Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Discuss the Labor Unions of the Late 1800s

Although labor unions were present before the Civil War, they did not begin to truly catch on until the late 19th century. One of the first labor unions was The National Labor Union (NLU) which "attacked the wage system as unfair and enslaving and urged workers to manage their own factories" (Davidson 560). The NLU advocated an eight hour work day and decent wages for their workers. Another important union was The Knights of Labor. Created in 1869, the Knights "looked to abolish the wage system. In its place they wanted to construct a cooperative economy of worker-owned mines, factories, and railroads" (Davidson 560-561). Lastly, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) supported increased wages and fewer hours, similar to the Knights and NLU. AFL leaders "chose to organize highly skilled craftworkers because they were difficult to replace. [They] bargained with employers and used strikes and boycotts only as last resorts" (Davidson 501).

The concerns of labor unions were absolutely valid. Many industrial workers spent over 12 hours a day working in harsh conditions: "By 1900, most of those earning wages in industry worked 6 days a week, 10 hours a day" (Davidson 557). In addition, "each year from 1880 to 1900 industrial mishaps killed an average of 35,000 wage earners and injured over 500,000" (Davidson 557). The pay for such work was harsh as well. With over 20 million workers in the industrial complex in 1900, "one American in eight (nearly 10 million) lived below the poverty line" (Davidson 556).

I am a bit confused, however, to just how bad the wages were. For one, the book doesn't really state what the wages were specifically. Second, the wages had to be high, as the book explains that immigrants were coming to America to work at these factories. According to a study by the Bureau of labor, the hourly wages of a production worker during the early 1900s was $3.80. At the same time, however, the per capita income was $4,200. If the average workweek was 53 hours, as described by the study, then that would mean, through simple calculations, that the average industrial worker made $10,472. Wow! That's a pretty decent wage - even today! Is this right? And if so, did the unions have that much room to complain? (especially when the average income was only $4200?).


Davidson, James, Brian Delay, Christine Heyrman, Mark Lytle, and Michael Stoff, Nation of Nations: A Narrative History of the American Republic Volume II: Since 1865. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008.

1 comment:

  1. I think the immigrants not only came for the higher wages, but the idealized American Dream. Even if they began at a lower paying position than they had had in Europe or wherever, there was still the idea of that dream that they didn't have back home. As for the wage issue, the $3.80 is measured in 1999 dollars, that is to say, it takes into account inflation and puts it in to today's equivalent. So really, they would have been making only $10,472 in 1999, according to your calculation. This is not very much, since the poverty level in 1999 was partly determined as a family of three making less than $13,410.