On Industrial Revolution and the Knights of Labor

The Industrial Revolution was the socioeconomic and technological period that was characterized by the rise of mechanization and automation of production resulting to the replacement of animal and human effort seen in the agriculture-based economies. It opened jobs to the market which also attracted several ethnic groups to come to America.

Before the industrial revolution, businesses exemplified the Jeffersonian ideals of Life, Liberty, the right to own one’s labor and private property, and the right to own a productive piece of land to safeguard one’s life in the form of artisan-apprentice partnership.

Because the apprentices were trained in the whole process of creating the product, they were eventually expected to create their own businesses, necessary for them to engage in competition. Individualism (self-reliance) and competition were not only for a select few. This crumbled when the industrial period came as the mutual apprentice-artisan relation was substituted with a corporate model where businesses no longer established this close relationship with its workers; where workers were not anymore trained of the whole process of production, thus deskilling them and reducing their worth in the production process; where individualism was defined not in terms of the right to engage in competition and being self-reliant but in terms of the right to agree to a contract of work offered by the big bosses; where competition was no longer made possible for others as goods produced by factories became cheaper than the products delivered by artisans; where private property was defined as productive property afforded only to the economic elite and thus where progress was viewed as made possible because of innovation and expansion of industries of a select economic elite; and where government’s role was reduced to only protecting productive property to allow progress.

These redefinitions adversely affected how laborers were treated in the industries. Since they only contributed to only a small part of the production process, their wage was lower. Because they did not have access to machines that mass produced goods resulting to cheaper prices, they were stuck in the poor working conditions of industries in order to survive. In the garment town of Lawrence, Massachusetts for example, the average male earned 500 dollars a year which was under the poverty line of 700 dollars. In order to be at least along the the poverty line, women had to work, violating the old american mind of separate spheres. At that time, the willingness of the new immigrants to work for a little also contributed to the abuse of power by the economic elite. Thus, speaking up and complaining (becoming self-reliant) on their own during the industrial revolution could not attain the system they all wanted.

In 1873, when the first economic crisis affected America, railroad workers’ wage fell by one-third. This was the time when the workers might have thought “enough is enough”. Because of the low wages and poor working conditions, added with the cuts, the workers in Baltimore and Ohio left their posts on July 16, 1877, inspiring other workers based in Chicago, Buffalo and St. Louis to take similar act of protest, known in History as the Great Strike of 1877.  The effect on national transportation was immense that President Rutherford Hayes had to send two thousand federal troops to support 45,000 state militiamen against strikers. In Baltimore and Pittsburg, they opened fire against strikers that took the lives of 20 and 30 strikes. Hearing the news, strikers in Pittsburg destroyed 2200 railroad cars and burned 80 buildings. After the riots, 80 people were killed and there was 80 million dollars worth of damage to railroad company property. The strikes showed the whole country that railroad workers were not satisfied with their working conditions. Most importantly, it exemplified that a collective effort of all workers could handicap the system. Seeing the immense impact, they were left with another choice: organize themselves and plan courses of action that could influence the decision of the economic elite and the government.

The event gave rise to the Knights of Labor, a radical labor union, that organized both skilled and unskilled workers, men and 60,000 women and all races including African-american workers. They viewed society in terms of class and not on race and gender, knowing that the real conflicts were not based on gender and racial issues anymore. They continually advanced the replacement of the wage system with a cooperative model of shared ownership of productive property, and that ownership of public utilities such as railroad, telegraph and telephone should be owned by the government so that no people should be at the mercy of the industry owners. Their sheer size and aggressive rhetoric began to threaten the big bosses and the conservative industrial system. By organizing themselves under one union, the Knights of Labor reinforced collectivism in the countercultural american mind. Collectivism was further seen in their desire to establish a cooperative economic model that also challenged the conservative american belief on private property. By welcoming all genders and races in the union, they introduced gender and racial equalities in the progressive industrial mind that challenged the old american beliefs of binary race relations and separate spheres. By advancing the formation of a government that acts in unison with the unions and that owns public utilities and mitigator in economic relations, they infused the concept of Big Government.

The Knights of Labor became antecedent to the formation of racial equality, gender equality, collectivism, dissent and big government in the Progressive Industrial American Mind.

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