During the four decades between the opening of the Civil War and the close of the nineteenth century, the United States became in many respects an economic unit. The passage of the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887, for instance, was an early recognition of the fact that the transportation problem of the nation transcended state bounds; the Sherman Anti-trust law of 1890 arose from the realization that commercial and industrial unity were rapidly coming to pass; the American Federation of Labor brought workmen from all states and many trades into a single organization. The election of 1896 and the amazing consolidation of business enterprises at the close of the century were further proofs that the day had passed when any section of the United States could live an isolated economic life without relation to other parts of the country. Instead of remaining a federation of diverse economic sections, we became increasingly homogeneous. Much of the economic and political legislation enacted after 1896, and many of the practices and standards which were adopted by leaders in economic and political life were an outgrowth of the new conditions.

It will be remembered that the eighties and early nineties had been years of labor unrest. Costly and bitter strikes on the part of the workmen, and resolute and powerful resistance on the part of the employers were the commonplaces of the history of labor. The culmination was the Pullman strike of 1894.[1] Its cost in money and suffering was appalling; it placed the federal military power in the hands of the employers; and although it was a failure as far as the strikers were concerned, yet an impartial investigation after the struggle was over established the justice of much of which the men had complained. If discriminating justice were to be measured out to both sides, instead of victory to the side of the strongest battalions, and if intolerable waste and discomfort were to be avoided, some remedies for industrial unrest must be discovered which would replace strikes and violence. Happily, signs were not wanting that such a change was slowly taking place.

A combination of influences tended to place the labor problem on a new footing after 1896. One of the most important of these forces was the American Federation of Labor which greatly increased its size and activities, especially about the opening of the new century, growing from 950,000 members in 1901 to 4,302,148 in April, 1920. Its president, Samuel Gompers, is an able, resourceful leader, who has remained in control from 1882 to the present (1920), with the single exception of the year 1895, so that the organization has had the benefit of experienced leadership and continuity of purpose. Although a radical, socialistic element broke away in 1905 and formed the Industrial Workers of the World, yet the defection was not immediately serious and in general schisms have been avoided. Several other labor organizations, although unconnected with the Federation exerted a strong influence; in particular the brotherhoods of railway employees, by frequent threats to strike and thereby tie up the transportation system, aided in bringing the demands of labor to public notice.

Moreover, after 1896 and especially after the coal strike of 1902 there was an increasing recognition on the part of the public that a labor problem existed and that it must be solved in some way other than by force of arms. Physicians and scientific experts called attention to the lack of proper care for the health of workmen in dangerous industries; the movement for the preservation of the forests and mineral supplies emphasized the need of efforts for the conservation of human lives; social reformers, economists, writers and educators upheld the needs and rights of the neglected classes; and the press and the muck-rake periodicals found it profitable to expose extreme abuses. Distress that had hitherto been unnoticed or disregarded became important, and remedies were demanded. Change was in the air, and not alone in America, for England and France were experiencing the same problems, and attempting to devise new expedients to solve them. After the beginning of the new century, also, the employing class came to a better realization of the existence of the labor problem and sought solutions in ways that must be mentioned later.[2] There was a more widespread acceptance of the principle of trade agreements, whereby the employer and the men determined the conditions of labor by means of direct negotiations.

Although it had been the policy of the American Federation of Labor to keep out of politics, it was almost inevitable that the policy should receive some modifications. Organizations of employers were influential at Washington, and had long been so. Accordingly in 1908 the Democratic platform was endorsed on account of its labor planks, and again in 1910 and 1912. By the latter year all parties were earnestly striving to capture the labor vote, and in particular the Democratic and Progressive platforms embodied most of what the wage earner had been demanding for the previous generation.