Session VI — People’s and Worker’s Resistance Movements

The changes in the United States throughout the 19th century were profound and rapid, picking up speed as the decades passed. The industrial revolution changed the nature and pace of both urban and rural livelihoods, and a predominantly independent workforce was converted to a majority of wage earners working for someone else. Capitalism came to dominate the economic system, bringing periodic depressions. Immigrants flooded into the country, creating a complex and constantly shifting hierarchical order that affected who worked and who didn’t, what kind of work they could do, where they could live, and what kind of life they could lead. The country grew rapidly in size, providing opportunity for some and destroying a way of life for others. The Civil War, resisted by thousands on both sides, left over half a million dead, the South on its knees, and corporations with significantly increased wealth and power.

For the majority of people, all these changes added up to a life of increased subservience to the wealthy minority, and they didn’t accept it lying down. Abuse of workers by industrialists was ruthless and rampant; strikes were frequent and often brutally broken by police, Pinkerton’s hired men, and even federal army troops. Increased mechanization, monopolistic practices by banks and railroads, and falling crop prices all conspired to drive hundreds of thousands of farmers off their land and into tenancy or low wage work. By the century’s close there was an enormous gap between the wealthy and the poor. Resistance to these oppressive systems was born of desperation, hope, and a belief in the promise of democracy. Facing injury, death, disease, and starvation, people rose again and again in the largest mass movements in the country’s history.

The readings in this session provide an opportunity to explore this world of resistance — what motivated people, what challenges they faced, what lessons we can learn, and how these events shaped the world we live in today.


1 – Excerpts from Who Built America? by the American Social History Project (7 pages)

2 – Excerpts from the introduction to The Populist Moment, by Lawrence Goodwyn (5 pages)

3 – “Tragedy and Hope in American Labor,” by Paul Buhle (3 pages)

4 – “Labor Must Challenge Corporate Rule,” by Peter Kellman (3 pages)

5 – “A People’s history of the United States,” by Howard Zinn (5 pages)

Note: For those who would like some historical context of the social and economic conditions in the US during the 19th century, an optional five-page reading is available — excerpts from A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn. The unabridged introduction to The Populist Moment is also available. Both optional readings can be found at

Discussion Questions:

1. Discuss the economic and social factors that sparked people’s movements at the end of the 19th century. What philosophies and concepts influenced their actions? How are those ideas expressed today (if at all)?

2. Explore Lawrence Goodwyn’s observations about the difficulties that contemporary people have in understanding the democratic ideals of the last century. What would it take for a democracy movement to happen in the U.S. today?

3. What 20th-century factors have contributed to the current state of unionism? What are the implications of democratic self-governance with the current relationship of labor to management?

4. What would it look like if we didn’t need unions at all — if workers owned the means of production? Would that be more or less democratic than the system we have now?

Supplementary Materials:

A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn. HarperCollins Publishers, 1980 (a twentieth anniversary edition published in 1999).

The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America, by Lawrence Goodwyn. Oxford University Press, 1978.

Who Built America? Working People and the Nation’s Economy, Politics, Culture, and Society, Volume One (Columbus to 1877) and Volume Two (1877 to the Present). Worth Publishers, 2000 (originally published in 1990 and 1992; the 2000 edition is revised and updated.) Each chapter includes print and website references. There is also a CD-ROM. See

Fear at Work: Job Blackmail, Labor, and the Environment, by Richard Kazis and Richard Grossman. Capital City Press (Montpelier, VT), 1991. (This edition contains a new introduction by the authors and a forward by Barry Commoner. Originally published in 1982 by Pilgrim Press.)

History of the Labor Movement in the United States: From Colonial Times to the Founding of the American Federation of Labor, by Philip S. Foner. International Publishers Company, Inc., 1947 (12 volumes).

The Cold War Against Labor, edited by Ann Fagan Ginger and David Christiano. Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute, 1987 (two volumes).

“Freedom of Association: Bringing the Bill of Rights through the Plant Gates,” by Peter Kellman, 1999. Developed to implement a Labor Party resolution on a “Workplace Bill of Rights.” Includes information on rethinking what we mean by workplace rights; practices in other countries; and how the imbalance between corporate and individual/worker rights has evolved in the US. 48 standard 8.5x11 pages; $7.

“Salt of the Earth,” 1954, 94 minutes, black/white. Story of anti-Hispanic racial strife that occurs in a New Mexico zinc mine when union workers organize a strike. Suppressed in the US for 30 years, this controversial film was made by a group of blacklisted filmmakers during the McCarthy era. Directed by Herbert Biberman; starring Rosaura Revueltas, Will Geer, David Wolfe. Good companion film: “One of the Hollywood Ten,” 2000, 109 minutes, color. Tells the story of Biberman’s blacklisting and the subsequent making of the film. Directed by Karl Francis; starring Jeff Goldblum and Greta Scacchi.

“Matewan,” 1987, 130 minutes, color. Dramatization of the famous Matewan massacre in the 1920s, in which coal miners in West Virginia, reluctantly influenced by a young union organizer, rebelled against terrible working conditions. Directed by John Sayles; starring Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, David Straithairn.

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