Management vs Unions: Responses to Unionization in the Industrial Revolution

Management Fights The Unions

Management Fights The Unions: How did management respond to the efforts of workers to form unions during the industrial revolution?


The Industrial Revolution, spanning from the late 18th century to the early 20th century, marked a transformative period in human history. Technological innovations and industrial growth rapidly changed the societal landscape, giving rise to urban centers, advanced transportation systems, and an increasing dependence on factory-based production. This economic metamorphosis, while bringing about tremendous growth and wealth, also fostered a new set of challenges for the working class. As they shifted from agrarian lifestyles to factory-based work, they faced longer hours, unsafe conditions, and a life largely dictated by the factory whistle.

These harsh working conditions naturally spurred unrest among the workers, prompting many to seek solace and strength in numbers. The formation of unions emerged as a beacon of hope for these workers, offering a platform to negotiate for better wages, improved working conditions, and more humane treatment. However, this did not sit well with factory owners and management. To them, unions posed a direct threat to their authority, profitability, and the established order of things. This essay delves into the multifaceted responses of management to the unionization efforts of workers during the Industrial Revolution.


At the heart of the conflict between management and workers lay the basic concept of a union. Unions, by definition, are organized groups of workers who unite to make decisions about conditions affecting their work. Their primary aim is to ensure that workers receive fair wages, work reasonable hours, and operate in safe conditions. However, during the Industrial Revolution, the establishment and recognition of unions were anything but straightforward.

The onset of the Industrial Revolution saw a massive influx of workers into urban areas, lured by the promise of steady employment in the newly erected factories. But the reality they encountered was grim. Workers, including children as young as five or six, were subjected to grueling 12-14 hour workdays. They operated dangerous machinery, often with little to no safety measures in place. Wages were meager, and any attempt to protest could result in immediate dismissal. Such circumstances were rife across industries, be it textiles, coal mines, or steel production.

Despite the adversity, early signs of collective worker movements began to surface. Key figures, like Samuel Gompers and Terence Powderly, championed the cause of the working class, leading to the establishment of early union movements such as the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor (AFL). These organizations, albeit fragmented in their initial stages, represented the growing consciousness and solidarity among workers. They sought to negotiate directly with employers, pushing for tangible improvements in their work lives. However, as unions gained momentum, they were met with significant resistance from management, setting the stage for a series of intense conflicts.

Management’s Motivations for Resistance

Understanding the fervent resistance of management to the formation and rise of unions requires delving into their motivations. The reasons for this resistance were multifaceted and rooted in both economic and ideological concerns.

From an economic perspective, the primary concern for management was control over labor costs. The factory system, with its reliance on mass production and efficiency, operated on thin margins. Any increase in wages or reduction in working hours, often championed by unions, directly impacted profitability. By resisting unions, management sought to maintain the status quo, ensuring that labor remained cheap and malleable.

Beyond economic reasons, the resistance was deeply rooted in a desire to maintain control and authority. The very essence of unionization threatened to disrupt the traditional hierarchy within factories. Management, accustomed to unilateral decision-making, viewed unions as a direct challenge to their authority. The prospect of workers having a voice in decisions, be it related to working conditions, hours, or wages, was anathema to many factory owners.

Lastly, there existed an ideological battle. The capitalist ethos of the time, especially in the United States, emphasized the sanctity of private property and the rights of owners. Many industrialists genuinely believed in the unfettered right of capital and viewed any external interference, including by unions, as an infringement on this right. This ideological stance provided a moral justification for their resistance and often portrayed union activities as fundamentally un-American or even subversive.

Tactics Employed by Management

Equipped with motivations to resist, management employed a myriad of tactics to suppress union activities. These tactics ranged from economic pressures to brute force, each designed to weaken and ultimately dismantle union influence.

Economic Retaliation: One of the most immediate tactics was economic retaliation against union supporters. Workers known to be involved in union activities were often laid off or faced wage cuts. Moreover, blacklisting was common; workers identified as union sympathizers could find themselves unable to get employment in entire industries, effectively crippling their livelihoods.

Use of Force and Violence: As union activities became more pronounced, confrontations became inevitable. Management often resorted to hiring private security agencies, most notably the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, to break strikes and intimidate workers. This occasionally resulted in violent confrontations, with the Homestead Strike of 1892 and the Pullman Strike of 1894 serving as stark examples of the lengths to which management would go to quash union activities.

Legal Measures and Court Injunctions: Management often leveraged the legal system against unions. By lobbying for anti-union legislation and using courts to declare strikes illegal, they weaponized the law to hinder union activities. Court injunctions were frequently used to halt strikes, and union leaders could be arrested under various pretexts.

Propaganda and Public Relations: The battle was not just on the factory floor but also in the realm of public opinion. Management, with its considerable resources, undertook campaigns to portray unions as un-American, socialist, or even anarchist threats. Newspapers, often sympathetic or even owned by industrialists, played a crucial role in this propaganda war, painting union activists as troublemakers or radicals, intent on disrupting societal order.

These tactics, while varied, had a singular aim: to preserve the power dynamics of the time and ensure that the nascent labor movement could be controlled or, if necessary, crushed.

Government’s Role in the Management-Union Conflict

The relationship between the government, management, and unions during the Industrial Revolution was intricate and often fraught with tension. While the U.S. government, in theory, was a neutral entity, its actions during this period frequently tilted in favor of management.

One of the primary reasons for the government’s early bias was its vested interest in ensuring economic growth and stability. Disruptions, especially those caused by strikes or labor unrest, were viewed as detrimental to the national economy. As such, the government often acted to preserve the status quo, which frequently meant siding with management.

Several incidents underscore the government’s role in this conflict. The Haymarket Affair of 1886, where a peaceful rally in support of striking workers ended in a bomb being thrown at the police, resulted in a violent crackdown on union activists. Similarly, the aforementioned Pullman Strike saw the federal government dispatch troops to break the strike, asserting that the strike interfered with the delivery of U.S. mail — a clear instance where the government’s intervention directly supported management’s interests.

However, it would be an oversimplification to label the government as entirely anti-union. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a gradual shift in governmental stance. As public opinion began to recognize the legitimate grievances of workers and the often-brutal suppression tactics of management, legislative changes followed. The introduction of the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890, although primarily aimed at curbing monopolies, was also used to limit corporate actions against unions. Further, the early 20th century saw more progressive labor laws, laying the groundwork for a more balanced relationship between management and unions.

The Turning Tide: Gradual Recognition of Unions

Despite the concerted efforts of management and often the government to suppress them, unions began to gain traction as the 20th century approached. The continuous struggles and sacrifices of workers, coupled with changing public sentiment, began to alter the landscape of labor relations in America.

The 1930s marked a significant turning point. The Wagner Act, officially known as the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, was groundbreaking legislation. It not only guaranteed workers the right to join unions without facing retaliation but also obligated employers to negotiate in good faith with these unions. This act led to the establishment of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a federal entity tasked with ensuring the rights of workers to unionize and collectively bargain.

Public opinion, shaped by the stark realities of the Great Depression and influenced by visible labor struggles, also began to shift in favor of unions. The violent confrontations of the past, often widely reported and sometimes sensationalized in the press, had begun to sway public sympathy towards the plight of the average worker. This change in public sentiment was instrumental in the rise and consolidation of union power during the mid-20th century.

While the road to recognition was marred with challenges, the persistence of the labor movement eventually bore fruit. The collective actions of workers, under the umbrella of unions, transformed not only their immediate working conditions but also set the stage for modern labor relations in the United States.


The story of unions and their struggle against management during the Industrial Revolution is a testament to the enduring human spirit and the pursuit of justice. Workers, faced with insurmountable odds, sought to band together, challenging the entrenched power structures of their time. Management’s resistance, fueled by economic, ideological, and authority concerns, was fierce and often brutal. Yet, the determination of the working class could not be quelled indefinitely.

While the battle was arduous, the legacy of these struggles is evident in the labor relations and rights we witness today. The recognition and establishment of unions during the Industrial Revolution paved the way for a more equitable relationship between workers and employers. The challenges and confrontations of the past serve as poignant reminders of the lengths individuals will go to secure their rights and dignity.

In understanding this history, we gain insights into the nature of power, resistance, and change. The narrative underscores the importance of collective action and solidarity, values that remain relevant in addressing the labor challenges of the 21st century. As we reflect on the past, it becomes clear that the journey of workers, from the grim factories of the Industrial Revolution to the modern workplaces of today, is a beacon of hope, showcasing that with persistence, even the most entrenched systems can be reformed and improved.

A Professor’s POV: How did management respond to the efforts of workers to form unions?

The terrible conditions faced by industrial workers during the gilded age resulted in the call for the creation of unions. These efforts, however, were strongly, and often violently opposed by management.

Workers efforts to form unions were strongly and often violently opposed by management. Factory owners used a variety of methods such as:

1. Firing union organizers.

2. Placing union organizers on what was known as a blacklist. The blacklist was circulated and those on it would not be hired by other factory owners. The blacklist was eventually made illegal.

3. New hires were forced to sign a yellow dog contract. The yellow dog contract made a new employees promise he would never join a union as a term of employment. This was also eventually made illegal .

4. Factory owners where granted injunctions by the courts. An injunction is a court order barring a certain activity. If the court granted an injunction against a unions activities then the union had to stop that activity.

The courts used the Sherman Anti Trust Act which made illegal any “conspiracy in restraint of trade” to justify the injunctions. While the Sherman Act was not written with this use in mind the courts who sympathized with management interpreted unions to be a “conspiracy in restraint of trade.”

5. Striking workers where often fired and replaced with scabs.

6. The police and hired thugs would use violence to break up strikes and union rallies. In the Great Railroad Strike 26 workers where killed. Most strikers were fired and wages were eventually restored.

Perhaps the most telling event was the Haymarket Square Riot. The Haymarket Square Riot was confrontation between police and protesters that took place on May 4, 1886, in Haymarket Square in
Chicago. A strike was in progress at the McCormick reaper works in
Chicago, and on the previous day several men had been shot by the
police during a riot at the plant. A meeting was called at Haymarket
Square on May 4 as a protest against police violence by a group of
mainly German-born anarchist workers living in Chicago. The police
attempted to disperse the meeting, and in the ensuing riot a bomb was
thrown, which triggered another gun battle. Seven policemen were killed and many injured; so were many civilians. Eight anarchists
attending the meeting were arrested and charged with being accessories to the crime, on the ground that they had publicly and
frequently advocated such violence. They were tried and found guilty
on a variety of charges (the identity of the bomb thrower was never discovered); seven were sentenced to death and one to imprisonment. Eventually four were hanged, one committed suicide, the sentence of two was commuted to life imprisonment, and one received a 15-year term. In 1893 the three in prison were pardoned by the governor of Illinois, John Peter Altgeld, mainly on the ground that no evidence had been presented actually connecting the defendants with the throwing of the bomb.