THE LABOR MOVEMENT: Peace Maker or Peace Breaker?

During the late 1800s, the public and the government felt that the labor movement was becoming too violent. Both the public and the government took steps toward the reduction of violent activity. During the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, it seemed labor unions were conducting riots and strikes to show their dissatisfaction with their working conditions. The United States government seemed so concerned that it would do anything to stop these outbreaks.

Some better known instances of these uprisings are the Homestead plant strike of 1892 and the Pullman Strike of 1894. In 1894 a Washington Post editorial describes the lawlessness and violent disorder in Chicago due to the labor strikers protesting the wage cuts by the Pullman Company. (Document D). The Pullman Palace Car Company was deeply effected by the depression. They had to cut wages about one-third. The workers were angered at the wage cuts, and Eugene V. Debs led a strike on the Company. Strikers interfered with railway traffic from Chicago to the Pacific Coast, sometimes overturning railroad cars. Earlier, in 1892, at the Carnegie's Homestead plant near Pittsburgh, there was a pay slash for the steel workers. Strikers that were extremely upset about this pay cut held a strike. The company officials called in Pinkerton detectives to stop these riots. The detectives were unable to stop the defiant strikers; the strikers, armed with rifles and dynamite, were eventually broken. Ten persons were killed and sixty were injured.

When the labor movement started in the late 1800's, most of the public was in favor of the improvement of working conditions. Some workers went too far in their protests such as the Haymarket Square bombing on May 4, 1886. Several dozen people were killed or injured in a labor strike. The increase in violent actions demonstrated how certain individuals began to lose sight of the real goals of the labor movement. In 1894, several headlines from The Chicago Inter Ocean (Document C) and the Chicago Tribune (Document B). illustrated this. They described the riots, mobs, and the destruction they caused. Because of this disorderly conduct, the American public began to despise the labor movement. In The New York World in 1894 an article describes the strikes as "a war against the government and against society...." (Document A). In The New York Times in 1894 the writer of an editorial expressed his feelings concerning Debs, the leader of the Pullman Strike. The writer felt that his bad teachings and influences should be squelched. (Document E). These documents illustrated the disapproval the majority of the Americans had for the labor movement.

The government wanted desperately for the riots to stop. A mail train was attached to the passenger trains of the Pullman Company, and because of the strikes the postal delivery into Chicago was interrupted. This blockage of mail delivery was a federal offense. President Grover Cleveland stated in 1894 that the U.S. would do anything in its powers to deliver the mail. (Document I). In the cartoon by W.A. Rogers entitled "King Debs", he illustrates the consequences that affected a large portion of the United States. (Document J). The actions that resulted from Debs' influence not only blocked the mail, but also beef, produce and manufactured goods. The government wanted the riots to stop causing so many problems in the United States.

Many disgruntled labor workers displayed their dissatisfaction through riots which caused enormous damage to people and property. This is why Rev. Herrick Johnson of the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1894 said that violence was the only way to squelch these outbreaks. (Document G). The majority of the public and the government were disgusted with the childlike manner in which the strikers handled their situations.

Written by:
Carly Wolfensberger
Jason K.
Jacob M.
Doug M.

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