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The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was one of the first federations of labor unions in the United States. It was founded in Columbus, Ohio in December 1886 by an alliance of craft unions disaffected from the Knights of Labor, a national labor association.
In the 1870s, the United States became a leading Industrial power. Advances in technology drove American Industrialization, as did access to the immense and untapped resources of the North American continent. Industrialization brought the growth of new American cities such as Chicago, and the arrival of a flood of immigrants from all over Europe to man the factories.
Impact of the Civil War
The Civil War had transformed the North into one of the most heavily industrialized regions in the world, and during the Gilded Age, businessmen reaped enormous profits from this new economy. Powerful tycoons formed giant trusts to monopolize the production of goods that were in high demand. Andrew Carnegie, for one, built a giant steel empire using vertical integration, a business tactic that increased profits by eliminating middlemen from the production line. Though industrialization caused many long-term positives, it did cause problems in the short-term. Rich farmers who could afford new machinery grew even richer, while poorer farmers were forced to move into urban areas as they could not compete in the agricultural sector.
In 1878 the US had entered a time of success after a long downfall in the mid 1870's. The number of manufacturing plants and number of people doubled. Also, by the 1900's the South had consisted of more than 400 mills. Women and children worked in bad conditions for long periods of time, mostly about 12-16 hours per day . They only made about a half a dollar per day, which was not much in that time.
As industrialization boomed, more job opportunities than ever opened up. Factory line jobs were perfect for women and children, mostly because the factory owners could pay them less. Despite terrible work conditions, increasing numbers of women began to move from purely domestic workers to factory help. Although women now had a part in the workforce, sexual discrimination remained. Women had the opportunity to take some low positions, but virtually no women were trusted with responsibilities such as managing, or even handling money. The factories also took advantage of immigrants and used them as cheap labor. Immigrants from Ireland, Germany and other European countries were considered second class citizens and this was evident in the work place. Immigrants received extremely low wages and no benefits; it was common for a worker to suffer a serious injury and lose his job if he was unable to perform.
Workers adjusted to mechanization as best they could. Some people submitted to the demands of the factory, machine, and time clock. Some tried to blend old ways of working into the new system. Others turned to resistance. Individuals challenged the system by ignoring management's orders, skipping work, or quitting. But also, anxiety over the loss of independence and a desire for better wages, hours, and working conditions drew disgruntled workers into unions.
In the cities, laborers and employers often clashed over wages, sanitary conditions, working hours, benefits, and several other issues. Laborers organized themselves into unions to negotiate with companies. The companies, however, attempted to shut down labor unions. Some imposed yellow dog contracts, under which an employer could dismiss a worker who participated in union activity.
In 1886, the American Federation of Labor was formed to fight for laborers in general. The AFL and other union groups employed as many tactics as possible to force employers to accede to their demands. One tactic was the strike. Some strikes escalated into riots, as with the Knights of Labor's strike in 1886 becoming the Haymarket Riots. The Haymarket Riots of 1886 occurred when an unknown person threw a dynamite bomb into a group of police officers. Eight officers were killed in the explosion and gunfight that ensued. As a result, eight anarchists were tried for murder--four were sentenced to death and one committed suicide.
The companies sometimes retaliated against strikes by suing the unions. Congress had passed the Sherman Antitrust Act to prevent trusts, or corporations that held stock in several different companies, from obstructing the activities of competitors. Though the Sherman Act was intended to target trusts, the companies sued the union under it, claiming that unions obstructed interstate commerce.
Source: Boundless. “The Rise of Big Business.” Boundless U.S. History. Boundless, 21 Jul. 2015. Retrieved 11 Feb. 2016 from https://www.boundless.com/u-s-history/textbooks/boundless-u-s-history-textbook/the-gilded-age-1870-1900-20/the-rise-of-big-business-146/the-rise-of-big-business-770-3246/