The US working class and the institutional labor movement was shaped by anticommunism. Anticommunism preceded the founding of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, and this early history affected the later experience. It reinforced conservative positions on union issues even in the period before the Cold War, and forged the alliances that influenced the labor movement’s direction, including the campaign to organize the South, the methods and structures of unions, and US labor’s foreign policy positions. While the Communist Party of the USA (CP) was a hierarchical organization straitjacketed by an allegiance to the Soviet Union, the unions it fostered cultivated radical democratic methods, while anticommunism often justified opposition to militancy and obstructed progressive policies. In the hottest moments of the postwar development of domestic anticommunism, unions and their members were vilified and purged from the labor movement, forced to take loyalty oaths, and fired for their association with the CP. The Cold War in the working class removed critical perspectives on capitalism, reinforced a moderate and conservative labor officialdom, and led to conformity with the state on foreign policy issues.
The “Great Railroad Strike,” the first and largest nationwide series of labor uprisings in the United States’ history, occurred in July and August 1877. Backdropped by the Long Depression emanating from the Panic of 1873, the collapse of federal Reconstruction in the South, and the cooperation and consolidation among owners of major industries, what became known as the “Great Strike” or the “Great Upheaval” was in fact a sequence of dozens of simultaneous and overlapping strike actions in which some 500,000 workers across various industries walked off their jobs. Many couched their struggle in a language of freedom centered on economic independence, appealing to other workers and the public through the ideology of labor republicanism. In addition to general strikes in some cities, labor actions shut down the nation’s most valuable and important industry, the railroads. At the same time, cross-class urban crowds protested urban and industrial conditions, skirmished with soldiers, and destroyed corporate property. Strike conduct was specific to trunk line and locale. Local political, ethnic, cultural, and kinship networks impacted worker action, as did the newspaper media. Likewise, civic responses to the strikes varied widely and were both shaped by, and helped shape, municipal and regional politics. Community, cross-trade, and cross-class support proved critical in places where the strikes were most far-reaching. The roots of the 1877 strikes lay in cumulative antagonism between railroad workers and owners. In an era when workplace accidents killed tens of thousands of workers and maimed hundreds of thousands more every year, railroad companies refused to equip workplaces with readily available safety devices. Employee grievances also included long and irregular working hours, low pay, and the absence of collective bargaining rights. However, the strikes themselves and the accompanying crowd actions that began on July 16 were instigated by workers on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in response to a series of wage reductions. A wave of stoppages and protests quickly spread outward along the rail lines to Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Chicago, Kansas City, and San Francisco, transforming from a railway strike to a more general labor and urban uprising. The episode reached its most radical zenith in St. Louis, where the shutdown of nearly all of the city’s industry, largely coordinated by the Workingmen’s Party of the United States, made it the first truly general strike in U.S. history. Workers outside the railyards and non-wage workers also participated in urban uprisings and the destruction of railroad property. Cities saw violent clashes between crowds and private police forces and militias, National Guard units, and federal soldiers. In all, over one hundred men, women, and children were killed in the violence. The strikes had profound implications in the areas of labor management, civil–military relations, and popular attitudes regarding capitalism, socialism, and labor organization. The quelling of the strikes led to new approaches in how city and state governments handled civil unrest. In particular, the strikes expanded ownership’s labor management instruments and practices, as governments proved willing to deploy the military against workers during labor disputes on a major scale, expediting the rise of the “robber baron.” These repressive measures were augmented by popular anticommunist hysteria—the first of several major “red scares” throughout U.S. history. Whereas many workers viewed the walkouts as prefiguring a “second American Revolution” or a culminating “emancipation of labor,” building on the implicit promises of the Civil War, business elites and political authorities were frightened as perhaps no time in U.S. history. Economic crisis and scarcity fears enabled politicians and sensationalist newspapermen to create and exploit popular fears of foreign-born radicalism. Apprehensions concerning labor organization, tinged with xenophobia, permeated the upper and middle classes, furthering a sea change in national political priorities. Meanwhile, although organized labor, limited to “skilled” rail workers, had been in decline throughout the 1870s, the Great Strike’s lack of coordination alerted many workers to the need for expanded cooperation in the form of unionization. Occurring at the tail end of Reconstruction, the Great Railroad Strike helped shift the center of political gravity in the nation from questions of political rights in the post-emancipation South to those of capital and labor in the industrial North. Most historians view the Great Strike as a watershed event. As a cultural transit from Reconstruction to the Gilded Age, 1877 forced the “labor question” into the nation’s popular consciousness.
The Haymarket Riot and Conspiracy of 1886 is a landmark in American social and political history. On May 4, 1886, during an open-air meeting near Haymarket Square in Chicago, someone threw a dynamite bomb into a squad of police, sparking a riot that resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and at least four rioters. Eight anarchists were brought to trial. Though the bomb-thrower was never apprehended, the eight radical leaders were charged as accessories before the fact for conspiring to murder the police. After the longest criminal trial in Illinois history up to that time, seven men were convicted and condemned to death and one to a long prison term. After all appeals were exhausted, four were executed, one cheated the hangman with a jail cell suicide, and the death sentences of two others were commuted to life imprisonment (all three incarcerated men were later pardoned by Governor John Peter Altgeld in 1892). The Haymarket bombing and trial marked a pivotal moment in the history of American social movements. It sparked the nation’s first red scare whose fury disrupted even moderately leftist movements for a generation. It drove the nation’s labor unions onto a more conservative path than they had been heading before the bombing. The worldwide labor campaign for clemency for the convicted men became the foundation for the institution of International Workers’ Day on May 1, a holiday ironically observed in most countries except for the United States. It also began a tradition within the American left of memorializing the Haymarket defendants as the first martyrs to their cause.
Donna T. Haverty-Stacke
The first Labor Day parade was held on September 5, 1882, in New York City. It, and the annual holiday demonstrations that followed in that decade and the next, resulted from the growth of the modern organized labor movement that took place in the context of the second industrial revolution. These first Labor Day celebrations also became part of the then ongoing ideological and tactical divisions within that movement. By the early 1900s, workers’ desire to enjoy the fruits of their labor by participating in popular leisure pursuits came to characterize the day. But union leaders, who considered such leisure pursuits a distraction from displays of union solidarity, continued to encourage the organization of parades. With the protections afforded to organized labor by the New Deal, and with the gains made during and after World War II (particularly among unionized white, male, industrial laborers), Labor Day parades declined further after 1945 as workers enjoyed access to mass cultural pursuits, increasingly in suburban settings. This decline was indicative of a broader loss of union movement culture that had served to build solidarity within unions, display working-class militancy to employers, and communicate the legitimacy of organized labor to the American public. From time to time since the late 1970s unions have attempted to reclaim the power of Labor Day to make concerted demands through their display of workers’ united power; but, for most Americans the holiday has become part of a three-day weekend devoted to shopping or leisure that marks the end of the summer season.
The United States underwent massive economic change in the four decades following the end of the American Civil War in 1865. A vibrant industrial economy catapulted the nation to a world leader in mining and manufacturing; the agricultural sector overcame organizational and technological challenges to increase productivity; and the innovations in financial, accounting, and marketing methods laid the foundation for a powerful economy that would dominate the globe in the 20th century. The emergence of this economy, however, did not come without challenges. Workers in both the industrial and agricultural sectors offered an alternative path for the American economy in the form of labor strikes and populist reforms; their attempts to disrupt the growing concentration of wealth and power played out in both the polls and the factory floor. Movements that sought to regulate the growth of large industrial firms and railroads failed to produce much meaningful policy, even as they raised major critiques of the emerging economic order. In the end, a form of industrial capitalism emerged that used large corporate structures, relatively weak unions, and limited government interventions to build a dynamic, but unbalanced, economic order in the United States.
The People’s (or Populist) Party represented the last major third-party effort to prevent the emergence of large-scale corporate capitalism in the United States. Founded in 1891, the party sought to unite the producers of wealth—farmers and workers—into a political coalition dedicated to breaking the hold of private bankers over the nation’s monetary system, controlling monopolies through government ownership, and opening up unused land to actual settlers. Industrial workers and their unions were initially wary of the new party, but things changed after the traumatic labor unrest of 1894: Coxey’s March, the nationwide coal strike, and the Pullman boycott. At that time, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) debated some form of alliance with the Populists. Although the Federation rejected such an alliance in both 1894 and 1895 by the slimmest of margins, it did elect a labor Populist—John McBride of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA)—to the presidency in 1894. This Populist insurgency represents the closest that the main body of the nation’s labor movement ever came to forming a labor party resembling those that arose in industrialized Europe, and its failure helps explain why American workers were unable to mobilize politically to challenge the emerging economic order dominated by large corporate enterprises. While the agrarian leaders of the People’s Party at first sought the backing of industrial workers, especially those associated with the AFL, they shunned labor’s support after the trauma of 1894. Party officials like Herman Taubeneck, James Weaver, and Tom Watson feared that labor’s support would taint the party with radicalism and violence, warned that trade unionists sought to control the party, and took steps designed to alienate industrial workers. They even justified their retreat from the broad-based Omaha Platform (1892) on the grounds that it would drive the trade unionists they called “socialists” from the party.
Maureen A. Flanagan
The decades from the 1890s into the 1920s produced reform movements in the United States that resulted in significant changes to the country’s social, political, cultural, and economic institutions. The impulse for reform emanated from a pervasive sense that the country’s democratic promise was failing. Political corruption seemed endemic at all levels of government. An unregulated capitalist industrial economy exploited workers and threatened to create a serious class divide, especially as the legal system protected the rights of business over labor. Mass urbanization was shifting the country from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial one characterized by poverty, disease, crime, and cultural clash. Rapid technological advancements brought new, and often frightening, changes into daily life that left many people feeling that they had little control over their lives. Movements for socialism, woman suffrage, and rights for African Americans, immigrants, and workers belied the rhetoric of the United States as a just and equal democratic society for all its members. Responding to the challenges presented by these problems, and fearful that without substantial change the country might experience class upheaval, groups of Americans proposed undertaking significant reforms. Underlying all proposed reforms was a desire to bring more justice and equality into a society that seemed increasingly to lack these ideals. Yet there was no agreement among these groups about the exact threat that confronted the nation, the means to resolve problems, or how to implement reforms. Despite this lack of agreement, all so-called Progressive reformers were modernizers. They sought to make the country’s democratic promise a reality by confronting its flaws and seeking solutions. All Progressivisms were seeking a via media, a middle way between relying on older ideas of 19th-century liberal capitalism and the more radical proposals to reform society through either social democracy or socialism. Despite differences among Progressives, the types of Progressivisms put forth, and the successes and failures of Progressivism, this reform era raised into national discourse debates over the nature and meaning of democracy, how and for whom a democratic society should work, and what it meant to be a forward-looking society. It also led to the implementation of an activist state.
Paul Michel Taillon
Railroad workers occupy a singular place in United States history. Working in the nation’s first “big businesses,” they numbered in the hundreds of thousands, came from a wide range of ethnic and racial groups, included both men and women, and performed a wide range of often esoteric tasks. As workers in an industry that shaped the nation’s financial, technological, and political-economic development, railroaders drove the leading edge of industrialization in the 19th century and played a central role in the nation’s economy for much of the 20th. With the legends of “steel-driving” John Henry and “Cannonball” Casey Jones, railroad workers entered the national folklore as Americans pondered the benefits and costs of progress in an industrial age. Those tales highlighted the glamor and rewards, the risks and disparities, and the gender-exclusive and racially hierarchical nature of railroad work. They also offer insight into the character of railroad unionism, which, from its beginnings in the 1860s, oriented toward craft-based, male-only, white-supremacist forms of organization. Those unions remained fragmented, but they also became among the most powerful in the US labor movement, leveraging their members’ strategic location in a central infrastructural industry, especially those who operated the trains. That strategic location also ensured that any form of collective organization—and therefore potential disruption of the national economy—would lead to significant state intervention. Thus, the epic railroad labor conflict of the late 19th century generated the first federal labor relations laws in US history, which in turn set important precedents for 20th-century national labor relations policy. At the same time, the industry nurtured the first national all-Black, civil-rights-oriented unions, which played crucial roles in the 20th-century African American freedom struggle. By the mid-20th century, however, with technological change and the railroads entering a period of decline, the numbers of railroad workers diminished and with them, too, their once-powerful unions.
American Populism of the 1880s and 1890s marked the political high-water mark of the social movements of farmers, wage earners, women, and other sectors of society in the years after the Civil War. These movements forged the People’s Party, also known as the Populist Party, which campaigned against corporate power and economic inequality and was one of the most successful third parties in US history. Populist candidates won gubernatorial elections in nine states and gained some forty-five seats in the US Congress, including six seats in the Senate, and in 1892 the Populist presidential candidate, James B. Weaver of Iowa, received over a million votes, more than 8 percent of the total. The Populist Party was not a conventional political party but a coalition of organizations, including the Farmers’ Alliances, the Knights of Labor, and other reform movements, in what the Populists described as a “congress of industrial orders.” These organizations gave the People’s Party its strength and shaped its character as a party of working people with a vision of egalitarian cooperation and solidarity comparable to the labor, farmer-labor, and social-democratic parties in Europe and elsewhere that took shape in the same decades. Despite their egalitarian claims, however, the Populists had at best a mixed attitude towards the struggles for racial equality, and at worst accommodated Indian dispossession, Chinese exclusion, and Jim Crow segregation. In terms of its legacy, veterans of the Populist movement and many of its policy proposals would shape progressive and labor-farmer politics deep into the 20th century, partly by way of the Socialist Party, but mainly by way of the progressive or liberal wings of the Democratic and Republican Parties. At the same time, the adjective “populist” has come to describe a wide variety of political phenomena, including right-wing and nationalist movements, that have no particular connection to the late 19th-century Populism.
Dana M. Caldemeyer
Unlike the anti-unionism that runs through the ranks of employers, worker anti-unionism describes the workers who are opposed to or who work against unionization. Anti-union actions can be seen throughout the United States from the early industrial age forward and include anything from refusing to join the union or follow union orders, to fighting against the union, such as with strikebreaking. Workers’ reasons for acting against the union, however, are far more complex, including the economic gains that come from remaining outside the union, moral opposition to unionism, and spite against the union. The variations between workers’ reasons for rejecting the union, then, provide insight into how workers define their place in society as well as their relationship with the union.