Public Opinion and Government Reaction to the Labor Movement

by: Lisa Z.

During the late 19th to early 20th century, the general public was against the labor movement and favored the government's reaction toward it. The labor movement usually brought violence and anger, which led the government to use force against the Unions which often instigated the violence. Therefore, most people were against the violence, but the public did favor the better working conditions called for by the labor movement.

The general public was against the Pullman Strike because of the violence that it brought. The Pullman strike of 1894 started because George Pullman, owner of a large train car company, cut wages and increased prices after the Panic of 1893. The government reacted to this by using special deputies to handle the mail, who used violence to force the Labor Union to end the strike. The New York World responded to this in 1894 with some "yellow journalism." Yellow journalism is an exaggeration of the truth to get a point across. They said that the Pullman strike was a war against the government. However, the Pullman Strike was really a cry from the workers for better wages, eight hour days, and better living conditions from their employer. Furthermore, the newspaper talked about how the leaders were only concerned with themselves. But Eugene V. Debs, the leader of the American Federation of Labor and organizer of the Pullman Strike called for non-violence , which shows that he cared about the workers. (Document A).

A Washington Post editorial influenced public opinion on the Pullman Strike in 1894 when it described the violence as being like a war. It talked of the hundreds of dead and wounded people and how the railroad lines were like battlefields. Since the general public was against violence, this shows why the people were against the Pullman Strike. (Document D). Also Rev. Herrick Johnson taught in the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Chicago in 1894 about how the violence must end one way or another. Johnson talked about how the soldiers must put an end to this madness and kill anyone who tries to stop them (Document G). Obviously, the people who wrote these articles were against the violence with which the Unions had come to be connected . People usually believe what they read, especially what is printed in well known newspapers. Although this is probably an exaggeration, the idea of public opposition to the Unions is shown in these documents.

Jane Addams, founder of the Hull House, understands why the workers went on strike. She pointed out that Pullman did not include his workers in his decsions that would effect them. He assumed that he knew what was best for everyone. She wrote that he misjudged the workers' needs and the workers responded violently. (Document H). As a friend to Pullman, Addams was trying to help Pullman fix his mistakes.

President Grover Cleveland, seeking re-election, was also concerned about the Pullman Strike. Cleveland decided to take control and sent some federal troops to get the mail going again. He later remarked in 1894, "If it takes the entire army and navy to deliver a post card in Chicago, that card will be delivered." (Document I). There were only 4,000 workers on strike but the rest of the United States was suffering from the actions of those 4,000 people.

Eugene V. Debs, the leader of the Pullman Strike, was also highly criticized. The New York Times editorial in 1894 called Debs a lawbreaker and an enemy to the human race. (Document E). The people reading the newspaper probably felt this anger, which caused them to be even more against the Pullman Strike, and previously, the Homestead Strike, and the Haymarket Square bombing. The New York Times also believed that the strike should be stopped. A cartoon by W.A. Rogers entitled "King Debs" was was printed in Harper's Weekly in 1894. The cartoon has a picture of Deb (as a giant) sitting on the railroad tracks preventing their movement. The bridge is labeled "Highway of Trade" while Deb's crown carries the legendary "American Railway Union." (Document J). The cartoon is depicting Debs as though he only cares about his own position and power. However, this is also an exaggeration. The newspapers were obviously against the labor movement. The public shaped its opinions from newspaper s at that time since it was the primary source of information.

Chicago Tribune headlines from June 31,1894 described the events of the Pullman Strike with obvious yellow journalism. Headlines like

"Debs Strikers Begin Work Of Destruction, Guns Awe Them Not, Drunken Stockyard Rioters Defy Uncle Sam's Troops, Mobs Invite Death"
make the rioters seem unpatriotic and against law and order. Since the general public was against violence, they were also against the strike. (Document B). Furthermore, the Chicago Inter Ocean headlines from July 7, 1894 also showed how the newspapers were against the labor movement. (Document C). They suggest that the rioters were in favor of violence. These newspaper headlines are very critical of the labor movement and the Unions which also show how the opinion shaping public was against the labor movement.

The Haymarket Square bombing happened in Chicago on May 4, 1886. Many labor disorders had broken out and the police were on the scene when the bomb was dropped, killing or injuring several dozen people. "Puck" Magazine in 1886 responded to this bombing by making fun of the Knights of Labor, (a Labor Union). They printed a cartoon saying that the Knights of Labor wanted to help mankind. But the cartoon has a picture of one of the Knights of Labor smacking a scab (someone who is hired to hurt people) and an employer. (Document K). The influence of the media caused the Knights of Labor to rapidly downfall after the Haymarket Square bombing. Many people were blamed for the bombing, but it hit hardest o n the Knights of Labor.

The Homestead Strike in 1892, occurred because the workers at the Carnegie Steel Company refused to accept new wage cuts. Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie's right-hand-man, attempted to discontinue the strike by shutting down the plant and surrounding it with special guards. However, this wasn't effective because the workers found out that the plant was going to be reopened with strikebreakers. But on July 6, three hundred Pinkerton detectives came to Homestead, PA where the strikers fired on the detectives from behind barricades and killed ten men and wounded dozens. Because of this, the Carnegie Company persuaded the governor of Pennsylvania to call in the state militia to restore peace. The state militia finally did bring down the strike. This violence was again ended with violence. The public was content with the government's use of force because they ended the violence.

The government's reaction of sending in troops to try and restore peace during the Pullman Strike, Haymarket Square bombing, and the Homestead Strike was favored because they brought down the strikes and the unions. The people in the United States wanted fair treatment. But they did not want the violence that came with getting that fair treatment.

by: Lisa Z.

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