Striking workers picket the company store while scab workers man the copper mines in Ducktown, Tennessee.


In its broadest context, “labor” refers to a very diverse set of conditions: slave and free labor; craft and industrial labor; farm and factory labor; and blue, pink, and white collar labor. Because there are few theses, dissertations, or secondary works on this topic, one might conclude that there was very little labor history in the Volunteer State. Such misconceptions need correction as future historians broaden and amplify this initial narrative and analysis.

Any study of Tennessee labor should focus upon issues of wage, hour, and job security, as well as the right to organize, for these were essential to any worker’s sense of well-being. Would employers or workers ultimately control wages, hours, and job security? Would state and local government policy makers ally themselves with the private sector to diminish workers’ influence on wage and job security or unite with the workers to ensure it? These are among the central questions in the history of Tennessee labor.

The history of wage-earning workers in Tennessee is inevitably one of change, conflict, displacement, routinization, and collectivization. As the numbers of skilled craft and industrial workers grew during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, so did their sense of identity with both work type and work place. Scattered mutual aid and burial insurance associations evolved into local chapters of organized labor unions. Both organized workers and their unorganized brethren attempted to counter the hardships created by the baser aspects of capitalism upon their wages, hours of work, and conditions in the workplace.

While labor organization is generally thought to be a product of the late nineteenth century, wage earners much earlier were both conscious of their shared identity and capable of organizing to foster their goals. For example, in March 1852, Nashville journeymen tailors struck successfully for higher wages. Similarly, in March 1853, iron workers in Nashville struck for a ten-hour day and a six-day work week. The aspirations of Tennessee’s antebellum wage earners for the shorter work day are expressed in a letter published in the Nashville Daily Gazette of March 5, 1853. The shorter work day, it asserts, would give “the working man an opportunity of devoting more of his time to intellectual improvement . . . [and] . . . time for recreation after he has sweated and toiled through the labor of the day.”

One of the earliest struggles in Tennessee to give urban white skilled workers a sense of mutual identity and a reason to organize was the competition for work between free white and black slave construction hands. In the 1830s and 1840s, white Nashville “mechanics” openly challenged the practice of hiring out slave construction workers as unfair competition, but to no significant effect. Truly, free workingmen were not valued in antebellum Tennessee. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the contempt for free labor demonstrated by the state when it opted to use slave and convict labor to build the capitol building. After the Civil War, when former slaves–now free blacks–competed for work, white urban workers retained their former antipathy. It was racism, however, not unfair competition, that nurtured this black-white dichotomy and generally prevented white workers from perceiving common interests with their black wage-earning brothers. For example, in 1892 United Mine Worker organizer W. R. Riley, an African American, reported that only when local white miners needed added strength during a strike did they call for the unity of the races.

Black and white Tennessee wage workers also had to contend with the importation of cheap foreign labor. In 1849 Nashville mechanics challenged the hiring of imported labor by local contractors. Such competition continued to pose a threat to Tennessee’s resident wage-earners.

Many industrial workers in nineteenth-century Tennessee were also forced to compete against a government-sanctioned form of corporate welfare known as “convict leasing.” The state leased prisoners to Tennessee corporations at a lower cost than that free wage-earning workers would demand. As early as 1843 a committee of Greeneville mechanics (including tailor and future president Andrew Johnson) protested that the town board had used convict labor instead of free white workers. Between 1870 and 1900 the convict leasing system predominated in Tennessee mines. There was unavailing resistance to the leasing system as early as 1871, but in July 1891 miners made an effective protest. Some three hundred armed miners surrounded the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company prison compound and forced the forty guards to release the convicts housed there. The miners then escorted the prisoners to Coal Creek, loaded them all aboard a train, and sent them to Knoxville. So began the Great Tennessee Miners’ Rebellion of 1891-92, which ended the convict lease system.

Information on wages is spotty at best; what little there is indicates that the average wage earner in nineteenth-century Tennessee was discernibly underpaid. One report found in the Nashville Union and Dispatch provides a review of prevailing wages in January 1866. Carpenters earned $3.50 per day; brick masons $4.00; house painters $3.00; foundry laborers $2.00; and flour mill hands $1.50. Another rare survey of wages in Nashville for 1896 shows that workers typically toiled ten hours a day, six days a week. Carpenters earned $40 a month; brick masons earned $65 a month; house painters and decorators earned $1.75 a day; and coopers earned $8.50 a week. The highest wage went to bricklayers and steam engine engineers, who earned $65 a month. The presence of retail clerks (1,000) in the survey indicates a shift in the work force in Nashville from manufacturing to retail. A total of 2,950 workers were listed in this labor survey, with trades including printers, hod-carriers, laborers, machinists, brewers, bottle washers, cigar makers, coopers, and barbers.

The strike was the chief recourse against the convict leasing system, the importation of cheap foreign labor, low wages, long hours, and other infringements against wage earners during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But early in our nation’s history, the strike was repugnant and perhaps even treasonable to moneyed Americans. Andrew Jackson, for example, was the first American president to use federal troops to put down a strike of workers in 1834. Trade associations like the National Typographical Union (NTU), which held its fourth annual meeting in Memphis in May 1855, were faced with this antistrike sentiment. NTU delegates from Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston, Louisville, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Nashville, and Memphis passed a resolution in which they declared their reluctance to strike at the same time that they recognized that strikes were sometimes necessary to achieve workers’ rights.

Sporadic strikes continued in Tennessee for the next three decades after the end of the Civil War, but with only marginal results. These were local, single issue strikes for the most part. In August 1885, drivers for the Memphis City Railway Company–a horse-drawn, urban, mass transit service–struck for higher wages. In March 1886, workers at the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad carried out one of the few successful strikes in Memphis. That May one hundred wagon makers working for the Cole Manufacturing Company in Memphis struck.

Several national unions called for work stoppages during the depression of 1893-97. Coal miners in Jellico and Coal Creek struck for higher wages in support of the United Mine Workers in April 1894. As national unions grew in influence, local strikes became a matter of following the directions of the national union.

Strikes, labor unions, and the notion of collective bargaining threatened most Tennessee managers. Conflict over union recognition predominated during the years 1890-1930. Typical were the union recognition strikes called by Nashville theater employees in February 1899, Nashville woodworkers in August 1889, copper miners in Ducktown in September 1899, and coal miners at Coal Creek and Cripple Creek in July 1900. While such strikes demonstrated that organized labor could no longer be discounted, they were not particularly successful at assuring wage earner control of wages, hours, and working conditions.

As Tennessee became more industrialized, local governments touted low wages as a tool to attract businesses to their areas. In their support for management, government officials became increasingly antagonistic to organized labor. In Memphis, from 1910 through the end of the Second World War, Edward H. Crump’s political machine was especially notorious for co-opting local union leaders and sometimes even endorsing violent antiunionism by Memphis city government employees. In East Tennessee, the famous rayon mill strikes at Elizabethton in 1929 illustrated how city and state officials could work closely with local management to impede union activity.

The end of World War I raised expectations for labor movements in Tennessee, but also brought about a growing fear within the general public about labor-related violence. In April 1919, Tennessee Governor Albert Roberts signed into law a bill that created a state police force. This law authorized him to dispatch state police to any outbreak of violence in Tennessee. To organized labor, this law was a tool for breaking up strikes in the name of thwarting “Communist” insurrection. When 250 members of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electrical Railway Employees struck in Knoxville in October 1919, residents decried the strike in local press as an example of “reds” attempting to take over the nation. Only the “return to normalcy” quelled the “Red Scare” both in Tennessee and in the remainder of the nation. Yet strikes did not completely disappear, as the three-month work stoppage by female workers at the Bemberg and Glanzstoff rayon mills in Elizabethton in 1929 demonstrated.

The “normalcy” of the 1920s gave way to the despair of the Great Depression. Jobs disappeared and wages fell. Nationally and locally called strikes for higher wages, secure employment, and union recognition occurred throughout the era. Employers hired “goons” to attack union members. Replacement workers crossed union picket lines because they needed to work at any wage to provide for their families. Nationally and in Tennessee the American Federation of Labor’s member unions became increasingly identified with skilled craft workers, while the newly created Congress of Industrial Organizations’ member unions became increasingly identified with industrial workers. National strikes in textiles, like that in Harriman in 1934, and in mining and metal founding in 1937 had their Tennessee counterparts. Only the near full employment brought on by the massive defense contracts of the Second World War quieted the anxieties of wage and job that had arisen with the Great Depression.

After the Second World War, labor unions pressed employers to hire only union workers in workplaces whose employees had overwhelmingly voted for a “closed shop.” Employers, however, favored an “open shop” that allowed employment of nonunion members, thus diminishing organized worker influence. Government policies of protection for the commercial and industrial sectors had great support in the capital, however, and the Tennessee General Assembly solved the issue by establishing an “open shop” state.

In more recent times, the issues that bind labor together have remained much the same as in the past. Tennessee wage earners still do not welcome competition with imported low-wage workers, nor do they want to work excessive hours at low pay. Numerous Tennessee workers want the help of a trade union, while management insists that the labor movement is not in the interest of the working class. Agricultural, craft, and industrial workers still do many of the jobs their pioneer ancestors did, and their descendants will surely continue to do so, most likely within a predominantly nonunionized environment.

Suggested Reading

Constantine G. Belissary, “Behavior Patterns and Aspirations of the Urban Working Classes of Tennessee in the Immediate Post Civil War Era,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 14 (1955): 24-43; Roger Biles, “Ed Crump Versus the Unions: The Labor Movement in Memphis During the 1930s,” Labor History (Fall 1984): 533-52; Perry C. Cotham, Toil, Turmoil, and Triumph: A Portrait of the Tennessee Labor Movement (1995); Lennie Austin Cribbs, “The Memphis Chinese Labor Convention, 1869,” West Tennessee Historical Society Papers (1983): 74-81; James B. Jones Jr., “Class Consciousness and Worker Solidarity in Urban Tennessee: The Chattanooga Carmens Strikes of 1899-1917,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 52 (1993): 98-112 and “Strikes and Labor Organization in Tennessee During the Depression of 1893-1897,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 52 (1993): 256-64; Michael K. Honey, Southern Labor and Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers (1993)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Labor
  • Joseph Y. Garrison
  • Author James B. Jones, Jr.
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date May 23, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018