Digital History

Industrialization and the Working Class

Sources of Worker Unrest Previous Next
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 war.

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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