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The triumph of the trusts (and the robber barons) seemed not so much inefficient or irrelevant as immoral. The bigger business grew, the larger were the bribes it could offer to national and local politicians, the greater was the pressure it could bring on the voters, in such a way as to undermine the democratic principles on which the United States was based.

Hugh Brogan

In 1848 Marx publishes his Communist Manifesto. Only a minority of Americans consider his vision an option but after several decades of largely unregulated capitalism, many are considering socialism.

In response to the robber barons, the new industrial workers try to organise themselves into unions. But the labour union movement grows slowly because, unlike the Old World, and despite some crippling crashes, the economy expands, so the demand for labour is usually high. And the majority of workers are farmers who are from the West, and not factory workers who are mainly from the East. And as always with America, there are race divides. White unions exclude blacks (though the National Labor Union allows in both blacks, and women, in 1869). They also exclude the new immigrant groups such as Jews. In return, the excluded often act as strike-breakers. And the price for a failed strike is more than just lost wages. In 1876, ten mine strikers are hung. The much hated Pinkerton Detective Agency gathers undercover evidence against strikers whilst federal troops, militia and police both protect strike-breakers, and crush strikers. But in 1884, women’s assemblies of textile workers and hat makers strike and the following year in New York, cloak and shirt makers strike and win higher wages and shorter hours.

"Between 1881 to 1885 strikes had averaged about 500 a year. In 1886, there were over 1,400." Howard Zinn


The Knights of Labor demand the eight hour working day, become big in the 1880s but as quickly as the organisation rises, it sinks, many believe because of the ‘personal failings of its leader Terence V. Powderly.’ Powderly attempts to co-operate with, rather than confront, unfair bosses. Even the hint of radicalism frightens him. In 1886, policeman are killed during Chicago worker protests, Powderly drops plans to demand even the eight hour day. Four of the protest leaders are hung.


But that same year, the American Federation of Labor launches. Its first president is Samuel Gompers. He works in a cigar factory in New York ‘in a tenement, airless, filthy, smelly, with a constant risk of tuberculosis’, He creates a national organisation with a national war chest for strikers to draw on and make strike breaking more difficult. And with this in his back-pocket, Gomper is willing to negotiate with the bosses, or become their nemesis.

In 1891, there’s even eruptions against the convict labour system in the South. Prisoners are leased in slave labour to corporations. These convicts depress general wages and are also used as strike breakers. To stop this, a thousand armed miners free five hundred convicts.

But then in 1893, another very serious economic crash makes ‘demand for work greater than demand for working conditions.’

The American labour union movement recovers, but it never achieves the force of its European associates.

“The industrial working class never formed a majority of the American population. For most of the nineteenth century the farmers were the majority, and...numerical ascendancy passed not to the blue-collar workers, but...the middle classes.” Hugh Brogan

Did you know?

Many associate America as a land of immigrants but so bad was the economic desperation during reconstruction, many tried to emigrate. “Desperate workers tried to get to Europe or to South America. In 1878, the SS Metropolis filled with laborers, left the United States for South America and sank with all hour after the news that the ship had gone down...(the company for which they were going to work) was besieged by hundreds of hunger-bitten, decent men, begging for the places of the drowned laborers.” Howard Zinn: A People’s History of the USA, The robber barons detective agency of choice, the Pinkerton Agency ‘was influential in the founding conception of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, set up in 1908’ Hugh Brogan, The four leaders hung in Chicago after the 1886 strike protests became known as the Haymarket Martyrs and many consider their death as sealing the use of May 1 as International Workers Day.