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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.

By
Jack Kelly,
Episode #68
political cartoon of the laboring man at pullman

Debs’s idea of industrial unions conflicted with the more traditional craft unions embodied by the American Federation of Labor, the AF of L, which represented workers ranging from carpenters and plumbers to bakers and musicians. Its leader, Samuel Gompers, was friendly with Debs, but disagreed with his thinking. Gompers rejected the idea of a grand partnership of labor and capital and focused instead on achieving incremental improvements in the pay and conditions of his members.

The great test of labor’s power came in the Pullman Strike of 1894. Debs’s American Railway Union represented too much of a threat for the railroad corporations to ignore. The confrontation that ensued showed that capital had a powerful ally in the federal government. Rather than act as a neutral umpire in the confrontation, the feds came in on the side of the railroads and tipped the scale against labor.

'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.'

Following the Pullman Strike, Eugene Debs moved away from labor organizing and became a crusader for a complete revamping of American society, a return to what he saw as the communal solidarity of the country’s founding. This creed, democratic socialism, was one that he would espouse for the rest of his life.

Today, with private sector unions representing less than seven percent of the workforce, with organized labor under attack, and wages virtually stagnant for decades, some are taking a second look at the man Bernie Sanders called “the most effective and popular leader that the American working class has ever had.”

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