The Labor Movement: A Violent Period in American History

The labor movement of 1865-1919 was initiated by strikes that began because of wage cuts, the new inventions of machinery, and the depersonalization of workers. The first of these strikes began in 1892 with workers at the Carnegie Steel Company at Homestead, Pennsylvania. This strike is known as the Homestead Strike. Next was the Pullman strike. This occurred in 1893 when the nation was faced with another financial depression. During the late 1800s, the unions were conducting strikes that led to rioting and disorder. In order to restore peace the government was taking action to secure power again.

The public was angered by the carelessness of union officials who allowed violence to occur. As a result of their outrage, riots broke out, strikes began, and mobs formed. The Baltimore Ohio railroad strike of 1877, for example, caused a series of riots spreading to such cities as Baltimore, Pittsburg, Chicago, and St. Louis. The outburst of violence in Baltimore lasted four days and cost fifty lives. At the head of the American Railway Union was Eugene V. Debs. (Document J). His concern for the well-being of his workers was demonstrated when he instructed union members at Pullman to avoid violence. However the employees went on strike and events were soon out of control, resulting in Debs' incarceration. During the Pullman strike, Debs was not regarded as a good influence on employees but was seen as a lawbreaker whose disorderly teachings must be stopped. (Document E). Rev. Herrick Johnson, who was a speaker at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Chicago said, "Violence must be met with violence." He was referring to the fact that the unions were out of control and the government must enforce stricter policies. (Document G).

The government's measures to regain control were summarized in President Grover Cleveland's statement: "If it takes an entire army and navy of the United States to deliver a postal card in Chicago, that card will be delivered." (Document I). This statement became a reality when the railroads persuaded Richard Olney, Attorney General, to hire an army of special deputies to keep the trains moving. The deputies became the target from the striking workers. President Cleveland then called for federal troops.

During the labor movement workers and business owners were feuding over working conditions. They fought to find common ground on which both could agree. The government gained the upper hand in controling union activities. The strikers called for reform within the workplace for both conditions and wages, but their violent actions spoke louder than their words. Throughout the strikes, the public approved of the government's strong hold.

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