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Explain the formation and goals of unions as well as the rise of radical political parties during the Industrial Era


Topics on the Page
Unions and Their Goals
  • History of Labor Day and the Pullman Strike
  • Knights of Labor
    • The Haymarket Riot of 1886
  • American Federation of Labor headed by Samuel Gompers
    • Industrial Workers of the World
Radical Political Parties and Their Goals
  • the Populist Party
  • the Socialist Party headed by Eugene Debs
    • the Ludlow Massacre


Focus Question: What were the reasons for the formation of unions and what were their goals?


National Guard troops firing on Pullman strikers, 1894
National Guard troops firing on Pullman strikers, 1894

1) Labor unions formed in the U.S. beginning after the Revolution but did not really become powerful until the late 19th century and even more so during the early and mid 20th century.

2) Labor unions became a way for workers to ensure that they were getting equitable wages, reasonable hours, safe working conditions, and fair treatment in the workplace. Many labor unions wanted to create representation for those in their field and hold managers and owners accountable upholding a predetermined level of standards.

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 11.30.11 AM.pngLabor History Timelinefrom the AFL-CIO.

The History of Labor Day and the Pullman Strike


Click here for one perspective on the History of Labor Day from the U. S. Department of Labor.

primary_sources.PNGClick here to read Samuel Gomper's article "The Significance of Labor Day"
Multimedia.png

rotating gif.gifGo here for background on The Pullman Strike and Eugene V. Debs


Go here for Mother Jones Influential Biography Page


Destruction of the Union Depot, Pittsburg, August 11, 1877
Destruction of the Union Depot, Pittsburg, August 11, 1877

The Great Railway Strike of 1877


The first major national rail strike
  • initiated by railroad workers in Martinsburg, West Virginia

Go here for an overview of the strike from Ohio History Central

The Great Railway Strike of 1877 and Newspaper Coverage from University of Nebraska Lincoln

Howard Zinn Short History of the Strike

Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 4.03.33 PM.pngThe Strike of 1877: Primary Documents

Child Labor in the Textile Mills
Child Labor in the Textile Mills


Clara Lemlich, 1910
Clara Lemlich, 1910

The Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909


The largest strike of women workers in United States history

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Women Strike, Win Better Wages and Hours, New York, 1909

Uprising of 20,000 from Jewish Women's Archive

Anne Morgan and the Shirtwaist Strike of 1909-1910

Quill_and_ink.pngClara Lemlich, leader of the strike from PBS

Screen Shot 2016-02-27 at 11.29.04 AM.pngBrave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel

lessonplan.jpgClick here for a lesson plan on Women and Sweated Industrial Labor.

Bread and Roses Strike (1912)


Female_Rose.pngMassachusetts_state_seal.pngThe Bread and Roses Strike that begun on January 12, 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts was one of first labor strikes in which women and children played a major role.

The Bread and Roses Strike was organized by the Industrial Workers of the World (iWW). For more on the strike, go to Bread & Roses Strike Speaks to the Present from University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Multimedia.pngBread and Roses poem by James Oppenheim, published in 1911, and sung on this site in English and French.

Image below is The great railway strike--Attempt to start a freight train, under a guard of United States marshals, at East St. Louis, Illinois. Image from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, April 10, 1886.
external image Great_Railway_Strike_1886_-_E_St_Louis.jpg
primary_sources.PNGPreamble and Constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World (1905).



The Knights of Labor


The Knights of Labor formed 1869 in Philadelphia, and spread to Chicago following the 1877 railroad strikes that swept through stations on the east coast, south, and midwest.


English/German Pamphlet Supporting Striking Workers, Chicago, May 4, 1886
English/German Pamphlet Supporting Striking Workers, Chicago, May 4, 1886

  • The Knights of Labor was one of the earliest labor organizing party that sought to diversify the worker population by enlisting workers from different races, such as African Americans, and women under the motto “An Injury to One Is the Concern of All."
    • Like other labor unions, they advocated for laws ending child labor and also wanted equal pay for women.
      • They wanted to close the widening economic gap between the rich and the poor, and therefore called for a progressive income tax. There was a desire to not strike and several of the leaders were against striking but many people saw it as an effective strategy.

primary_sources.PNGClick here to read about the Knights of Labor in the New York Times.

Multimedia.pngAttached is a great YouTube video about the Knights of Labor and their successes. What is interesting about this video is that it was actually done by an AP US History student. It was well done. Knights of Labor Video.

To this day, the Knights of Labor still have a union, which can be found here, Real Knights

The Haymarket Riot, May 4, 1886


Image of the Riot from Harper's Weekly, 1886
Image of the Riot from Harper's Weekly, 1886

The Knights of Labor dissolved because many people saw them as a catalyst for the Haymarket Riot in Chicago which started as a massive strike and ended as a battle between working class people and the police.

The Knights were against striking from the beginning but were seen as an easy group to blame. The flier to the right is from the Haymarket Riot time period.

The biggest impact of the Haymarket Riot was the impact it had on American Labor. Much of the success of the Knights of the Labor dissipated because of this riot.

The media used the bombing and subsequent riot to blame it on perceived anarchists in the Unions. The members in Unions fell dramatically because of this.

Haymarket Labor Martyrs Honored, New York Times (May 4, 1986)

external image Red_apple.jpgFor an excellent lesson plan on the Haymarket Riot see The American Jury: Analyzing the Haymarket Riot.

Multimedia.pngFor a video on the Haymarket Riot, see Haymarket Martyrs--Origin of International Workers Day.


The American Federation of Labor (AFL)

Samuel Gompers, 1911
Samuel Gompers, 1911

external image Essener_Feder_01.pngThe AFL was formed in 1886 by Samuel Gompers whose mantra was "Keep it Simple." His idea was to create a labor organization that was not extremely radical. He believed that this was essential for the success of AFL's goals.

The AFL came about while the Knights of Labor still existed. Due to the growing discontent with the Knights, leadership from the Knights founded the AFL in Central Ohio.

Gompers wanted the AFL to help support the autonomy of each of its members and also chose to limit membership whereas the Knights had a far more open membership policy.

Like most unions at the time, the AFL wanted fairer wages and owner accountability and also like any middle and low class worker during the era, they advocated for tougher immigration laws and worked on keeping immigrants out. There was at first a socialist attitude present but that quickly changed to a more conservative one.

Because of it's limiting of membership, the AFL quickly came under fire from many groups. For a large part of it's history (arguable even today) the AFL only represented white males. The justification for racial exclusion was that the AFL supported skilled labor (which was predominately white) before unskilled labor (which was predominately black).

primary_sources.PNGMultimedia.pngClick here for primary source document by Samuel Gompers and a Labor's Reward (1925) video outlining labor unions in the 20th century.
Multimedia.pngClick here for video about the AFL done for a school project.

Industrial Workers of the World


external image IWW_Universal_Label_1917.svg

IWW History Project, University of Washington



timeline2_rus.svg.pngTimeline for the Industrial Workers of the World


primary_sources.PNGWorks by Eugene V. Debs


Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 11.16.22 AM.pngThe Little Red Songbook (1916)



Focus Question: How did radical political parties emerge during the Industrial era?


rotating gif.gifFor more on political parties in American politics, see


Third Parties in the U.S. Political Process, PBS Newshour

The period from the late 1890s to the first two decades of the 20th century saw an increase in political efforts for the "common working man."
  • The Populist party and the Socialist party [1] emerged to help represent this working man in politics and labor unions such as the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor came about to help make sure there needs were being met in the workforce.
    • This era saw great growth in industry but along with it came a need for many changes in the way people were represented since they saw themselves as getting walked over by those in power.

Populist presidential election results by county, 1892
Populist presidential election results by county, 1892

The Populist Party

The Populist Party emerged due to fears by many farmers following the Panic of 1873 in which a severe depression hit the U.S.
  • Many groups started to come out to represent the farmers but it was not until they decided to create a political party that they were able to bring their main issues to the forefront.
  • The populist party was not just limited to farmers but also become popular among northern urban workers the too groups attempted to unite under the idea that government was in the pocket of big business. Instead they desired greater representation to prevent middle men monopolies from benefiting from the hard work of farmers and urban works combine.
    • The Democrats and the Republicans did not agree with many of their issues and so the farmers along with many other poor workers, regardless of race, started to get political. They advocated against the gold standard and wanted to see an end to the national bank. They also called for eight hour working days, and even pressed to get direct election of U.S. Senators since at the time Senators were chosen by the state.
    • At first they were very fair to all races but following a few losses in the national elections, they started to align with the racist Democrats and effectively lost their African American base.
    • The Populists were able to send a few candidates to the Presidential election and had many members in the national legislature. It is commonly referred to as the People's Party.

primary_sources.PNG Read the Populist Party Platform (1892)
Over view of the Populist Party

Multimedia.pngClick here to watch a video on Populism and the Populist Party.
Multimedia.pngClick here to watch a Youtube video on the Populist Party

womens history.jpgRead about gender and race in the Populist Party

The Socialist Party

Campaign poster for Socialist Party, 1912 Election
Campaign poster for Socialist Party, 1912 Election

The Socialist Party of America came into being after a merger between two prominent Socialist parties. Different sectors of the Social Democratic Party and the Socialist Labor Party of America each came together to form the Socialist Party.
  • The main goal was socialism and to bring it to the U.S. Of course, this meant they wanted to get away from capitalism and bring about a society in which the community dispersed wealth and property.
  • It was a pretty large movement and sent Eugene Debs to the Presidential election. They were also able to get some seats in Congress and had members as mayors in several cities.
  • The party started to lose momentum in the mid 20th century and pretty much dissolved completely in the 1960s.


The socialist party was like any other political party in the United States. They had candidates who would run for President among other things.
  • The socialist party wanted social reform, in which there would be no classes, or anything of that nature.
  • The party had their own conventions like any other party would.
    • A detailed description of these conventions can be seen here, Socialist Party Conventions. What is really interesting about this is that you can see how the party quickly gained popularity in the early 20th century, and then how it dwindled as time went on.

Female_Rose.png For an interesting article on gender dynamics within the Socialist Party of America before 1920, see For White Men Only: The Socialist Party of America and Issues of Gender, Ethnicity and Race by Sally M. Miller, Journal of the Glided Age and Progressive Era (2003).


primary_sources.PNGFor additional information, see the Socialist Party of America from Spartacus Educational.

primary_sources.PNGFor primary sources from Eugene Debs, see Eugene V. Debs Internet Archive.
Biography icon for wiki.pngClick here for a Debs biography from Kansasheritage.org


Ludlow Massacre

external image ludlowmassacre8.jpg

The Ludlow Massacre occurred on April 20, 1914 at the Ludlow Colony in Colorado.
  • The conflict arose over tensions between striking coalminers and John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.
    • The miners were striking about unsafe working conditions.
      • After months of prolonged protest, the state sent in their National Guard to end the strike, a confrontation that led to the death of at least 19 individuals, at least 12 of whom were women and children.

This was a turning point in American labor relations. Rockefeller was widely criticized and the event brought greater attention to the labor issues of Colorado miners.

primary_sources.PNG View a collection of primary sources on the Ludlow Massacre.

podcast icon.pngView more photos and listen to an oral history of the event here.

Multimedia.png Watch a video of Howard Zinn discussing the Ludlow Massacre and Woody Guthrie's song about the event.

Screen Shot 2016-02-27 at 11.29.04 AM.pngHorrors of History: Massacre of the Miners. T. Neill Anderson (2015)

Additional Links and Sources

[1] The Socialist Party of America. Retrieved April 26, 2007, from Early American Marxism Web site: http://www.marxisthistory.org/subject/usa/eam/socialistparty.html
Labor History Timeline (2011). Retrieved 27 March 2011 from AFL-CIO's site: http://www.aflcio.org/aboutus/history/history/timeline.cfm.
Socialist Party of America. Retrieved 27 March 2011 from Spartacus Educational's site: http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAsocialismP.htm.
The American Jury: Analyzing the Haymarket Riot. Retrieved 27 March 2011 from CRFC's site: http://www.crfc.org/americanjury/CRFCAnalyzingtheHaymarketRiot.htm.
Haymarket Martyrs--Origin of International Workers Day (2008). Retrieved 27 March 2011 from Youtube's site: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OQxncb2ihQ.
Origins of the Labor Movement (2007). Retrieved 27 March 2011 from Youtube's site: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-95bn8IFyc&feature=related.
Eugene V. Debs Internet Archive. Retrieved 27 March 2011 from: http://www.cddc.vt.edu/marxists/archive/debs/index.htm.