Government and Labor: The Progressive Era


(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.

Sources:

Keene, Jennifer D., et al. Visions of America: A History of the United States. Pearson, 2017.

13 thoughts on “Government and Labor: The Progressive Era

  1. Such a wonderfully written blog. I enjoyed reading your blog as it taught me more information about the Progressives. The thought of children working under such terrible circumstances, is something I could never imagine. Back then, instead of going to school and getting an education, they were forced to be put to work so that they could afford to live, along with their family. I completely agree with you that the Progressive’s push against child labor is a huge positive. It guaranteed government regulation in the workplace which is something, in my opinion that we will always need.

    1. The thought of what these families were having to go through back then is absolutely heart breaking, as you mentioned. Imagine having to choose to send your children to work just in order to live a semi normal life. Making that choice not only took away the lives these children should have been enjoying, but also pushed them further away from education. When education was taken away, it made it harder for these children to ever better their lives. While I understand that people can live a happy life without continuing education these days, all children do get a decent amount of education and have the choice to continue on. I cannot comprehend a world where this is not an option.

  2. This was a a great post filled with great information. Imagine only being ten years old and having to work in a factory full time, That must have been terrible on the child and the parents. The child also had to work in terrible working conditions, which is not good for their health, which is probably why the life expectancy was very low.

    1. Thank you! I can’t imagine that either, it really is different than the society we have today (in the United States, at least). The economic necessity of such a system at the time was very sad and also (as labor often argued) allowed corporations to pay even less for work (as children were payed meager wages compared to adults). While the idea of children working instead of going to school was well-established at the time, the dangers of the workplace in the Progressive Era changed the situation. It is great that we no longer have to worry about this scenerio in modern America.

  3. I found your blog to be very well-written, and I agree with your stance that the government positively influenced the workplace. Without the progressive-era intervention, which ultimately ended child labour and resulted in the removal of trusts from the American economic system, the modern United States would be a very different place. I can’t imagine children being brought into dismal factory conditions and being paid next-to-nothing for their work, simply because employers took advantage of their lack of political voice. Likewise, while the number of companies in markets seems to be small, it is impossible to imagine one of these companies controlling everything we purchase.

  4. Wonderfully written blog! Your piece was very insightful and helped me better understand the true motives of the Progressives. In your first paragraph, you mentioned that you believe the reforms that the Progressives sought benefited the United States and still do. I think this raises a very interesting thought. Our society today could still be affected by the working class norms. If the Progressive-era never happened, imagine what employees now would have to face. It is great that the Progressives fought to end long working hours, low wages, and child labor or else employers today could potentially still have these ideals.

  5. Like you said in the blog, Roosevelt and Taft had different perspectives on which trusts were good and bad. While Roosevelt thought there was a difference, Taft had not. This is most likely why Taft broke up U.S. Steel. Even though Roosevelt left it alone, Taft decided to break it up. I believe that there was a difference between good and bad trusts. Some hurt the economy, and some didn’t.

  6. That was a very well written recap of the chapter and its many important issues.
    This chapter in general got me much more interested in the issues that our families had to go through during the Progressive Era how the actions of these “progressives” must have broght some type of hope for the future. These working class citizens needed relief, they needed to see some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. Government regulation on children in the workplace was long over due and thanks to the legisltion passed in 1924 by congress it came to be. I would definitely like to learn more about President Roosevelt and maybe some of the things that didn’t necessarily sit well in the eyes of “Big Business”. Nice Blog!

  7. Very informative post! My great grandpa was born in 1917 and he would tell us story’s that his dad told him of the child labor that was happening in the coal mines in Pennsylvania. Children’s as young as 8 was a common site. Kids pay was often given to their parents as well. I didn’t realize that Roosevelt had such a huge impact on breaking up those trusts!

  8. Hey that was a great post! A lot of substance here. I cannot begin to imagine being a kid way back in those days. Working those long and harsh hours. I would have to say I’d rather be sitting in class. They obviously did not have a choice, but just thinking that from then to know, is just incredibly different. The difference is really mind blowing to be honest. Well written, well done.

  9. Interesting post! I tried imagining what it would be like to work in those conditions now and I know I wouldn’t be able to. As a ten year old, I don’t know how they got through with their jobs.

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