Webisode 9. Segment 6
The Rise of Labor
When Cyrus Hall McCormick opened the McCormick Harvester Works in Chicago in the 1840s, he worked alongside his forty-three employees. He knew them all by name. That was the way of business in early America. Corporations were changing that. The McCormick factory grew and was soon making 1,000 reapers a year. Cyrus still knew all 200 of his workers. By 1884, the year McCormick died, his place covered twelve acres, and 1,300 men worked ten-hour days, six days a week. That year the company showed a profit of 71 percent. And McCormick no longer knew his workers. American business was heading in a different direction. Some owners of these huge, rich companies treated workers as if they were commodities, like coal or lumber. They seemed to forget they were human beings.
Steelmen worked twelve hours a day, six days a week, for little pay. Textile workersmany of them childrenworked sixty to eighty hours a week. Conditions were often dangerous. Miners worked underground with explosives but without safety regulations . In one year, 25,000 workers died on the job; many more were injured. Child workers had three times as many accidents as adults. If a person lost an arm in an accident, no one helped with doctor's bills. If a worker complained, he was fired. And women were often paid half a man's wages. And then workers began to come together. One mill worker wrote: "A family of bright girls proposed that we should join with them, and form a little society for writing and discussion. We met, prepared a constitution and by-laws, and named ourselves the Improvement Circle."
That was the way some unions got started. Workers came together to try to fight for better conditions, better pay, or perhaps just for self-improvement . The union was like a club for workers. People tried to help each other solve the problems they had in common. Sometimes they decided not to work unless they were paid better wages. In other words, they went on strike. Naturally, owners hated strikes. They got laws passed that were anti-union. And they often fired anyone who joined a strike. Sometimes they hired police to break a strike, as Andrew Carnegie did when workers struck at his steel mills. Businessmen often took the law into their own hands. If they were powerful enough, they got away with it. Cornelius Vanderbilt once said: "Law! What do I care about law? H'ain't I got power?"
But workers began to demand their own power. The unions grew. Many Americansespecially the new immigrantslearned about democracy in the unions. However, many distrusted them, especially because some unions were run by socialists, who wanted the government to take over businesses like railroads, electrical power, and telephones. Some were led by anarchists, who didn't believe in any government. Some unions did abuse power, with poorly planned strikes that hurt workers more than owners. But some businessmen just wanted capitalism without regulations. And some got angry at the idea of workers having any rights or power. Samuel Gompers was an early labor leader. "I am not one to generally encourage strikes. But show me the country in which there are no strikes," he said, "and I will show you that country in which there is no liberty."
In 1884, the year his father died, Cyrus McCormick, Jr., announced that he was cutting workers' pay in order to decrease corporate expenses. That was the year his company made a seventy-one percent profit. A few months later the workers struck. McCormick hired strikebreakers, called "scabs," to take their places. Striking men attacked the scabs. McCormick hired guards, but a crowd captured and burned their rifles. McCormick agreed to go back to the old pay scale. His mother wrote her daughter about it: "Hatred and fierce passion have been aroused; and an injury has resulted to our good name. It ended by our conceding the terms demanded."
Young Cyrus wasn't finished. The next year he installed expensive machinery, designed to eliminate the most troublesome workers. But the machines broke down; they cost more than the workers had. McCormick didn't care; he thought he had broken the union. But the union wasn't finished. They demanded higher pay and better conditions. Now McCormick closed the plant and shut out the unionists. He bribed the mayor and police. He hired scabs and was so desperate for workers that he agreed to let them work an eight-hour day, which was what the strike was all about. The strikers were furious. One day some strikers attacked some scabs. Police started shooting. Two men were killed and several wounded. The next day a mass meeting was called in Chicago's Haymarket Square to protest the shootings. Critics claimed it was a gathering of anarchists. But journalist August Spies was there. "There was not a syllable said about anarchism at the Haymarket meeting," he said. "The popular theme of reducing the hours of toil was discussed."
The meeting was just about over when 180 policemen marched into the square and demanded that the meeting be ended. Then something unexpected happened. A bomb was thrown at the police. No one ever discovered who threw it. One policeman was killed, and six others died later of their wounds . Suddenly police began firing. Four civilians died . Many were wounded . The nation was outraged. Most people were angry at the strikers. They seemed to believe that they were all socialists and anarchists. Eight men were charged with conspiracy and murder. Four of those men weren't even part of the uprisingthey had left Haymarket Square before the bomb was thrown. But all eight were found guilty . One of the convicted was August Spies, who made this comment: "Let the world know that in the state of Illinois, eight men were sentenced to death because they believed in a better future; because they had not lost their faith in the ultimate victory of liberty!"The nation was afraid of foreigners and socialists and anarchists. No one wanted to hear the truth. Four of the eight men convicted were hanged, including August Spies. One was sentenced to fifteen years in jail . Two had death sentences commuted to life in prison. One committed suicide in prison . At the McCormick factory, the workers returned to a ten-hour day.
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