Illinois During the Gilded Age

Labor in Gilded Age Illinois

by Drew E. VandeCreek

The rise of large industry in the decades after the Civil War yielded a rapidly growing population of wage workers in America. Unlike farmers or craftsmen, who administered their own economic affairs in the marketplace, these workers simply sold their labor for wages. Many held special skills and enjoyed strong bargaining positions in their search for higher pay, but the accelerating pace of technological change allowed employers to reduce many production processes' reliance upon skilled labor.

Workers in this period faced a bevy of challenges and potential threats. Many employers pressed their advantage by requiring their employees to receive pay in company scrip rather than United States currency or bank notes. This scrip could only be redeemed at company stores, which often charged considerably more than shops on the open market. Others required workers to live in company housing. Many workers labored ten or more hours per day, six days per week. Unsafe machines presented a threat to workers' health and safety, but courts consistently ruled that a worker accepted the risks of any job he accepted.

Organized workers had responded to the rise of national business concerns like railroads by replacing their locally oriented groups with new national craft unions. But in the early 1870s such groups still represented fewer than five percent of all non-farm workers in America.

Many migrants from rural America and immigrants from overseas took these unskilled positions, and naturally came to resent many employers' increasingly aggressive labor management practices. Craft unions devoted to speaking for skilled tradesmen did nothing for these workers, and by 1877 represented only one percent of non-farm labor. As unskilled workers enjoyed less leverage in the marketplace for labor, they found themselves increasingly unable to resist employers' wage cuts and other demands.

Lacking real influence in either of the major political parties, workers often resorted to work stoppages and even violence in their attempts to win higher pay and better working conditions. When, in the midst of the 1870s' severe depression, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad cut wages by ten percent, employees refused to accept the policy. Workers along the road stopped trains. Violence spread eastward from Baltimore as workers and sympathetic mobs destroyed railroad property in Pittsburgh, Chicago and East St. Louis.1

Miners also began strikes in the Illinois coalfields. Like railroads, many mining companies sought to cut their expenses in hard times and repeatedly cut miners' pay. Miners labored twelve to fourteen hours a day, six hours a week, in hazardous conditions. Most were paid in company scrip. In winter miners did not see daylight from one Sunday to the next. Those who protested were fired and often blacklisted.

Interior of a coal mine, with workers

At Braidwood, coal operators brought in 400 African-American strikebreakers to replace striking miners. When strikers forced their replacements to leave town, the National Guard reinstated them, and eventually broke the strike. In the summer of 1877 the National Guard put down other disturbances in Peoria, Galesburg, Decatur, East St. Louis, and LaSalle. In Chicago the mayor enlisted five thousand armed vigilantes, and police put down rioters, killing thirty and wounding many more.

The Great Strike of 1877 convinced many employers, for the time being, that wage cuts had reached their rock bottom. As prosperity eventually returned to the American economy, labor troubles temporarily receded from the national agenda. But workers continued to organize. In Chicago, new mayor Carter Harrison reorganized the police department and produced a force more sympathetic to workers' concerns. Vocal groups of industrial workers organized as socialists and anarchists, grounding their causes in sophisticated analyses of class relations and the dynamics of industrial society.

The rise of the Knights of Labor, a national organization welcoming all workers, marked a major change in labor organization as well. Founded in 1869, The Knights were a secret organization founded in Philadelphia. They had spread through Pennsylvania coal fields during the 1870s, largely on their appeal as an inclusive union not restricted to the members of particular crafts.

The Knights first emerged in Chicago in 1877, when the city's craftsmen and unions had largely disappeared during unskilled workers' violent clashes with soldiers and police. The Knights' vision of an inclusive union stood in sharp contrast, and offered the large numbers of unskilled laborers with an organization of their own. Bringing together workers from diverse industries, Knights of Labor organizers encouraged them to think of themselves as members of a single working class.

In Chicago the Knights led workers to take up nonviolent boycotts as a means to achieve their goals in public life. The boycott had begun in Ireland, and the Knights' Irish-American leaders adapted it to American conditions. In 1881 labor leaders organized a boycott of a west side streetcar line after its leaders rejected workers' request for a pay increase. Many members of the public, fed up with the streetcar line's inefficient service, supported the strikers and forced the company to grant the workers' demands.

The Knights of Labor stepped into the vacuum caused by the decline of Chicago's socialists, who had enjoyed a brief electoral success, and used the boycott to bring striking workers large community support. These methods promised workers a way to compel their employers to negotiate without violence, bloodshed, or wide public condemnation. Like the socialists, the Knights provided workers with social and cultural activities, and also maintained a city labor bureau matching workers to available jobs.

However, a flood of new members strained the Knights' internal organization and leadership, and compromised their effectiveness. As the new members agitated for higher wages, the Knights often failed to deliver their promised benefits. By 1882 Chicago employers had identified the Knights as a formidable adversary and many began a stiff opposition to the new boycotts. When local tanners went out on an ill-advised strike, they compromised the Knights' devotion to organization and arbitration over work stoppages. When they gave in to united employers, the tanners ushered in non-union shops where union men had once worked.2

While Chicago labor unions flourished under the protection of a sympathetic city administration, downstate workers faced more difficult conditions. Coal mining remained bitterly hard, dangerous work. In 1883 state militia broke a miners' strike in Collinsville. Not content to put down the work stoppage, the soldiers pursued fleeing strikers across the county line, arresting twenty and killing one.

Not all Chicago workers accepted the Knights of Labor's optimistic vision of progress. In the 1880s anarchists, outraged at governments' long-standing record of intervening in labor disputes on the side of employers, rejected the notion of peaceful negotiation. Many found the notion of using violence to overthrow the oppressive system of employers and government fascinating. While the city's police department had come to tolerate and even tacitly support some workers' strikes, they regularly broke up anarchists' meetings and alienated the largely immigrant worker-intellectuals.

The Chicago anarchists had done nothing but present their arguments in print when the Chicago police broke up a peaceful meeting at Chicago's Haymarket on May 4, 1886. As the police moved forward, an unknown individual tossed a dynamite bomb into their ranks, killing four officers. The police opened fire upon the assembled crowd, killing at least four civilians and wounding many more.

Law enforcement officials quickly rounded up anarchists who had published their inflammatory opinions and organized the meeting. In a widely publicized trial, nine men were sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer, and four were hanged. Six years later, Illinois Governor John P. Altgeld pardoned the remaining defendants, ruling that the trial had violated their constitutional rights.3

By the late 1880s the railroad baron Jay Gould had broken the Knights of Labor in an ill-fated strike against his southwestern lines. But the railroads indirectly gave rise to Chicago's next great labor uprising in the Pullman Strike of 1894. Again a major depression wracked the American economy, and railroads demanded wage cuts. George Pullman had made a fortune by building his celebrated, luxurious sleeper cars for passenger lines, and he also demanded that his workers accept lower wages. Pullman had built a well-known industrial community south of Chicago, in which he provided his workers with a full slate of cultural and recreational activities. But Pullman demanded that all of his workers live in his town, barred them from owning their own homes or governing themselves, and charged rents 25% higher than those paid nearby.Eugene Debs

When Pullman slashed wages, he declined to reduce his workers' rents. They responded by going out on strike. Despite the fact that few Pullman workers belonged to the organization, the American Railway Union supported the strikers by directing its members to refuse to handle the ubiquitous Pullman cars on the nation's rails. Federal officials leaped to squash the strike with a court injunction and regular Army troops, and imprisoned ARU president Eugene Debs (pictured at right) for his role in the strike.4

In the election of 1896 many urban workers rejected William Jennings Bryan's case for an expanded currency and other government intervention on behalf of farmers and workers. Many labor organizers charged that employers had threatened their workers, and that they would be dismissed if Bryan won the election. Other workers believed that Bryan's call for an inflated currency might jeopardize their savings.5

The victorious William McKinley espoused a familiar Republican policy that encouraged employers to take up welfare work like Pullman's on their employees' behalf. During his tenure aggressive industrialists and financiers reorganized large sectors of the American economy by building consolidated groups of companies, known as "trusts," that slowed the pace of price competition and secured more stable profits. Many trusts came to accept a limited role for labor unions and took up welfare capitalism, but they also continued to emphasize new productive processes and managerial techniques that consistently eroded workers' position at the bargaining table.

  • 1. Robert V. Bruce 1877: Year of Violence (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1970)
  • 2. Leon Fink Workingmen's Democracy: The Knights of Labor and American Politics (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983)
  • 3. Timothy Messer-Kruse The Haymarket Conspiracy: Transatlantic Anarchist Networks (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012)
  • 4. David Ray Papke The Pullman Case: The Clash of Labor and Capital in Industrial America (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999)
  • 5. R. Hal Williams McKinley, Bryan, and the Remarkable Election of 1896 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010)