Labor History of the 19th Century

Struggles of Workers From the Luddites to the Rise of American Labor Unions

As industry developed throughout the 19th century, the struggles of workers became a central societal issue. Workers first rebelled against new industries before learning to work within them.

As mechanized industry became the new standard of work, laborers began to organize. Notable strikes, and action against them became historic milestones in the late 19th century.


Depicition of mythical Luddite leader

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The term Luddite is generally used humorously today to describe someone who doesn't appreciate modern technology or gadgets. But 200 years ago, the Luddites in Britain were no laughing matter.

The workers in the British woolen trade, who deeply resented the incursion of modern machinery that could do the jobs of many workers, began to rebel violently. Secret armies of workers assembled by night and wrecked machinery, and the British Army was called out at times to suppress the enraged workers.

Lowell Mill Girls

Young women operating a mill

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The innovative textile mills created in Massachusetts in the early 1800s hired people who had generally not been members of the workforce: girls who had, for the most part, grown up on farms in the area.

Running the textile machinery was not backbreaking work, and the "Mill Girls" were suited to it. The mill operators created what was essentially a new lifestyle, housing the young women in dormitories and chaperoned rooming houses, providing libraries and classes, and even encouraging the publication of a literary magazine.

The economic and social experiment of the Mill Girls only lasted a few decades, but it left a lasting mark on American culture.

The Haymarket Riot

Color illustration of 1886 Haymarket Square Riot

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The Haymarket Riot broke out at a labor meeting in Chicago on May 4, 1886, when a bomb was thrown into the crowd. The meeting had been called as a peaceful response to clashes with police and strikebreakers at a strike at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, the manufacturers of the famous McCormick reapers.

Seven policemen were killed in the riot, as were four civilians. It was never determined who had thrown the bomb, though anarchists were accused. Four men were eventually hanged, but doubts about the fairness of their trial persisted.

The Homestead Strike

Anarchist Alexander Berkmann attempts to assassinate steel factory owner Henry Frick during the Homestead strike in 1892

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A strike at the Carnegie Steel plant at Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1892 turned violent when Pinkerton agents attempted to take over the plant so it could be staffed by strikebreakers.

The Pinkertons tried to land from barges on the Monongahela River, and gunfire broke out as townspeople ambushed the invaders. After a day of fierce violence, the Pinkertons surrendered to the townspeople.

Henry Clay Frick, the partner of Andrew Carnegie, was wounded in an assassination attempt two weeks later, and public opinion turned against the strikers. Carnegie eventually succeeded in keeping the union out of his plants.

Coxey's Army

American politician Jacob Coxey leads a group of men on a march from Massillon, Ohio, to Washington, D.C.

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Coxey's Army was a protest march that became a media event in 1894. After the economic downturn of the Panic of 1893, a business owner in Ohio, Jacob Coxey, organized his "army," a march of unemployed workers, which walked from Ohio to Washington, D.C.

Leaving Massillon, Ohio, on Easter Sunday, the marchers moved through Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, trailed by newspaper reporters who sent dispatches across the country via telegraph. By the time the march reached Washington, where it intended to visit the Capitol, many thousands of local people had gathered to offer support.

Coxey's Army did not achieve its goals of getting the government to enact a jobs program. But some of the ideas expressed by Coxey and his supporters did gain traction in the 20th century.

The Pullman Strike

Armed soldiers pose with locomotive during the Pullman Strike

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The 1894 strike at the Pullman Palace Car Company, a manufacturer of railroad sleeper cars, was a milestone because the strike was suppressed by the federal government.

To express solidarity with the striking workers at the Pullman plant, unions across the nation refused to move trains that contained a Pullman car. So the nation's passenger rail service was essentially brought to a standstill.

The federal government dispatched units of the U.S. Army to Chicago to enforce orders from federal courts, and clashes with citizens broke out in the city streets.

Samuel Gompers

Samuel Gompers

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Samuel Gompers was the most effective and prominent American labor leader in the late 19th century. An immigrant cigar maker, Gompers rose to the head of the American Federation of Labor and guided the organization of trade unions for four decades.

The philosophy and management style of Gompers was imprinted on the AFL, and much of the organization's success and endurance was credited to his guidance. By focusing on practical and attainable goals, Gompers was able to keep the organization functioning successfully while other organizations, such as the Knights of Labor, faltered.

Starting out as a radical, Gompers evolved into a more mainstream figure and eventually became friendly with government officials, including President Woodrow Wilson. When he died in 1924, he was widely mourned as a heroic figure in the labor movement.

Terence Vincent Powderley

Terence Vincent Powderly

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Terence Vincent Powderly rose from an impoverished childhood in Pennsylvania to become one of the most prominent labor leaders in late 19th-century America. Powderly became the head of the Knights of Labor in 1879, and in the 1880s he guided the union through a series of strikes.

His eventual move toward moderation distanced him from more radical union members, and Powderly's influence in the labor movement faded over time.

A complex individual, Powderly was also involved in politics as well as labor activities and was elected mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the late 1870s. After moving on from an active role in the Knights of Labor, he became a political activist for the Republican Party in the 1890s.

Powderly studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1894. He eventually took positions within the federal government as a civil servant. He served in the McKinley administration in the late 1890s and left the government during the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt.

When Powderly died in 1924, The New York Times noted that he was not well-remembered at the time, yet had been very familiar to the public in the 1880s and 1890s.

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McNamara, Robert. "Labor History of the 19th Century." ThoughtCo, Sep. 2, 2021, McNamara, Robert. (2021, September 2). Labor History of the 19th Century. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Labor History of the 19th Century." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).