The Formation of American Industry
Workers from U.S. Steel company going on strike in 1919.
During the late 1800s, the American Industrial Revolution began to erupt. Population, factories, the number of workers, patents, and even the Gross National Product all increased by at least 150% by the 1900s (Visions of America, 16.1.1). Big names and inventions, Alexander Graham Bell developing the telephone and Thomas Edison’s invention of the lightbulb for example, began to reshape the Nation. But with all the vast improvements the industrial revolution brought came with a price. Workers endued terrible working conditions, never ending hours, and insulting low pay in the factories. Fearful of losing their job, factory workers either had to deal with these conditions, or join a union to hope for changes in the workplace.
In the gilded age of America, industrialism brought many changes that impacted workers everywhere. One change was new technology in the workplace. This new technology allowed jobs that required an amount of skill to be completed by a worker with little or no skill. A perfect example of new technology was an invention made by Jan Matzeliger in the shoe making industry. With Matzeliger’s Lasting Machine, workers were able to attach the sole to the top of the shoe with ease. A job that once required skill and craftmanship, now could be done with one hand (16.1.1). Allowing factories to increase their production as well as cut costs.
The addition of new inventions added anything but simplicity to the industry. Workers faced many difficulties in factories. Long hours, poor wages, and dangerous working environments were just a few challenges they faced. Factory workers were required to work long, extensive hours, sometimes even over twelve hours a day, six days a week with little to no breaks. In combination with threatening working environments; poor ventilation, lighting, space, and safety protocols for example, was a recipe for disaster. Injuries or even death became a norm for industrial workers and the wages, which did not include any benefits, healthcare, or living expenses, didn’t reflect the work that was being completed.
Cruel floor managers also challenged factory workers. They implemented strict rules like no talking while working, harassed and were sexist to the women, racist to African-American workers, and were not liable of injuries that occurred on their watch. Perhaps the most vicious quality of some floor managers was the abuse of power. Firing an employee for no logical reason happened far too much. These were some of the reasons that influenced workers to develop and join unions.
Unions are organizations that represented and protected workers. Joining a union was incredibly risky, and some employers even hired spies to expose labor organizers, so they could fire them and put them on blacklists (16.3.3). Though without risk, there is no reward, and the many benefits workers found in unions were worth the risk. Unions brought representation to workers by lobbying legislators to pass laws that protected workers, established safety standards, and gain them the ability to negotiate improved wages.
unions were good for the employee’s, unions were the opposite for some of the
employers in the late 1800s. With all the laws that passed that protected
employees, job security for example, meant that all the power big businesses
had, was slowly being eliminated. Causing those employers to find unions objectionable
and even dangerous because workers could go on strike, forcing them to conform
to their demands. An example of this happened in Flint, Michigan when the
workers with the United Automobile Workers had a sit-down strike in one of the
GM plants. With the workers occupying the plant, production came to a halt,
putting pressure on management to find a resolution. Strikes, like these, and
having to follow rules made unions seem dangerous to employers during the
Keene, Jennifer D., Cornell, Saul, and O’Donnell, Edward T. Visions of America: A History of the United States, Volume2, 3rded. 2019.