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Labor-Management Conflicts In American History

Some of the most important events in US history were the many Labor-Management conflicts that took place in late 1880s and early 1990s. People were fighting for the right to work in a safe environment for fair pay, to be able to be employed at all, and to have a shot at the American Dream. All of these things were hard to achieve and many people suffered in the fight to attain them.

In 1892, after years of struggling steel prices, the manager of the Homestead Steel Plant, Henry C Frick, cut wages for workers and waged a war on the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, a union that fought to get workers their rightful wages. Andrew Carnegie was behind Fricke’s plan to produce as much armor plate as possible until the plant’s contract expired. If the union did not accept Frick’s new contract, he was to shut the plant down and wait until the workers gave in. Frick locked out 1,100 men and on June 25, he cut negotiations with the union. 3,000 of the men moved to strike. Frick built a huge fence around the plant which was dubbed “Fort Frick.” The workers then surrounded the mill, keeping anyone from going inside.

Frick then employed the Pinkerton private army and on midnight on July 5, tugboats carried the army with their rifles, up the river. They were spotted and the workers met them at the riverbank around 3am. Nobody knows who shot first, but the army went back onto their barge and bullets flew. In the end, 3 of the Pinkerton army and 9 of the workers were dead or dying. The governor then ordered the militia into Homestead and they took over the plant. After 4 months, the men returned to work. Some of the strike leaders were charged with murder and others lesser crimes but none were convicted. However, the Carnegie Company managed to force unions out of Homestead and the union then became a small factor in Pittsburgh’s steel mill industry.

In 1887, the Haymarket Affair, also known as the Haymarket riot or the Haymarket massacre, took placed on May 4, 1886 in Chicago. May 1, 1886 was the date that the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions had set as the beginning of the mandated 8-hour workday and unions were bracing for a strike from workers who supported it. Huge crowds gathered in large cities in support. A rally began at Haymarket Square on May 4. The crowd was peaceful and as the last speaker finished, police ordered the rally to disperse. Then, someone flew a pipe bomb at the police line, killing an officer. Police returned fire. It was unknown how many workers were armed but the incident lasted less than five minutes.

Many officers were injured by friendly fire. 8 policeman and 4 workers were killed. Eight people were arrested and taken to trial and it was never discovered who had thrown the pipe bomb. All 8 defendants were found guilty of murder with 7 of them sentenced to death. The verdict sparked protests around the world. Five of the men were either executed or committed suicide. The case is one of the most famous miscarriages of justice in the history of the US.

The Coal Strike of 1902 occurred in the coal fields of eastern Pennsylvania and could have stopped all major cities from getting the coal they desperately needed. The 1902 strike was a culmination of many little strikes and tensions that had lasted for years. The unions wanted control over the industry but the industry opposed this. On May 12, 1902, miners went on strike. 30,000 workers left the region and headed for other mines. On June 8, President Roosevelt asked his Commissioner of Labor to intercede. He recommended a few terms but owners of coal mines refused to negotiate. A conference was convened on October 3, 1902 where owners convinced the governor to send in the National Guard to protect the workers who wanted to work. JP Morgan also tried to intervene. The strike ended on October 23, 1902. Hearings were held on the state of the mines and the unions. In the end, miners were given a 10% wage increase and were awarded a 9-hour day. It was a victory for organized labor unions.

Then in 1905, the Chicago Teamsters’ Sympathy strike occurred. The United Brother of Teamsters was a labor union. In 1904, clothing cutters at Montgomery Ward went on strike to protest the use of nonunion subcontractors and the company locked the workers out. Sympathy strikes broke out, by fellow tailors’ unions initially, but later by unions in other industries. By April, 5,000 workers, all from different industries, were protesting. On April 6, the Teamsters engaged in a sympathy strike of their own, adding 10,000 more workers to the line.

The strike was a violent one. There were riots nearly every day until the middle of July. On April 29, 1,000 men clashed with police and 3 people were either shot or stabbed. On May 4, a riot occurred when 5,000 men took to the streets. They hurled things, attacked African-Americans, and used clubs and guns against each other. Things were almost settled when the Teamsters agreed to pull their support, providing that all strikers were rehired. Then, the EA declared that no strikers were to be rehired, and the Teamsters called another 25,000 workers on April 25. Many major industries were paralyzed. On April 30, the EA sued every union involved in the strike. The strike didn’t end until Cornelius Shea, the Teamsters’ president, was accused of taking bribes. Both sides had been taking bribes but public support for the unions suffered more. By August 1, 1905, employees were back at work.

The labor disputes illustrated a hard time for Americans. The industrial age was in full steam and people were trying to reconcile the need for goods with the safety of the workers who provided them. Unions rose and fell during this time as corruption was rampant. Still, without these major strikes, who knows what the labor market would look like today.

For more information, visit the following sites:

Important Movements: Lists important events and links to more information.

What I Saw in the Coke Region: An eyewitness account of the Homestead Strike.

Homestead Strike: Outlines important events in the Homestead Strike.

Haymarket Affair: Description of what occurred during the Haymarket Affair.

The Haymarket Affair Digital Collection: Digital collection of important documents.

Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902: Discusses the coal strike of 1902.

The Coal Strike of 1902 – Turning Point in U.S. Policy: Explains how the coal strike influenced the labor industry.

1905-today: The Industrial Workers of the World in the US: Discusses how the 1905 strike affected the labor market.

The Chicago Convention: Discusses the convention that was held to try and settle the teamster’s strike.

The Chicago Strike: Explains what occurred during the Chicago Strike.

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