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Major Events in Labor History

Lowell Mill Strikes (1834 and 1836)

Lowell Mills was the first factory to employ large numbers of women, so to reassure the parents of these young women living away from home, the mill supervised the workers around the clock. However, when more factories began to employ women and competition grew fierce, management responded by cutting wages and increasing expected output. Workers walked out in 1834, 1836 and 1842, but gained nothing until 1846 after Sarah Bagley formally organized the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. The Association, which claimed hundreds of members, sought support from the community and government. They prompted the state legislature to hold hearings to investigate labor conditions for the first time, and the mill eventually began to shorten the workday.

Analyze primary source documents including Bagley's letters.

Methods of Reform: The Lowell Mill Girls
The lesson plan produced by University of Maryland Baltimore County’s Center for History Education is aimed at students in grades 6-9.

Daughters of Free Men
Produced by the American History Social Project, this guide provides background information about mill workers' lives leading up to and beyond the Lowell Mill Strikes. 

Seneca Falls Women’s Right Convention (1848)

As women take on more diverse and challenging roles today, it is hard to imagine there was a time when women were considered the property of their husbands, were banned from the workplace and were not allowed to vote. This was the reality during the early 19th century, however, when a woman's place was solely in the home. Women could not own their own business or property, travel on their own or speak out in a public setting.

That changed, however, in 1848 with the first Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y. The convention was organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and, using the Declaration of Independence as a guideline, participants drafted the Declaration of Sentiments, which demanded equality and the right to vote for women.

Learn more about Suffrage Movement.

The Strike of 1877

The Strike of 1877, also known as The Great Strike, was the nation’s first national strike. It was brought on by economic depression and cuts in wages. Railroad workers began striking on July 16 in Baltimore, Md., and Martinsburg, W. Va. It soon spread to railroads throughout the country. State militias and federal troops were sent to various locations in an attempt to get the railroads back up and running. As a result of federal intervention and large numbers of workers who were willing to take the place of those striking, not all concessions were made by the railroads when this large, sometimes violent, strike ended in August 1877. However, the strike did spark a series of changes between labor and management and helped labor gain momentum across the country.

Using Primary SourcesTto Teach the Rail Strike of 1877
Use this lesson plan published in OAH’s Magazine of History with your high school students.

Haymarket Affair (1886)

On Saturday, May 1, 1886, hundred of thousands of workers around the nation—and tens of thousands in Chicago—walked off their jobs and held demonstrations in support of an eight-hour work day. On May 3rd, factory workers of McCormick Reaper Works struck. The next evening, police arrived at a meeting of the workmen. A bomb was thrown at the policemen, killing one officer and injuring others. A riot ensued, shots were fired. Seven more officers and an unknown number of workers were killed.

Eight anarchists and labor activists were charged with the murder of one police officer, and with little evidence, all were found guilty. One committed suicide in his jail cell, 4 were executed by hanging, and 3 were pardoned after serving seven years in prison.

Haymarket Affair Digital Collection
This collection, provided by the Chicago Historical Society, contains a narrative of the events, trial documents, published materials, photographs and additional manuscripts.  

The Dramas of Haymarket
The collaborative project between the Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University is a comprehensive resource suitable for use by high school students. It includes text, images and video clips of the riot at Haymarket, what let up to it, and its conclusion. 

Homestead Strike (1892)

As the end of a three-year contract grew near, Henry C. Frick, manager of Carnegie Steel Company’s Homestead, Penn., plant announced a cut in wages. Workers refused. Frick proceeded to close down the plant and on June 25, 1892 announced he would no longer negotiate or recognize the union. Only nonunion workers would be permitted to work. On June 29, 1892, workers struck.

Like many unions at the time, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers limited its membership to skilled tradesmen. However, most of the other workers in the plant voted to strike as well. On July 6th, there was a violent and deadly altercation between the strikers and the men Carnegie had hired to protect the plant and break the strike. The governor called in the state militia and the plant was able to reopen, operated by nonunion workers. The unsuccessful strike was officially called off on November 20, 1892. Three hundred men were rehired, but Carnegie had slashed wages, eliminated 500 jobs, and imposed a 12-hour work day.

10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America: The Homestead Strike (July 6, 1892)
The History Channel has a website and study guide to accompany its movie on the Homestead Strike.
Study Guide:

The Strike at Homestead, 1892
Ohio State University’s eHistory website includes first-hand accounts, photographs and newspaper articles published during the strike.

Strike at Homestead Mill
PBS’s history series has a series of articles on the Homestead Strike. Includes excerpts of letters sent to and from Henry Frick.

Pullman Strike of 1894

On May 11, 1894, workers employed by the Pullman Palace Car Company struck in response to the refusal of management to negotiate or submit to arbitration. The American Railway Union (ARU), led by Eugene Debs, called for a national boycott of Pullman cars on June 26th. The movement of supplies around the nation was greatly affected and the strike was deemed to be a violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. A federal injunction to halt the strike was granted on July 2nd, and President Cleveland sent federal troops to enforce the decision. There was violence on the part of strikers, but by mid-July the federal troops had gained order, and railroad service had largely been restored. Eugene Debs, among others, was arrested for failure to comply with the injunction. Many of the workers agreed to renounce union membership in exchange for their old jobs at their old wages. Though the strike itself may be seen as a failure, it spurred progress. In response to the recommendations of the investigative commission established by the president, a federal law was passed in 1898 requiring compulsory mediation in railway disputes.

George Pullman: His Impact on the Railroad Industry, Labor, and American Life in the 19th Century
Rosanne Lichatin’s lesson plan, on Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History’s History Now website, is aimed at students in high school.

The Pullman Strike of 1894
Jonathan Bassett’s lesson plan, published in OAH’s Magazine of History, is aimed at students in high school.

The Pullman Strike
Northern Illinois Historical Digitization Project’s large resource includes a detailed overview of the Pullman strike, primary sources and videos as part of its Gilded Age website.

Triangle Factory Fire (1911)

On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the Asch Building. The top floors of the building were occupied by Triangle Waist Company, a sweatshop in Manhattan, New York. Locked doors and a poorly constructed fire escape contributed to the death of 146 of its 500 employees, many of whom jumped to their deaths to escape.

A non-union shop, workers were afraid that complaining about unhealthy and dangerous conditions could lead to the loss of their jobs; however, some of its workers belonged to the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), which, along with other groups had fought for better conditions and legal protections of workers.

Despite overwhelming testimony of workers that the only viable exit during the fire was locked, the trial that ended eight months after the fire found the owners of the plant, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, not guilty. Individual suits were brought in civil court. On March 11, 1913, Harris and Blanck agreed to pay 75 dollars per life lost. Max Blanck later pled guilty to locking the doors of the building, in violation of building codes, and was fined twenty dollars.

There was public outcry following the fires.Organizations led relief efforts and collected funds to distribute to the injured and families of the dead. A local of the ILGWU organized a protest against unsafe working conditions, and the Women’s Trade Union League facilitated and promoted a formal investigation. In 1910 the Joint Board of Sanitary Control was created to monitor health and safety conditions. Union representatives sat on the board and pushed for improvements in working conditions.

The Textile Industry and the Triangle Factory Fire
Roberta McCutcheon’s lesson plan is aimed at students in high school. It is a project of The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History’s History Now website.

Worker Safety - The Triangle Fire Legacy
EconEdLinks lesson plan, a website produced by the Council for Economic Education, is aimed at students in grades 6-12.

Triangle Factory Fire Online Exhibit
A collaborative project between the Kheel Center at Cornell University and Unite! It is an extensive resource.

Lawrence Textile Strike, or Bread and Roses Strike (1912)

On January 1, 1912, a new Massachusetts law reduced the number of hours women and children were allowed to work from 56 hours to 54 hours per week. The legislative action was meant to address the growing desire of the public for better mill working conditions. However, the mill workers soon realized that, as they had feared would be the case, their pay had been cut along with their hours. (Years later, the strike also came to be known as “The Strike for Three Loaves,” as the cut in salary was equivalent to the cost of three loaves of bread.)

At least 23,000 workers participated in the strike and picketing that lasted nine weeks. The National Guard and the Industrial Workers of the World (a labor union that also went by the name of the Wobblies) quickly got involved.

An agreement was reached on March 12, 1912. The women demanded a 15% wage increase, halting the use of bonuses, double pay for overtime, and no consequences for individuals who participated in the strike. They were granted time-and-a-quarter pay for overtime, raises ranging from one to two cents for an hour’s work, and no retaliation against the strikers.

The Lawrence Textile Workers Strike: “What happened in Lawrence, Massachusetts,  in the winter of 1912?”
The City University of New York’s lesson plan is aimed at students in grade 11.

The “Proclamation of the Striking Textile Workers of Lawrence” can be found on PBS’s LiteracyLink website.

New York Times article, “Lawrence Strike Comes to an End: Increased Wage Scale Accepted, Industrial Workers of the World Will Call off Struggle,” published March 14, 1912.

Atlantic Monthly Article “The Lawrence Strike: A Study,” published May 1912.

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963)

A. Philip Randolph, a prominent black leader, fought for labor rights and was a leading civil rights activist. In 1941 he met with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, along with several other black leaders, to present a list of grievances regarding the civil rights of blacks and demanded an executive order to stop job discrimination. At the time, Randolph threatened to bring thousands of blacks to the White House lawn if their demands were not met. More than 20 years later, on Aug. 28, 1963, Randolph's dream was realized when the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom brought 250,000 men, women and children together on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial to show their support for the civil rights movement. Their goal: to raise national awareness of the plight of African-Americans. In addition to supporting civil rights, the leaders and planners of the march stressed economic inequities and called for passage of a new federal jobs program and a higher minimum wage.

The March on Washington and Its Impact
Produced by "Newshour with Jim Lehrer," in conjunction with PBS, this informative lesson plan focuses on the march and its effects. An audio clip and text of Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech is also available. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in voter registration, voting rights, and in public accommodations and/or businesses; gave the federal government jurisdiction over cases to enforce desegregation; and prohibited businesses with 25 or more employees from basing hiring decisions on race.

Major Features of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
This site provides an overview of each title of the 1964 Civil Rights Act along with a comprehensive case history of the act.

Teaching with Documents Lesson Plan: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
Developed by the National Archives and Records Administration, this lesson plan centers around a facsimile of the 1964 Act, and includes detailed explanations of its meaning and significance, teaching activities, and standards correlations.