|Sources of Worker Unrest
|Digital History ID 3187|
Many American workers experienced the economic transformations
of the late 19th century in terms of a wrenching loss of
status. For free white men, pre-Civil War America, more than any
previous society, was a society of independent producers and property
holders. Farmers, shopkeepers, and craftsmen generally owned the
property they worked. About four-fifths of free adult men owned
property on the eve of the Civil War. High rates of physical mobility
combined with the availability of western lands to foster a sense
that the opportunity to acquire property was available to anyone
who had sufficient industry and initiative.
After the Civil War, however, many American workers feared
that their status was rapidly eroding. The expanding size of factories
made relations between labor and management increasingly impersonal.
Mechanization allowed many industries to substitute semi-skilled
and unskilled laborers for skilled craft workers. A massive influx
of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe saturated labor
markets, slowing the growth of working-class incomes.
Echoing earlier debates over slavery, many working men and
women feared that the great industrialists were imposing a new
form of feudalism in America, which was reducing "freemen"
to "wage slaves." They demanded "a fair day's wages
for a fair day's work" and an eight-hour work day. Native-born
workers, fearing competition from low-wage immigrant workers,
sometimes agitated for immigration restriction. Many observers
feared that the United States was on the brink of a ruinous class
At the end of the 19th century, American workers intensely
debated how they could best defend their interests in the face
of powerful national corporations. One of the most contentious
questions that late 19th century workers debated was whether
labor should agitate for higher wages, shorter hours, and better
working conditions, or for more fundamental transformations in
the nation's economy. Some of the earliest labor organizations
called for a "cooperative" rather than a corporate economy,
built around worker-controlled producer cooperatives.
Another source of controversy was whether unions should try
to organize whole industries (what are called industrial unions)
or organize particular skilled crafts (craft unions). Unlike unskilled
or semi-skilled craft workers who could be easily replaced by
immigrant labor, skilled craft workers, the "aristocracy
of labor," had greater power to bargain with employers.
What was at stake in these debates was the very meaning of
American democracy in a modern, industrial society. Among the
crucial questions was government's role in labor disputes: Would
government, at the local, state, and federal levels, align itself
with labor or management?
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