• If you are citizen of an European Union member nation, you may not use this service unless you are at least 16 years old.

  • You already know Dokkio is an AI-powered assistant to organize & manage your digital files & messages. Very soon, Dokkio will support Outlook as well as One Drive. Check it out today!


Labor Unions and Radical Political Parties in the Industrial Era

Page history last edited by Robert W. Maloy 2 weeks, 3 days ago

American Federation of Labor union label, circa 1900


Topics on the Page

Unions and Their Goals


History of Labor Day and the Pullman Strike



      • A. Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters


Mary Harris "Mother" Jones Influential Biography Page


    • The Great Railway Strike of 1877
    • Bread and Roses Strike (1912)
    • The New York Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909


Knights of Labor

    • The Haymarket Riot of 1886


American Federation of Labor headed by Samuel Gompers

    • Industrial Workers of the World


Radical Political Parties and Their Goals

  • the Populist Party
  • the Socialist Party headed by Eugene Debs
  • the Ludlow Massacre


Watch an overview that highlights Labor Unions after the Civil War  




Link to AP US History Key Concept 6.1:  Rise of Industrial Capitalism after the Civil War


 Link to Political Parties and Elections


LINK to: Labor Unions and Nonprofit Organizations


Link to: Third Parties in American Politics


Focus Question: What were the reasons for the formation of unions and what were their goals?


National Guard troops firing on Pullman strikers, 1894
National Guard troops firing on Pullman strikers, 1894

1) Labor unions formed in the U.S. beginning after the Revolution but did not really become powerful until the late 19th century and even more so during the early and mid 20th century 

2) Labor unions became a way for workers to ensure that they were getting equitable wages, reasonable hours, safe working conditions, and fair treatment in the workplace. Many labor unions wanted to create representation for those in their field and hold managers and owners accountable upholding a predetermined level of standards.


Timeline that describes the change in labor throughout American history.

Timeline for the Women in Labor Movement

Lesson Plan for the goals, development and results of the American Labor Movement.



The Pullman Strike of 1894


The Pullman Strike was a widespread railroad strike and boycott that caused severe rail traffic in June and July of 1894.  


  • The strike was a result of the Pullman Palace Car Company cutting already lowered wages by 25 percent, but not decreasing the rents and other charges of its workers who lived in the town of Pullman.  


  • Because the company's president George Pullman refused to meet with workers who complained about 16 hour workdays and the starvation of them and their families, the workers decided to go on strike.  All of the Pullman workers decided to walk off and not work on May 11, 1894.  


  • About 35 percent of the Pullman workers were a part of the American Railway Union, and on June 22, the ARU initiated a boycott unless the Pullman Company agreed to submit the dispute to arbitration by June 26.  On June 27, about 5,000 workers left their jobs, and by the next day, 40,000 had left.


  •  By June 30, 125,000 workers decided to stop working, and 29 railroads were shut down.  Once a federal injunction was issued, President Cleveland could treat the strike as a federal problem and decided to order troops into Chicago on July 3.  


  • On July 7, the troops fired off into the crowd and killed in between 4 and 30, and injured many others.  The Pullman Company then reopened on August 2 and agreed to rehire the workers who went on strike.





The History of Labor Day and the Pullman Strike of 1894

Click here for one perspective on the History of Labor Day from the U. S. Department of Labor.


Click here to read Samuel Gomper's article "The Significance of Labor Day"



    • Click here for a video on the origins of the Labor Movement.



  • Short Video from the History channel which describes the basics of the labor movement


Go here for background on The Pullman Strike and Eugene V. Debs


  Link here for  Mary Harris "Mother" Jones Influential Biography Page



Destruction of the Union Depot, Pittsburg, August 11, 1877
Destruction of the Union Depot, Pittsburg, August 11, 1877


The Great Railway Strike of 1877


The great railway strike--Attempt to start a freight train, under a guard of United States marshals, at East St. Louis, Illinois.

Image from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, April 10, 1886.


external image Great_Railway_Strike_1886_-_E_St_Louis.jpg
The first major national rail strike

  • initiated by railroad workers in Martinsburg, West Virginia

Go here for an overview of the strike from Ohio History Central


The Great Railway Strike of 1877 and Newspaper Coverage from University of Nebraska Lincoln

Howard Zinn Short History of the Strike


The Strike of 1877: Primary Documents

Child Labor in the Textile Mills
Child Labor in the Textile Mills


Bread and Roses Strike (1912)

-The Bread and Roses Strike that begun on January 12, 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts was one of first labor strikes in which women and children played a major role.


-it was cause by a two-hour payout that responded to law that shortened the workweek for women and starting on January1, 1912, Massachusetts state government started to enforce a law that allowed women to work a maximum of 54 hours a week, which also reduced their pay


-the strike lasted for two months

For more on the strike, go to Bread & Roses Strike Speaks to the Present from University of Massachusetts Lowell.


Bread and Roses poem by James Oppenheim, published in 1911, and sung on this site in English and French.



Preamble and Constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World (1905).


 Click the link here to learn more about working class women in the 19th and early 20th century. 



The Knights of Labor

The Knights of Labor formed 1869 in Philadelphia, and spread to Chicago following the 1877 railroad strikes that swept through stations on the east coast, south, and midwest.

English/German Pamphlet Supporting Striking Workers, Chicago, May 4, 1886
English/German Pamphlet Supporting Striking Workers, Chicago, May 4, 1886


  • The Knights of Labor was one of the earliest labor organizing party that sought to diversify the worker population by enlisting workers from different races, such as African Americans, and women under the motto “An Injury to One Is the Concern of All."


    • Like other labor unions, they advocated for laws ending child labor and also wanted equal pay for women.


      • They wanted to close the widening economic gap between the rich and the poor, and therefore called for a progressive income tax. There was a desire to not strike and several of the leaders were against striking but many people saw it as an effective strategy.

Click here to read about the Knights of Labor in the New York Times.

Attached is a great YouTube video about the Knights of Labor and their successes. What is interesting about this video is that it was actually done by an AP US History student. It was well done. Knights of Labor Video.

Lesson plan for the Knights of Labor and the Haymarket Riot


Lowell Mill Women Create the First Union of Working Women


The Lowell mill women organized, went on strike, and participated in politics in the 1830s—a half-century before the more well-known mass struggles for workers' rights in the United States—when women were still not even allowed to vote. They also founded the nation's first working-woman union.



Click the link here to learn about the Lowell Mill Union


In the Commonwealth, women have frequently taken the lead in the struggle for fair compensation and equal pay in the US. Find out how working women in Massachusetts have fought for their rights, starting with the "turn outs" of the 1830s Lowell mill girls and continuing 140 years later with the 9–5 movement of organized office workers. Click the link here to learn more.



The Haymarket Riot, May 4, 1886


Image of the Riot from Harper's Weekly, 1886
Image of the Riot from Harper's Weekly, 1886

The Knights of Labor dissolved because many people saw them as a catalyst for the Haymarket Riot in Chicago which started as a massive strike and ended as a battle between working class people and the police.

The Knights were against striking from the beginning but were seen as an easy group to blame. The flier to the right is from the Haymarket Riot time period.

The biggest impact of the Haymarket Riot was the impact it had on American Labor. Much of the success of the Knights of the Labor dissipated because of this riot.

The media used the bombing and subsequent riot to blame it on perceived anarchists in the Unions. The members in Unions fell dramatically because of this.

Haymarket Labor Martyrs Honored, New York Times (May 4, 1986)

For an excellent lesson plan on the Haymarket Riot see The American Jury: Analyzing the Haymarket Riot.

For a video on the Haymarket Riot, see Haymarket Martyrs--Origin of International Workers Day.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL)

Samuel Gompers, 1911

Samuel Gompers, 1911

external image Essener_Feder_01.pngThe AFL was formed in 1886 by Samuel Gompers whose mantra was "Keep it Simple." His idea was to create a labor organization that was not extremely radical. He believed that this was essential for the success of AFL's goals.

The AFL came about while the Knights of Labor still existed. Due to the growing discontent with the Knights, leadership from the Knights founded the AFL in Central Ohio.

Gompers wanted the AFL to help support the autonomy of each of its members and also chose to limit membership whereas the Knights had a far more open membership policy.

Like most unions at the time, the AFL wanted fairer wages and owner accountability and also like any middle and low class worker during the era, they advocated for tougher immigration laws and worked on keeping immigrants out. There was at first a socialist attitude present but that quickly changed to a more conservative one.

Because of it's limiting of membership, the AFL quickly came under fire from many groups. For a large part of it's history (arguable even today) the AFL only represented white males. The justification for racial exclusion was that the AFL supported skilled labor (which was predominately white) before unskilled labor (which was predominately black).

Click here for primary source document by Samuel Gompers and a Labor's Reward (1925) video outlining labor unions in the 20th century.

Click here for video about the AFL done for a school project.



Industrial Workers of the World

external image IWW_Universal_Label_1917.svg

IWW History Project, University of Washington

Timeline for the Industrial Workers of the World

Works by Eugene V. Debs

The Little Red Songbook (1916)


What were the reasons for the formation of unions and what were their goals?


Sample Answer: 

Many workers had difficult and frequently dangerous working conditions in factories, mines, and other sectors during the Industrial Revolution and into the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Workers created unions as a way to address these problems as a group and raise standards and safety at work. Employees frequently had to deal with unreasonable treatment by employers, inadequate pay, and excessive hours. Using collective bargaining, labor unions attempted to get greater pay, less hours worked, and more equitable treatment for its members from employers. More general worries about social and economic injustice served as another driving force behind labor unions. They aimed to promote laws that would help working-class communities and to rectify the power and income gaps between employers and employees.

Olivia Rakocy (May 2024)



Focus Question: How did radical political parties emerge during the Industrial era?


Third Parties in the U.S. Political Process, PBS Newshour

The period from the late 1890s to the first two decades of the 20th century saw an increase in political efforts for the "common working man."


  • The Populist party and the Socialist party [1] emerged to help represent this working man in politics and labor unions such as the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor came about to help make sure there needs were being met in the workforce. 


    • This era saw great growth in industry but along with it came a need for many changes in the way people were represented since they saw themselves as getting walked over by those in power.


Populist presidential election results by county, 1892
Populist presidential election results by county, 1892


The Populist Party


The Populist Party emerged due to fears by many farmers following the Panic of 1873 in which a severe depression hit the U.S.


  • Many groups started to come out to represent the farmers but it was not until they decided to create a political party that they were able to bring their main issues to the forefront. 


  • The populist party was not just limited to farmers but also become popular among northern urban workers the too groups attempted to unite under the idea that government was in the pocket of big business. Instead they desired greater representation to prevent middle men monopolies from benefiting from the hard work of farmers and urban works combine.


    • The Democrats and the Republicans did not agree with many of their issues and so the farmers along with many other poor workers, regardless of race, started to get political. They advocated against the gold standard and wanted to see an end to the national bank. They also called for eight hour working days, and even pressed to get direct election of U.S. Senators since at the time Senators were chosen by the state.


    • At first they were very fair to all races but following a few losses in the national elections, they started to align with the racist Democrats and effectively lost their African American base.


    • The Populists were able to send a few candidates to the Presidential election and had many members in the national legislature. It is commonly referred to as the People's Party.


 Read the Populist Party Platform (1892)

Overview of the Populist Party 


File:Unity in Diversity flag.svg
Click here to watch a video on Populism and the Populist Party.

Click here to watch a Youtube video on the Populist Party

Video from Crash Course that talks about the Populist Party

Read about gender and race in the Populist Party

The Socialist Party


Campaign poster for Socialist Party, 1912 Election
Campaign poster for Socialist Party, 1912 Election

The Socialist Party of America came into being after a merger between two prominent Socialist parties. Different sectors of the Social Democratic Party and the Socialist Labor Party of America each came together to form the Socialist Party.


  • The main goal was socialism and to bring it to the U.S. Of course, this meant they wanted to get away from capitalism and bring about a society in which the community dispersed wealth and property. 


  • It was a pretty large movement and sent Eugene Debs to the Presidential election. They were also able to get some seats in Congress and had members as mayors in several cities. 


  • The party started to lose momentum in the mid 20th century and pretty much dissolved completely in the 1960s.

The socialist party was like any other political party in the United States. They had candidates who would run for President among other things.


  • The socialist party wanted social reform, in which there would be no classes, or anything of that nature. 


  • The party had their own conventions like any other party would. 


    • A detailed description of these conventions can be seen here, Socialist Party Conventions. What is really interesting about this is that you can see how the party quickly gained popularity in the early 20th century, and then how it dwindled as time went on.


  For an interesting article on gender dynamics within the Socialist Party of America before 1920, see For White Men Only: The Socialist Party of America and Issues of Gender, Ethnicity and Race by Sally M. Miller, Journal of the Glided Age and Progressive Era (2003).


  Click here for a Debs biography from Kansasheritage.org




Ludlow Massacre

The Ludlow Massacre occurred on April 20, 1914 at the Ludlow Colony in Colorado.

  • The conflict arose over tensions between striking coal miners and John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.


    • The miners were striking about unsafe working conditions.


      • After months of prolonged protest, the state sent in their National Guard to end the strike, a confrontation that led to the death of at least 19 individuals, at least 12 of whom were women and children.

This was a turning point in American labor relations. Rockefeller was widely criticized and the event brought greater attention to the labor issues of Colorado miners.

View more photos and listen to an oral history of the event here.

Watch a video of Howard Zinn discussing the Ludlow Massacre and Woody Guthrie's song about the event.

Horrors of History: Massacre of the Miners. T. Neill Anderson (2015)



Image by Lewis W. Hine


Child Labor Laws


Click on a link here to read about child labor and how child labor is still relevant today. 





Additional Links and Sources

[1] The Socialist Party of America. Retrieved April 26, 2007, from Early American Marxism Web site: http://www.marxisthistory.org/subject/usa/eam/socialistparty.html


Labor History Timeline (2011). Retrieved 27 March 2011 from AFL-CIO's site: http://www.aflcio.org/aboutus/history/history/timeline.cfm.


Socialist Party of America. Retrieved 27 March 2011 from Spartacus Educational's site: http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAsocialismP.htm.


The American Jury: Analyzing the Haymarket Riot. Retrieved 27 March 2011 from CRFC's site: http://www.crfc.org/americanjury/CRFCAnalyzingtheHaymarketRiot.htm.


Haymarket Martyrs--Origin of International Workers Day (2008). Retrieved 27 March 2011 from Youtube's site: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OQxncb2ihQ.


Origins of the Labor Movement (2007). Retrieved 27 March 2011 from Youtube's site: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-95bn8IFyc&feature=related.


Eugene V. Debs Internet Archive. Retrieved 27 March 2011 from: http://www.cddc.vt.edu/marxists/archive/debs/index.htm.

Ludlow Massacre

All About the Teamster Union

Video about the Knights of Labor

Video About the Haymarket Square Riot

Video About Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912

Video About the Pullman Strike









Comments (0)

You don't have permission to comment on this page.