Labor, led by Terence V. Powderly, was dedicated to the proposition of protecting all workers, skilled, unskilled, black and white. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 showed the weakness of the workers and their inability to strike successfully (Doc. B). Regarded as the first major strike, the railroad workers were easily put down by U.S. military sent by President Hayes. Samuel Gompers, when founding the AFL, put his union in a position to have more power by excluding unskilled workers and blacks. However, the greatest organized labor weakness was that they only embraced a minority of wage earners, three percent in all. Organized labor union did not have the numbers to dramatically improve their position.
The productivity of the labor unions was also stunted by the power of companies. Corporations used many techniques including yellow-dog contracts, black lists, injunctions, and company towns to prevent wage-earners from gaining more power and unionizing. By instilling fear in their workers, employers could force their employees to sign the “yellow-dog contract” and therefore prevent them from having any affiliation with organized labor (Doc. E). As riches poured into the companies in the Gilded Age, the class division grew as the owners gained more wealth. Like Samuel Gompers said, “improvements will all go to the employer” if the employees don’t demand their rights (Doc. I).
The employers sustained their power due to support from the government. An example of this support is in the Supreme Court case In re Debs. Eugene Debs was challenging the courts authority to issue an injunction and send the “Pullman strikers” back to work. The court ruled against Debs because they felt obligated to regulate interstate commerce and prevent the strikers from interfering with trade (Doc. H). The employers, or should I say “Robber Barons,” also unfairly used the power of the government to their advantage. In the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 they minimized the power of labor unions by arguing that labor “combinations” also restrained trade. Whether it is fair or not, the power of corporations played a huge role in curbing organized labor.
Lastly, the public opinion of labor organizations also prevented further gains for the workers. The general public felt that these organizations were pushing too hard and were getting support from the communists (Doc. C). In 1886, at Haymarket Square in Chicago, the Nights of Labor were unfairly associated with the anarchists, who were allegedly behind the bombing. Another incident that led to a negative public perception of unions is when the New York Time’s published a list of deaths in Pennsylvania in 1892 due to Homestead strike violence at one of Carnegie’s steel factories. The violence was caused by the lockout/strike, so it was both the employer and employee’s faults (Doc. G). For the most part, unions were looked down upon by the public, who denounced their activities.
The Gilded Age wasn’t a time of riches and “fortune” for everybody. Labor organizations had a lot of misfortune during this time that led to limited levels of success. They were mostly unsuccessful in accomplishing their goals and thus helping the workers due to their failure to successfully organize, the power of the mighty corporations, and the negative public opinion of them.