In the nineteenth century, America was sizeable as it delved into the Industrial Revolution and watched its economy grow. With new technology and a voracious appetite for capital goods, the nation’s productive capacity multiplied. Cities formed as business owners built factories that attracted and hired millions of workers. Immigrants poured into the country, while prospective settlers west found the frontier closed. The working class was scrambling for employment and factories willingly provided it. Yet the very abundance of these laborers turned them into expendable machine parts.
No one bothered to make working conditions safer as society believed that the working class deserved their terrible conditions due to their lack of natural ability. Soon, however, workers found that they could unite to achieve their goals. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Americans, dissatisfied with low-paying, hazardous jobs stemming from Social Darwinism, publicized their plight and began to form unions that ineffectively bargained with factory owners and the government to create better working conditions.
Unskilled workers in particular were subject to strict rules set by their employer about their hours and tasks. Stockholders needed profits, and laborers needed jobs. As a result, industry tycoons found that they could mistreat their underlings. Clocks were “set back to stretch the day”, and doors were locked to keep employees from leaving early (Mitelman 80). A minute of tardiness cost a precious hour’s salary, and almost a full hour of work at the end of the day did not translate into an hour’s compensation.
A worker who arrived a few minutes late could get fired (Sinclair 20). But no matter; hordes of willing replacements teemed at factory gates. Too late did a congressional committee discover that Chicago packhouses were unsanitary and driving workers to their deaths. Employees had to work in closed rooms only slightly warmer than freezing and stand on wet floors that made feet more susceptible to disease. The committee reported the “neglect on the part of their employers to recognize or provide for the requirements of cleanliness and decency of the employees” (“House” 116).
Industry had no care for their expendable workers, and the government was slow in discovering the health risks the working environment posed. Nor did companies concern themselves with more sudden hazards that could strike their factories. Out of economy and sheer nonchalance, they neglected to install basic safety measures. Thus the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911 that started as a small fire and exploded into a conflagration amid the combustible shirtwaist fabric and wooden floors.
Hundreds of workers perished as they rampaged through the long tables “out through the one open door” (Mitelman 82). The factory doors were troublesome as they opened inwards towards the pressing, panicking crowd. Firefighters found themselves stranded halfway off the ground as their ladders could not even reach the top three floors of the factory. The sheer momentum of those workers desperate enough to jump “ripped big holes through the life nets”, yet others continued jumping knowing that they were falling to their demise (Mitelman 82).
The single fire escape soon buckled, plunging workers to their deaths before they could reach the safety of the neighboring rooftop (Mitelman 83). The systematic slaughter of Triangle Shirtwaist employees could have been avoided had the company heeded simple fire precautions. Yet the company’s owners, similar to other business magnates who held such power, only acted with such brazenness because of the social version of Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” work.
One of the greatest biologists in history, Darwin believed that the genetically supreme would succeed. Translated into Social Darwinism, industrial tycoons were rich because they were naturally talented. Assisted by high capabilities, wealth could burgeon in the hands of those who earned it, so the government had no place meddling with its cries of reform (Henretta 579). Men such as Andrew Carnegie, a wealthy steel businessman at the turn of the century, had himself risen from an abject immigrant childhood, crediting his competence.
He believed in a few choice elite spreading the wealth to the poor, since “the laws upon which civilization is founded” had given society’s wealth to that group (Carnegie). Inheritors erred and squandered their bequests, since only the original businessmen had the “superior wisdom, experience, and ability” to earn such large fortunes (Carnegie). The working class could receive monetary assistance, but the most prosperous men, with the most power in lawmaking, decided there was no use in improving laborers’ conditions if they couldn’t rise out of poverty themselves.
As the wealthy lived in luxury during the Gilded Age, unsympathetic to the plight of the uneducated masses, these men suffering from fires and starvation began the labor movement themselves in search of change. The Knights of Labor, founded in 1869, advocated republicanism as it strove for its goal of employee-run cooperatives with fair payment, a minimum working age, and gender equality. The group worked to secure “the organization and direction, by co-operative effort, of the power of the industrial classes” in order to achieve these mighty objectives (“Knights” 72).
Their weapon of choice was strikes, or at least the threat of them. Combined with trade unions, the workers gained a potent weapon through their organization. However, the Knights were idealists, insisting on radical ideas such as that all laws must “bear equally upon capital and labor”, and were unwilling to yield in their quest to equalize capitalists and laborers (“Knights” 73). Thus the more realistic trade unions such as the American Federation of Labor began to replace the Knights. Unionists such as Samuel Gompers worked for smaller causes, such as an eight-hour workday.
Claiming that shorter workdays would promote innovation and enhance industrial progress, Gompers convinced the public that an eight-hour workday would reduce labor to create “more advancement and intelligence, and a nobler race of people” (“Unionist” 74). Yet rhetoric was only rhetoric; the only way to combat big business was through strikes. Theoretically the strike was an effective tool, but in practice it was more often a failure. Strikers only held the power of collective bargaining if all employees left their posts and barricaded their replacement scabs.
But many of the best workers initially resisted joining unions, as exemplified by Jurgis in Upton Sinclair’s portrayal of Chicago’s meatpacking industry. An immigrant fresh from Europe, Jurgis was a strong man who believed in Social Darwinism because he could do the strenuous butchering work. He believed the union was for weaklings, and “if they couldn’t do it, let them go somewhere else” (Sinclair 61). Even when the strike did succeed, arbitration between unions and managers still left workers with the short end of the stick.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory beseeched members of the Women’s Trade Union League to return after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, luring them with promises of safety improvements that turned out to be hollow once the trusting girls returned to work (Mitelman 83). Yet workers could not know if changes would be implemented until they broke the strike, and once they did a new strike would be even more difficult to organize. The government too would rush to aid big business during strikes. In the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, hoodlums burned the Pennsylvania Railroad Company trains in a riot.
The government charged the strikers with arson and rioting, “although it was common knowledge that it was not they who instigated the fire” (Jones 32). Deputy sheriffs hired by the Pittsburgh mayor created chaos in the city, but they too charged the results of their conduct to the strikers (Jones 32). Eventually quelled by federal troops, the riot was an example of federal government using court actions and anti-labor legislation to show that it supported industry above the common worker. Although the federal and state governments remained unconcerned with the working class, local political machines recognized their difficulties.
As the grassroots representation of laborers, local government needed votes and could get them by improving the working environment. Collectively, the group of voters had more political influence through their political representatives than individuals did. Tammany Hall in New York City helped the newly formed New York State Factory Commission pass 56 laws concerning fire safety, hazardous machinery, and wages for womena dn children (Henretta 651). The New York Consumers’ League, middle-class women shocked by the indecency of working conditions, limited Oregon women’s working hours through the Supreme Court.
Other lobbyists convinced Massachusetts to pass a minimum wage law for women and children in 1912 (Henretta 645). But Supreme Court rulings and the few government laws passed could be effective only when the laws were enforced. Factories such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory violated fire regulations even after the disastrous fire (Mitelman 83). With little to lose if disobedient, too often did industries turn deaf ears to government mandates of reform. Although the efforts of unions and politicians in the early twentieth century were easily defeated and fell short of lofty goals to improve
working conditions, these spurs of labor reform began an effective labor movement that gathered force to stimulate the Progressive Era. Muckrakers exposing society’s ills tugged at heartstrings and stirred the fever of reform through the sight of revolting work and sickening men, providing a sharp contrast between capitalists and laborers. As the middle and upper class abandoned Social Darwinism, the Progressive Era emerged where the government finally became a friend rather than an enemy to the lower class.
Progressive presidents welcomed bills limiting hours while promoting collective bargaining through labor unions. At the same time, both the executive and judicial branches worked to weaken big businesses consisting of trusts and monopolies. The struggle to lessen the differences between capitalists and laborers continued until mid-century, until the major goals of minimum wage, maximum hours, and prevention of child labor were achieved. Although laborers still strive for better conditions and industries still resist, workers are now armed with the tools they need to improve their plight.