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Failed Farm and Labor Organizations in the Late 19th Century

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In the period of 1870-1900, labor unions and organizations were rarely successful in achieving their goals primarily because of problems with being able to organize large numbers of American Workers. The rare victories for labor were isolated incidents because there were no labor organizations on a national or even state-wide basis. The problems with organization arose because of five major factors – differences in union leadership, divisions between skilled and unskilled workers, ethnic and racial tensions, and employer, and government and public hostility.

The leader of the Knights of Labor, Terence Powderly, believed that the best means of organization was pooling a mass membership from unskilled and skilled workers. He stated, “The Knights of Labor extended the hand of fellowship to all mankind.” Document A mentions the Haymarket riot in Chicago on May 4, 1886, but what it does not mention is that Albert Parson, a member of the Knights of Labor who was tried and hung for his involvement with the riot. This event linked the Knights of Labor to an unacceptable level of violence in the minds of the public. The American Public, feeling that the Knights of Labor did more harm than good, reacted with a feeling of mistrust. Reflecting the public’s opinion is a sarcastic cartoon that appeared in Puck Magazine in 1886.

The divisions in skilled and unskilled workers also caused racial tensions. The different grouping of the AFL and Knights of Labor reflect the divisions between unskilled and skilled workers which contributed to the difficulty of organizing unions. Skilled workers, more valued because of their craft, had different interest and goals than unskilled laborers. These divisions were in part because skilled laborers tended to be native-born Americans or old immigrants whereas unskilled laborers tended to be from the poorer new immigrants or native blacks. Thus, divisions in skilled and unskilled labor related in part to religious, ethnic, and racial tensions that also made labor organization difficult.

Since all union organizations were headed by different leaders, different tactics were used for protesting. This is a reason why the labor unions were unsuccessful. The American Federation of Labor, headed by Samuel Gompers, peacefully worked for better wages and hours also, using such weapons as boycotts and walk-outs. The union only relied on skilled workers. Even though they protested peacefully, the union excluded unskilled workers and were hostile towards women. This discrimination did not help the AFL at all. Coxey’s Army, as mentioned in document A, was a march to protest the unemployment caused by the Panic of 1893 and to lobby for the government to create more jobs. This was headed by populist reformer Jacob Coxey. The march was almost immediately over as soon as it reached Washington. This is another example of peaceful rioting, but it was a failure in the end.

The first organized effort to address general agricultural problems was the Granger movement. The poster pictured in Document C show that it focused initially on social activities to counter the isolation most farm families encountered. Women’s participation was actively encouraged. Although most of them ultimately failed, the Granger’s set up their own marketing systems, stores, processing plants, factories and cooperatives. The movement did not gain the publicity it wanted because the violent riots and strikes are what caught the people’s and government’s eye.

After the Granger movement, the Populist Party emerged because agrarian distress was at an all time high, and they believed, as stated in Document B, that it was time to “restore the government of the Republic to the hands of the ‘plain people.'” Unlike other organizations, the Populist Party was an example of gaining political power and publically (Omaha Platform) making demands without the use of violence. The Populist Party was also a way to speak out to other organizations and relay the message that it was time for a drastic change in America’s industrialnation. Document D show that strikes occurred when industries failed to comply with the employees needs.

When strikes would occur, the government took an anti-labor stance in response to the public outcry against the labor-based extremism and violence. The Pullman strike of 1894 was a strike where blood was shed forcing a government reaction. Eugene Debs, the leader of the American Railway Union, led 40,000 Pullman workers in a strike that caused rail traffic to cease in the west. This affected the flow of mail, which is a federal offense. When federal government used special deputies to deliver the mail, violence of previously unseen proportions broke loose. The New York World in 1894 reported that the strike was like a “war against the government and society.” The strike only caused controversy and did not help any employee.

De Tocqueville has said: “When the people are overwhelmed with misery they are resigned, it is when they begin to hold up their heads that they are impelled to insurrection.” In addition to internal organization problems, unions also dealt with outside difficulties from employers and the government. Employers often forbade employees to join unions with “yellow-dog contracts” or would fire employees who were union-members. Employers were able to overcome the union’s central weapon, the strike, by replacing strikers with cheap immigrant labor. The government favored big business and gave employers an extra weapon in breaking strikes when the Supreme Court ruled in In Re Debs that injunctions could be legally used against unions.

In America’s eyes, the labor unions were seen to be using forms of violence and rioting to achieve their goals. Document D shows a considerable amount of union strikes and the public were not happy. In the mind of the public, these major strikes were lawless and could have been considered a form of anarchy. They were seen as a form of rebellion against business and government. American society of the late 1800’s opposed the labor movement was seen as being made up of violent troublemakers and anarchists. The image of unions was in part due to the Haymarket Square Bombing, which was associated with anarchists, and confirmed the public’s opinion when several people were killed in the riot. Continued apathy and opposition by the public, management, and the government forced labor to organize to protect its interests.

Although union demonstrations resulted in workers being injured, dead, or fired they set the way for unions in the future to be successful in their endeavors. These demonstrations were successful in the fact that they showed management and companies that the American worker can unite and be heard as one voice rather than a mass of passive workers. Leaders won a few legislative victories: the abolition by Congress in 1885 of the Contract Labor Law; the establishment by Congress in 1868 of an eight-hour work day, and state laws for safety standards.

Though the labor unions had some success, the overall outcome was not very successful. Almost all of the strikes included violence or un-organization. If the unions had taken a more peaceful approach instead of using violence, they could have had a better outcome. Many of the laws were not enforced, and neither strikes nor protests seemed to have much effect. The end of the century found most workers with considerably less control of the workplace than they had had forty years before.

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