The first large-scale U.S. union was the National Labor Union, founded in 1866 to organize skilled and unskilled laborers, farmers, and factory workers. Blacks and women, however, were not allowed to join the union. Though the National Labor Union was not affiliated with any particular political party, it generally supported any candidate who would fight for shorter workdays, higher wages, and better working conditions.
The National Labor Union existed for only six years. When the Depression of 1873 hit, workers’ rights were put on hold; Americans needed any wages, not better wages. Moreover, union members found it difficult to engage in collective bargaining with company heads when companies could easily hire thousands of immigrant “scabs,” or strikebreakers.
The Knights of Labor, however, survived the depression. Originally a secret society in 1869, the Knights picked up where the National Labor Union had left off. The union united skilled and unskilled laborers in the countryside and cities in one group. Unlike the National Labor Union, the Knights allowed blacks and women among its ranks. Although they did win a series of strikes in their fight against long hours and low wages, they generally had difficulty bargaining collectively because they represented such a diverse group of workers. The Knights did not exist for very long: when members were falsely associated with the anarchists who were responsible for the Haymarket Square Bombing in Chicago in 1886, the union fell apart soon thereafter.
Several major labor strikes occurred in the early 1890s, foremost among them the Homestead Strike, which protested wage cuts at one of Andrew Carnegie’s steel plants in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When Pittsburgh police refused to end the strike, Carnegie hired 300 private agents from the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency to subdue the protest. The laborers, however, won a surprising victory after a bloody standoff. President Benjamin Harrison eventually sent troops to end the strike.
In 1894, reelected president Grover Cleveland made a decision similar to Harrison’s to end the Pullman Strike in Chicago. When Pullman, a railroad car company, cut employees’ wages by 30 percent, labor organizer Eugene V. Debs organized a massive strike. Over 150,000 Pullman workers refused to work, Pullman cars were destroyed, and train service was cut off from Chicago to California. Cleveland sent federal troops to break up the strike and had them arrest its ringleader, Debs.
During these turbulent years for America’s labor unions, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) quietly grew in power, coordinating efforts for several dozen independent labor unions. Samuel Gompers founded the union in 1886, seeking better wages, working conditions, shorter working days, and the creation of all-union workplaces for its members. Unlike the National Labor Union and the Knights of Labor, the AFL represented only skilled white male craftsmen in the cities. Despite this limitation, however, the AFL survived the Gilded Age and would become one of the most powerful labor unions in the new century.