The Industrial Worker in Pennsylvania, 1800-1840

By William A. Sullivan | Go to book overview

VI
THE SKILLED ARTISANS AND INDUSTRIAL STRIFE

IN LABOR'S STRUGGLE for economic and social equality often its most effective and always its most dramatic weapon is the strike. The strike is an old instrument, as old as history itself, for ameliorating working conditions and effecting a wage-bargain. In Colonial America, strikes and concerted action by combinations of workmen for enhancing their status were rare, almost unheard of. Scarcity of labor, the comparatively high wages, and colonial law combined to deter them from uniting for common action.1 But after the War for Independence labor strife and unrest became increasingly more evident, and the Pennsylvania wage earners were among the first in America to seize upon the strike as a means for improving their lot.2

Why were the workers compelled to resort to such drastic means to accomplish their ends? Obviously, old methods and practices no longer sufficed. Expanding markets required more efficient productive techniques and the introduction of them produced profound changes in the attitudes and bargaining position of employer and employee. Export work, designed to fill the requirements of the western and southern markets, seriously jeopardized the position of the skilled artisans specializing in high quality work. Individual bargaining appeared incompatible with an expanding economy, and the wage earners felt that equity was not to be attained by such a practice. They turned to collective action for a solution and a strike was often the result.

In Pennsylvania, in the period under consideration, there were one hundred and thirty-eight strikes for varying reasons.3 This enumera

____________________
1
See Richard B. Morris, Government and Labor in Early America ( New York, 1946), pp. 44, 137.
2
One of the foremost students of the American Labor Movement states that the first strike of wage earners in America occurred in Philadelphia in 1786. The printers in that city struck for a minimum wage of six dollars per week. See John R. Commons, History of Labor in the United States ( New York, 1918), I, p. 25. A more recent student of the labor movement has pointed out that there was an earlier strike among the journeymen tailors of New York in 1768. See Morris, op. cit., p. 196.
3
See Appendix B listing all the strikes which this writer could uncover in the course of his investigation.

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