Working Conditions in Factories (Issue)

views updated


During the late nineteenth century the U.S. economy underwent a spectacular increase in industrial growth. Abundant resources, an expanding labor force, government policy, and skilled entrepreneurs facilitated this shift to the large-scale production of manufactured goods. For many U.S. citizens industrialization resulted in an unprecedented prosperity but others did not benefit as greatly from the process. The expansion of manufacturing created a need for large numbers of factory workers. Although the average standard of living for workers increased steadily during the last decades of the nineteenth century, many workers struggled to make ends meet. At the turn of the century it took an annual income of at least $600 to live comfortably but the average worker made between $400 and $500 per year.

Factory workers had to face long hours, poor working conditions, and job instability. During economic recessions many workers lost their jobs or faced sharp pay cuts. New employees found the discipline and regulation of factory work to be very different from other types of work. Work was often monotonous because workers performed one task over and over. It was also strictly regulated. Working hours were long averaging at least ten hours a day and six days a week for most workers, even longer for others. For men and women from agricultural backgrounds these new conditions proved challenging because farm work tended to be more flexible and offered a variety of work tasks. Factory work was also different for skilled artisans, who had once hand-crafted goods on their own schedule.

Factory conditions were also poor and, in some cases, deplorable. Lack of effective government regulation led to unsafe and unhealthy work sites. In the late nineteenth century more industrial accidents occurred in the United States than in any other industrial country. Rarely did an employer offer payment if a worker was hurt or killed on the job. As industries consolidated at the turn of the century factories grew larger and more dangerous. By 1900 industrial accidents killed thirty-five thousand workers each year and maimed five hundred thousand others, and the numbers continued to rise. The general public became concerned with industrial accidents only when scores of workers were killed in a single widely reported incident, such as the many coal-mine explosions or the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911. In one year alone 195 workers in steel and iron mills were killed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

In order to save money many employers hired women and children to work in factories because these workers would work for lower wages than men. Some women were paid as little as six dollars per week, a sum much lower than a male would have received. Most female workers performed unskilled or semi-skilled machine work but some worked in industries that demanded heavy labor. Some women, for instance, worked on railroads, while others were employed as machinists.

Children also worked long hours for low wages. The number of children employed in factories rose steadily over the last three decades of the nineteenth century. By 1900 roughly 1.7 million children under the age of 16 worked in factories; less than half that many children had been employed 30 years before. Under pressure from the public many state legislatures passed child labor laws, which limited the hours children could work to ten hours per day, but employers often disregarded such laws. In southern cotton mills children who operated looms throughout the night had cold water thrown in their faces to keep them awake. Long working hours for children also meant that accidents were more likely to occur; like adult workers, many children were injured or killed on the job.

Worker responses to poor factory conditions and low wages were varied. Some employees intentionally decreased their production rate or broke their machines, while others quit their jobs and sought work in other factories. Other workers resorted to a more organized means of protest by joining labor unions although most industrial workers were not union members. Most workers, having few alternatives, simply endured the hardship of factory work.

In response to the problem of poor working conditions and the apparent indifference of industrial barons, membership in the American Federation of Labor (AFL), a union for skilled workers formed in 1886, grew rapidly from 256,000 members in 1897 to 1,676,000 in 1904. More radical and politically active trade unions often had even larger memberships, mostly because they were not as exclusionary as the AFL and because they welcomed unskilled labor, like those who worked in factories. One of the most radical, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), founded in 1905 and popularly known as the Wobblies, recruited primarily among the unskilled immigrants but also competed with the AFL to attract skilled laborers. Less radical than the Wobblies and more successful at recruiting supporters were the socialists, who gained political strength because of the growing numbers of immigrants and disenchanted unskilled laborers. The lack of real class conflict in the United States and the electoral reforms of the era undercut the socialists' efforts on a national level. Despite growing union activism the vast majority of workers remained unorganized throughout the first decade of the twentieth century.

Trying to prevent legislation to provide job security, guarantee a minimum wage, or ensure the safety of the workplace, most businessmen and conservatives argued that wages were set by the marketplace and that higher wages and worker protection would lead to higher prices for consumers. Government had long supported business using court injunctions and armed troops to put down strikes and break unions. In the 1890s, ruling that unions operated as "combinations in restraint of trade," the federal government used the Sherman Antitrust Act against unions more often than against businesses.

During the Progressive era several states passed legislation helpful to labor, such as laws establishing a minimum wage for women, maximum work hours, and workmen's compensation, and abolishing child labor and convict leasing. Groups such as the National Child Labor Committee, the Woman's Trade Union League, and the National Consumers League spearheaded the drives for many of these measures. Ironically, organized labor opposed minimum-wage laws for women because it preferred to win such measures through collective bargaining or strikes rather than through legislation. Business had to persuade labor to accept workmen's compensation plans, which unions opposed because the benefits were not very generous and many sorts of workers were excluded. Businessmen wanted the plans to protect themselves against the large payments that courts sometimes awarded in injury cases.

In 1904 a group of reformers established the National Child Labor Committee, an organization that dedicated to investigating the problem of child labor and lobbying state-by-state for legislation to end the abuse. It was, however, not effective because each state feared restrictive legislation could give other states a competitive advantage in recruiting industry. In 1907 a federal law against child labor, sponsored by Senator Alan Beveridge (18991911) of Ohio, went down to defeat and three years later in 1910 there were still an estimated two million children employed in factories. Only when the loopholes in state laws become apparent to reformers did they lobby for federal legislation, most of which did not come until the end of the 1920s.

In 1912 a Children's Bureau was established as an agency of the Department of Commerce and Labor. Its mandate was to examine "all matters pertaining to the welfare of children," which included child labor, and it was led by Julia C. Lathrop, the first woman to head a federal agency. Progress, however, was still slow. In 1916 senators Robert L. Owen and Edward Keating sponsored a bill that restricted child labor; the bill passed both houses of Congress with the strong support of President Woodrow Wilson (19131921). The law was based on a recommendation of the National Child Welfare Committee but it only prevented the interstate shipment of goods produced in factories by children under 14 and materials processed in mines by children under 16. It also limited children's workday to eight hours. In 1918 the Supreme Court declared this law unconstitutional because it was directed toward the regulation of working conditions not the control of interstate commerce. In 1919 Congress passed the Child Labor Act, which placed a tax on companies that used child labor, but the court again overturned the law. In 1924 there was an attempt to amend the Constitution to prohibit child labor but it never received approval from the required number of states.

See also: American Federation of Labor, Child Labor, Industrial Workers of the World, Mass Production, Frederick Winslow Taylor, Women in the Workplace


Banner, Louis. Women in Modern America: A Brief History. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.

Dubofsky, Melvin. Industrialism and the American Worker, 18651920. Arlington Heights, IL: AHM, 1975.

Gutman, Herbert G. Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America. New York: Knopf, 1976.

Kanowitz, Leo. Women and the Law: The Unfinished Revolution. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1969.

Rodgers, Daniel T. The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 18501920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

in the late nineteenth century more industrial accidents occurred in the united states than in any other industrial country . . . . by 1900 industrial accidents killed thirty-five thousand workers each year and maimed five hundred thousand others, and the numbers continued to rise.