Labor Pains Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The later decades of the nineteenth century came to be known as the Gilded Age because of the fantastic wealth that accrued to the owners of the nation’s major industries, along with their financiers and principal investors. For millions of working-class Americans, however, the era was anything but golden. Unions were in their infancy, and factory owners and managers held considerable freedom in exercising their authority in order to extract the most from their workers–for the least amount of pay. The Gilded Age, in other words, is known also as a battleground between labor and capital.

The later decades of the nineteenth century came to be known as the Gilded Age because of the fantastic wealth that accrued to the owners of the nation’s major industries, along with their financiers and principal investors. For millions of working-class Americans, however, the era was anything but golden. Unions were in their infancy, and factory owners and managers held considerable freedom in exercising their authority in order to extract the most from their workers–for the least amount of pay. The Gilded Age, in other words, is known also as a battleground between labor and capital.

The first document in this section details the famous Haymarket Riot in Chicago in 1886. What began as a peaceful anarchist gathering and workers’ demonstration, the day after several workers had been killed by city police, devolved into chaos and violence when a bomb was thrown into the crowd, killing seven policemen and a number of civilians. Anarchist leaders were subsequently tried, convicted, and, in some instances, executed for their alleged involvement–even though their criminal cases were not airtight. The event became a watershed in the battle between labor and capital.

One of the most prominent radical labor leaders in these decades was Eugene Debs, an advocate of labor socialism and five-time candidate for president of the United States. In an essay by Debs included here, we read in somewhat mocking tones of his disdain for industry leaders and social reformers who seek to “help” workers raise themselves up in society. According to Debs, workers do not need any such help; they need only to be properly compensated for their work and allowed to organize on their own behalf.

In contrast, we hear from Henry Clay Frick, a captain of industry, that workers do not know what is in their own best interest. In an interview included here, Frick discusses the need to break labor strikes by any means possible (including the use of private security agents) and to reduce wages as necessary to deal with downturns in business. Managers must be allowed to run their businesses as they see fit, says Frick, and in doing so they would benefit workers too. Frick argues his case during The Homestead Strike, a strike that is covered a second time in this section by U.S. Congressman from Alabama, William C. Oates, who paints a darker picture of Frick and his hired guns.

Two other workers’ strikes are also explored in this section. The first is the Pullman Sleeping Car strike of 1894. The document presented centers on the issue of tips provided to train car porters–virtually all of whom were black–and what the act of tipping means in terms of the larger economic picture. The second strike examined here is a 1902 coal miners’ strike organized by the United Mine Workers (UMW). Two documents, from opposing points of view, lay out the issues involved and the different perspectives brought to bear. We learn from the workers themselves about the appalling conditions they faced in the mines. And we learn from an industry leader about the economic difficulties caused by the strike.

Categories: History Content