Industrialization and Workers During the Glided Age

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

Industrialization and Workers

For the laboring class, the era was one of great hardship. The government preferred to leave business to regulate itself; when it did reluctantly step in, it normally ruled in favor of the owners, not the workers. For example, Congress might establish protective tariffs on foreign goods, so that Americans would buy American goods in preference to the more expensive imports. However, Congress ignored the concerns of the people who made the economy so prosperous—the welders, miners, dyers, tailors, porters, teamsters, and other workers. The reason for this is very simple: people who have wealth and power also have political influence. A business owner might well have a congressman in his immediate family, or see him regularly on social occasions. Workers, of course, had no way of making direct contact with a congressman, and would have had no time to spare from the struggle for survival even if they did.

A business exists for only one reason—to make money. Every action the owner takes, every decision he or she reaches, is focused on profit. Throughout history, business owners have all come to the same conclusion—one of the easiest ways to increase profits is to pay lower wages. Conditions for workers had been terrible in the early nineteenth century. Instead of improving during the era of big business, they grew much worse.

Wages were as low as owners could set them. If one worker refused a low wage, a hungrier and poorer person could easily be found to accept it. Laborers worked six days a week, often twelve to fourteen hours per day. Children went to work as soon as they were old enough; management valued these juvenile workers because their wages were lower and they were too young to fight the dreadful working conditions that prevailed. Factories did not provide natural daylight or fresh air unless it was necessary to get the work done more efficiently. There were no guaranteed lunch or dinner breaks, and no place except the bare yards or pavements just outside the building to sit down for a few moments of respite. If a worker fell ill, he or she would usually try to conceal it; staying home because of illness generally meant the permanent loss of the job.

Business and industry can be seen as a system of checks and balances. In the nineteenth century, the owners had all the power. Society eventually devised two powerful checks on the owners. The first was government regulation. The second was the labor union—the organization of workers into a group with the power to negotiate. In the late nineteenth century, government made only one weak attempt, the Sherman Antitrust Act, to regulate business. However, labor unions began to rise and gain power.

Workers came to realize that they had two important checks on the power of an owner. First, they outnumbered the owner; five hundred workers had more power than one owner. Second, their labor was essential to keep the business running. If one worker quit in protest, the owner could replace him. If five hundred workers quit in protest, the business would have to shut down and the owner would be forced to address the workers’ concerns.

The first attempts to organize labor into unions began soon after the Civil War. One of the first unions to form was the Knights of Labor, a national union begun by Philadelphia garment workers under the leadership of Uriah Stephens. It began as a union for white, male workers, but in the 1880s it expanded to include women and African Americans (although it still excluded Chinese- American workers). Membership was open to both skilled and unskilled workers of all types. Important leaders of the Knights of Labor included Terence V. Powderly and Mary Harris “Mother” Jones.

By 1886, the Knights of Labor had more than 700,000 members and was growing. The union fought for an eight-hour workday, equal pay for equal work (at that time, women were paid less than men, and black workers less than white), and the passage of laws against child labor.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Glided Age and the Rise of Big Business Practice Test

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