Archive for the ‘Labor’ Category

Major events in US labor history

1790– The first textile mill, built in Pawtucket, RI, is staffed entirely by children under the age of 12.

Lowell Mill workers (and their chaperone)

Lowell Mill workers (and their chaperone)

1834 to 1836– Workers at the Lowell Textile Mills, mostly unmarried young girls and young women, institute “turnouts” protesting wage cuts that had been instituted due to falling prices due to overproduction. See also See picture at right.

1842– The Massachusetts State Supreme Court ruled in Commonwealth v. Hunt that labor unions were not necessarily illegal conspiracies.

1845– The Female Labor Reform Association is formed in Lowell, Massachusetts by Sarah Bagley and other women cotton mill workers to reduce the work day from 12 or 13 hours a day to 10, and to improve sanitation and safety in the mills where they worked.

1866– The National Labor Union formed, the first national association of unions to succeed for any length of time. It included both skilled and unskilled workers.

Terence Powderely and his mustache.

Terence Powderley and his mustache.

1869– The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor, a secret society, is organized in Philadelphia. Led by Terence Powderley from 1879, they accepted members of all races and both sexes. They pushed for the eight-hour day, abolition of child labor, equal pay for equal work, and political reforms including the graduated income tax. They would collapse after the Haymarket Square Affair.

1876– Leaders of the “Molly Maguires”, a violent secret society of Irish coal miners in Pennsylvania that had been infiltrated by a Pinkerton detective, were placed on trial for murder. A private corporation initiated the investigation through a private detective agency. A private police force arrested the alleged defenders, and private attorneys for the coal companies prosecuted them. The state provided only the courtroom and the gallows. On On June 21, 1877, (“Rope Day”) ten leaders of the Molly Maguires were hanged.

1877– The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the first large railroad strike in US history, begins on July 14. A national uprising of railroad workers cripples the nation in response to the cutting of wages for the second time in a year by the Baltimore & Ohio (B & O) Railroad. It was also the first general strike, in which workers in other industries went on strike in solidarity with the striking workers. The governor of West Virginia sends in state militia, but they refused to use force against the strikers and the governor called for federal troops. President Rutherford B. Hayes sent federal troops from city to city. These troops suppressed strike after strike, until at last, approximately 45 days after it had started, the strike was over. This also spun off the Great St. Louis General Strike.

1886– In March, the Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 200,000 workers breaks out against the Union Pacific and Missouri Pacific railroads owned by Jay Gould, one of the more flamboyant of the ‘robber baron’ industrialists of the day. The failure of the strike led directly to the collapse of the Knights of Labor and the formation of the American Federation of Labor.

–On May 1, in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, a bomb went off in the middle of a 1500-person protest rally against the killing of 4 strikers who had been on strike for the 8-hour day. Seven men were sentenced to death, even though it is unclear that labor activists had anything to do with the bombing. Only three were actually executed: one committed suicide before his execution and the other three were later pardoned.

— On December 28, The American Federation of Labor is formed at a convention in Columbus, Ohio, representing 140,000 workers grouped in 25 national unions. Samuel Gompers is elected President.

1892riot2The Great Homestead Strike and Lockout takes place at the Carnegie Steel Works outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania against the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel & Tin Workers. Andrew Carnegie directs his manager, Henry Frick, not to renew the union contract. Frick turns the steel mills into “Fort Frick,” hires Pinkerton detectives (known for their brutality) to protect scabs and locks out union laborers. Strikers battle arriving Pinkertons, leaving 9 strikers and 7 Pinkertons dead.

1894– Eugene V. Debs leads the newly formed American Railway Union in a national strike against the Pullman Company. The strike and the union were finally broken by a court injunction and the intervention of federal troops.

1902– A huge anthracite coal strike of 147,000 coal miners shuts down eastern coal production, endangering hospitals, schools, and other public buildings. President Teddy Roosevelt mediates between the two sides at the White House and breaks tradition by not automatically siding with the business owners. Federal mediation of labor disputes is then launched.
— The Colorado Labor Wars erupts as a series of conflicts spanning two years in what became known as the Colorado Labor Wars erupts in Colorado. Big Bill Haywood leads the Western Federation of Miners (WMF) through these troubles.

1905– In Chicago, Eugene Debs, former head of the American railway Union, and Big Bill Haywood, a head of the Western Federation of Miners, combine efforts to found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies as they were called) to bring all American workers into “One Big Union.”

Eugene Debs for President from the Socialist Party

Eugene Debs for President from the Socialist Party

Both would become known as members of the Socialist Party, with Debs running for US president as the party’s candidate five times, from 1900- 1920, including from a jail cell in 1920, as Debs had been sentenced to ten years in prison for violating the Espionage Act of 1917 for giving a speech criticizing World War I (the text of that speech is elsewhere on this website).

1911– A fire breaks out at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, which produces women’s dress shirts, killing 146 young men in gruesome fashion. The exit doors had been chained shut, and many young men hurl themselves from upper-story windows or die of smoke asphyxiation piled up near exit doors. This comes just 2 years after 20,000 shirtwaist workers had gone on strike.

1912– The “Bread and Roses Strike” takes place in Lawrence, Massachusetts, led by the International Workers of the World. Approximately 23,000 men, women and children organize at the Lawrence Textile Mills, in what is cited as the first successful multi-ethnic strike in US history

1913– The Labor Department is created as a separate department from the commerce department.

1914– The Clayton Anti-Trust Act takes effect. It limits the use of injunctions in labor disputes and providing that picketing and other union activities are not illegal conspiracies or trusts.It is specifically targetting an interpretation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 which allowed business leaders to use the Sherman Act against workers’ organizations. AFL head Samuel Gompers refers to the Clayton Act as “Labor’s Magna Carta”.

The Ludlow Massacre begins on April 20th. A combined force of Colorado National Guard and Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel & Iron Company guards kill 19-25 people, including several children, when they use a barrage of machine gun fire on a strikers’ tent village at Ludlow, Colorado.

1915 to 1918– The IWW undergoes a series of setbacks. In 1915, Joe Hill, IWW organizer and “labor’s troubador” was executed by firing squad in Utah on November 19, 1915 for a robbery and murder it is most unlikely he had anything to do with. In 1917, 17 IWW activists are horsewhipped while in police custody in Tulsa. In 1918, the leadership of the Industrial Workers of the World sentenced to federal prison on charges of disloyalty to the United States.

1919– Many serious labor events increase fear during the Red Scare of 1919-1920, including:
–The Seattle General Strike of February 6 to February 11, 1919 by over 65,000 workers in several unions, dissatisfied after two years of World War I wage controls.

— United Mine Workers’ organizer Fannie Sellins, a widowed mother of four, is shot to death by coal company guards while leading strikers in Brackenridge, Pennsylvania.

— A strike by 1,100 police in Boston is the first ever by public safety workers. It was broken when Governor Calvin Coolidge summoned the entire Massachusetts Guard (launching his national political aspirations).

— The Great Steel Strike against U.S. Steel Corp. led by the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers begins. Starting in Chicago, it spread to 350,000 workers throughout Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia and lasted from September 1919 to January 1920. It was broken by massive use of scabs.

— The Palmer Raids: on November 7 Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer ordered raids by the Federal Department of Justice in 30 cities across the United States to arrest and deport suspicious immigrants (so called “alien reds”) many of whom were involved in US labor unions. The raids were coordinated by a young J. Edgar Hoover, Palmer’s chief investigating officer. In all, he rounded up about 10,000 and deported many as foreign agitators, anarchists, communists.

1926– The Railway Labor Act, required employers to bargain collectively and not discriminate against their employees for joining a union and outlawing “yellow-dog” contracts, was passed.

1935– The National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) is passed, establishing the National Labor Relations Board, which ensures that workers have the right to unionize and not suffer under unfair business practices.

Six affiliated unions of the AFL form a Committee for Industrial Organizing to expand the scope of the AFL beyond its craft-union orientation.

Sit down strike by UAW

Sit down strike by UAW

1936– A “sitdown strike” of auto workers who are members of the United Auto Workers (UAW), supported by the Women’s Emergency Brigade, shuts down the assembly lines at the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan.

1943– As a wartime measure, Congress passes the Smith-Connally Act to restrict labor bargaining and organizing. It would have required 30 day “cooling off” before strike, criminal penalties for encouraging strikes, Presidential seizure of struck plants, prohibitions against union campaign contributions. It is vetoed by President Roosevelt.

1946– A national railway strike brings almost all train traffic to a halt. President Harry S. Truman takes over railways and settles the dispute.

1947– As part of a postwar conservative political realignment, on June 23, The Taft-Hartley Act passed over President Truman’s veto, drastically amending the Wagner Act of 1935 reducing rights of workers to organize labor unions. State “right-to-work” laws appear. “Right-to-work” laws make it harder for unions to organize.

1949– An amendment to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act outlaws child labor (especially in the context of farm jobs)

1952– A 55 day steel workers’ strike is ended by Federal Government intervention authorized by President Harry Truman.

1955– The American Federation of Labor merges with the Congress of Industrial Organizations, to form the AFL-CIO, the world’s largest labor federation.

1959– The longest steel strike in U.S. history shuts down 90% of US steel production for 116 days.

1963– The Equal Pay Act is signed into law and requires that female workers be paid the same wage as male workers for the same job.

1965– The United Farmworkers is formed by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. It launches a 1970 boycott of 25 major growers of table grapes in California.

1971– The Occupational Safety and Health Act is passed on April 28.

1973 to 1974– Two female workers who attempt to improve worker rights and safety take their actions which later result in having movies made about them.

Crystal Lee Jordan is fired for trying to organize a union at the J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. The 1979 movie about her struggles, Norma Rae, later was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, winning Best Actress and Best Original Song.

Karen Silkwood, a lab technician at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication plant and an officer of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union local in Oklahoma City dies mysteriously en route to a union meeting with a newspaper reporter to detail violations at the plant. The 1983 movie about her experiences, Silkwood, was nominated for 5 Academy Awards and won a Golden Globe for best supporting actress Cher.

1975– On July 1, Cesar Chavez and sixty supporters of the United Farm Workers embarked on a thousand-mile march across California to rally the state’s farm workers, many of whom are Hispanic and immigrant.

Also, on July 30, former Teamsters union president Jimmy Hoffa disappears from the parking lot of a Detroit restaurant. Although presumed dead, his remains have never been found.

PATCO controllers on strike in 1981

PATCO controllers on strike in 1981

1981– The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) struck in defiance of the law. Newly elected President Ronald Reagan fired all the strikers and broke the union, sanctioning the practice of hiring “permanent replacements” for striking workers. Solidarity day labor rally draws 400,000 to the Mall in Washington D.C.

1989– A wildcat strike of the United Mine Workers of America against the Pittston Coal Group in Virginia spreads across coalfields in the eastern US, involving up to 50,000 miners in 11 states. Using non-violence and civil disobedience, the miners win a contract after a bitter nine-month struggle.

1993A five day strike of 21,000 American Airlines’ flight attendants, virtually shutting the airline down, is ended when President Clinton persuades the owners to arbitrate the dispute. Federal Arbitration of labor disputes first became common under President Theodore Roosevelt during the Coal Strike of 1903.

1994– The Major League Players Association goes on strike against National and American League baseball team owners. It is the longest strike of professional athletes and lasts 232 days, wiping out the 1994 World Series, and infuriating fans.

2001 to 2005– Several unions disaffiliate from the AFL-CIO, including the half-million member United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and in 2005, the 1.7 million member Service Employees International Union and the 1.3 million member International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

This timeline modified material found here:

The Lowell Mill Girls

In her autobiography, Harriet Hanson Robinson, the wife of a newspaper editor, provided an account of her earlier life as female factory worker (from the age of ten in 1834 to 1848) in the textile Mills of Lowell, Massachusetts. Her account explains some of the family dynamics involved, and lets us see the women as active participants in their own lives – for instance in their strike of 1836.

Questions for Understanding
As you read, consider the following questions:
1. How were women’s economic lives limited in Massachusetts at this time? Be specific.
2. Why did the girls strike? What impact did this have?

In what follows, I shall confine myself to a description of factory life in Lowell, Massachusetts, from 1832 to 1848, since, with that phase of Early Factory Labor in New England, I am the most familiar-because I was a part of it.

In 1832, Lowell was little more than a factory village. Five “corporations” were started, and the cotton mills belonging to them were building. Help was in great demand and stories were told all over the country of the new factory place, and the high wages that were offered to all classes of work-people; stories that reached the ears of mechanics’ and farmers’ sons and gave new life to lonely and dependent women in distant towns and farm-houses …. Troops of young girls came from different parts of New England, and from Canada, and men were employed to collect them at so much a head, and deliver them at the factories.

At the time the Lowell cotton mills were started the caste of the factory girl was the lowest among the employments of women. In England and in France, particularly, great injustice had been done to her real character. She was represented as subjected to influences that must destroy her purity and self-respect. In the eyes of her overseer she was but a brute, a slave, to be beaten, pinched and pushed about. It was to overcome this prejudice that such high wages had been offered to women that they might be induced to become mill-girls, in spite of the opprobrium that still clung to this degrading occupation….

The early mill-girls were of different ages. Some were not over ten years old; a few were in middle life, but the majority were between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five. The very young girls were called “doffers.” They “doffed,” or took off, the full bobbins from the spinning-frames, and replaced them with empty ones. These mites worked about fifteen minutes every hour and the rest of the time was their own. When the overseer was kind they were allowed to read, knit, or go outside the mill-yard to play. They were paid two dollars a week. The working hours of all the girls extended from five o’clock in the morning until seven in the evening, with one half-hour each, for breakfast and dinner. Even the doffers were forced to be on duty nearly fourteen hours a day. This was the greatest hardship in the lives of these children. Several years later a ten-hour law was passed, but not until long after some of these little doffers were old enough to appear before the legislative committee on the subject, and plead, by their presence, for a reduction of the hours of labor.

Those of the mill-girls who had homes generally worked from eight to ten months in the year; the rest of the time was spent with parents or friends. A few taught school during the summer months. Their life in the factory was made pleasant to them. In those days there was no need of advocating the doctrine of the proper relation between employer and employed. Help was too valuable to be ill-treated….

The most prevailing incentive to labor was to secure the means of education for some male member of the family. To make a gentleman of a brother or a son, to give him a college education, was the dominant thought in the minds of a great many of the better class of mill-girls. I have known more than one to give every cent of her wages, month after month, to her brother, that he might get the education necessary to enter some profession. I have known a mother to work years in this way for her boy. I have known women to educate young men by their earnings, who were not sons or relatives. There are many men now living who were helped to an education by the wages of the early mill-girls.

It is well to digress here a little, and speak of the influence the possession of money had on the characters of some of these women. We can hardly realize what a change the cotton factory made in the status of the working women. Hitherto woman had always been a money saving rather than a money earning, member of the community. Her labor could command but small return. If she worked out as servant, or “help,” her wages were from 50 cents to $1.00 a week; or, if she went from house to house by the day to spin and weave, or do tailoress work, she could get but 75 cents a week and her meals. As teacher, her services were not in demand, and the arts, the professions, and even the trades and industries, were nearly all closed to her.

As late as 1840 there were only seven vocations outside the home into which the women of New England had entered. At this time woman had no property rights. A widow could be left without her share of her husband’s (or the family) property, an ” incumbrance” to his estate. A father could make his will without reference to his daughter’s share of the inheritance. He usually left her a home on the farm as long as she remained single. A woman was not supposed to be capable of spending her own, or of using other people’s money. In Massachusetts, before 1840, a woman could not, legally, be treasurer of her own sewing society, unless some man were responsible for her. The law took no cognizance of woman as a money-spender. She was a ward, an appendage, a relict. Thus it happened that if a woman did not choose to marry, or, when left a widow, to re-marry, she had no choice but to enter one of the few employments open to her, or to become a burden on the charity of some relative.

One of the first strikes that ever took place in this country was in Lowell in 1836. When it was announced that the wages were to be cut down, great indignation was felt, and it was decided to strike or “turn out” en masse. This was done. The mills were shut down, and the girls went from their several corporations in procession to the grove on Chapel Hill, and listened to incendiary speeches from some early labor reformers.

One of the girls stood on a pump and gave vent to the feelings of her companions in a neat speech, declaring that it was their duty to resist all attempts at cutting down the wages. This was the first time a woman had spoken in public in Lowell, and the event caused surprise and consternation among her audience.

It is hardly necessary to say that, so far as practical results are concerned, this strike did no good. The corporation would not come to terms. The girls were soon tired of holding out, and they went back to their work at the reduced rate of wages. The ill-success of this early attempt at resistance on the part of the wage element seems to have made a precedent for the issue of many succeeding strikes.

Harriet H. Robinson, “Early Factory Labor in New England,” in Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor, Fourteenth Annual Report (Boston: Wright & Potter, 1883), pp. 380-82, 387-88, 391-92.

Vocabulary for this post:
en masse

The Challenges in American Automobile Industry in the 1980s:

The Challenges in American Automobile Industry in the 1980s:
Crisis, Consolidation, and Competition

Originally there had been dozens if not hundreds of automobile companies in the US at the turn of the 20th century. Over the next few decades, car companies came and went: Nash, Oakland, Maxwell, DeSoto, Stutz, Pierce-Arrow, Packard, Studebaker, Willys, Franklin, Tucker, and Auburn were all early makers of automobiles that most of you have never even heard of.

In the middle to late- 20th century, many of these car companies were either bought out by larger rivals or disappeared entirely. By the 1920s the development of highways spurred automobile manufacturing. The 1950s were notable for the post-war economic prosperity as well as the passage of the Interstate Highway Act; both of these spurred more automobile manufacturing.

By the 1980s, American car manufacturing was centered in the so-called “Big Three” which were usually referred to as Ford, GM, and Chrysler in common conversation. In reality, these corporations controlled many different makes and models of cars, some of shared basic design platforms and components across makes.

By the 1980s, Ford actually included Lincoln and Mercury. By the mid late 1980s- early 1990s, Ford also acquired stakes in Jaguar, Aston Martin, Volvo, and Land Rover. By the 1980s, Ford had also acquired a 30% stake in Mazda. In 2008, Ford sold Aston Martin, Jaguar, and Land Rover.

By the 1980s, General Motors (GM) included Chevrolet, GMC, Oldmobile, Buick, Pontiac, Cadillac, Vauxhall and Opel (sold in Europe). One of the most popular GM makes in the 1980s was Oldsmobile, whose Cutlass and Delta 88s were very popular. During the late 80s- early 90s, GM also partnered and invested in Toyota and Suzuki as well as partially spinning off Saturn. GM also produces light and medium trucks with Isuzu.

Chrysler included Dodge, Mercury, Plymouth, and Jeep. In the 1980s, Chrysler bought AMC from the French auto maker Renault in order to gain the Jeep line, which became the Jeep-Eagle line in the 1980s. By the 1980s, Chrysler had also acquired stakes in Mitsubishi (and since Mitsubishi sometimes cooperates with Isuzu, there’s a tie there as well). In 1997, Daimler Benz (makers of Mercedes) bought Chrysler, although it was later partially sold to a private equity company. Chrysler no longer makes AMCs (look up the Gremlin for a really weird car) or Eagles, which for a while were a spin-off partially independent brand like Saturn was for GM.

The problems for the Big Three auto makers in the 1980s stemmed from three basic things.

First, the oil crisis from 1973-1974 oil crisis and the 1979 energy crisis. Together these led to the government imposing fuel efficiency standards on the American auto companies in the 1980s, which meant that they had to reduce engine sizes (from 8 cylinders to usually 4), weight of the cars (by reducing the amount of steel on the bodies and engines and replacing it with lighter materials such as plastic, aluminum, etc., as well as for the first time offering compact and subcompact size cars), and the aerodynamics of the cars (by removing fins and sharp corners on the bodies and making them smoother and more rounded).

Second, manufacturing costs and quality issues, on top of these new smaller cars, went against American preferences. Notorious clunkers included these and these (seriously, the Vega, the Pinto, and the Mustang II…. Oh the horror! Look it up. I dare you.) The 1971-1980 Pinto had a gas tank outside the frame of the car in the rear, and if you got hit from behind it could explode. The Chevette. The X-cars (see 1980 Buick Skylark for the ugliest rear of a car before the Pontiac Aztek). The Cadillac Cimarron. The Olds Cutlass Diesel. The Dodge Omni. They were ugly AND they didn’t work most of the time.

The third problem for American car manufacturers was the increasing competition from the Japanese… especially Datsun (Nissan), Toyota, and Honda (which we had primarily known in the early 70s as makers of lawn mowers and motorcycles). These cars got great mileage AND they lasted forever. They were also kind of cute. My family had an orange 1977 Honda Civic CVCC five door hatchback that had 185,000 miles on its little 4 cylinder engine when we sold it. It was unkillable. It got nearly 40 miles to the gallon of gas. The only bad part was my dad’s big hands and thick fingers wouldn’t fit into many of the spaces to fix things like when the throttle cable broke, so he would have to have me actually fix things while he gave instructions. I learned a lot from that car. By the end of the 1980s, most American and Japanese car manufacturer had cooperative agreements or actual investments in each other, so there really was no longer such as thing as an American car. Hondas were made in Tennessee. Isuzus were made in Oklahoma and Indiana. Chrysler cars had Mitsubishi parts. Chrysler built Crown Victorias in Canada. And high American labor costs eventually drove manufacturing further out of the country, including to Canada and Mexico. Look at St. Louis, for example. How many shuttered car plants do we have now?

Fro more information, see this:

Overview of Labor Unions in the US



Review of Slavery in America

The Ludlow Massacre

In 1913, coal miners in Ludlow, Colorado, employed by Colorado Fuel and Iron Co owned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (the son of the founder of Standard Oil), went on strike to protest their wages, which they felt were too low. Making matters worse was that Ludlow was a company town, and employees lived in company-owned houses. They were paid in company scrip rather than US currency, thus tying them to the company store and its prices. The Colorado state militia opened fire with machine guns on the striking miners’ camp, and eventually buildings were put to the torch. The massacre ultimately killed three women and eleven children. Read a first-hand account here ( The PBS companion site on the incident is here.

The events of the Ludlow Massacre demonstrate the ruthlessness that was employed by employers in their attempts to crush strikes, and the often brutal cooperation of government authorities in supporting the interests of business over those of the working people.

The massacre caused protests outside Rockefeller’s New York mansion. Woody Guthrie was later inspired to write a song about the incident:

Ludlow Massacre

It was early springtime when the strike was on,
They drove us miners out of doors,
Out from the houses that the Company owned,
We moved into tents up at old Ludlow.

I was worried bad about my children,
Soldiers guarding the railroad bridge,
Every once in a while a bullet would fly,
Kick up gravel under my feet.

We were so afraid you would kill our children,
We dug us a cave that was seven foot deep,
Carried our young ones and pregnant women
Down inside the cave to sleep.

That very night your soldiers waited,
Until all us miners were asleep,
You snuck around our little tent town,
Soaked our tents with your kerosene.

You struck a match and in the blaze that started,
You pulled the triggers of your gatling guns,
I made a run for the children but the fire wall stopped me.
Thirteen children died from your guns.

I carried my blanket to a wire fence corner,
Watched the fire till the blaze died down,
I helped some people drag their belongings,
While your bullets killed us all around.

I never will forget the look on the faces
Of the men and women that awful day,
When we stood around to preach their funerals,
And lay the corpses of the dead away.

We told the Colorado Governor to call the President,
Tell him to call off his National Guard,
But the National Guard belonged to the Governor,
So he didn’t try so very hard.

Our women from Trinidad they hauled some potatoes,
Up to Walsenburg in a little cart,
They sold their potatoes and brought some guns back,
And they put a gun in every hand.

The state soldiers jumped us in a wire fence corners,
They did not know we had these guns,
And the Red-neck Miners mowed down these troopers,
You should have seen those poor boys run.

We took some cement and walled that cave up,
Where you killed these thirteen children inside,
I said, “God bless the Mine Workers’ Union,”
And then I hung my head and cried.

Florence Kelley on Child Labor

Florence Kelley Speaks Out on Child Labor and Woman Suffrage, Philadelphia, PA, July 22, 1905.

Consider these questions as you read:

1. What are Kelley’s criticisms regarding child labor?

2. What connection does she make about labor laws and the right of women’s suffrage?

3. Think: Why would “no labor organization in this country ever [fail] to respond to an appeal for help in the freeing of children [from labor]?


We have, in this country, two million children under the age of sixteen years who are earning their bread.  They vary in age from six and seven years (in the cotton mills of Georgia) and eight, nine and ten years (in the coal-breakers of Pennsylvania), to fourteen, fifteen and sixteen years in more enlightened states.

No other portion of the wage earning class increased so rapidly from decade to decade as the young girls from fourteen to twenty years.  Men increase, women increase, youth increase, boys increase in the ranks of the breadwinners; but no contingent so doubles from census period to census period (both by percent and by count of heads), as does the contingent of girls between twelve and twenty years of age.  They are in commerce, in offices, in manufacturing.

Tonight while we sleep, several thousand little girls will be working in textile mills, all the night through, in the deafening noise of the spindles and the looms spinning and weaving cotton and wool, silks and ribbons for us to buy.

In Alabama the law provides that a child under sixteen years of age shall not work in a cotton mill at night longer than eight hours, and Alabama does better in this respect than any other southern state.  North and South Carolina and Georgia place no restriction upon the work of children at night; and while we sleep little white girls will be working tonight in the mills in those states, working eleven hours at night.

In Georgia there is no restriction whatever! A girl of six or seven years, just tall enough to reach the bobbins, may work eleven hours by day or by night.  And they will do so tonight, while we sleep.

Nor is it only in the South that these things occur.  Alabama does better than New Jersey.  For Alabama limits the children’s work at night to eight hours, while New Jersey permits it all night long.  Last year New Jersey took a long backward step.  A good law was repealed which had required women and [children] to stop work at six in the evening and at noon on Friday.  Now, therefore, in New Jersey, boys and girls, after their 14th birthday, enjoy the pitiful privilege of working all night long.

In Pennsylvania, until last May it was lawful for children, 13 years of age, to work twelve hours at night.  A little girl, on her thirteenth birthday, could start away from her home at half past five in the afternoon, carrying her pail of midnight luncheon as happier people carry their midday luncheon, and could work in the mill from six at night until six in the morning, without violating any law of the Commonwealth.

If the mothers and the teachers in Georgia could vote, would the Georgia Legislature have refused at every session for the last three years to stop the work in the mills of children under twelve years of age?

Would the New Jersey Legislature have passed that shameful repeal bill enabling girls of fourteen years to work all night, if the mothers in New Jersey were enfranchised? Until the mothers in the great industrial states are enfranchised, we shall none of us be able to free our consciences from participation in this great evil.  No one in this room tonight can feel free from such participation.  The children make our shoes in the shoe factories; they knit our stockings, our knitted underwear in the knitting factories.  They spin and weave our cotton underwear in the cotton mills.  Children braid straw for our hats, they spin and weave the silk and velvet wherewith we trim our hats.  They stamp buckles and metal ornaments of all kinds, as well as pins and hat-pins.  Under the sweating system, tiny children make artificial flowers and neckwear for us to buy.  They carry bundles of garments from the factories to the tenements, little beasts of burden, robbed of school life that they may work for us.

We do not wish this.  We prefer to have our work done by men and women.  But we are almost powerless.  Not wholly powerless, however, are citizens who enjoy the right of petition.  For myself, I shall use this power in every possible way until the right to the ballot is granted, and then I shall continue to use both.

What can we do to free our consciences? There is one line of action by which we can do much.  We can enlist the workingmen on behalf of our enfranchisement just in proportion as we strive with them to free the children.  No labor organization in this country ever fails to respond to an appeal for help in the freeing of the children.

For the sake of the children, for the Republic in which these children will vote after we are dead, and for the sake of our cause, we should enlist the workingmen voters, with us, in this task of freeing the children from toil!

Excerpts from the “Cross of Gold” speech

Excerpts from the “Cross of Gold” Speech at the Democratic National Convention, Chicago
William Jennings Bryan
July 9, 1896

Make sure you understand what is alluded to by the phrase “crown of thorns” and “crucifixion.” How can you tell that Bryan is a religious man?

Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen of the Convention: I would be presumptuous, indeed, to present myself against the distinguished gentlemen to whom you have listened if this were a mere measuring of abilities; but this is not a contest between persons. The humblest citizen in all the land, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error. I come to speak to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty—the cause of humanity. ….

Never before in the history of this country has there been witnessed such a contest as that through which we have just passed. Never before in the history of American politics has a great issue been fought out as this issue has been, by the voters of a great party. ….

With a zeal approaching the zeal which inspired the crusaders who followed Peter the hermit, our silver Democrats went forth from victory unto victory until they are now assembled, not to discuss, not to debate, but to enter up the judgment already rendered by the plain people of this country. In this contest brother has been arrayed against brother, father against son. The warmest ties of love, acquaintance and association have been disregarded; old leaders have been cast aside when they have refused to give expression to the sentiments of those whom they would lead, and new leaders have sprung up to give direction to the cause of truth. Thus has the contest been waged, and we have assembled here under as binding and solemn instructions as were ever imposed upon representatives of the people. ….

The gentleman who preceded me (ex-Governor Russell) spoke of the State of Massachusetts; let me assure him that not one present in all this convention entertains the least hostility to the people of the State of Massachusetts, but we stand here representing people who are the equals, before the law, of the greatest citizens in the State of Massachusetts. When you [turning to the gold delegates] come before us and tell us that we are about to disturb your business interests, we reply that you have disturbed our business interests by your course.

We say to you that you have made the definition of a business man too limited in its application. The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer; the attorney in a country town is as much a business man as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis; the merchant at the cross-roads store is as much a business man as the merchant of New York; the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day–who begins in the spring and toils all summer–and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the board of trade and bets upon the price of grain; the miners who go down a thousand feet into the earth, or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs, and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured into the channels of trade are as much business men as the few financial magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world. We come to speak for this broader class of business men.

Ah, my friends, we say not one word against those who live upon the Atlantic coast, but the hardy pioneers who have braved all the dangers of the wilderness, who have made the desert to blossom as the rose–the pioneers away out there [pointing to the West], who rear their children near to Nature’s heart, where they can mingle their voices with the voices of the birds–out there where they have erected schoolhouses for the education of their young, churches where they praise their Creator, and cemeteries where rest the ashes of their dead–these people, we say, are as deserving of the consideration of our party as any people in this country. It is for these that we speak. We do not come as aggressors. Our war is not a war of conquest; we are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families, and posterity. We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned; we have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded; we have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came. We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them….

Mr. Carlisle said in 1878 that this was a struggle between “the idle holders of idle capital” and “the struggling masses, who produce the wealth and pay the taxes of the country;” and, my friends, the question we are to decide is: Upon which side will the Democratic party fight; upon the side of “the idle holders of idle capital” or upon the side of “the struggling masses?” That is the question which the party must answer first, and then it must be answered by each individual hereafter. The sympathies of the Democratic party, as shown by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses who have ever been the foundation of the Democratic party. There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.

You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard; we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.

My friends, we declare that this nation is able to legislate for its own people on every question, without waiting for the aid or consent of any other nation on earth; and upon that issue we expect to carry every State in the Union. I shall not slander the inhabitants of the fair State of Massachusetts nor the inhabitants of the State of New York by saying that, when they are confronted with the proposition, they will declare that this nation is not able to attend to its own business. It is the issue of 1776 over again. Our ancestors, when but three millions in number, had the courage to declare their political independence of every other nation; shall we, their descendants, when we have grown to seventy millions, declare that we are less independent than our forefathers? No, my friends, that will never be the verdict of our people. Therefore, we care not upon what lines the battle is fought. If they say bimetallism is good, but that we cannot have it until other nations help us, we reply that, instead of having a gold standard because England has, we will restore bimetallism, and then let England have bimetallism because the United States has it. If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we will fight them to the uttermost.

Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

Vocabulary for this post:

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