America had the perfect recipe for big business. The nation possessed enormous quantities of two essential ingredients of rapid industrialization: raw materials and cheap labor (Keene, 474). The United States was rather late when it comes to industrialization in comparison to Western Europe. Yet, by 1900, America surpassed all other industrialized countries. As businesses grew exponentially, so did the workforce. Millions of American workers moved to manufacturing centers in search of new opportunities, and immigration was at an all time high.
It wasn’t long until the philosophy known as laissez-faire, French for “leave alone,” was introduced. This idea argued that the government should impose no restraints on business, including workers’ demands for laws on regulation, safety conditions, and wages (Keene, 475). Laissez-faire was supported by public officials, business leaders, and conservatives. With businesses growing at an enormous rate and little to no government intervention, corporate power increased. Monopolies came into existence as corporations absolutely dominated the their specific market. Power was unchecked and in the hands of a few, which led to many exploitation’s. These exploits included the manipulation of stocks, undercutting farmers and manufacturers, unsafe work conditions, and unfair treatment towards workers.
“Robber Barons” were greedy capitalists who grew wealthy by devious business practices, political manipulation, and the exploitation of workers (Keene, 480). An infamous robber baron was John D. Rockefeller, who is attributed to the rise of trusts. Unlike pools, trusts actually had a legal basis. They legally brought together companies within the same industry under a single board of “trustees.” A majority of stocks would be turned over in exchange for trust certificates, which guaranteed a share of the profits. Soon enough, trusts were being used to bribe Congress into passing favorable legislation for the companies. In 1890, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act justified this corruption. The act was introduced in effort to empower the Justice Department and allow for the prosecution of illegal contracts or conspiracy between corporations that were designed to eliminate competition. After months of lobbying from corporate interests, Congress was influenced and ended up wording the act so vague that it was essentially unenforceable.
Money was power, and big corporations were in control. Work conditions were beyond unfair, and the workers did not have a voice. Work days often consisted of 12 hour shifts, six days a week, with wages lower than the standard of living. Working-class families were forced to send their children to work just so that they could live. Many jobs consisted of workers performing just one task, such as pulling a lever. One machinist in 1883 said that they were becoming “part of the machinery” (Keene, 486). Not only was the workplace demoralizing, but is was dangerous. Every single year between 1880 and 1900 had on average of 35,000 employees dying on the job, and another 500,000 injured. Between 1870 and 1900, the amount of children under the age of 16 working for wages grew from 700,000 to 1.7 million.
To no surprise, workers grew tired of the way the were being treated. In 1866, a charismatic iron molder by the name of William Sylvis formed the National Labor Union (NLU). This federation aimed to unite skilled workers nationwide to secure demands like federal law establishing an eight hour work day and a federal department of labor. Corporations despised labor unions because they saw them as a threat to their profits and freedom. They went as far as hiring spies to expose labor union organizers so that those participating in the organization of unions could be fired and blacklisted. A large number of workers took part in unions and work strikes as it was an opportunity to finally have a voice. Without unions, corporate power can go unchecked. Unions are absolutely necessary, and although they are not as strong today as they once were, it is still promising that they are in existence.
- Keene, Jennifer D, et al. Visons Of America: A History of the United States. 3rd ed., vol. 1, Boston, Pearson, 2015.