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Labor Unions

When America shall come to recognize that the gigantic problems arising from the sudden development and concentration of industry, must be solved by the entire people through orderly legislation, then at last will industrial peace be assured. -- Jane Addams, The Progressive Party and Organized Labor, September, 1912.

The industrial revolution brought sweeping changes to the way that Americans worked. After the Civil War, rapid changes in manufacturing processes and machinery created the modern factory system that broke down the tasks once done by a craftsman into smaller, simpler job that could be done by an unskilled laborer. Craftsmen tried to protect their livelihood by forming trade unions, but gradually lost out. Employers squeezed workers, adding hours and quotas, decreasing wages and factory safety. Workers tried to unionize, striking for better pay, shorter hours, and better conditions, but it was an uphill battle because the bosses had the support of the police, the government and the press, who characterized workers as foreign radicals.

Jane Addams stood up for workers and their rights and because of her position in society, her voice was heard. Working out of Hull-House, Addams and other residents supported the founding of the Chicago branch of the Women's Trade Union League and allowed unions to host meetings at Hull-House. Addams used her popularity to defend workers, argue for the need for unions, and to argue that both bosses and workers needed to be heard in order to build a city that could work for all. Opponents argued that unions were corrupt, greedy, and that they exploited American workers just as much as management did. Addams saw unionization as an expression of American democracy and defended the worker's right to unionize as the only way laborers could protect themselves. 

Addams and other reformers at Hull-House also fought to improve working and living conditions. Factory conditions led to poor health for workers, as tuberculosis and chemical poisonings rose, and unsafe equipment casued deaths and injuries. An estimated 35,000 thousand workers died and 500,000 were injured in factories in 1900 alone. Addams fought for government legislation that guaranteed workers protection, required factory inspections, provided a minimum wage, and an eight-hour work day. She also supported additional regulations for women and children's work.

During labor strikes in Chicago, when tempers were hot, Addams stepped in as a diplomatic leader who encouraged both sides to negotiate for peaceful solutions. Addams served as an arbiter duing the famous Pullman Strike of 1894, and unlike many others, spoke with workers to hear their side of things, bringing labor leaders to discussions with the company. During the 1910 Cloak Makers Strike, Addams met with strikers and spoke about the conditions under which they worked.

Hull-House furthered Addams involvement in the labor movement. Located in an immigrant, working class neighborhood, Addams was witness to the effects of poor working conditions, long hours, low wages, and the impact that unemployment, strikes, and lockouts caused for workers' families. 

Primary Sources:

  1. Address to Deering Company Strikers, April 29, 1903 (Excerpt)
  2. Statement on Labor Actions, January 2, 1912
  3. A Modern Lear, November 2, 1912
  4. Jane Addams on Labor and Captal's Themes , January 14, 1905
  5. A National Children's Bureau and a National Investigation of the Labor of Women and Children, December 13, 1906
  6. New Ideals of Peace, April 16, 1907, Public.
  7. The Progressive Party and Organized Labor, September 1912.
  8. Current Legislation for Working Women, September 20, 1912
  9. The Present Crisis in the Trades-Union Morals, August 1904.
  10. Comments on the Teamster's Strike, May 1, 1905 (Excerpt).

Additional Resources:

  1. National Archives, Workplace Rights.
  2. University of Maryland - Unions Making History in America.
  3. Khan Academy - Labor Battles of the Gilded Age
  4. Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy, by Louise W. Knight, Chapter 3.

Suggested subjects:

Addams, Jane, and labor movement

Addams, Jane, views on labor

labor movement

labor unions

labor strikes

working conditions

labor conditions  

People involved with the labor movement

Events involving the labor movement

Organizations involved in the labor movement

Photo credits

(top) The 1910 Chicago Garment Workers' Strike, Wikimedia.

(bottom) "Jane Addams to Strikers," Chicago Daily Tribune, August 11, 1904,