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The Great Strikes

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

The Great Strikes

The strike was, and continues to be, a union’s most effective weapon against management. The strike is the protest of last resort. Workers walk off the job in protest when management ignores their demands or when labor and management fail to negotiate an agreement. A strike is effective because a business cannot operate without workers. For every day that a factory is closed, or that a railroad does not operate, owners lose enormous amounts of money—and consumers transfer their patronage to rival businesses. Therefore, it is in management’s interest to settle a strike as quickly as possible.

In the early days of unions, strikes were quite risky for workers. In the first place, there were so many immigrants coming to the United States that an owner could replace his entire labor force very quickly. Second, workers went without pay during a strike, and it was harder on a worker to lose a day’s pay than it was on an owner to lose a day’s profits. However, workers struck in spite of the risks. One of the reasons that labor unions traditionally ask their members for dues is to provide a fund of money that will tide workers over during a strike.

Successful labor strikes helped union membership rise. In 1877, railroad workers in fourteen states went on strike, despite an attempt by federal troops to force them to return to work.

The early 1880s brought economic depression to the nation. During a depression, businesses cut expenses by firing workers and lowering the wages of those who remain on the job. Nationwide wage cuts led to a successful railroad strike in 1884 and a violent year of labor–management clashes known as the Great Upheaval of 1886.

In May 1886, a labor strike in Chicago led to a clash between strikers and the police. When two strikers were killed, a rally was called for the next day at Haymarket Square. The protest was peaceful. Suddenly 200 policemen arrived and a bomb exploded; sixty policemen were killed and seven wounded. The police arrested eight prominent anarchists (only one of whom had actually been present), and the courts tried them for incitement to murder, convicting all eight and executing four.

Worker activism slowed after the Haymarket riot, and union membership dwindled. Employers began fighting labor unions by blacklisting any worker who tried to organize his or her colleagues. They forced newly hired workers to sign agreements never to join a union. They brought in strikebreakers to force laborers to return to work, and they also hired replacement workers.

Skilled workers decided to form their own union. In 1886, Samuel Gompers formed the American Federation of Labor (usually called the AF of L, or just AFL) for skilled workers. The AFL was founded, like all labor unions, to fight for the rights of workers, but all too often it colluded with management to the detriment of its own members. The American Railway Union, which struck against the Pullman Company in 1894, was permanently defeated when the strike failed.

Owners opposed unions, claiming that they were “un-American” because they were opposed to the notion of private property. The owner argued that his company was his own private property and therefore he could run it as he saw fit. This view ignored the fact that workers also had the right to do as they pleased; they had the right to walk off the job, to protest, and to fight for better working conditions and higher wages.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Glided Age and the Rise of Big Business Practice Test

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