The Growth of the American Economy: An Introduction to the Economic History of the United States

By Robert G. Albion; Harold F. Williamson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 26
The Changing Status of Labor

THE AMERICAN LABOR MOVEMENT has developed in the context of changing patterns of technology, business organization, social relations, and political power. The external evidence of the changing status of labor must not be allowed to overshadow persistent aspirations of organized wage earners. The following words from Daniel Weaver's address to miners,1 on the eve of hostilities between the states, were at once a powerful plea for organization to improve the status of his associates, and an expression of the common objectives among trade unionists: "Our unity is essential to the attainment of our own rights and the amelioration of our present condition; and our voices must be heard in the legislative halls of our land . . . our objects are not merely pecuniary, but to mutually instruct and improve each other in knowledge, which is power; to study the laws of life; the relation of Labor to Capital; politics, municipal affairs, literature, science, or any other subject relating to the general welfare of our class."

The coal industry, which has furnished many of the most spectacular and bitter disputes and much of the leadership of the labor movement, provides a typical demonstration of the interaction between Weaver's sentiments and technological and institutional developments. Coal was mined in the sixties largely without the benefits of steam power; a miner was judged by his skill with a pick. In analogy with the putting-out system in textiles, miners bought much of their equipment and supplies and were paid according to the amount of coal delivered at the mouth of the mine. In these circumstances, they were concerned with the true weight of coal mined, since weight determined their income, and with reducing the number of accidents. The competitive position of mines, drastically altered by the emerging railroads of the 1850's, tended to exert a decisive influence on wage rates. The isolated mining community under company control restricted united action. But vast changes were soon to take place in the technology of coal mining and in the competition among regions and between coal and new forms of fuel and power. The organization of coal miners, first locally, then regionally, and finally on a national basis, grew out of these conditions and developments.

The directions and patterns of change in American economy as a

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1
Edward Wieck A, The American Miners' Association, pp. 217-219. New York Russell Sage Foundation, 1940.

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