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.