The History of the Rise of Labor Unions in America

In part four of our miniseries on The Edge of Anarchy, author Jack Kelly describes the unfair conditions, significant events, and key people that led to the rise of labor unions in America.

Jack Kelly
5-minute read
Episode #68
political cartoon of the laboring man at pullman

Carnegie’s henchman, Henry Clay Frick, built a wall around his giant factory near Homestead, Pennsylvania, just outside Pittsburgh, and locked out the union workers. They besieged the plant so that it couldn’t operate. Frick brought in hundreds of armed Pinkerton detectives to break the strike. They sailed down the river on barges to retake the property and to protect the scabs who would replace union workers. (A “scab,” by the way, is a derogatory term describing a person who continues to work during a strike.) In an all-out gun battle, nine workers and three Pinkerton men were shot dead. The governor ordered in the National Guard to squash the strike. Afterward, Carnegie slashed workers’ pay and required them to work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.

Railroad workers had their own complaints, but the rail unions did not support each other. Often workers from one brotherhood, like the engineers, filled in to break a strike organized by another, such as the firemen or switchmen.

With each passing year, it seemed that a colossal confrontation between capital and labor was drawing closer.

Eugene Debs thought it was time to take the next step. He left the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and established a new organization, the American Railway Union, which would embrace all railroad workers, no matter what their job. This was to be the first industrial union in America, similar to the United Auto Workers, which was formed in the 1930s. Union leaders were able to put pressure on an entire industry by mustering the solidarity of all its workers.

Debs was drawing a line. He said: “When men accept degrading conditions and wear collars and fetters without resistance, when a man surrenders his honest convictions, his loyalty to principle, he ceases to be a man.”

In the spring of 1894, the new union called a strike on the Great Northern Railway, which ran across the Northwest from St. Paul to Seattle. The workers held together and the company was forced to meet many of their demands. Debs’s American Railway Union suddenly became so popular that officers couldn’t keep up with the avalanche of applications from workers who wanted to join.

Debs was convinced that strikes were no longer necessary. He saw labor and capital as equal partners who could work in harmony. When they had differences, an unbiased arbitrator should decide on a compromise solution. But if the railroad corporations would not agree to this eminently sensible arrangement, he was determined to use the power of his massive union to make them agree.


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Jack Kelly Unknown History
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