The Rise Of Factory Labor

Although the American labor movement began early in the nation's history, the movement -- with its largely industrial character -- did not develop quickly or smoothly. In 1839, manufacturing accounted for only 17 percent of the work force, and in 1859, only 32 percent. The United States was still primarily an agricultural nation. This did not really change until the latter decades of the 19th century.

Unskilled workers fared relatively poorly in the new nation. About 40 percent of the workers in the cities were laborers and seamstresses in clothing factories. This group received low wages and often lived in dismal circumstances. Skilled workers, such as craftsmen, artisans and mechanics, received up to double the pay of the unskilled. They tended to own their own homes and were seen as solid citizens of their communities. As early as the 1830s, carpenters, printers, shoemakers and others had begun to organize themselves into journeymen's societies and benevolent associations. Although they did not consider themselves unionized, they did act in concert. They demanded a minimum wage and shorter working hours; working days usually ran from dawn to dusk, which meant they were much longer in summer than in winter.

With the rise of factories came significant changes in the work force: the use of children, women and poor immigrants to run machines became commonplace. In New England in the 1820s and 1830s, children under age 16 constituted one-third to one-half of the labor force in some factories, especially in textile plants. Additionally, 5 percent of the entire slave population in the South worked in factories by 1850. About four-fifths of the slaves were owned outright by those using their labor, and the rest were rented to factory owners by their masters.

Industrial growth also brought other changes. Innovations in technology and business practices led to specialization of function for both labor and management. This, coupled with the growing number of workers being employed, led many workers to feel that they had no voice in their economic destinies. They experienced alienation -- a feeling of being cut off from their work -- and described themselves as cogs in the industrial machines. Some turned to unions to improve their situation.

The first significant national labor movement was called the Knights of Labor. Founded in 1869, after the Civil War, it began in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, among the garment cutters. The Knights were dedicated to organizing all workers for the general betterment of their lot in life.

At first the Knights of Labor was a secret society. It was broad based, welcoming blacks, women, farmers and merchants, as well as wage earners. It excluded "only lawyers, bankers, gamblers and stockholders." The Knights reached its high point during the mid-1880s, when it won a strike against railroads owned by American millionaire Jay Gould. By 1886 the organization had about 700,000 members, both skilled craftsmen and unskilled factory workers.

But the interests of the various groups within the Knights were often in conflict with each other. Thus, members had very little sense of identity with the movement. The Knights lost a second strike against the Gould railroads in 1886, and its membership declined rapidly in the late 1880s.