Industrial Capitalism and Workers in the Gilded Age (Part 1)

History of Labor and Work 202

Prof. Michael

How much power do you have at work?

Can you control…

your wages?

your hours?

your working conditions?

If no, why not? If yes, why so?

Social Class in the 2010s

The economist Michael Zweig argues that social class relates to the structure of power relations under capitalism. According to Zweig, in 2010:

63% of workers in the U.S. are in the working class (96.8 million out of 152.7 million working people): they do not have much control over the conditions of their work.

36% of workers in the U.S. are middle class (55.9 million people): small business owners, supervisors and managers, and professionals who have more flexibility and control of their work.

Only 1% are in the capitalist class, who own large business and industries, amass the most profits, and wield significant economic power and control in the U.S. economy and society.

Slavery and Freedom

After centuries of activism by abolitionists, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the military defeat of the South in the American Civil War (1861-1865) ended slavery in the U.S., freeing nearly 4 million people.

While the “Presidential Reconstruction” policies of President Andrew Johnson would have maintained intact much of the political, economic, and racial system of the antebellum South, the Radical Republicans in congress enacted “Radical Reconstruction” over Johnson’s veto.

Frederick Douglass and The North Star abolitionist newspaper, 1840s-1850s


Radical Reconstruction

Reconstruction, 1865-1877, held the promise and possibility of creating citizenship, rights, and democracy in the post-Civil War South.

The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 established new state governments in the South and institutions to assist African Americans.

The 13th Amendment of the Constitution formally abolished slavery and involuntary servitude (1865).

The 14th Amendment granted citizenship to African Americans and anyone born or naturalized in the U.S. (1868).

The 15th Amendment extended black male suffrage to the entire nation (1870).

According to historian Eric Foner, Reconstruction “was a remarkable, unprecedented effort to build an interracial democracy on the ashes of slavery.”

Freedmen voting in New Orleans, 1867

The End of Reconstruction

Reconstruction was violently resisted by many whites in the south, including by the first Ku Klux Klan and the Southern elite.

Violence and efforts to limit the black vote allowed white supremacist governments to regain control of the Southern states.

In the midst of the Panic of 1873, the political will of Northern voters to pursue Reconstruction waned.

The “Compromise” election of 1876 hastened the end of Reconstruction, when Republican nominee Rutherford B. Hayes took office in return for pulling federal troops from the South.

Rural Republicanism

For Thomas Jefferson and many other Americans, self-sufficient freeholding small farmers were the bedrock of the new nation in the late 1700s and early 1800s, because they exercised both political and economic independence. Specifically, white male heads of households enjoyed these liberties.

Both the North and the South were primarily agricultural, with 80 percent of Northerners still living in rural areas in the 1840s.

Artisan Republicanism

As the 1800s progressed, more people worked in manufacturing, especially in Northern cities and towns.

Traditional urban artisans owned their own tools and shop. Apprentices studied and learned the trade, and would one day become independent businesspeople.

Even as an increasing number of manufacturing workers became wage laborers, artisan republican ideals remained.


Industrialization in the 1860s-1890s witnessed major economic transformations, including the growth of large corporations like the railroads.

Coal and steam power allowed for industrial growth to concentrate in large cities, where they had better access to railroads and consumer markets. The urban working class population grew rapidly from 1860 to 1900.

More sophisticated and expensive technologies limited the ability of independent artisan producers to compete in capital-intensive industries. Thus, “capitalists” became the dominant force in the economy.

In 1860, half of workers were self-employed and the other half depended on wages from an employer. By 1900, two-thirds depended on wages.

There were few regulations to manage this new economic system, yielding boom and bust cycles. For example, the financial “Panic of 1873” lasted for five years with massive unemployment, underemployment, and lower earnings for workers.

Industrial job growth drew people to the U.S. Ten million immigrants arrived in the U.S. between 1860 and 1890 with 5.25 million arriving in the 1880s alone. The population of the United States was 31M in 33 states and 10 organized territories (included 4M enslaved people). The  population of the United States was 63M in 1890.


“The Great Uprising” of 1877

After the railroad companies demanded wage reductions, railroad workers throughout much of the U.S. went on strike.

Many other workers joined the strike to protest the miserable conditions of the ongoing economic panic and the unchecked corporate power of the railroads.

“The Great Uprising” of 1877

The uprising ended due to the economic and political power of railroads. State militias and federal troops forced an end to the strike.

The uprising demonstrated that the U.S. was not immune from class conflict, or from other divisions…

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848)

E. Capiro, Marx and Engels in the Printing House of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung at the Time of the 1848-1849 Revolution (1895)

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these classes, again, subordinate gradations.

The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.

Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.

Divisions in the Industrial Working Class

Examples of ethnic division by occupation:

Irish men: plumbers, carpenters, and bricklayers

German men: furniture making, brewing, baking

England, Welsh, and Scots men: skilled machinists, metal workers, and miners

Examples of division by gender, race, age, and skill:

New immigrants, African Americans, poor women, and children held service and domestic jobs

Income inequality by race, gender, and skill:

Men often paid 50% more than women (women shut out of many jobs done by men)

White workers paid much more than African American, Mexican American, and Chinese Americans

Skilled workers often paid more than double unskilled workers. Locomotive engineer annual earnings in 1880: $800; textile worker annual earnings in 1880: $350.

Commonalities Across the Industrial Working Class

60+ hour workweeks

Physical concentration of workers in large factories

Little job security

Pay cuts

Forced to buy tools

Company stores and housing

Few labor protections

The Labor Question

How would the nation confront the disparities between democracy’s promise of independence and the realities of wage labor? Put more simply, how much freedom would workers have in determining their own lives on and off the job?

How could workers unite to achieve economic independence or political equality in the face of divisions of class, race, ethnicity, and gender?

Women attempting to vote, 1872

Los Angeles Chinese Massacre, 1871

The Knights of Labor

The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor was founded in Philadelphia in 1869 as a secret society to protect its members from employer blacklists.

Under the leadership of Terence Powderly, the Knights abandoned their secrecy and grew massively in the 1870s and 1880s.

Unlike craft unions, the Knights sought to unite workers across skill, ethnic, racial, and (eventually) gender lines, adopting the motto “an injury to one is the concern of all.”

The Knights of Labor

“Individually, workingmen are weak, and, when separated, each one follows a different course, without accomplishing anything for himself or his fellow man; but when combined in one common bond of brotherhood, they become as the cable, each strand of which, though weak and insignificant enough in itself, is assisted and strengthened by being joined with others, and the work that one could not perform alone is easily accomplished by a combination of strands.”

– Terence Powderly, Grand Master Workman, Knights of Labor

Portrait of Terence Powderly


Republicanism and Producerism

The Knights of Labor linked republicanism (government determined by the people) and producerism (production determined by the workers).

Both of these ideologies had deep roots going back centuries.

They believed that workers, farmers, and honest manufacturers-–those that produced wealth—could save America from corporate domination.

The Knights excluded “non-producers”: bankers, speculators, lawyers, and liquor dealers.

“A Union For All”

The Knights of Labor was genuinely more egalitarian than most of the unions that preceded it.

It welcomed African American workers, unskilled workers, most recent immigrant workers, eventually women workers, and even “fair minded” employers.

Though Powderly did not favor strikes, many local assemblies of Knights held successful strikes.

Internal Issues and Contradictions

While the Knights welcomed African American members, most local assemblies remained segregated.

Despite welcoming most immigrants, the Knights shunned Chinese workers and argued in favor of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

The Knights waffled on equal pay for women and were at first resistant to women’s membership. Terence Powderly finally agreed to allow women members after Mary Stirling of the Philadelphia “lady shoemakers” protested at the 1881 convention.

What Was At Stake?

The Knights of Labor had between 700,000 and 1,000,000 members by 1886 in 15,000 local assemblies.

Despite its internal issues and contradictions, the massive growth of the Knights of Labor—including its popularity among African American and immigrant workers—sparked widespread fear among employers.

Louisiana Sugar Cane Workers, ca. 1880

The Haymarket, Chicago May 4, 1886

The Haymarket Police Monument, Chicago

Haymarket Anarchists Memorial Posters

The Global Legacy of Haymarket: May Day