Module 5 – The Labor Movement in the United States


From the founding of the United States, labor  – slave and free – was both an economic and a social issue.  White indentured servants worked alongside African slaves. Both sometimes ran away, fleeing the “master” who held their contract (indentured servants) or who had purchased them (slaves). Here are some of the ads placed in newspapers for slaves and indentured servants who ran away:

Indentured servants were required to work off the costs of their passage to America. They were generally freed in seven years – unless they ran away or engaged in other behavior that resulted in having additional time added to their contracts. Some indentured servants came to America willingly; others did not.  But, unlike the African American slaves, white indentured servants would become free.

However, by the 19th century, free white laborers were becoming increasingly conscious of economic inequities. They supplied the hard, manual labor while the owners of factories, mills, railroads, and other industries became wealthy. Here is a timeline of the labor movement (note that this is a union website and presents the history from the perspective of labor):

In the period after the Civil War, as the rich became richer, labor leaders sought to organize. Strikes and protests by labor were often met with force. One such event occurred in Ludlow, Colorado. Here is an overview of what happened from the PBS “American Experience” program about the Rockefellers:

Here is a clip from a documentary featuring Howard Zinn, historian and social activist. “The Ludlow Massacre” is sung by Woody Guthrie:

The Homestead Strike occurred at a steel mill in Pennsylvania:

In 1921, in Albany, Troy, and three other cities in the Capital Region, workers for the local  trolley car company went out on strike:

Women were involved in the labor movement. In New York City, the capital of the garment industry, women workers protested their working conditions. The Triangle Factory Fire brought those conditions to the nation’s attention.  Here is the PBS “American Experience” documentary about the young women who died in that fire:

One of the more controversial strikes in American history involved the 1919 Boston Police. This strike led to a debate that is still going on about whether public employees should have the right to strike.  Governor (later President) Calvin Coolidge said the police had no right to strike and called in the militia. Here is a photograph of Coolidge inspecting the troops:

Suggested Activities

Activity 1:
Discuss the question posed by the Boston Police Strike. Do you think public sector employees such as police officers, air traffic controllers, and teachers should have the right to strike for better working conditions?

Activity 2:
When a strike occurs, men and women who cross the picket line to work while others are striking are often subjected to name calling by the strikers and their supporters. In the past, those who crossed the picket line often included African Americans, who would not normally have been able to get jobs in the factory or mill and who were brought in as “strike breakers”. What do you think about crossing a picket line to take a job?