Three Causes of Labor Unrest in the 19th Century

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The 19th century was a period of great economic, political and industrial changes in the United States. The wealthy prospered in ways never seen before, and the growing gap between rich and poor created tensions that would shape an entire movement. Although the Labor Movement predates the 1800s, its effectiveness was largely shaped by the rampant inequalities ushered in by the industrial boom of the 19th century.

1 Violent Strikes and Demonstrations

Decades after the industrial revolution, tensions increased between the working class and the elite. Workers began to form into protective groups to air their grievances. With roots in socialism, an ideology popular in working class groups, labor organizations such as the American Federation of Labor formed to support workers. Though many labor groups pressed for nonviolent demonstrations, tensions often resulted in deadly violence. Labor unrest in the 1870s and 1880s resulted in the Haymarket Affair of 1886 and the Pullman Strike of 1894. These uprisings resulted in deaths on both sides and further deepened the divide between the working class and those who reaped the benefits of their labor.

2 Causes of Labour Unrest

Working conditions of the 1800s left much to be desired and furthered the causes of labour unrest. Factory workers were crammed into small spaces with hot, unsafe machines. Miners and loggers were paired with inefficient and dangerous machines that made work faster but also more dangerous. As the death toll rose, pressures to create safety standards increased. Labor unions around the country organized demonstrations to demand safety gear, proper ventilation, fire preparedness and many other important safeguards. Machines and harsh work claimed thousands of lives before legislation of the 1930s began to regulate safety and labor standards in the workplace by shortening work days and eliminating child labor.

3 The Eight-Hour Workday

Workers in the 1800s often clocked over 16 hours of work per day. With the nation's poor clamoring for work, companies were able to get virtually unlimited work with little regulation for decades. There was also mass corruption in the political system. In 1883, the Pendleton Act required appointees to public office to prove that they were fit to take office by taking a competitive exam instead of being able to take office strictly to extort money from immigrants. In 1884, the AFL insisted on eight-hour workday regulations and on May 1, 1886 over 300,000 workers across the country walked off the job to demand it. Though federal regulations weren't officially won until 1937 while movements around the country made an impact decades before that. The United Mine Workers won the eight-hour day in 1898 with the Building Trades Council following two years later.

4 Eliminating Child Labor

Large production machines made it possible for children to do work that had previously required the strength of men for much less money. Two million school-aged children held jobs by 1810. Factories and mines worked children over 12 hours per day. Working up to 70 grueling hours per week for under $1 per day, some who lived under the care of factory owners were required to work overnight. Labor organizations, churches, teachers and human rights activists vocally opposed child labor, forcing individual states to begin regulating the practice in 1813. By the end of the century, 28 states had adopted laws to regulate child labor with federal child labor laws passed in 1938.

Based in the Pacific Northwest and educated at the University of Washington, Rosanne Tomyn has been writing historical, cultural and political articles since 2005. Tomyn was awarded the International Labor Communicators Award for Best Profile and Best Labor History Story in 2011.