Heartbreaking Historical Photos From America’s Battle For Fair Working Conditions

Published August 27, 2017
Updated February 27, 2024

These heartbreaking photos from the days before labor unions and labor laws reveal just how hard our forefathers had it.

Labor Unions Bayonets
Lawrence Strike National Guard
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Policemen Arresting Striker
Heartbreaking Historical Photos From America’s Battle For Fair Working Conditions
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The eight-hour workday didn't come easy. It took people who were willing to stand up and fight for it.

It took unions of workers who were ready to face the rifles of militiamen and refuse to go home. It took people who were willing to spill their blood and give their own lives to make the United States a place where a family could get by without sending their children off to work in the factories.

The Fight To End Child Labor

Going to work in the 19th century was a different and far more dangerous experience than it is today. During the industrial revolution, American laborers would work 70 hours a week or more for mere pennies. The little they earned was barely enough to feed a family. And so, to put food on a family's plate, wives and children would be forced to come along to the factory and toil away as well.

These children would work in incredibly dangerous conditions. Typically, one in every four child laborers was injured in the workplace; some getting their fingers caught in the grinding machines or getting burned in an explosion in the depths of a coal mine.

As early as 1832, labor unions across the U.S. started calling for an end to such abuses, demanding that "children should not be allowed to labor in the factories from morning till night" – but it took more than 100 years of strikes and protests before minimum ages of employment became federal law.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

One of the worst labor disasters in U.S. history took place at a clothing factory in New York in 1911. The Triangle shirtwaist factory caught fire, with the workers – some as young as 14 – stuck inside.

To keep them from taking breaks, the managers locked the employees in. The workers, unable to break through the doors, were trapped in the burning building. Some, in desperation, leaped out of the windows. Others stayed and burned. By the time the fire was out, 146 people were dead.

At this point, many decided that they'd had enough. After the fire, labor unions across the city went on strike, demanding their right not to be locked inside their factories.

The Bread And Roses Strike

In Lawrence, Massachusetts, a year after the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire, more workers took a stand. At the time, most employees at the textile mills made 15 cents an hour — not enough to feed a family.

"When we eat meat it seems like a holiday, especially for the children," one worker said. It was no exaggeration: The children in Lawrence were so malnourished that half of them died before they turned seven.

When the factory cut their wages, they stood up and went on strike. Their demands were basic: They wanted to cut their work down to 56 hours a week and earn an extra two pennies each hour.

Still, the governor sent the militia in, armed to the teeth, and let them open fire. Three died, and one of them, 20-year-old John Ramey, was run through with a bayonet while he was trying to run.

The Ludlow Massacre

After Lawrence, coal miners in Ludlow, Colorado, fought back next. The men were dying inside the mines at an alarming rate – their job had twice the fatality rate of other mines in America. Their union demanded an eight-hour workday and that the mine follow Colorado law.

John D. Rockefeller Jr., the mine's owner, sent in a private detective agency to torment the strikers. The strike-breakers burned their camps to the ground and opened fire on the workers with a machine gun, slaughtering some 20 people – including one woman who was reportedly pregnant as well as several children.

It was one of the worst massacres in the history of the struggle for American labor unions – but as the blood washed off the mines and the smoke faded, the people started talking. Congress' Commission on Industrial Relations started campaigning for an eight-hour work week and the end of child labor.

It's an all too often forgotten chapter in American history. But it's how a living wage was won – by men, women, and children in labor unions who spilled their blood to give the next generation a life they could live.

After this look at the history of labor unions, check out these incredible Lewis Hine photos from the era of child labor.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer and teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Oliver, Mark. "Heartbreaking Historical Photos From America’s Battle For Fair Working Conditions." AllThatsInteresting.com, August 27, 2017, https://allthatsinteresting.com/labor-unions-history. Accessed May 21, 2024.