The Gilded Age: Is Mr. Henderson Based on a Real Labor Union Leader?

Image Credit: Barbara Nitke/HBO

The second season of HBO’s ‘The Gilded Age’ presents new challenges to the Russell family as things start to get bleak for George Russell’s business. The labor union makes demands for its welfare, which is considered outlandish by George and other businessmen, who are ready to let the workers starve to death instead of caving to their demands. However, the union is also ready to take the fight as far as possible if that’s what it takes. Their leader, Mr. Henderson, vows to get them what they deserve. Considering that the show, despite its fictional nature, often refers to real-life events to build its narrative, the viewers are bound to wonder if Mr. Henderson is based on a real person.

Henderson’s Arc Portrays The Gilded Age’s Real Labor Strikes

Mr. Henderson in ‘The Gilded Age’ is a fictional character, but is inspired by real labor union leaders who worked for the rights of workers during the Gilded Age. In the show, Mr. Henderson is the head of the Knights of Labor, which is a real organization that operated during the late 1800s. It was one of the most notable forces in the labor movement during the latter half of the 19th century and is believed to have had about 700,000 members at one point.

Image Credits: Barbara Nitke/HBO

In the 1880s, it rallied for the rights of the workers in railroad factories when the owners of the companies tried to cut their wages. In 1884, Joseph Buchanan organized a strike and within four days, the decision to cut pay was taken back. The organization rallied once again a few months later when the companies tried the same thing. Within five days, they had to take back their decision.

The Knights of Labor continued to work in support of the labor movement and are known to have organized successful strikes several times. They also worked towards reforms that would allow a reduction in work hours along with increased safety protocols to ensure that the workers didn’t come to any harm on the job, and if they did, they would be compensated fairly. In ‘The Gilded Age,’ Mr. Henderson works toward the same goal and organizes a strike, no matter how much people like George Russell try to get to him.

In the sixth episode of Season 2, when no agreement is reached between the company and the union, Mr. Henderson leads the workers on an armed strike, where they are determined to stop the company from hiring their replacements. The scene becomes tense, and for a moment, it looks like there will be bloodshed as both sides are ready to shoot each other down. This scene, most likely, recreates the Homestead strike of 1892 (which took place about a decade after the events in the show, which happen sometime in 1883).

The Homestead strike began on July 1, 1892, and on July 6, the strikers came toe to toe with the private security of the Carnegie Steel Company and, later, the National Guard. In real life, the union faced a bitter defeat. In the show, however, things take a different turn when George Russell caves right before the showdown is about to take place. He doesn’t want any blood on his hands, even if it means he would have to cave to the demands of the union. In real life, the workers had to fight harder and for longer for things to come together.

Image Credits: Barbara Nitke/HBO

Talking about the relevance of the labor union arc in ‘The Gilded Age’ in today’s world, writer Sonja Warfield said: “As much as things change, they stay the same. We’re in a time period in America where there’s a huge income inequality. The top-tier people are making all this money and then the middle class is disappearing. And then we have people on the lower end, and that’s what it was in ‘The Gilded Age,’ there were these huge robber barons. We have this income inequality, and people can’t afford housing. We have a labor strike because of that, and they had labor strikes back then because the worker wasn’t valued and humanized.”

The show also feels timely due to its release around the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, though the show’s creators hadn’t planned it that way. Considering everything, it is fair to say that the second season of ‘The Gilded Age’ has struck a chord with the current situation despite being set about 150 years in the past and has created characters like Mr. Henderson, which might be fictional but have real-life counterparts who are fighting for the rights of workers across the country.

Read More: Are The Gilded Age’s Bertha and George Russell Based on a Real Couple?