Scholars are beginning to rethink the Gilded Age through the framework of the New Gilded Age. Providence College sociologist Cedric de Leon is at the forefront of this movement in his new book The Origins of the Right to Work: Antilabor Democracy in Nineteenth-Century Chicago. He examines the origins of the “right to work” idea in the mid-nineteenth century, attempting to provide a historical background to formerly union states like Michigan and Wisconsin embracing a war on unions and implementing right to work legislation that allows public sector workers to opt out of union dues while forcing unions to continue representing them. Using Chicago as a case study, he explores how workers conceived of the challenges of the new capitalist economy as avoiding dependence on employers. Self-reliance and the shunning of dependence were central to the growth of American political culture and mythology in the first century after the Revolutionary War and this shaped working-class politics of the antebellum period.
As the nation moved toward the Civil War, fears over the expansion of slavery creating wide-scale dependence of the white working class to the planter class allowed the nascent Republican Party to initially recruit workers into the fight against the South, even as the party’s economic ideology rapidly developed into the pro-corporate mentality that would feed the Gilded Age upon the war’s conclusion. As Chicago workers felt betrayed that the war had spawned increasingly large corporate powers, they began organizing for workers’ rights, including an 8-hour day movement in 1867 and the famous strikes of 1886 that led to the Haymarket Riot, where an anarchist responded to police violence by throwing a bomb into a crowd of police.
The political parties responded harshly to this worker challenge through both ideological constructions and state violence, such as the execution of anarchist leaders after Haymarket. Elites twisted the ideas of freedom to fit an ideology revolving around the freedom of contract. In other words, unions were unnecessary and dangerous because they interfered with a worker’s right to sign a contract for a given wage he negotiated with his employer. Of course this ideology ignored the power relations between workers and employers, as well as the actual struggles of workers in Chicago to make a living but exploiting the working class was the point.