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1 The Collision Of Cultures
2 Britain And Its Colonies
3 Colonial Ways Of Life
4 The Imperial Perspective
5 From Empire To Independence
6 The American Revolution
7 Shaping A Federal Union
8 The Federalist Era
9 The Early Republic
10 Nationalism And Sectionalism
11 The Jacksonian Impulse
12 The Dynamics Of Growth
13 An American Renaissance: Religion, Romanticism, And Reform
14 Manifest Destiny
15 The Old South
16 The Crisis Of Union
17 The War Of The Union
18 Reconstruction: North And South
19 New Frontiers: South And West
20 Big Business And Organized Labor
21 The Emergence Of Urban America
22 Gilded-age Politics And Agrarian Revolt
23 An American Empire
24 The Progressive Era
25 America And The Great War
26 The Modern Temper
27 Republican Resurgence And Decline
28 New Deal America
29 From Isolation To Global War
30 The Second World War
31 Big Business and Organized Labor
32 Through The Picture Window: Society And Culture, 19451960
33 Conflict And Deadlock: The Eisenhower Years
34 New Frontiers: Politics And Social Change In The 1960s
35 Rebellion And Reaction In The 1960s And 1970s
36 A Conservative Insurgency
37 Triumph And Tragedy: America At The Turn Of The Century

Big Business and Organized Labor - Document Overview

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During the half century after the Civil War, the United States experienced an economic transformation that catapulted the nation into the front rank of industrial nations. The reconstruction of the South and the settlement of the West created an unceasing demand for goods and services. At the same time, the growing national economy created job opportunities that served as a powerful magnet luring millions of immigrants from foreign lands. The need to feed, clothe, and shelter such a rapidly growing population added more fuel to industrial expansion, and, in turn, fostered a dramatic increase in the number and size of cities, especially in the East and Midwest. By the end of the nineteenth century, the United States was no longer a decentralized agrarian republic. It was increasingly a nation of cities and factories.

A key development facilitating the urban-industrial revolution was the maturation of a national market. What had been local or regional economies before the Civil War assumed national proportions with the advent of the transcontinental railroad network, the telegraph system, and other innovations that enabled entrepreneurs to manufacture products for distribution across the country. Such a national market helped give rise to larger corporations and huge individual fortunes.

During this turbulent period of industrial expansion and consolidation, many business leaders engaged in unethical and even illegal practices in an effort to gain advantages in the marketplace. Critics charged that some of the most domineering corporate buccaneers, men such as railroad tycoons Jay Gould and Daniel Drew, oil baron John D. Rockefeller, banking magnate J. P. Morgan, and steel giant Andrew Carnegie, were "robber barons" who ruthlessly eliminated their competitors, gouged consumers, and rode roughshod over employees. In their defense, the business leaders pointed out the new jobs that they were creating, the growing volume of goods and services they were making available to the public, the rising standard of living for the country as a whole, and the philanthropic contributions they were making to help improve the general welfare of their communities.

The rise of big business and its attendant excesses helped spawn a new era in the development of an organized labor movement. The first major national union, the Knights of Labor, was founded in 1869. It included all types of laborers, skilled and unskilled, and embraced a wide array of reform initiatives, ranging from the eight-hour working day to the increased use of paper money. Terence Powderly and other leaders of the Knights of Labor sought to gain their objectives through negotiation rather than strikes.

In the 1880s, however, such broad objectives and conciliatory tactics created fissures within the Knights that led to its demise by the end of the century. In its place emerged a new organization, the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Unlike the Knights of Labor, the AFL was a federation of many separate unions, each organized by special craft. Unskilled workers were not allowed in the AFL, nor were women workers. The founder of the AFL, Samuel Gompers, disdained the comprehensive reform agenda of the Knights of Labor in favor of sharply focused "bread-and-butter" issues—higher wages, shorter working hours, and better working conditions. And unlike Powderly, he embraced the strike as the union's most effective weapon in wrenching concessions from recalcitrant corporate leaders. By the turn of the century, the AFL was the largest union in the United States, claiming over 500,000 members.

The AFL did not challenge the basic premises of capitalism. Its aim was simply to gain for its members a larger slice of the economic pie. A few labor leaders, however, grew enamored of the socialist ideas of Karl Marx. In the 1890s a West Indian immigrant, Daniel DeLeon, and a railway union organizer, Eugene Debs, organized separate labor movements grounded in socialist philosophy. Of the two, Debs proved to be the more successful. In 1901 he organized the Socialist party of America, and three years later he garnered over 400,000 votes as a candidate in the presidential election. Eight years later he ran again and gained over 900,000 votes.

At the same time that Eugene Debs was mobilizing a socialist-based working-class movement, militant labor leaders in the West were forming a parallel organization, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Like the defunct Knights of Labor, the IWW sought to organize all types of workers into "One Big Union." But the "Wobblies," as IWW members were called, sought the complete destruction of the capitalist system and its replacement by autonomous workers' unions ("syndicates"). This apocalyptic objective helped fuel a militant agenda. The IWW used confrontational strikes and tactics to assault the capitalist system. Its efforts in turn led to a violent counterattack by the police. During World War I, government officials used emergency powers to crack down on the IWW and arrest its leaders.


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