Feature The Early Labor Movement

Learn more about the Early Labor Movement.

The Early Labor Movement

The industrial revolution stands out as a time of great prosperity and expansion as America entered the modern era. But what were the pitfalls of such rapid growth and who turned out to be the victims of the country's success?

Between 1860 and 1910 the population of the US tripled, and so too did the industrial work force. New types of commercial enterprise sprung up to stand alongside the pre-Civil War textile factories.

Naturally the demand for workers was high, but in this time of heightened immigration the supply of laborers keen to make their way in a new country was even higher. This helped empower industry bosses and meant working conditions were far from ideal.

However there were many who were unwilling to accept the way big business was run, especially since it was making profit at the expense of the little people. The first organization acting as a federation to encompass American unions was the National Labor Union which truly came into force after the Civil War but was reasonably short-lived.

The largest union of the time was the Order of the Knights of St. Crispin. Representing the shoe industry, the Order attempted to halt the rising trend for the mechanical or unskilled production line which looked set to replace master cobblers.

Inevitably the march of progress prevailed and the faster, more efficient machines soon took their place in the industry. The Knights of Labor union founded in 1869 took the movement to a new level drawing a national membership.

The ethos of the Knights was to include anyone involved in production, which helped its numbers swell. The union was well organized under the control of Terence Powderly and enlisted politics to help fight its various causes.

Events took a turn for the worse in 1886 when the Haymarket riot saw the message of the Knights overshadowed by the death of a police officer in a bomb blast. Public opinion turned against the anarchist movement in general and the union collapsed.

It was only after the advent of the American Federation of Labor, set up by Samuel Gompers in 1886 and acting as a national federation of unions for skilled workers, that the labor movement became a real force to be reckoned with and took on more of the shape we see today.