(The UNITED STATES, 1865-1900 -- continued)

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The UNITED STATES, 1871-1900 (3 of 4)

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Industrialists against Organized Labor

There was a succession of Republican presidents from Grant in 1869, followed by Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877 and Garfield in 1881. Garfield was assassinated that same year and his vice president, Chester Arthur, became president. Then in 1885 it was the Republican Grover Cleveland who was elected president. From its inception, the Republican Party, according to historian H W Brands, had been two parties, " stressing social issues, starting with anti-slavery and extrapolating to Radical Reconstruction; the other emphasizing economics, in particular aid to business."

As usual, people with lots of wealth were able to accumulate more of it faster than others, and conflict of opinion existed as to whether wealth should be more equitably distributed. Those who were paying wages were not thinking about a greater purchasing power for the masses improving the economy and business in general. Often they worried about the cost of labor making them less competitive. They wanted to keep wages as low as possible. Their attitude was that if an employee did not like the pay, the long hours and other working conditions he could quit and go elsewhere.

The super-rich were living in great homes, entertaining lavishly and often taking pleasure trips abroad – as was the fashion. They were leaving money for their children to live in idleness or to devote themselves to "service" if they wished. But those who had actually worked hard at successfully organizing their enterprises had a frugal streak – which had helped them in accumulating their wealth.

John D Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie were two leading owners of industries. There was little philanthropy by the wealthy in the early 1880s, but these two men would give philanthropy a boost by investing outside their business interests, concerned with opportunities for others.

Carnegie had been denied a formal education but as a boy in Scotland he had access to a library – the Tradesman's Subscription Library, where he had listened to readings and discussions of books. Grateful, he would establish more than 2,500 libraries across the United States. In the latter part of the century he established schools and universities in the United States, 660 libraries in Britain and Ireland, 125 in Canada, libraries in Australia, New Zealand, Serbia, the Caribbean, and Fiji. His first library in the United States opened in 1889.


Andrew Carnegie, circa 1878

Carnegie was a Social Darwinist. It was a misapplication of species survival and competition to the dynamics of human society, and for some that included nature being red in tooth and claw and big fish eating little fish. It was more than twenty years since the opening debates about Darwin's theory, and Social Darwinism was in vogue among pro-business. Business was about competition and survival, and Social Darwinism was about a cold brutality of nature. But Carnegie was also a man. He believed that superior people could pick themselves up by their bootstraps and hard work as he had. Public libraries, he believed, would help innately superior people help themselves. He did not believe in working people advancing themselves through the labor movement – a strength through numbers enterprise as opposed to the individualism touted by industrialists and their friends with political power. Carnegie believed that if the unexceptional had their way, inefficiency and sloth would result.

Rockefeller was also Social Darwinist. He is quoted as saying "The growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest." note73 And he too had empathies. He was religiously devout, a Northern Baptist. Also like Carnegie he was interested in education. In 1884, Rockefeller funded a college for African-American women in Atlanta, which was to become Spelman College. He gave donations to Denison University and other Baptist colleges. He helped the American Baptist Education Society found the University of Chicago in 1890. He also donated to the work of American Baptist foreign missionaries.

Labor Unrest

The common worker meanwhile would have liked working fewer hours with more pay. Most workers in factories were putting in 10-hour days. In the steel industry they were working 12 hour days. Sunday was the only day off. Not much capital was being invested in worker comfort or safety. Life was viewed by owners as tough, as something to survive. Factories were dirty, poorly ventilated and unsafe. Much of the work was repetitive and monotonous, without the variety offered by farm work and for many without the emotional satisfaction involved in the artistry of a craft.

Leaving survival to the fittest, employers were paying their workers as little as the free market would allow. Low pay for the man of a family occasionally forced mothers and children to become wage earners, with children working as much as 14 hours per day and women paid half as much as men. The number of children in the work force is said to have doubled between 1870 and 1900.

And these were times when a wage earner had his parents and in-laws to worry about. There was as yet in the United States no social security or Medicare.

It was the nature of creatures in their struggle to survive to exercise ways to defend themselves. Speed was defense for the gazelle being chased by lions, but running was not an option for wage earners. Individuals added to their safety by being a member of a pack. It was the individual cut off from his pack that was most vulnerable, and it was natural for individual wage earners to bond into a union with those alongside them suffering the same as they and with the same boss. Wage earners were joining together to use their power in numbers to bargain with their employers, and walking off the job, the "strike" as their weapon.

Labor unrest had increased in the 1870s among railway workers and coal miners, and it had extended to factory workers. Owners maneuvering in a competitive market or just trying to maximize their profits didn't want to lose their power of choice in running their own business. Against their striking employees the owner-employers used the local police aided by cavalry.

Mine workers won in Pennsylvania in 1877 when mine owners gave them a 10 percent wage increase. But most often the strikers lost.

In 1886, in Chicago, a strike was called against reduced wages at the International Harvester plant. Congress had made the eight-hour day law for federal employees, and people laboring in the private sector in Chicago wanted the same. People running the city were tied to business interests and hostile to labor organizing. At Haymarket Square the police broke up a pro-labor rally, and someone threw a bomb killing eight policemen, wounding more than fifty other policemen and killing four civilians. It became known as the Haymarket Massacre. A fear of terrorism swept through various other cities. In Chicago, prosecutors were determined to satisfy the public. Seven men were sentenced to death. One was alleged to have committed suicide in prison, and two others were given life in prison.

Pro-labor, annual international May Day observances followed, dedicated to the creation of an eight-hour day, which would not be realized in the United States for people other than government workers until well into the 20th century.

In 1892 Carnegie's steel works in Homestead, Pennsylvania, was struck. A group of 300 Pinkerton detectives was hired to break the strike. Workers were fired upon and 10 were killed. The National Guard was called in. Non-union workers were hired, and the strike was broken. Unions would not return to the plant until 1937 during the Franklin Roosevelt era and the Great Depression.


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