Skip to main content

Responses to Industrialization: Big Business, Unions, and Strikes

Responses to Industrialization: Big Business, Unions, and Strikes


Big Business. In the second half of the nineteenth century the scale of many businesses increased dramatically. Some of this expansion was driven by the cost of the newest machines in heavy industry, such as steel; only the largest and wealthiest companies could afford them. Many of those who could not afford to invest in new technologies were driven out of business. In some industries, such as electrical equipment, production was controlled

by two or three manufacturers. Banks increased in size as well, and in some countries manufacturers banded together into cartels to set prices and production quotas. This situation was particularly the case in Germany, where there were three hundred cartels by 1900. Big businesses increased pressure on workers as well as on competitors. They increased discipline on the job, sped up the pace of work by increasing the speed at which the machines worked, and assigned workers to cover more machines than in the past.

Labor Unions. The response to heavy industrialization on the part of many workers was to join labor organizations known as unions. Until the 1890s most unions were small and organized on the basis of particular crafts. Many workers in many industries remained completely unorganized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the 1890s large industrial unions broke from the tradition of craft unions and organized all workers in a variety of industries regardless of the kind of labor they performed. These general unions had names such as the Confédération générate du travail in France and the Confederazione generate del lavoro in Italy. Membership in unions increased rapidly in the 1890s. By 1900 there

were about three million union members in Britain and two million in Germany. France, with a smaller population, had one million union members. The economic depression and inflation of the late nineteenth century, as well as the increasingly impersonal workplace, lay behind the increase in union membership. In many industries, workers’ wages declined relative to the cost of goods (real wages). In other cases, real wages rose but not as rapidly as they had in the pre-1870 era. Workers often agreed about general goals such as the decreased workday and thus increased leisure time, but disagreed about specific objectives. Some wanted an eight-hour workday; others wanted a full day of rest (not two half days); and still others wanted a half day on Saturday, as well as Sunday off (these demands reflect practices already in place in different countries and industries).

Strike. The primary tactic of unions was the strike. By 1900, hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike every year. In some countries, workers tried to organize general strikes in which all workers refused to work until some demand was met. A general strike in Russia in 1905 led to an attempted revolution. In some cases where the national union was quite large, the mere threat of a strike could induce owners to negotiate settlements. In eastern Europe, where industrialization was much newer, strike rates were higher than they were in the west. In the east, workers also made political demands such as gaining the right to vote and granting of civil liberties. In the west, where workers had acquired many of these political rights before unionization, their grievances were more purely economic. A high percentage of strikes everywhere involved violence, in some cases initiated by workers. More often, however, the violence was initiated by owners who paid thugs and local police to beat up the striking workers.


Mary Ann Clawson, Constructing Brotherhood: Class, Gender, and Fraternalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

Gary Cross, A Quest for Time: The Reduction of Work in Britain and France, 1840-1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

Laura L. Frader and Sonya O. Rose, eds., Gender and Class in Modern Europe (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996).

Dick Geary, European Labour Protest, 1848-1939 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981).

Peter N. Stearns, Lives of Labor: Work in a Maturing Industrial Society (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1975).

Charles Tilly, Louise Tilly, and Richard Tilly, The Rebellious Century, 1830-1930 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Responses to Industrialization: Big Business, Unions, and Strikes." World Eras. . (January 23, 2019).

"Responses to Industrialization: Big Business, Unions, and Strikes." World Eras. . Retrieved January 23, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.