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Fighting For Their Livelihoods — Labor Wars of the 1890s

Fighting For Their Livelihoods — Labor Wars of the 1890s
Print Fighting For Their Livelihoods — Labor Wars of the 1890s Reading Comprehension

Reading Level
     edHelper's suggested reading level:   grades 9 to 12
     Flesch-Kincaid grade level:   8.3

     challenging words:    business-all, business-colluded, employees-paying, fittest, had-refusing, like-measures, obscurity, power-government, power-names, unhindered, forging, mutant, leverage, confrontations, outgunned, arduous
     content words:    Civil War, Andrew Carnegie, John D., James J., Most Americans, Noble Order, Haymarket Riot, McCormick Harvester, Haymarket Square, Samuel Gompers

Fighting For Their Livelihoods — Labor Wars of the 1890s
By Toni Lee Robinson

1     In the 1890s, the U.S. was forging for itself a new identity. The country was growing into a leading industrial nation. In fact, it was rushing headlong toward a future as a major world power. The course of this race wasn't always smooth. Along the way, several of the runners collided. One of the major clashes was between workers and employers.
2     Since the Civil War, the U.S. economy had been steadily shifting. It was no longer a series of self-contained regions relying mainly on agriculture. Instead, the nation was based more and more on large urban industry. Toward the end of the 19th century, especially, the power and wealth of big business had grown like a mutant mushroom. Small ventures had swelled into giant corporations. Many had been wrested from the dust of obscurity through the grit of a single ambitious person. The names of the self-made tycoons rang in the halls of power—names like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, J. P. Morgan, James J. Hill and others. The mines, mills, oil wells, railroads, and factories owned by these men employed millions.
3     For some time, bad blood had been building between big business and the laborers whose sweat greased the wheels of production. Workers wanted better pay and working conditions. When they came together to fight for reform, however, they found legal means blocked. It was rumored that powerful business owners had lawmakers in their pockets. It was one of the reasons these kings of industry and finance were called "robber barons." Another was the business methods of some corporate entities which included monopolies and price fixing. Many were also accused of robbing employees—paying low wages for long, arduous hours. Workers who lived in areas controlled by the large corporations they worked for were often charged exorbitantly for company housing and other commodities.
4     In any case, early labor activists got no help from men in office. Whether the cause was corruption or traditional ways of thinking was sometimes hard to tell. America was based on the principle that capitalism was vital to a healthy, self-governing society. As time passed, the public remained opposed to any official meddling in free enterprise. Labor laws would place restrictions on employers. Such restrictions, people felt, would be a hindrance to free trade. Most Americans agreed with steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie, employer of thousands, admitted that unhindered competition might make life tough for some people. But, he said "it is best for the [human] race, because it ensures the survival of the fittest."
5     As the underdog in the contest, workers showed the only "teeth" they had—refusing to work. By joining together and shutting down production, labor hoped to use the might of its numbers to win concessions from employers. The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor was the first workers' group that had much success. The union sought to bring all workers under its umbrella, skilled, unskilled, craftsmen and laborers from every industry. Its leaders believed that everyone should get a piece of the profit "pie" produced by their hard work. They also saw leisure time as a basic human need. Without it, they said, people couldn't develop as human beings. The group sought specific reforms: work days limited to eight hours, the elimination of child labor, safe, clean workplaces, and the like—measures designed to make working for a living less like slavery.

Paragraphs 6 to 12:
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