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