Stories from PA History
Labor's Struggle to Organize
Labor's Struggle to Organize
Chapter two: The Struggle to Organize, 1877 to 1914

The Burning of the Union Depot, Pittsburgh, Pa., during the Railroad Riot, July 21 and July 22, 1877.
Burning of the Union Depot During the Railroad Riot, July 21 and July 22, 1877,...
Following the Civil War the United States rushed toward industrialization, and a period marked by both expanding manufacturing and numerous, painful recessions for Pennsylvania workers. Railroads, coal, and steel were at the heart of new struggles to gain a living wage, an eight-hour workday, and safe working conditions. Frustrations exploded into the great nationwide marker Railroad Strike of 1877, which in Pennsylvania rippled through industrial centers "like a tornado a mile wide." Pittsburgh, where rail lines had become the symbol of "greedy big business," became the marker center of major violence and property destruction.

Across the state workers derailed trains and burned rail yards. Mobilized to restore order and protect company property, state militia broke up picket lines and fired bullets into threatening crowds. In Reading, militiamen bayoneted a crowd of rock-throwing demonstrators, killing ten and wounding many more in what became known as themarker Reading Railroad Massacre. President Rutherford B. Hayes sent federal troops to quash the strikes-the first significant use of government troops in American history to quell labor unrest-but the violent destruction of property continued for nearly a month.

Striking Polish coal miners in battle with coal and iron police, near Shenandoah City, Pennsylvania.
"Pennsylvania. - the mining troubles in the Schuylkill region - attack on the...
In the aftermath of 1877, the Knights of Labor, founded in Philadelphia in 1869, emerged as a national force under the leadership of Scranton mayormarker Terence Powderly. Opening its doors to unskilled workers, women, and African Americans, the Knights employed boycotts and cooperatives to create an alternative to the industrial wage system and worked with new labor parties that challenged Democrats and Republicans. In 1881, the Knights were reorganized as the Federation of organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU); by 1886, the union had grown to some 750,000 members and called a national strike that ended disastrously after a bomb explosion killed seven police officers at Haymarket Square in Chicago. Shortly thereafter, the FOTLU changed its name to themarker American Federation of Labor and focused on organizing skilled workers.

A large tent colony of evicted strikers and their families fill this photograph.
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Tent colony of evicted strikers and their families, Fayette County, PA, 1922....
By the late 1800s, Pennsylvania's mills, factories, and coal mines hired immigrants who arrived by the tens of thousands from eastern and southern Europe. Employers typically exploited ethnic differences to control and prevent immigrants from organizing. Working long hours for low wages, immigrant workers and their families crowded into isolated, company-built mill town housing like that at markerCambria City in Johnstown, or into industrial neighborhoods. Injuries, illnesses, and deaths were common, and because the victims were immigrants, other Pennsylvanians knew little of their plight or accepted it as a cost of progress.

Linked to these conditions were the succession of mine disasters, which attracted national attention and official inquiries, but little remedial action. Notable among them were themarker Avondale Mine Disaster in 1869, the markerMammoth Mine Explosion in 1891, themarker Twin Shaft Disaster near Pittston in 1896, the bloodymarker Darr Mine Disaster in 1907, which killed 239 miners near Smithton, and the Anthracite Mine Disaster in 1911. Between 1876 and 1897, more than 7,300 men died of mining related accidents in the Pennsylvania anthracite region. The Pennsylvania railroad industry was just as deadly.

Worker standing beside a staggered tooth gear, Mesta Machine Company, West Homestead, PA, 1913.
Worker standing beside a staggered tooth gear, Mesta Machine Company, West Homestead,...
More and more, captains of industry viewed their workers as numbers on a spread sheet; a cost, like raw materials and transportation, which must be minimized to increase profits. In time this perspective evolved into "scientific management," and found its greatest proponent in Philadelphia engineer Frederick W. Taylor, who based his studies on the unique stamina of Bethlehem Steel worker markerHenry Noll and concluded with plans to even further accelerate the pace-and reduce the costs-of industrial workers.

During the same years, the Pennsylvania legislature passed laws granting companies the right to deputize men with full police powers to keep the peace in the coal patches and industrial boomtowns. These "coal and iron police" exerted their will upon the communities in which they lived. Sheriffs employed by the H.C. Frick Coke Company would kill seven miners in themarker Morewood Massacre during the bituminous coal strike in 1891. In 1897, deputized men outside the town of Hazelton in Luzerne County gunned down nineteen Eastern European and Italian immigrant mineworkers and wounded thirty-two in the infamousmarker Lattimer Massacre.

Image of men attacking barges.
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Pinkerton agents battling with striking steel workers, Homestead, PA, July 7,...
In the late 1800s,marker Andrew Carnegie led the transformation of Pittsburgh into the steel capital of the nation-and he did so arguing for themarker Gospel of Wealth, or the exceptional fitness of America's captains of industry to create and decide who should benefit from national wealth. Unions, he believed, challenged his absolute control of his companies. He teamed up with the Carnegie Steel Company's president, markerHenry Clay Frick, to dominate the rich deposits of coal in western Pennsylvania and end union representation at the Company's Homestead steel mills. On July 6, 1892, thousands of bystanders and press leaning out of themarker Bost Building watched as locked-out workers engaged in a gun battle with 300 Pinkerton guards who tried to enter the heavily fortified mill and left ten workers dead. Themarker Homestead Strike dragged on for five months before the union finally conceded defeat. The region's steel workforce remained unorganized for the next forty years.

Pennsylvania had more company towns than any other state in the nation, many of them makeshift and repressive coal patch settlements. In the aftermath of Homestead, some Pennsylvania companies implemented programs under the banner of welfare capitalism to improve the lives of their workers, dissuade workers from organizing, and to win public favor. In Westmoreland County, the Apollo Iron and Steel Works built a model community in 1895 named marker Vandergrift. A decade later, chocolate maker marker Milton S. Hershey began construction of Hershey, arguably the most successful company town in American history.

Primary classroom with Roosevelt as the school master and coal barons as the students
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"Roosevelt's Biggest Game," New York Herald, 1902.
As Pennsylvanians celebrated the arrival of the twentieth century, war was brewing in the anthracite coal fields between the powerful coal companies and miners in the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Coal country had been a violent battleground since the marker Molly Maguires battles of the 1860s and 1870s. Emboldened by their success in a 1900 strike and smoldering at over recent injustices, some 150,000 miners went out on strike again inmarker May 1902. Led by Reading Coal Company president George Baer, whose arrogance would be exposed by Wilkes-Barre priestmarker John J. Curran, the coal operators mobilized their coal and iron police to beat the striking miners into submission.

When the strike dragged on and threatened a coal famine that would paralyze the nation, President Theodore Roosevelt forced the coal operators into an agreement and formed a Strike Commission whose investigation pushed the Pennsylvania legislature to create the markerPennsylvania State Police in 1905, the first uniformed state police in the nation. Despite Roosevelt's intervention, the UMWA achieved only limited success in 1902. (Roosevelt was less friendly to labor when markerMary Harris "Mother" Jones led a march of children workers from Philadelphia to his home in Long Island in the summer of 1903.)

Pressed Steel Car Company strikers gathered for a meeting.
Striking workers at McKees Rocks, PA, 1909.
During these heady times, some workers flocked to more radical organizations, including Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which challenged the AFL's "mild as milk" strategies and "exclusionist membership" policy of admitting white, American-born, skilled workers. Rejecting collective bargaining and contracts, the IWW favored direct action, general strikes, boycotts, and sabotage.

In 1909, the IWW led a strike at themarker Pressed Steel Plant in McKees Rock. Known among workers as "the slaughter house," Pressed Steel employed thousands of Slavic immigrants in a workplace so abusive the ambassador from Austria-Hungary complained about economic peonage at the plant. Elsewhere, radical workers founded themarker Ironworkers Union in Pittsburgh in 1896. Between 1906 and 1911, the union paid three shadowy troublemakers $200 each time they planted bombs on bridges and buildings under construction.

In the wake of ongoing labor wars and muckraking journalists' exposés of corporate power, the public responded. In the late 1800s,marker Pennsylvania Grange spearheaded a campaign for state regulation of the railroads. Progressive pro-labor groups pushed for state child-labor laws after the turn of the century, as well as unemployment compensation and fair labor standards. In 1910 the voters of Reading, PA, elected Socialist marker James Maurer, to the state senate, whose first action in office was to call for immediate abolition of the Pennsylvania State Police. In 1915, the legislature passed the first Pennsylvania marker Workman's Compensation Act, one of the most ambitious and controversial pieces of state legislation introduced during the Progressive era. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson appointed marker William Wilson, a UMWA leader during the 1902 Anthracite Coal Strike, the nation's first Secretary of Labor.

In the fifty years between the end of the Civil War and the outbreak of World War I, Pennsylvania had emerged as an industrial colossus, whose laboring citizens shared only a small portion of the wealth they produced. World War I would end the great wave of immigration that had provided Pennsylvania its industrial workforce, and inaugurate a new era in the state's labor history.
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