Between the 1790s and the 1990s, the Irish American population grew from some 500,000 to nearly 40 million. Part of this growth was due to immigration, especially in the years of the Great Irish Famine, though significant emigration from Ireland both preceded and followed the famine decade of 1846–1855. For much of this 200-year period, Irish-born men and women and their descendants were heavily concentrated in working-class occupations and urban communities. Especially in the years around the opening of the 20th century, Irish Catholic immigrants and their descendants put a distinctive stamp on both the American labor movement and urban working-class culture and politics as a whole. Their outsized influence diminished somewhat over the course of the 20th century, but the American Irish continued to occupy key leadership positions in the U.S. labor movement, the Democratic Party, and the American Catholic Church, even as the working-class members or constituents of these institutions became increasingly ethnically diverse. The experience of Irish American working people thus constitutes an important dimension of a larger story—that of the American working class as a whole.
Founded in Philadelphia in 1869, the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor became the largest and most powerful labor organization that had ever existed in the United States by the mid-1880s. Recruiting men and women of nearly all occupations and all races (except Chinese), the Knights tried to reform American capitalism and politics in ways that would curb the growing economic and political abuses and excesses of the Gilded Age. Leaders of the organization viewed strikes as harmful to workers and employers alike, especially after the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, but a series of railroad strikes in 1884 and 1885 caused the Knights’ membership rolls to reach a peak of at least 700,000 in 1886. The heyday of the Knights of Labor proved brief though. Two major events in May 1886, the Haymarket riot in Chicago and the failure of a strike against Jay Gould’s Southwestern Railway system, began a series of setbacks that caused the organization to decline about as rapidly as it had arisen. By 1893, membership dropped below 100,000, and the Knights’ leaders aligned the organization with the farmers’ movement and the Populist Party. The Knights increasingly became a rural organization, as urban skilled and semi-skilled workers joined trade unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The AFL, however, proved less inclusive and egalitarian than the Knights of Labor, although some of the latter’s ideals would be carried on by later organizations such as the Industrial Workers of the World and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Early 20th century American labor and working-class history is a subfield of American social history that focuses attention on the complex lives of working people in a rapidly changing global political and economic system. Once focused closely on institutional dynamics in the workplace and electoral politics, labor history has expanded and refined its approach to include questions about the families, communities, identities, and cultures workers have developed over time. With a critical eye on the limits of liberal capitalism and democracy for workers’ welfare, labor historians explore individual and collective struggles against exclusion from opportunity, as well as accommodation to political and economic contexts defined by rapid and volatile growth and deep inequality. Particularly important are the ways that workers both defined and were defined by differences of race, gender, ethnicity, class, and place. Individual workers and organized groups of working Americans both transformed and were transformed by the main struggles of the industrial era, including conflicts over the place of former slaves and their descendants in the United States, mass immigration and migrations, technological change, new management and business models, the development of a consumer economy, the rise of a more active federal government, and the evolution of popular culture. The period between 1896 and 1945 saw a crucial transition in the labor and working-class history of the United States. At its outset, Americans were working many more hours a day than the eight for which they had fought hard in the late 19th century. On average, Americans labored fifty-four to sixty-three hours per week in dangerous working conditions (approximately 35,000 workers died in accidents annually at the turn of the century). By 1920, half of all Americans lived in growing urban neighborhoods, and for many of them chronic unemployment, poverty, and deep social divides had become a regular part of life. Workers had little power in either the Democratic or Republican party. They faced a legal system that gave them no rights at work but the right to quit, judges who took the side of employers in the labor market by issuing thousands of injunctions against even nonviolent workers’ organizing, and vigilantes and police forces that did not hesitate to repress dissent violently. The ranks of organized labor were shrinking in the years before the economy began to recover in 1897. Dreams of a more democratic alternative to wage labor and corporate-dominated capitalism had been all but destroyed. Workers struggled to find their place in an emerging consumer-oriented culture that assumed everyone ought to strive for the often unattainable, and not necessarily desirable, marks of middle-class respectability. Yet American labor emerged from World War II with the main sectors of the industrial economy organized, with greater earning potential than any previous generation of American workers, and with unprecedented power as an organized interest group that could appeal to the federal government to promote its welfare. Though American workers as a whole had made no grand challenge to the nation’s basic corporate-centered political economy in the preceding four and one-half decades, they entered the postwar world with a greater level of power, and a bigger share in the proceeds of a booming economy, than anyone could have imagined in 1896. The labor and working-class history of the United States between 1900 and 1945, then, is the story of how working-class individuals, families, and communities—members of an extremely diverse American working class—managed to carve out positions of political, economic, and cultural influence, even as they remained divided among themselves, dependent upon corporate power, and increasingly invested in a individualistic, competitive, acquisitive culture.