The Role of Labor Unions in the Industrial Revolution

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The Industrial Revolution in the United States began during the late 1800s and enabled its economy to grow at an unprecedented rate. During the revolution, the Americans working in the industries began to agitate for their rights leading to the formation of many labor unions. Some of the labor unions formed during the industrial revolution include the National Labor Union which was formed in 1866. This paper will explore the role of labor unions during the industrial revolution.

National Labor Union

            The formation of this labor movement took place in 1866. It played a crucial role in fighting for the rights of all workers (Library of Congress 1904). The labor union consisted of skilled and non-skilled employees and farmers among other workers. The principal reason that led to the formation of the labor union was to compel the Congress to recognize the need to introduce labor reform. The National Labor Union was very vocal in demanding the Congress to compel the employers to introduce an 8-hour workday requirement (Library of Congress 1904). However, the labor movement failed to pressurize the Congress to give in to its demands to reduce the work days. Fortunately, the efforts of National Labor Union aroused the workers leading to more public support in labor reforms in the 1870s to 1880s. The dissolution of the National Labor Union in 1873 did not break the morale of the workers to demand land reforms. In fact, it strengthened the resolve of other labor unions.

Knights of Labor

            This was a labor movement that was founded in 1869 in Philadelphia (Fink 1983). The labor union was formed at a time when the economy of the United States was transforming rapidly from an agricultural economy to an industrialized economy that was keen on manufacturing. The manufacturing sector became highly transformed in 1870 to 1890 leading to employment of four-fifths of all workers by the American factories. In 1880, 13% of the people in the United States were foreigners but they accounted for 42% of the employees working in both extractive and manufacturing were people who had immigrated into the United States. The myriad of challenges facing the nation due to industrial revolution began to manifest through social unrest such as the railway strike that occurred in 1877.

            The formation of the General Assembly in 1878 helped to create representatives emanating from the local assemblies (Fink 1983). However, the secrecy upon which the labor union thrived in helped to slow and hamper communication in spite of the formation of the General Assembly. Regardless of the challenges facing the labor movement, the Knights of Labor managed to accommodate the religious groups such as the Catholics in 1879.

            The Knights of Labor also participated in politics. The leader of the labor movement, Mr. Powderly led to the formation of a political party known as the Greenback-Labor Party in order to contest for a political office. He vied for a Scranton mayor seat in 1878 and won using the newly formed party. 

             The labor union was a large labor movement that brought the American working class under the “Noble and Holy Order” (Fink 1983). The movement initially started with artisans from Philadelphia and grew to encompass miners and the tradesman in the urban areas in 1885. The laborers actively participated in boycotting work duties and engaging in industrial strikes leading to the Great Upheaval of 1886. During this time, the membership of the Knights of Labor grew to almost one million. The Knights of Labor were quite vocal and determined in demanding reforms in the labor laws. The leaders of the labor movement such as Robert Schilling were greatly opposed to use of cops as well as courts against anti-labor strikes. 

The members of the Knights of Labor participated in a strike that greatly tarnished its reputation in 1886 (Library of Congress 1904). They demanded recognition of eight-hour workday by employers. The strike known as Haymarket Riot resulted when the striking employees crushed with the strikebreakers. The confrontation led cops to intervene leading to the death of 7 police officers and the shooting of two members of the labor union. The riot greatly weakened the Knights of Labor. However, the labor reforms were introduced in 1933 through the National Industrial Recovery Act. The legislation led to the recognition of minimum wages and hours. In addition, it also made it possible for the labor movements to fight for the rights of employees through negotiations with the employers. The labor laws continued to improve though gradually and at last, the 8-hour workday was finally recognized in the 1950s.

Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers

            It was a labor union that came into existence in 1876 to fight for the rights of industrial workers in Philadelphia (Taussig 1893). The labor union had a membership of approximately 24,000 members. An estimated 13,000 employees employed by Carnegie Steel Company worked at Pittsburg plant which dealt with the production of steel rails. The company also owned another industrial plant at Homestead which employed about 3,800 workers. Homestead plant concentrated on the manufacture of structural steel that was used in bridges and buildings. The company also manufactured iron from ore.

The industrial workers held a strike in 1892 to oppose the proposed reduction in wages from the minimum $25 per tonnage to $22 per tonnage (Taussig 1893). The company decided to increase the tonnage rates to $23 but the workers declined the offer and settled on $24. The minimum wage of $25 had been set in 1889 which was to expire in mid-1892. Before the strike, the steel company had required the members to send the recommendation for new wage rates but which was expected to be lower than the wage rate agreed in 1889.

The main reason that motivated the Carnegie Steel Company to feel there was a need to lower the tonnage rates received by its workers was due to an improvement in technology (Taussig 1893). On the other hand, the workers felt that they were exploited by the company by being underpaid compared to other workers elsewhere who were being paid $6 to $10 every day. The continued disagreements between the employer and the workers led to an industrial strike in 1892. The steel company decided to lock out the labor union after realizing that an industrial strike was inevitable. The Amalgamated Association decided to hold an industrial strike that halted the operations of Homestead town especially after the formation of the Advisory Committee (Taussig 1893). Approximately 4,000 employees participated in the strike. The company claimed albeit falsely that the workers destroyed its property during the strike. However, the striking workers never destroyed the property of the company except the fence surrounding the plant contrary to the assertions of the company. The labor union was assertive that they would not return to work until their demands were met. The sheriff in the town convened a meeting to end the strike but it failed to yield any positive results.

The manager heading the company at Homestead plant decided to close the operations of the industrial plant. In the meantime, the company brought in 300 people in 1892 to guard the plant. In addition, the guards from Pinkerton Detective Agency would also protect the nonunion workers who were to replace the picketing members of the Amalgamated Association. Unfortunately, the arrival of the guards by boats was detected by spies sent by the labor union. They were attacked with guns and cannons by the striking workers leading to massive casualties. The governor of Pennsylvania successfully sent 6,000 soldiers to restore order in the town thus effectively ending the role of the Advisory Committee. The governor sided with the company and ordered the Homestead to be reopened. Although the union did not ultimately prevail in the industrial strike, it had managed to show great leadership in fighting for the rights of the workers. The strike which was led O’Donnell managed to attract the Congress to arbitrate the labor dispute.


            The labor unions in the United States were very active in fighting for the rights of the workers. They fought for improvement in working conditions, wage increments and minimum working hours in a day. Some of the labor unions such as the Knights of Labor were relatively successful in mobilizing people to demand better working conditions while others were not. Nevertheless, the labor reforms available can be attributed to the struggles of the pioneer labor movements.


Fink, L. (1983). Workingmen's democracy: the Knights of Labor and American politics (Vol. 286). University of Illinois Press. Retrieved from:

Library of Congress (1904). National Labor Union Requested an Eight-Hour Workday. Retrieved from:

Taussig, F. W. (1893). The homestead strike. The Economic Journal, 307-318. Retrieved from:

November 13, 2023


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