The Labor Movement in the Public Eye

American public opinion during the late 1800s was marked by mistrust and uncertainty. It appeared to the American people that the labor unions were fighting for better working conditions one minute, and the next it appeared that they were leading a revolution against business and government. The Government took an anti-labor stance in response to the public outcry against labor-based extremism and violence.

The Unions' contributions to society were often over-shadowed by the violence used to bring about necessary changes in the treatment of the common working American. The Unions used strikes to improve conditions that they felt were demeaning to the working class. These strikes were often peaceful, but sometimes they turned violent at Haymarket Square, Homestead, and with the Pullman Strike. This led the American pubic to believe that the Unions could not be trusted, and the public then supported government force to quell the Unions.

The labor movement brought about many needed reforms. It helped bring an end to horrid working conditions, bring better wages, and helped to end child labor. Groups such as the National Labor Union of the Knights of Labor brought about the eight-hour day through non-violence strikes & peaceful negotiations. The Knights of Labor helped fight for health and safety codes also. The American Federation of Labor peaceably worked for better wages and hours also, using such weapons as boycotts and walk-outs. However the groups that were most publicized were those that resorted to violence. The use of guns, bombs, and other forms of sabotage and violence in strikes were the ones most often reported and at times blown out of proportion. This violence and the way in which it was reported succeeded in turning the public against the labor movement as a whole.

The American public could not become totally favorable towards the rise of the Labor Movement (Union) due to the radical rioting that occurred such as Haymarket Square. The American public saw and heard of such "Lawlessness of the most violent kind" (Doc. D) which was centered around the unfamiliar organizations. The people knew of strikes such as the Pullman Strike that delayed mail, steel, and most of all, progress. These riots often lead to violence, killing some and wounding many. The American public grew more uncertain of the Unions as "scenes of riot, terror and pillage" (Doc. C) became more frequent.

The Haymarket square riot in 1886 is an example of such rioting. In the Haymarket square riot, four strikers died at Chicago's McCormick plant after the rally turned violent. When the Chicago police entered to investigate the alleged brutalities, a pipe bomb exploded which killed and injured several more people, including the police. Albert Parsons, a member of the secret union called the Knights of Labor, was tried and hung for his involvement with the riot. This event linked the Knights of Labor to an unacceptable level of violence in the minds of the public. The American public, feeling that the Knights of Labor did more harm than good, reacted with a feeling of mistrust. Reflecting the public's opinion is a sarcastic cartoon that appeared in Puck Magazine in 1886. Terence Powderly, a leader of the Knights of Labor is seen back slapping a scab and an employer, after stating "The Knights of Labor extended the hand of fellowship to all mankind" (Doc. K).

In 1892 a smaller, yet still violent, strike occurred. The Homestead strike occurred at Congress steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania. When detectives arrived to investigate the happenings, armed workers fired on them, killing ten. The state militia restored peace shortly after, and the steel-workers' union was broken. This was an important event because it slowed the public support of the government's intervention to stop the strike.

The Pullman strike of 1894 was yet another strike where blood was shed forcing a government reaction. Eugene Debs, the leader of the American Railway Union, led 4,000 Pullman workers in a strike that caused rail traffic to cease in the west. This affected the flow of mail, which was a federal crime. This delay plunged the American people into havoc. The American public would not stand for such a delay. This caused our government to take a stand and defend the rights of the minority. President Grover Cleveland expressed his view of the events with the statement "If it takes the entire army and navy of the United States to delivered a postal card in Chicago, that card will be delivered" (Doc. I). When the federal government used special deputies to handle the mail, violence of previously unseen proportions broke loose. The New York World in 1894 reported that the strike was like a "war against the government and society" (Doc. A). The Washington Post editorial in 1894 reported of the Pullman Strike "war of the bloodiest kind in Chicago is imminent, and before tomorrow goes by the railroad lines and yards may be turned into battlefields strewed with hundreds of dead and wounded...Chicago was never before the scene of such wild and desperate acts" (Doc. D). The American public was stunned. Their anger pierced their words as The New York Times (editorial 1894) stated "(Debs is)...a Lawbreaker at large, and enemy of the human race...Debs should be jailed" (Doc. E). The Pullman strike was the most frightening of all, and put a negative image of the Unions into the minds of the American people. Eugene Debs was jailed for six months due to his leadership of the violent rally, even though he called for non- violence. Thus again the American public witnessed the violence and associated it with the Unions.

In America's eyes, the labor unions were seen to be using forms of violence and rioting to achieve their goals. In the mind of the public, these major strikes were lawless and could have been considered a form of anarchy. They were seen as a form of rebellion against business and government. In one public view, the Pullman Strike was seen as a war against the government and society (Doc. A). Local Chicago newspapers addressed this strike as a scene of riot and works of destruction (Doc. B) and (Doc. C). The strikers of the Pullman strike were practically considered to be anarchists in the minds of the public due to their violent rioting. One newspaper headline mentioned that anarchy was rampant (Doc C). Many of the working people in America (including the Pullman strikers) were aware and informed about anarchy and the Anarchy movement. They read a very popular dime novel of the New York Detective Library (Doc. L) which explained and informed about anarchy. This movement was perceived by the public as though those strikers were in chaos and did not care about any laws. Due to the chaotic violence brought about through the strikes, the public saw this as an act of anarchy and resented the strikes all together.

American society of the late 1800's opposed the labor movement because the movement was seen as being made up of violent troublemakers and anarchists. The violence of the more publicized strikes helped stir the public outcry for government intervention in controlling the labor movement.

Cam Earle
Devon K.
Richard C.
Mike K.

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