A telephone, an incandescent light bulb, and a pair of shoes. These items are clearly very different from one another, however, they do have one thing in common. They were all invited during the Industrial Revolution and have been a staple in billions of homes ever since. The Industrial Revolution was a time of development and growth of businesses and technology. Due to new technology, inventors were able to expand their research and push out much more complex ideas. In the 1850’s inventors submitted only 1,000 applications to the U.S. Patent Office but due to the advancement in technology they were able to submit 20,000 per year in the 1890’s (Keene, Cornell, O’Donnell, page 475). This led to many more successful inventions which, in turn, led to large factories that required workers.
While technology benefited inventors and business owners, it was a downfall to the industrial workers. The new machines were able to produce goods much quicker than the industrial worker. Thus, the workers were being replaced by machines and placed into low-skilled labor roles. The low-skilled labor roles were easy to fill and just as easy to replace. This allowed the employers to pay low wages and demand long hours. The wages that workers were being paid in the late nineteenth century barely covered basic living expenses. Due to this, families were forced to send their children to work and have the women and children perform “home finishing” work such as sewing for extra wages.
On top of the low wages, the working conditions were extremely dangerous as safety rules and procedures were not required by law. Every year between 1880 and 1900, 35,000 workers (on average) were killed on the job and another 500,000 injured (Keene, Cornell, O’Donnell, page 486). Due to unfair wages, long hours, unsafe working conditions, child labor, and unfair treatment of women in the workplace, workers organized labor unions. The purpose of these unions were to unite skilled workers and secure demands such as an eight-hour work day and a federal department of labor. Of course, employers saw unions as threats to their profits and freedom to run their businesses. Tensions between workers and employers continued to rise and led to strikes and violence. Employers began to add workers to blacklists and would hire replacement workers during strikes. Unfortunately, unions only had the resources to support striking workers for a few weeks. Once their resources ran out they were forced to return to their unsafe working conditions and long hours.
Still, through all of the adversity, unions continued to form and grow. In 1879 the world’s largest union to date successfully formed in Pennsylvania. This union became known as the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor or the KOL. The KOL had 42,000 members by 1882 and more than 700,000 in late 1886 (Keene, Cornell, O’Donnell, page 497). The KOL was appealing for workers as it criticized laissez-faire capitalism and had an emphasis on economic justice and democracy. It was also inclusive of African American workers. In 1886 another union was founded known as the American Federation of Labor or the AFL. The AFL differed from the KOL as it refused to organize unskilled workers and excluded women, African Americans and recent immigrants.
This period in history was prosperous to business owners and employers but dangerous to the workers as they found themselves working long hours for small wages. Large business owners took advantage of the industrial workers who were all but powerless without the unions backing them.
Keene, Jennifer D., Cornell, Saul, O’Donnel Edward T., “Chapter 16.” Visions of America: a History of the United States, Pearson, 2013, pp. 475–475.