Samuel Gompers: A Biography

By Bernard Mandel | Go to book overview

Chapter Seventeen
LABOR STRUGGLES AND VIOLENCE

1. THE HEAVY HAND

THE DECADE BEFORE WORLD WAR I WAS A PERIOD OF unprecedented prosperity for the American economy, and it was widely proclaimed that times were never better for the workingmen. To Gompers, such glittering optimism was merely a "stereotyped Christmas text for Big Business." Citing official and unofficial sources, he showed that the conditions of the workers were in fact a mockery of the vaunted "American standard of living." Millions of workingmen were still employed on the twelve-hour system, seven days a week, deprived of any life other than that devoted to earning their bread and butter, driven to exhaustion, alcoholism, and premature breakdown. Hundreds of thousands of children labored long hours for a pittance in mines, factories, and farm enterprises. The sweatshop evil continued.1

Such conditions produced widespread discontent, rising to revolt in the case of the sweated garment workers and violent class warfare in the case of the West Virginia and Colorado miners. But in the steel industry a powerful trust, an inept union leadership, and an abject mass of workers combined to produce nothing more than the tragic defeat of a defensive holding action.

In June 1909, the United States Steel Corporation announced that all its plants would henceforth be operated as open shops, with wage reductions ordered of about three per cent. The steel workers' and tin plate workers' unions called a strike to maintain what was left of unionism in the steel industry. The A.F. of L. convention in November called a conference of the officers of all affiliated national unions to meet in Pittsburgh and plan action.

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