Economic History of the United States

By Chester W. Wright | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXXVI
THE LABOR MOVEMENT AND LABOR LEGISLATION SINCE 1860

The Labor Movement to 1879. We have previously seen that by the decade of the fifties labor was beginning to accept the changes incident to the introduction of the factory system and modern capitalistic industry as inevitable. Consequently, it had abandoned efforts designed to restore conditions under the earlier organization of industry or to secure a more ideal economic order, and was settling down to more practical plans for improving its position under the new situation. Manufacturing, which had developed rapidly during the fifties, received a further impetus during the Civil War, and the use of machinery and factory methods spread rapidly. Moreover, it was during the 35 years or so following 1850 that the tremendous expansion of the railroads and the decline in freight rates were widening markets more rapidly than at any other period in the country's history.

These developments interacted to hasten large-scale production and the spread of the factory system and to intensify competition, all of which had a marked reaction on the economic position of labor. Furthermore, this only confirmed the conviction that these new conditions were inevitable and that the sooner labor adopted practical measures for meeting the situation the better. To this task the labor movement now turned. But in the decade and a half following the end of the war the difficulties of the task were increased, (1) by the economic readjustments following the war and (2) by the long industrial depression that succeeded the panic of 1873.

In view of the economic changes occurring it was natural that the outstanding tendency in the labor movement of these years should be the effort to nationalize the movement and particularly to establish national trade-unions. As the markets for various products tended to become national in scope, it was obvious that unless the standards that labor sought to establish were also national in extent, competition would tend to undermine them. In the years from 1864 to the outbreak of the panic of 1873, some 26 national trade-unions were organized; by the latter date their membership had risen to around 300,000.

For the most part these unions were formed in the more skilled trades little affected directly by the influence of machinery and factory methods,

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