Samuel Gompers: A Biography

By Bernard Mandel | Go to book overview

Chapter Twenty-five

THE YEAR OF THE SCARE

1. POSTWAR STRIKES

WHEN THE UNITED STATES TURNED TO PROBLEMS of postwar reconstruction in 1918 and 1919, the labor movement was in a critical position. Even before the end of Wilson's administration, the country had turned from liberalism to reaction, and big business had almost undisputed control of the government. Alarmed by the worldwide growth of radicalism, the employers determined to stamp it out at home and to make the United States at least safe for the profit system. They resolved to wipe out the wartime gains of labor and to restore the unions to a status of weakness and semilegality. Above all, they set themselves to beat back the rising wave of militancy among the workers. Faced with a rising cost of living and the threatened annihilation of the trade unions, the workers determined to take advantage of the end of wartime controls to secure increased wages and improved working and political conditions.

The year 1919 began auspiciously for labor when a general strike of some 50,000 clothing workers in New York and a strike of 120,000 New England textile workers won the eight-hour day and wage increases. But in February, labor met the first of a series of defeats. The metal workers in the Seattle shipyards struck for the 44-hour week and wage increases, and the Central Labor Committee called a general sympathetic strike of all workers in the city. Some 60,000 workers responded, and for five days the industrial life of the city was virtually paralyzed. This strike was defeated by hostile public opinion whipped up by the press and Mayor Ole Hanson and by the opposition of the A.F.

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