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Labor battles in the Gilded Age

As the United States became a major industrial power, conflict between workers and factory owners intensified. Read about the Homestead Strike and the Pullman Strike, two of the most famous labor battles in American history. 


  • As the United States’ industrial economy grew in the late 1800s, conflict between workers and factory owners became increasingly frequent and sometimes led to violence.
  • The Homestead Strike occurred at the Carnegie Steel Company’s Homestead Steel Works in 1892. The strike culminated in a gun battle between unionized steelworkers and a group of men hired by the company to break the strike. The steelworkers ultimately lost the strike.
  • The Pullman Strike of 1894 started outside Chicago at the Pullman sleeping car manufacturing company and quickly grew into a national railroad strike involving the American Railway Union, the Pullman Company, railroads across the nation, and the federal government.

Gilded Age capitalism and the rise of unions

By the late 1800s the United States’ industrial output and GDP was growing faster than that of any other country in the world.
At the center of the nation’s economic success was a dynamic and expansive industrial capitalism, one consequence of which was mass immigration. From 1865 to 1918, 27.5 million immigrants poured into the United States, many aspiring to the opportunities afforded by the nation’s economic successes.1
The late nineteenth century was a time when industrial capitalism was new, raw, and sometimes brutal. Between 1881 and 1900, 35,000 workers per year lost their lives in industrial and other accidents at work, and strikes were commonplace: no fewer than 100,000 workers went on strike each year. In 1892, for example, 1,298 strikes involving some 164,000 workers took place across the nation. Unions—which function to protect workers’ wages, hours of labor, and working conditions—were on the rise.2

Strikes and strikebreaking: The Homestead Strike

On June 29, 1892, Henry Clay Frick, the manager of the Homestead Steelworks outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—motivated by a desire to break the union of skilled steel workers who for years had controlled elements of the workflow on the shop floor in the steel mill and slowed output—locked the members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (AA) out of the Homestead Steelworks. In response, the next day, AA members struck the plant.
Photograph of Henry Clay Frick.
Henry Clay Frick, manager of the Homestead Steelworks. Image courtesy Library of Congress.
In the first days of the strike, Frick decided to bring in a group of strikebreakers (commonly called scabs). To get inside the steelworks, the replacement workers would have the daunting task of making their way past picketing strikers who had surrounded the steelworks. But Frick hadn't hired any old strikebreakers: he decided to hire men from the Pinkerton detective agency, who were technically dubbed “detectives” but who were actually armed men seeking to push past striking workers and forcibly reopen the steelworks.
On July 6, gunfire broke out between striking workers and some of the three hundred Pinkerton detectives that Frick had hired. The Pinkerton agents, who were aboard barges being towed toward the side of the steelworks that bordered the Monongahela River, were pinned down in the barges by gunfire from the striking workers. By the next afternoon, with several having been killed on both sides, the Pinkertons raised a white flag of surrender.
Five days later, however, 6,000 state militiamen who had been dispatched by the governor of Pennsylvania marched into town, surrounded the steelworks, and reopened the plant. The state government had sided with the owners. The union had been defeated.3
Harper's Weekly illustration of the Pennsylvania state militia marching on the Homestead Steelworks.
Harper's Weekly illustration of the Pennsylvania state militia marching on the Homestead Steelworks, 1892. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

The Pullman Strike

George Pullman was an engineer who designed a popular railroad sleeping car. (Before the advent of cars and airplanes, Americans traveled long distances by rail and slept in railroad cars on the trains.) George Pullman manufactured the nation’s most popular sleeping cars, and Pullman was so successful that he built a company town outside Chicago, where the 12,000 workers who built Pullman sleeping cars worked and lived. But when, in the spring of 1894, amid a general economic downturn and decline in prices nationally, Pullman cut workers’ wages without also proportionally reducing rents on the company-owned houses or prices of goods sold in the company-owned stores, workers struck.
The Pullman Strike, which had begun in May, spread the next month to become a nationwide railroad strike as the American Railway Union, led by Eugene V. Debs, called out workers on railroads across the country in sympathy with Pullman workers.
In turn, the railroad companies placed bags of US Mail onto trains striking workers were refusing to move. Declaring that the American Railway Union was illegally obstructing the delivery of the United States mail, rail owners enlisted the support of US President Grover Cleveland. Cleveland dispatched troops to Chicago, ostensibly to protect the US Mail, and an injunction was issued against the union. Debs and other strike leaders were imprisoned when they refused to abide by the court-ordered injunction and call off the strike. The injunction was upheld by the courts, and the strike was ended by late July. Again, government—this time the federal government—had sided with employers in a labor-management dispute.4

The federal government and the labor movement

The limits and legal rights of those who own companies and those who work in companies is an ongoing debate in American politics. As a nation equally committed to both capitalism and the rights of individuals, the United States has struggled to balance the needs of corporations and the needs of workers.
As in the Homestead and Pullman strikes, government in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often sided with management and against unions. But not always. In the 1902 anthracite coal strike President Teddy Roosevelt threatened coal mine owners that if they did not bargain in good faith with the coal workers’ union that the federal government—would take over control of the mines. The owners quickly capitulated to his demands and the strike was settled.
In the Great Depression, the federal government enacted provisions on behalf of workers and labor unions. President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Wagner Labor Relations Act into law on July 5, 1935. The Wagner Act established federal guidelines for allowing unions to organize and established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) as a federal agency to enforce the Act’s pro-labor provisions.
In 1947, however, Congress amended the Wagner Act with the Taft-Hartley Act (still in effect today), which restricts the activities and power of labor unions.

What do you think?

What effect do you think the Homestead and Pullman strikes had on American culture and society in this time period?
What role did government play in the Homestead and Pullman Strikes? What role do you think government should play in labor-management disputes?
Overall, do you think the federal government has been more favorable to workers or to corporations? Why?

Want to join the conversation?

  • aqualine seed style avatar for user ryanarrowsmith23
    In paragraph three, why would the state side with the owners?
    (4 votes)
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    • leaf blue style avatar for user Matthew Dowell
      Keeping in mind that it's 1892, most businesses were self-employed artisans or farms, when business was bad, you could make a decision as to what to do about it. Working at a large industrial business for a wage is still a relatively new concept. Companies are now employing so many people that a single decision can affect a large number of people who are used to making their own decisions. No really knows at this time what you do when a whole factory goes on strike and people start shooting. So when you don't know what to do, and you've got a lot of angry people, the military gets called. Also if you are a wealthy industrialist factory owner with powerful influence, you might have connections to officials in government that you can personally contact by telegraph. And they will listen to your side of the story first. Labor problems due to industrialisation are becoming big problems and it will take some time for strategies to be developed to resolve these disputes peacefully between industrialists, workers, and the government around them.
      (35 votes)
  • leafers sapling style avatar for user stazioorion
    After reading about the Taft-Hartley Act, I saw that Democrats of the 20th Century were the ones trying to repeal the act. Has there been any recent movements to repeal this act? How do current politicians feel about this act?
    (10 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Hamilton Hardy
    Could workers attain economic justice without violence during the Gilded Age?
    (4 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Sam
      It would have been possible, but extraordinarily difficult. The role of the federal government was far smaller than today, and local governments were often corrupted by the urban political machine. Owners had far too much power to create change in reasonable time frame, and since the government largely supported owners over workers, forcing the government to change the rules against their and the most powerful people's opinions would not have worked. Even the public didn't exactly love strikes after Haymarket, so workers didn't have anything going for them politically.
      (9 votes)
  • starky ultimate style avatar for user Joshua
    Didn't Eugene V. Debs become a politician at some point while he was in a prison for his union activities?
    (3 votes)
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  • piceratops tree style avatar for user A+Student ;DDDDD
    I don´t quiet get the whole thing behide the steel workers.
    (0 votes)
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    • leaf orange style avatar for user Buck Masters
      Perhaps we would be better able to understand if we actually worked in a steel mill at the time. For that matter, any heavy industrial company often requires men to do hard work (i.e., lifting) in hot, dirty, noisy conditions. When demands for greater output required extra hours (overtime), perhaps the workers at that time didn't get paid 1.5 X their normal rate.? Or, if you've ever worked long, hard hours, you might relate to being so tired that you can't maintain the pace of work that is required. Over many years, unions and companies have developed better "standards" for work so that there is a better balance of work vs. reward. Of course, we haven't yet achieved perfection, but companies and workers are both a lot better off than they were in the late 1800's. Remember that those in the late 1800's had relatively few years of organized labor vs. management history to learn from, yet the U.S. was the leading country in the world for manufacturing output. I think conflicts were inevitable and necessary considering all factors. Failure to achieve gradual improvements over time may have otherwise resulted in something like the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, where the aristocracy of the time had lost touch with the people. We are lucky to have had "manageable" conflicts, as disastrous as they may seem by today's standards.
      (10 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user chhuon.menglin
    From my point of view, the Pullman and Homestead strikes did have a big impact on American culture and society nowadays. To my surprise, Americans have a propensity towards strike when something does not fulfill their purposes. For example, Once there is a change of amendment or something relating to societal norms, they are highly likely to make a protest along the roads. During the unionized strikes, the government intervened to decrease the tumult caused by the unionized workers by deploying soldiers to make social unrest to be a better one. As a matter of fact, the government plays an important role in increasingly reducing turbulence, for instance, they had better establish new laws and regulations for the labor workers.In addition to that, not only does the government make laws for unionized workers, but they also need made rules for factory owners about the sufficient provision for labor workers because the dispute is incurred to the fact that, owners of factories take so many advantages at the expense of the workers. If those owners break rules, they are given a warning or can not authorize the factories.
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Alexis Williard
    What was the result of the lack if public and legal support for union activities in the United States during the 19th century?
    (2 votes)
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  • marcimus pink style avatar for user Kimberly Mangano
    I 'm confused how does the union end up defeated?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Tiara Forbes
    Would anyone happen to know if Henry Clay Frick was named after the Great Compromiser himself?
    (2 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Tovonn Smith
    Labor battles coming from the title. Does Labor battles allude to the dangerous, powerful, and sad realities of war? Is the title stating that the Homestead and Pullman strikes were so intense, that they brought about similarities of that of which encased humans' minds of the topic of war?
    (2 votes)
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