From the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861 until the Confederacy surrendered in the spring of 1865, workers—North and South—labored long hours under often trying conditions at wages that rarely kept pace with wartime inflation. Though many workers initially voiced skepticism of plans for sundering the nation, once Southern states seceded most workers rallied round their rival flags and pledged to support their respective war efforts. The growing demand for war material opened employment opportunities for women and men, girls and boys, across the Union and Confederacy. Yet workers were not always satisfied with a job and appeals to back the boys in blue and gray without question. They often resisted changes pressed on them in the workplace—new technology, military discipline, unskilled newcomers—as well as wages that always lagged behind rising prices. Protests and strikes began in 1861 and increased in number and intensity from 1863 to the war’s conclusion. Labor unions, in decline since the depression of 1857, sprung back to life, especially in the war’s later years. Employers sometimes countered their employees’ increasing organization and resistance with industry associations that tried to break strikes and blacklist those who walked off their jobs. While worker discontent and resentment of “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” were common across the sectional divide, Northern workers exercised greater coordination of their resistance through citywide trade assemblies, national trade unions, traveling organizers, and labor newspapers. Southern workers tended to fight their labor battles in isolation from shop to shop and town to town, so they rarely built a broader labor movement that could survive the hardships of the postwar era.
David A. Zonderman
Stephen H. Norwood
Strikebreakers have been drawn from many parts of the American population, most notably the permanently and seasonally unemployed and underemployed. Excluded from a vast range of occupations and shunned by many trade unions, African Americans constituted another potential pool of strikebreakers, especially during the early decades of the 20th century. During the first quarter of the 20th century, college students enthusiastically volunteered for strikebreaking, both because of their generally pro-business outlook and a desire to test their manhood in violent clashes. A wide array of private and government forces has suppressed strikes. Beginning in the late 19th century, private detective agencies supplied guards who protected company property against strikers, sometimes assaulting them. During the early 20th century, several firms emerged that supplied strikebreakers and guards at companies’ request, drawing on what amounted to private armies of thousands of men. The largest of these operated nationally. On many occasions the state itself intervened to break strikes. Like some strikebreaking firms, state militiamen deployed advanced weaponry against strikers and their sympathizers, including machine guns. Presidents Hayes and Cleveland called out federal troops to break the 1877 and 1894 interregional railroad strikes. In 1905, Pennsylvania established an elite mounted force to suppress coal miners’ strikes modeled on the British Constabulary patrols in Ireland. Corporations directly intervened to break strikes, building weapons arsenals, including large supplies of tear gas, that they distributed to police forces. They initiated “back to work” movements to destroy strikers’ morale and used their considerable influence with the media to propagandize in the press and on the radio. Corporations, of course, discharged strikers, often permanently. In the highly bureaucratized society of the late twentieth and early 21st century that stigmatized public displays of anger, management turned to new “union avoidance” firms to break strikes. These firms emphasized legal and psychological methods rather than violence. They advised employers on how to blur the line between management and labor, defame union leaders and activists, and sow discord among strikers.
Between 1881 and 1924, when federal immigration restrictions were introduced, two and half million Jews from East Europe entered the United States. Approximately half of them settled in New York City where they soon comprised the largest Jewish settlement in the world. The Lower East Side, where families crowded into tenements, became the densest place on the globe. Possessing few skills, Jewish immigrants took jobs with which they had some prior familiarity as peddlers and as workers in the burgeoning garment and textile industries. With the rise of clothing as a mass consumer good, the garment industry emerged as the leading industrial sector in the city. Jewish workers predominated in it. But conditions of sweated labor in shops and factories propelled worker protest. A Jewish labor movement sprung up, energized by the arrival of socialist radicals in the labor Bund. Women workers played a major role in organizing the Jewish working class, spearheading a series of major strikes between 1909 and 1911. These women also staged “meat riots” over inflated beef prices in 1902 and “rent wars” in the early 1930s. To be sure, garment work and the labor movement also shaped the experience of Jewish immigrants in cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston. Jews notably worked in other apparel industries, but the alternative for many (especially in small cities without a garment industry) was peddling and shopkeeping. Self-employed, but situated within and integrated in the working-class community, both sectors reflected the nontraditional nature of the Jewish working class. Jewish peddlers and petty shopkeepers increasingly morphed in a second generation into a middle class in higher status white-collar work. But despite this mobility, Yiddishkeit, a vibrant Jewish working-class culture of Jewish proletarian theater, folk choruses, journalism, education, housing, and recreation, which was particularly nourished by Bundists, flourished and carried a rich legacy forward in the postwar era.
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.
The American labor movement has declined significantly since 1960. Once a powerful part of American life, bringing economic democracy to the nation, organized labor has become a shell of itself, with numbers far lower than a half-century ago. The 1960s began with a powerful movement divided on race but also deeply influenced by the civil rights movement. Deindustrialization and capital mobility cut into labor’s power after 1965 as factories closed. The rise of public sector unionism in the 1970s briefly gave labor new power, but private sector unions faced enormous internal dissension throughout that decade. The Reagan administration ushered in a new era of warfare against organized labor when the president fired the striking air traffic controllers in 1981. Soon, private sector employers engaged in brutal anti-union campaigns. Reforms within labor in the 1990s sought to renew the movement’s long tradition of organizing, but with mixed success at best. Since the 1980s, we have seen more attacks on organized labor, especially Republican-led campaigns against public sector union rights beginning in 2011 that culminated in the 2019 Supreme Court ruling that declared required dues for non-union members unconstitutional. Labor’s decline has led to a new era of income inequality but also brought a stronger class-centric politics back into American life as everyday people seek new answers to the tenuousness of their economic lives.
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.
From the first local strikes in the late 18th century to the massive eight-hour movement that shook the country a century later, the length of the working day has been one of the most contentious issues in the history of American labor. Organized workers have fought for shorter hours for various reasons. If they were to be good citizens, workers needed time to follow the news and attend political rallies, to visit lectures and museums, and to perform civic duties. Shorter-hour activists also defended worktime reduction as a tool for moral betterment. Workers needed time to attend religious services and be involved in religious associations, to become better spouses and parents, and to refine their customs and manners through exposure to literature, music, and the arts. Trade unions also promoted shorter hours as sound economic policy. Especially when joblessness was rampant, unionists argued that shorter working days would help distribute available work more evenly among the workforce. During times of economic growth, they shifted the focus to productivity and consumption, arguing that well-rested workers not only performed better, but also had the time to purchase and enjoy the products and services they helped create. As organized labor tended to give preference to full employment and consumption over further working time reductions in the aftermath of the New Deal, the hour issue took a backseat in the second half of the 20th century. It reentered the debate, however, in the late 2000s when high-tech and knowledge industries started to experiment with compressed workweek models. Given the widespread experience of remote work and temporary working time reductions during the Covid-19 pandemic, the question of how much time Americans should, must, and want to spend at work is likely to remain in the focus of public attention.
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.
American workers have often been characterized by the press, scholars, and policy-makers as apathetic and ill-informed about foreign policy issues. To highlight this point, scholars have frequently used an anecdote about a blue-collar worker who responded to an interviewer’s questions regarding international issues in the 1940s by exclaiming “Foreign Affairs! That’s for people who don’t have to work for a living.” Yet missing from many such appraisals is a consideration of the long history of efforts by both informal groups of workers and labor unions to articulate and defend the perceived international interests of American workers. During the early years of the American Republic, groups of workers used crowd actions, boycotts, and protests to make their views on important foreign policy issues known. In the late 19th century, emerging national labor unions experimented with interest group lobbying as well as forms of collective action championed by the international labor movement to promote working-class foreign policy interests. Many 20th- and 21st-century US labor groups shared in common a belief that government leaders failed to adequately understand the international concerns and perspectives of workers. Yet such groups often pursued different types of foreign policy influence. Some dominant labor organizations, such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), participated in federal bureaucracies, advisory councils, and diplomatic missions and programs designed to encourage collaboration among business, state, and labor leaders in formulating and promoting US foreign policy. Yet other labor groups, as well as dissidents within the AFL and CIO, argued that these power-sharing arrangements compromised labor’s independence and led some trade union leaders to support policies that actually hurt both American and foreign workers. Particularly important in fueling internal opposition to AFL-CIO foreign policies were immigrant workers and those with specific ethno-racial concerns. Some dissenting groups and activists participated in traditional forms of interest group lobbying in order to promote an independent international agenda for labor; others committed themselves to the foreign policy programs of socialist, labor, or communist parties. Still others, such as the Industrial Workers of the World, advocated strike and international economic actions by workers to influence US foreign policy or to oppose US business activities abroad.