(Pictured: A Lewis Hine photograph showing child workers in the during the Progressive Era)
The Progressive Era was a time of great social, economic, and political change for the United States. This period, which was marked by trust-busting from presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson; changing attitudes in favor of an activist and regulatory government; and advances in workers’ rights, owed many of its visionary accomplishments to an eclectically diverse coalition that often crossed party and class lines – the Progressives. The Progressives sought mediation between the exploitative elite class and the increasingly radical working class, sympathizing with both the plight of workers and the need for law and order. This balance, coupled with the popularity of Progressive ideal of “economically just” capitalism, lead to increased government involvement with labor regulation. Even though the moderate and conservative stances (such as support of temperance) of the Progressives often clashed with the working class’s interests, I believe the reforms made in this era to regulate wages, hours, and other facets of employment and business benefited (and continue to benefit) the United States.
Trust-busting (the act of breaking up a large trust) was one of the highlights of the Progressive movement, even if different groups of Progressives had different perspectives regarding its implementation. It epitomized the Progressive desire to end corruption in massive corporations, and improve conditions for workers and consumers. Some Progressives, such as President Theodore Roosevelt, believed that distinctions could be made between “good trusts” and “bad trusts”; the latter would be broken up but the former could be kept together without concern. According to Keene, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust, for example, “controlled the supply and price of oil”, and was filed against by Roosevelt and eventually dissolved in 1911 (18.2.2). This action supports my belief that Progressive government action made important progress in America’s economic sector, helping free consumers and workers from the stranglehold of monopolization. The following presidents, William Taft and Woodrow Wilson, however, did not make as much of a distinction with trusts, busting some of the trusts that Roosevelt had designated as “good” (for example, Taft filed an antitrust suit against U.S. Steel, a trust that his predecessor had left alone).
Compromise between organized labor and industrialists, as pushed by Progressives, produced changes in the workplace of the early 1900s that still continue to positively affect America. The belief in compromise was fueled not only by the sympathy for both sides of labor debates, but a hope for less violence and radicalization in favor of social harmony. One of the most influential was the Progressive like for efficiency in the workplace. Henry Ford offered the perfect example of this – streamlining the assembly process while increasing wages and lowering hours for workers. This Progressive-style compromise that benefited both workers and employers is a demonstration of the success the ideology produced in businesses. However, Ford’s empire was not a glittering example of worker satisfaction – Ford was against organized labor and often prohibited workers from whistling or talking, so as not to lose focus.
Additionally, the Progressive campaign for children’s rights in the workplace demonstrated the importance of government regulation in working matters. According to Keene, roughly 1.75 million children (aged ten to fifteen) worked full time in factories across America in the early 1900s (18.4.3). A major focus of the Progressive movement was to abolish child labor, which they believed ruined the beautiful vision of blissful childhood held by the middle class as well as hurt children’s’ educations. With limited or completely abolished child labor, more adolescents could be put into the school system and avoid working in dangerous conditions for often low wages, which could help advance society and create better lives for working class children. In the modern day, the regulations supported by the Progressives (thanks to Congress, in 1924, passing legislation to allow federal regulation of child labor) still hold as basic laws in employment. The Progressive movement’s push against child labor through federal limitations underscores my position that government regulation in the workplace is a positive force.
The Progressive movement also had many other interests in American society. The temperance movement, for example, earned support with many Progressives (especially women) who saw saloons as morally corrupting. This included Carry Nation, a deeply religious and quickly famous woman, who popularized so-called “saloon smashing” in an attempt to turn local communities away from alcohol consumption. The root of this was the “Social Gospel” aspect of Progressivism – that there was a moral obligation by Christians to create an ethical society. Progressives not only championed expectations of honest and transparency for corporations, but also for governments. They were generally for a large, activist government, but greatly disliked the politics associated with it and embraced unconventional ideas (such as local governing by non partisan commissions of experts). The environment was also a concern to Progressives, but opinion was divided – some thought like John Muir, who believed that pure preservation was important, while some preferred Teddy Roosevelt’s approach of conservation, which regulated usage of natural resources rather than outright banning it. These additional aspects of the Progressive ideology helped shape early twentieth century America and still affects us today.