Join Our Ranks: Labor Unions in the 1890s and 1990s

By Alex Sutton

The 1890s and 1990s saw the developments of new technologies in both eras radically changed the nature of the workforce and the economic structure in the country. Both decades saw an increased importance placed on industrialization and the production of goods on a large scale. Companies were able to monopolize on these new innovations in order to profit and benefit from these changes. While this new advancement in production served to benefit those in charge, it ultimately made the workers the victims of change.

Focusing on productivity, companies exploited their workers and increased their control over production. Workers faced terrible working conditions, pay, and treatment. In both the 1890s and 1990s, workers fought to gain back their rights and better working conditions. Each decade placed great importance on unions and engaged in numerous strikes to boycott their treatment. The rights of workers became a major issue in American society and drew the nation into the discussion. Dispelling the belief that innovation would benefit everyone, workers brought to light the realities of working conditions.

The grievances expressed by workers in the 1890s and 1990s were different, however, the outpouring of the workers’ outrage highlights the similarities between the two decades. Fighting to earn better treatment and gain a more equal voice, workers in both eras joined labor unions in order to achieve their goals. While individual workers felt alone and at risk, unions could provide a communal organization for individuals to have their voices heard.

In 1842, the case Commonwealth v. Hunt asserted that it was not illegal for workers to organize a union or try to compel recognition of that union with a strike. This ruling was essential to the establishment of labor unions that could become permanent institutions with legal rights. (Nelles). However, the struggle for the right to unionize continued due to resistance by corporations and divisions within the workforce well into the 20th century. Examining news articles from both decades reveals that workers’ grievances focused on workers’ conditions and rights and the important roles that labor unions played in both the 1890s and 1990s.


“Labor’s Rights and Wrongs: Interesting Argument in the American Railway Union Suits”

On May 11, 1894, the Pullman Strike began when 4,000 workers employed by the Pullman Railroad Company walked off their jobs. After the Panic of 1893, George Pullman, the company’s president, decided to cut the workers’ wages by twenty-five percent without introducing corresponding reductions in rent for company housing. This financial burden made it nearly impossible for workers to pay for their housing and food, leading to a delegation of workers presenting their grievances to George Pullman to no avail. (Bassett).

Thirty-five percent of the workers at the Pullman company were members of the American Railway Union, which supported the strike. Eugene V. Debs, the president of the ARU, encouraged railroad workers to boycott the handling of Pullman cars nationwide, causing the strike to have 250,000 workers involved at its peak. The strike was eventually ended in mid-July when a federal injunction was issued and President Cleveland called in the federal national guard to suppress what was deemed an illegal strike. Citing the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the injunction forbid any interference with the mail. Debs, along with four other ARU leaders, was arrested and jailed for conspiracy and ignoring the injunction following the strike. (Bassett).

The government brought a case against the American Railway Union, branding the Pullman boycott as a conspiracy in restraint of trade under the Sherman anti-trust law. The defendants’ laweyer, S.S. Gregory, argued that the injunction cut off ARU leaders from communicating with their subordinates and impeded the workers’ right to strike and have leaders to advise them. He also argued that the Sherman anti-trust law was unconstitutional; it was meant to address oppressive businesses and monopolies, not allow the federal government to interfere in labor strikes. George also noted the importance of the trial, stating, “thousands of persons here, as well as all over the country, are watching this case.” (“Labor’s Rights”). Ultimately the prosecution dropped the charges, however, the precedent set by the injunction would have lasting effects on union strikes in the future.

The Pullman Strike and its resulting legal case demonstrate the importance and focus on workers’ rights and unions to those in the 1890s. The strike represented the first time the federal government used an injunction to break a strike, ingraining the idea that the government and the courts would support big business rather than the workers. The industrialization of the workforce during this decade ushered in an era of horrendous working conditions and the decrease in workers’ rights. The Pullman workers’ demands are exemplary of workers’ demands of the time. Calling for a brotherhood of equals rather than being treated as children in a paternalistic relationship, Pullman workers sought to gain more direct control of autonomy. Through creating a fraternalistic relationship,the workers hoped to better their conditions and situations. (Addams).

These desires spread far beyond just the Pullman workers and were echoed throughout the nation, beginning to gain power. This can be seen in the People’s Party and their platform. In 1892, the party declared the importance of unions, stating “the union of the labor forces of the United States this day consummated shall be permanent and perpetual.” (People’s Party, 251). The party also supported returning the power of the economy back to the people themselves, criticizing monopolies and corporate interests.



“The Condition of the Laboring Man at Pullman,” Chicago Labor, July 7, 1894.

The workers at the Pullman company saw themselves as being exploited by Pullman for his own gain. A political cartoon published at the time of the Pullman strike illustrates the oppression that the workforce at the Pullman company encountered. In the cartoon, a Pullman employee is seen being crushed between two weights labeled low wages and high rent. The worker is portrayed as a helpless, powerless man. Additionally, the weights also signify capitalism, monopoly, plutocracy, and wage slavery. The man crushing the employee between the two weights is Pullman, depicted as a large, wealthy man. The difference in the two men highlights that the worker suffers for the benefit of those in charge; the man representing Pullman is heavy-set and well-dressed, showing that he has enough money to  buy food and clothes in excess.


“The Old and the New Labor Unions”

In a 1894 editorial for the New York Times, the actions of Debs and the American Railway Union during the Pullman strike are brought into question. The author sees Debs as a reckless figure whose actions during the strike were appalling and ruinous to his movement. The author believes that by using the boycott as a weapon for the accomplishment of their ends, the union inflicted losses upon the workers by compelling them to go on strike and lose their wages. Additionally, the author explains that it takes months or years for the workers to figure out that the strikes are a losing game and that only a small number actually benefit. (“The Old”).

In opposition to these “old” labor unions, the author promotes the idea of “new” labor unions that would actually benefit their members. These unions would be based in respect for their contracts with the employing companies.  They would, “have legitimate objects, they are managed with some regard for business principles, with a sense of responsibility to the public, and with a decent respect for law and order” (Article). In addition, these unions would mark a new century that would be a brighter era for both workers and their employers. The union would work with the employers to make sure that mutual interests were protected, instead of simply making demands to the companies.  These unions would benefit the general mass of workers rather than a select few, in turn making the community prosperous. Additionally, it shows how the public perceived union strikes at the time as a nuisance and harmful to society. It is also important to note that the New York Times, while becoming more independent and analytical during the 1890s, was historically a Republican-leaning paper. Republicans at the time generally supported business and promoted policies that sustained the fast growth of industries. (“The Old”).

This editorial highlights the desire for brotherhood during the 1890s. While creating a fraternalistic work environment was one of the goals of the Pullman strike, the workers pursued the wrong means in achieving their goal. The belief of the author and many others that unions had to be built out of mutual respect and interest became extremely important for later labor unions. Unions such as the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the Brotherhood of Trainmen gained popularity after the Pullman strike. As their names suggest, these unions valued brotherhood and used less “wild” tactics to attain their goals. The labor unions of the 1890s desired better conditions and wages, but also a seat at the table with their employers.


“11,500 Employees Strike At a Major G.M. Factory”

 On September 27, 1994, about 11,500 workers at a General Motors manufacturing complex in Flint, Michigan walked off their jobs. The auto union cited the strain of overtime work as the reason for the strike, with the union-led protest asserting that the strain of keeping up with a robust demand for cars was ruining worker’s health. The union demanded that the auto maker hire more full-time workers to reduce the number of overtime hours that union members are working, stating that the extra work caused repetitive stress injuries. The strike was just one in a series of local labor struggles at General Motors. G.M.was forced to reduce its blue-collar headcount by twenty-four percent since the end of 1990, believing “that the automaker would improve its lagging productivity and profitability by reducing the number of workers it uses to build vehicles.” (Article). These efforts ultimately did not help the company, with its productivity continuing to lag behind that of its domestic and Japanese competitors. (Doron).

The local union was entitled to strike over health and safety issues, work force levels, and the diversion of work to outside, nonunion suppliers. During the summer of 1994, G.M. hired temporary workers to relieve the overtime pressure. However, the union objected that temporary workers were a divisive presence because they were paid far less and received no health or pension benefits. Additionally, G.M. offered incentives to laid-off workers from other parts of the country to move to Flint and work there. (Doron).

The G.M. strike helps to illuminate the issues workers in the 1990s faced. Similar to the 1890s, the introduction of new technology and economic structures revolutionized the workforce. Believing that “new technology was increasing the pace of growth in productivity,” companies sought to become more successful no matter the consequences, particularly to their workers. (Hodgson, 95). Companies declared that increased productivity would benefit everyone, that a rising tide lifts all boats. In reality, however, only those controlling the means of production benefited, while those actually producing fell victim to new innovations and inequality rapidly grew. (Hodgson, 103).

Additionally, workers in the 1990s held a fear of losing their jobs to overseas manufacturers. The 1990s saw a focus on brand-names, and companies aimed at building superbrands. These superbrands, however, were extraordinarily expensive to create, causing companies to seek ways of cutting labor costs. The manner in which companies accomplished this was through out-sourcing production overseas where it was cheaper to manufacture products. Plants throughout the United States began to close as jobs were eliminated and sent overseas. (Klein). This flight of jobs became a major focus for the American workforce during the 1990s and illustrated the problem that workers faced.


U.A.W. Local 651 workers walk from the Delphi East complex along Averill Avenue in Flint, Mich. as they strike on Thursday June 11, 1998.

The image of the G.M. workers on strike displays the importance of labor unions in the 1990s and the support between the workers. It also depicts the diverse group that was affected by the new “innovations” of the 1990s: the employees on strike vary by gender, race, and age. This diverse groups of workers and the size of the union on strike exemplifies the role labor unions played in protecting the workforce in the 1990s.


“Labor’s Opportunity”

In a 1995 editorial for The Washington Post, an opportunity for the revival of labor unions is discussed. The author examines the issues unions are facing, most importantly the enormous erosion of membership and power of the unions. Fewer than one out of six Americans in the 1990s belonged to a union. However, the author believes that the election of John J. Sweeney as president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations is a sign of optimism for labor unions, “organized labor may now have a historic opportunity before it, although it similarly violates the common wisdom even to hint it” (“Labor’s Opportunity”).

Sweeney, a champion of human rights, promised to invest new money and energy into organizing labor unions and use more confrontational tactics than recently used by unions. Sweeney was able to recruit members that were considered the most difficult to reach, largely increasing the size of labor unions. In addition to Sweeney, the challenges facing the workforce at the time contributed to this new sense of opportunity for unions. Waves of layoffs and corporate downsizing forced workers to realize that they were more vulnerable than they thought. Instilling a sense of solidarity in workers, this circumstances created a new appeal in the idea of collective action to preserve some balance in the market for labor. (“Labor’s Opportunity”).

 This editorial highlights the anxiety and fears that workers faced in the 1990s. During the 1980s, organized labor was damaged by union-busting and shrinking membership, however, the conditions of the 1990s made the revival of labor unions a necessity. A solidarity was formed between workers, allowing for labor unions to strengthen. (Holusha). Job security became a main grievance of the labor unions and one of the biggest motivating factors in becoming a union member. The unions sought to protect current employment levels while companies looked for lower-cost outside suppliers. The 1990s revitalization of labor unions illustrated the power workers had in numbers and their desire for more rights.


 Additional Sources:

Jonathan Bassett, “The Pullman Strike of 1894,” OAH Magazine of History, vol. 11, no. 2, 1997, pp. 34–41.

Doron P. Levin, “11,500 Employees Strike at a Major G.M. Factory,” New York Times, Sep 28, 1994.

John Holusha, “Unions are Expanding their Role to Survive in the 90s,” The New York Times, Aug. 19, 1990.

“Labor’s Opportunity,” The Washington Post, Oct. 27, 1995.

“Labor’s Rights and Wrongs,” New York Times, Sep 28, 1894.

Walter Nelles, “Commonwealth v. Hunt,” Columbia Law Review 32.7 (1932).

 “The Old and the New Labor Unions,” New York Times, July 8, 1894.


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