The Workforce of America’s Gilded Age


        The industrialization of the United States during the Gilded Age had a massive effect on workers. Before the industrial revolution, according to Keene, most crafts such as shoemaking required skilled labor, but with the invention of machines, like Jan Matzeliger’s lasting machine, these skilled trades soon became unskilled jobs, where workers could just pull levers and have the machine do the work. While these new machines saved businesses a considerable amount of cost, they often wiped out fields of skilled trades. Many unskilled workers could be employed to do what would have previously been a costly skilled worker’s job.

        Along with the shift from skilled to unskilled employment came longer hours and lower pay. To combat these injustices, workers began to make attempts to organize, calling these organizations unions. Workers saw unions as opportunities to gain an equal footing with their employers, both politically and in the form of organized strikes and boycotts. Unions had strength in numbers and made an environment where workers could speak freely about their work and the change they wished to see, something that many foremen and managers kept a close eye on and prevented.

        Employers disliked these unions and thought them as dangerous, often using propaganda and threats to prevent people from joining them. One major reason employers may have felt this way is because unions gave the lower and working-class a voice, and gave them more power to rebel against policies they felt were unfair. Some early unions, such as the Knights of Labor (KOL), used ideals to gain members, ideals such as the 8-hour workday and workplace equality, both between genders and races. Its leaders felt that the only way to achieve change was through uniting all workers from all fields. At its peak, the organization had more than 700,000 members, with its sheer numbers, its influence soared and scared many employers, who felt that unions like these would hurt their profit margins.

Keene, Jennifer, Visions of America: A History of the United States, Vol 2, 3e, Pearson, 2017.

7 thoughts on “The Workforce of America’s Gilded Age

  1. I agree looking at this, looks like employers dislike the unions because they created more jobs and also are making the hours shorter for the worker. The employers took away the skilled jobs like you stated. So a lot of the workers that are skilled want to go somewhere else where they can use that skill instead of just pulling a leaver. Employer took a lot of the skilled jobs away where the union created some with shorter hours.

  2. Yes, the influence of the Knights of Labor on employer’s perceptions of organized labor cannot be understated. It was an umbrella organization that really sought to unite American workers from many distinct backgrounds, at least apart from the racial divisions in the south. As one of the first successful organizations that managed to bring together all types of workers, this was incredibly difficult for big businesses to deal with. A real fear would begin to grow with the “robber barons” of the Gilded Age as the Knight’s of Labor’s membership numbers grew and more and more successful strikes occurred.

  3. I agree with what you’ve said. As you have stated, Unions were a way to tell the employers the workers’ wants and needs. They helped to organize the workers and enact reform through strikes and boycotts. Deciding whether or not to strike must have been hard, since doing so put you at risk of losing your job and getting put on the blacklist.

  4. Although-as you said-the industrial revolution changed the skilled trades, it wasn’t as easy as just pulling levers. There are a still a decent amount of skilled trades jobs that need people. The machines that were created to make shoes were created by skilled men and women. People also need to keep those machines updated and working. Even though machines were created there is so much other work that needs to be done. Machines and equipment were built to make jobs faster and more convenient.

  5. Along with employers trying to milk every dime they could get out of their workers, bad working conditions helped fuel their desire to strike against their employers. Unskilled employment brought longer days and workers were not having that. But employers had a gripe. Of course they were going to dislike their workers strike against them, they’d be crazy to prefer their workers to strike. Well written article, nice job.

  6. During this time in history many things were changing and growing, I don’t believe anyone knew how to handle the changing growth. I do believe companies got greedy quick due to the fact they shad the upper hand, money and jobs, the two things all people wanted. Who would want to sit back and watch everything around them developing into potential corporations. People were moving as well as inventing new equipment to make work easier. I like that you noted about Jan Matzeliger’s because she was a female immigrant, who isn’t typically recognized.

  7. The KOL made a big impact on our society today, we still use some of their ideals such as improved factory conditions involving safety and equal pay for the same work done. Employers had every reason to be scared of unions in their early state, they cut into their profits with them demanding higher wages and more safety regulations and run the risk of all the workers walking out on you in the middle of a workday meaning they’d have no workers and no product which also cuts into their profits.

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