Transnational Research Associates

Final Version

Labor Strikes Early in the Twentieth Century

Art Madsen, M.Ed.

I. Introduction

It is thoroughly amazing to the foreign observer that the labor history of the United States reflects more turbulence and violence than that experienced in the combined histories of several of the world’s major industrialized nations. (Bain, 1981, xii). The American Republic was born out of such altruism and aspiration, out of such zeal and enthusiasm for high standards and moral rectitude that it is difficult to conceive of the turmoil, bloodshed, disruption and disharmony that have characterized, for over 200 years, industrial relations in this country.

Because of the breadth of this topic, the present report will focus, however, only on the period extending from the founding of the Brotherhood of Teamsters in 1900 to the Ford Motor Strike of 1940, and the beginning of World War II (Craft and Peck, 1998, 478). During these four decades, alone, there were labor-related massacres, explosions, lock-outs, riots, murders of workers’ children, and parade bombings sufficient to fill entire volumes of analysis. The policies and procedures for resolution of these reprehensible actions were obviously never truly effective, either during the 40-year span under consideration, or thereafter. Several of these confrontations, along with their ultimate means of settlement, will be analyzed in support of this paper’s contention that The United States, at the turn of the century, underwent more than its fair share of industrial turmoil.

In spite of this unrest, certain arbitration techniques, labor laws, early collective bargaining procedures and related legislation were developed and enacted to attempt restoration of order and tranquillity to labor/management relations in most of the nation’s major industrial sectors. These measures and policies, largely related to fledgling mediation and arbitration efforts (precursors of formal collective bargaining as we know it today), will also be examined, within the context of specific cases, in light of their varying degrees of effectiveness during these early years.

II. The Social and Historical Context of Early Strike Activity

Simplistically phrased, a strike is an organized work stoppage by workers who are dissatisfied with employment conditions. Yet, beneath the surface of this naïve definition, there lies a major and on-going battle for power and control of the means of production (Edwards, 1981, xv). While the average worker at the turn of last century was perhaps only subconsciously aware of the broader reasons for his strike action, union leadership was almost invariably engaged in a power-struggle with company management. These battles were clearly motivated by political and economic realities.

In support of this notion, it is crucial to note that significant developments, preceding the period under study, such as the founding of the Socialist Labor Party (1878) and the Revolutionary Socialist Labor Party (1881), cannot be ignored in analyzing what truly occurred in the 1900 timeframe. Related to the foregoing political movements, the Socialist Party of America was founded within the period under analysis (1901) and launched a major series of wage-equalization strikes and demonstrations in sympathy with on-going industrial disputes. (Cordova, 1999)

Indeed, conditions were in such a state of evolution during this period that, in the very year of President Taft’s election, 1908, the Supreme Court, in Muller v. Oregon, struck down a state law limiting the working hours of women, declaring it unconstitutional. If women’s right-to-work legislation was in foment, general strikes were not necessarily guaranteed as ‘rights’ either. Most strikes, walk-outs and industrial slow-downs were considered ‘conspiracies’ and, after the Pullman Strike of 1894 and 1895, only railroad workers had won the privilege, under the Erdman Act of 1898, to engage in mediation and arbitration if unrest threatened (Filippelli, 1990, 217, 429).

Incidentally, the Pullman Railroad workers, in spite of the "after-thought" of the Erdman Act, had been essentially crushed into submission by Federal Troops ordered to the scene in Illinois by President Cleveland. This Act, of course, did not apply to other industrial sectors, and much violence was to occur because of the narrow application of such preventive legislation.

Two years subsequent to creation of the Teamster Brotherhood, a major Teamster strike action occurred in Chicago (1902). In other sectors as well, unions were instrumental in championing and defending the rights of their members, at least on the surface, and, not infrequently, major amounts of capital were lost, and considerable social disruption, upheaval and tragedy occurred, during these industrial actions and disputes (Chamberlain, 1954, passim).

III. Specific Large-Scale Strikes and Their Methods of Settlement

The massive scale of these disruptions cannot be ignored. More than 100,000 anthracite coal miners in Northeast Pennsylvania, for example, went on strike in 1902, closing all mining operations for most of the summer and in the autumn (Unionweb, 1981, 6). Instead of settling this strike with violence, as had been the practice under earlier Administrations, President Theodore Roosevelt set up a mediation and arbitration committee. His insight and understanding of labor-management dynamics were commendable, and within five days of the opening negotiating session, the workers had returned to their jobs. In spite of this relatively successful settlement, however, massive sums of capital had been lost, on a tremendous scale, during the many months of strike activity. The Presidential Mediation settlement, a 10% wage increase, could also be construed as a loss from management’s point of view, although the nation’s economy seemed able to absorb the shock of such a wage hike. (Unionweb, 1981, 6)

It is curious that the labor history of the United States is characterized by a patchwork of mediated settlements, although relatively few, and by many violent confrontations requiring National Guard or Federal Troop intervention (Filippelli, 1990, xiii). Since the violent clashes seemed to be the rule rather than the exception, let us examine one significant event and briefly review its implications for the concepts of arbitration and mediation within the context of its time.

In 1912, there was another massive labor dispute that unsettled a large industrial community in Massachusetts. More than 50,000 textile workers in Lawrence mass launched a strike action to protest a wage roll-back of 3.5%. They were whipped into a frenzy by a radical offshoot union known as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). There were speeches and demonstrations that resulted in attacks on workers, women and children by police and state militia elements. Workers’ children began to leave the town under the protection of union sympathizers in other less troubled areas. This further outraged the police who forcibly restrained women and children at the train station. The end result was that textile mill managers were forced to meet worker-demands restoring regular working hours, original wages, and even increasing them. (Unionweb, 1981, 7)

In this instance, violence, although clearly unsavory and injurious to thousands of persons, resulted in a wage and benefit settlement acceptable to the workers. The initial 3.5% roll-back, enacted by management, was surely not worth the risk of such a massive strike; but management of the Lawrence textile mills did not seem to understand the dynamics of worker protest, or the potential economic costs involved, until it was far too late.

IV. Analytical Thinking: Contemporaneous and Retrospective

It is quite astonishing that, given the literature available in this era, and in light of the extensive history of labor relations in the United States prior to 1912, conditions spiraled out of control as they did. It goes without confirming that the number of strike actions and disputes in the New England textile industry alone was enormous.

There were certain indicators that allow analysts today to review events retroactively. Among these signs of impending unrest are such factors as the stability of worker jobs, the inflation rate at the time, and the prevailing parameters of the labor market. It became apparent, for example, that "casual laborers were more radical than employees with permanent jobs", according to Weinhauer, (1997, abstract).

Additionally, the violence level of strikes can be demonstrated to increase as social conditions decrease, almost in an inverse proportional sense (Ghorayashi, 1990, xxiv, xxv). In effect, the whole history of syndicalism is tied to some recognizable parameters that are reflected in the literature. The types and attitudes of unions are determined by sociological factors, constantly shifting, and by the well-recognized characteristics of human behavior. The actions of these unions, in relation to management’s ‘re-actions’, are tied to the adversarial concepts of strength, determination and power. Craft and Peck (1998) refer to some of these interactive features in their insightful analysis of the profiles of prominent American labor unions and syndicates. Their histories of specific unions incorporate insightful glances into interactive dynamics, such as within the IATSE, a stage employees and motion picture operators union founded in 1893 and reorganized in 1937 (Craft and Peck, 1998, 343). Naturally, many of the ideas presented in more modern volumes dealing with labor relations do not concentrate on the precise atmosphere or stage of development in this field during the 1900 to 1940 timeframe. In fact, the broadly conceived types of reference works, such as Gifford (1996) and Jacobs (1999) constitute useful, comprehensive overviews of the development of labor unions and syndicates from the 1800s to modern times, necessarily passing through the phase under discussion for our purposes herein.

Reference volumes aside, the actual events tend to speak eloquently for themselves and betray the conceptual paradigms and approaches of private industry and government to cope with repeated waves of labor discontent. It can be validly asserted that there were not sufficient attempts at mediation in many of the strikes, and that violence ruled over any company undergoing labor unrest. Glancing back over the compendious University of Texas (Cordova, 1999, 7-9) compilation of strikes during the 1900-1916 period, for example, we see more than sixty (60) strikes, explosions, riots, massacres, fights and lock-outs. Counting farther toward World War Two, hundreds more are recorded. Most of this violence was not settled by mediation, but rather by force, militarism and armed intervention. There were falsified murder charges, the actual killing of children (as in the Ludlow Massacre of 1914), and rigged judicial proceedings (Fink, 1977, 230). Only gradually, did a semblance of justice, through arbitration, mediation and collective bargaining, eventually emerge from this unpleasant and even disturbing historical scenario. Major auto manufacturers, such as Ford (i.e. Ford Motor Strike of 1940) were instrumental in bringing about more rapid progress than might have otherwise occurred.

Instrumental, as well, were the early champions of trade unionism, such as Samuel Gompers (co-founder of the ILO) who died in 1924, but who left a successor, William Green. Green was a gentleman open-minded enough to understand the value of attempting to avoid physical violence as a repetitive solution to the nation’s labor/management woes (Unionweb, 1981, 10). John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers must be mentioned as figuring among the most prominent of organizers, as well. He formally created the CIO (Committee for Industrial Organization) and helped restructure trade unions so as to prepare them for more peaceful methods of conflict resolution (op. cit., 12).

Unions were almost invariably behind the initiation of strikes in the 1930 timeframe, according to Edwards (1981, 138) and Ross (1960, passim). But they did not always move toward settling them peacefully. Both sides became entrenched bitterly. In fact, the more strike activity that a firm had to endure, the more militant the employer became, as his profits fell and his productivity suffered. These types of observations are discussed meaningfully in Wheeler's Industrial Conflict: An Integrative Theory (1985) in which many of the permutations of labor dynamics, forged in the crucible of the 20s and 30s, are shown to form a synthesized labor "conflict theory". Wheeler’s text is still considered instructive today, due to its all-encompassing grasp of the elements of labor/management strife.

V. Moving Toward Resolution through Mediation

There were some unions, it is important to note, that were less openly vociferous than those causing violent social upheaval. But, often, they reflected the more "acceptable" pattern of internal corruption, as in the case of the IATSE extortion racket run by George Browne in the 1934 timeframe (Craft and Peck, 1998, 343). Eventually, these minor ripples in the union movement were smoothed out; but, it is generally acknowledged, that this did not occur before 1940.

It can be tentatively postulated, during the 1900 –1940 period, that, if:

then mediation, arbitration and the early seeds of collective bargaining initiatives were usually impeded. It would seem accurate to state that it was only after violent confrontation and internal corruption were eliminated that effective progress toward mediated settlements could be made.

Once labor legislation was promulgated in the 1900 to 1940 period, thus improving working hours (Adamson Act 1916) or working standards (Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938) across broad swaths of the American workforce, discernible and permanent movement toward the next stage of development could be ensured (Cordova, 1999).

North of the U.S. Border in Canada, and in other commonwealth nations, early in the century, similar strides were being made in labor-management relations; these mediation/arbitration innovations brought from abroad, into the U.S., were sometimes assimilated (Quinlan and Gardner, 1995, 175-208).

The American government did not stand idly by waiting patiently to achieve social tranquillity conducive to mediation. They started with Sacco and Vanzetti, in 1927, labor activists, accused of a wide range of poorly proven crimes, who were executed (Cordova, 1999, 11). And, then, the government moved forward with similar actions especially toward the 1930 – 1940 period. Federal Agencies, such as the FBI began to investigate the backgrounds, not only of Communists and Socialists, but of certain agitators who created unusual disturbances in the normal pattern of industrial and labor relations. For example, the FBI launched an enquiry concerning an IWW editor named Carlo Tresca, in 1922, and followed his activities carefully until 1943. He seems to have instigated and organized many of the more violent confrontations, by fomenting trouble where mediation may have otherwise worked (U.S. Dept. of State, 1999). It is arguable whether the FBI acted correctly in this matter; but workers and company officials are both entitled to protection of their respective interests from individuals such as Tresca, later murdered under mysterious circumstances (op. cit.)

Gradually, arbitration commissions began to replace, in most instances, the violence and strong-arm tactics previously used to settle turn-of-the-century strikes. The hundreds of disputes, walk-outs, lock-outs, and confrontations recorded in the literature began, after 1938, to move toward a judicially sanctioned pattern of arbitration. But progress is uneven and sporadic. Certain states, such as Texas, seem to have made more progress in planning and achieving peaceful settlements of strikes in most economic sectors (Armadillo, HISD, 2000, passim), while others lapsed back into earlier patterns of strife and force. By 1940, observers feel that there was uneven development of strike resolution methods and approaches throughout the country.

VI. Conclusion

Because of the highly inflammatory issues at stake in many of this nation’s early 20th Century labor disputes, there were clearly no easy solutions. The history of labor revolt in this country seems disturbingly destructive, having created human hardship and economic turmoil on a large geographic and social scale. By modern standards, it can be posited that comparatively little progress was made between 1900 and 1940 on the arbitration front, although important labor legislation was enacted, as described earlier. During the First World War, as confirmed by Unionweb (1981, 9), strides were made in peaceful and steady union development. Workers generally respected their leadership during the war years. Thereafter, things began to deteriorate once again, with a resurgence of violence and disunity.

Collective bargaining, in an unrefined mode, was introduced only sporadically as a solution, even as early as 1919 (U.S. Steel), but never ‘caught on’ until well after World War II as a tool for resolving the many destabilizing strike actions that characterized the early Twentieth Century in the United States.

On balance, it can be validly asserted that the magnitude of labor disharmony in America during this period certainly surpassed that experienced in many industrialized nations, and was indicative of an inability to cope, except through violence and force, with admittedly natural human strivings for profit, power and control. Only later was the United States in a better position to impose ‘law and order’, through mediation and judicial proceedings, in the critical field of industrial relations.


Bain, G., Editor, Preface, Strikes in the United States: 1881-1974, Saint Martin’s Press, New York City, N.Y., 1981.

Chamberlain, N. and Schilling, J. The Impact of Strikes: Their Social and Economic Costs, Greenwood Press Publishers, Westport, Connecticut, 1954.

Cordova, P. " A Labor History Timeline", Labornet, Cross-Border Groups, University of Texas, Austin, 1999.

Craft, D. and Peck, T., Profiles of American Labor Unions, Gale, Detroit, 1998.

Edwards, P., Strikes in the United States: 1881-1974, Saint Martin’s Press, New York City, N.Y., 1981.

Filippelli, R. and Reilly, C. Labor Conflict in the United States, An Encyclopedia, Garland Publishing, New York City, N.Y., 1990.

Fink, G., Labor Unions: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Institutions, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 1977.

Ghorayshi, P., The Sociology of Work: A Critical Annotated Bibliography, Garland Publishing, Inc., New York City, N.Y., 1990.

Gifford, C., Directory of U.S. Labor Organizations, The Bureau of National Affairs, Washington, D.C. 20037, 1986-1987 / 1996.

Jacobs, E., Handbook of U.S. Labor Statistics: Employment, Earnings, Prices, Productivity, and Other Labor Data, Third Edition, Bernan Press, Lanham, Maryland, 1999.

Quinlan, M. and Gardner, M., "Strikes, Worker Protest, and Union Growth in Canada and Australia, 1815-1900: A Comparative Analysis", Labour [Canada], 1995 (36), 175-208.

Ross, A. and Hartman, P., Changing Patterns of Industrial Conflict, Wiley, New York City, N.Y., 1960.

Simon, D., "Strikes and Acts of Civil Disobedience", Labornet, Institute for Global Communications, 2000.

Weinhauer, K.. "Labour Market, Work Mentality and Syndicalism: Dock Labour in the United States and Hamburg, 1900 – 1950", International Review of Social History [Great Britain] 1997, 219-252.

Wheeler, H. Industrial Conflict: An Integrative Theory, University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, S.C. 1985.

…………………"A Short History of American Labor" Adapted from March 1981, AFL-CIO American Federationist

……………….. "Carlo Tresca Entry" FBI Releases New Records of Spying on Americans, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C., 1999.

……………….. "Famous American Strikes", The Texas State Historical Association, Armadillo HISD Server, Austin, 2000