It was 1865, and from the death, and devastation of the American Civil War America became an economic juggernaut. Gone was the chattel slavery that had destroyed so many, but in its place a new kind of slavery would arise. Not nearly as bad, but similarly imagined. Many in the south argued that “ending slavery would destroy farms,” though in “Visions of America” Dr. Jennifer D. Keene points out that farm production increased by more than 180 percent between 1880, and 1890 “470”. Another argument to be had was the specious belief that freed slaves would have nowhere to go, and would mill about committing crimes. This too proved to be false. With the freeing of Americas slaves America’s fledgling industrialists had a new crop of workers that they could exploit, and economically enslave.
During the Civil War factories were constructed to help defeat the Confederacy. Once the war was over these factories were repurposed for production of different products. These factories needed new, cheap labor to help tur out their various products. Who better for the job then poor southerners who lost everything in the war, or freed slaves that were so used to making nothing, and being beaten that they were ecstatic to make anything, and not be physically abused. Production dramatically increased, as did the few very powerful individuals bank accounts. We had gone from a nation of men working for themselves, to a nation of employees in relatively short order. However, the wealthy businessmen weren’t about to pay anyone enough to ever do any more than survive, all well forcing them to work extremely long days.
In “Visions” “Dr. Keene” states that most workers complained about the immense hours, as well as the low wage “481”, but what was a worker to do. If you complained to much, or pressed too hard you could be fired, and that just wasn’t an option. Especially to a man with a family to support. Some estimates have a worker earning between $400, and $500 per year. The wages were so low that families often needed to supplement their income in various other ways, just to survive. “Keene 481”. In stepped organized labor. In 1866 William Sylvis, an iron moulder founded the National Labor Union (NLU), with a goal of uniting skilled workers nationwide to demand better working conditions, and even a federal department of labor. The NLU did well, with a membership over 300,000. However, with the great depression, and untimely death of its leader Sylvis. The union folded. “Keene 483”. Most employers hated unions, because it threatened to eliminate their ability to exploit their workers, and in turn lower their profits. In fact, they hated unions so much that they hired “union busters” to spy on employees allowing them to fire and “black list” any that dared to think about unionization.
Because of their considerable wealth bosses also enjoyed police protections when workers were striking. Often the police would simply ignore workers being abused by ‘union busters,” or even arrest picketers for being “trouble makers.” Still the workers pressed on. Even when they lost case, after case in court they continued to fight for what they thought was fair, and just. Perhaps the biggest issue the workers faced however, was the fact that as deep as the employer’s pockets were, the unions pockets were equally shallow. Indeed, the unions could only support workers for a couple of weeks before they had no choice but to go back to work, or starve. Yet the workers kept on to the tune of six million workers participating in 37,000 strikes over a 24-year period. The employers tried everything from violence, and intimidation, to labeling the unionists criminals, and having them executed for alleged murders with little to no evidence.
One could’ve hardly blamed the workers for giving up, and accepting their fate, as some undoubtedly did. Still others knew they were fighting for something greater than themselves. They were fighting for each other. They were fighting for workers of the future. They were fighting for their own children to have better working conditions than they had. Fighting for yourself is important, but to fight for others is big. It’s part of the American way to fight for the rights of others. These workers are heroes. Their actions, struggle, and sacrifice made it possible for workers to have wages above starvation. They gave us the eight-hour work day, the five-day work week, and most of the benefits we enjoy today. Without them we may very well still be making $400 to $500 per year.