At the turn of the 20th century, the Gilded Age arose as an era of major technological advances. Before the Gilded Age, the economy relied heavily on agriculture, but following the advances in technology- specifically the steel industry- large factories and mills began to dominate the economy. With the economy now focused on manufacturing, thousands of workers of all ages were brought in to work in large factories for long hours and low wages. During the Gilded Age, factory workers faced harsh working conditions, but many stayed quiet in fear of replacement. The effects of the working conditions controlled the everyday lives of laborers, bringing some to create unions to gain equality from both the government and their employers.
Most factory workers were subjected to long hours and low pay, but women workers during the Gilded Age suffered discrimination in many forms in the factories and mills. In Leonora Barry’s recount of women’s treatment, she wrote of women “whose week’s work of eighty-four hours brings her but $2.50 or $3 per week (Shi and Mayer. 24).” In addition to low wages, Barry reported that in one factory, women could be fined $.10 if they were caught eating, laughing, singing, or talking during work hours. Women earned barely enough to survive, even after long hours of labor, which was blamed on monopoly and competition in the industry.
One argument made by Philip Hubert Jr. was that paternal supervision among the workers was no longer possible due to the vast amount of employees, but with immigration increasing during this time, there would be plenty of people available to supervise. In order to improve the conditions for workers in the factory, hiring supervisors for every couple hundred employees would have helped with safety. In response, many workers began forming unions in order to work towards better conditions and equality in the workplace.
The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor, founded in 1869, was one of the first national unions to form in the United States. Following the change of leadership in 1879, the Knights became a major advocate for the fight for equality among workers. Before it’s ending in 1900, they created a Preamble to the Constitution of the Knights of Labor.
In the Preamble, they called for things such as an end to child labor of anyone under fourteen, equal pay for equal work, and a maximum of eight hours in a work day from their employers. From the government, they called for an establishment of bureaus of Labor Statistics and to establish a national circulating medium issued directly to the people without intervention. Many laborers were afraid to join unions during this time due to the influx of immigrants looking for jobs in the cities. In Organizing Women Workers, Barry expresses the fear of workers in the quote “A constant supply of recruits is always on hand to take the places of any who dare rebel against the ironclad authority of those in charge (Shi and Mayer. 25).”
In the Gilded Age, factory workers were subjected to harsh working conditions but were bound to silence in fear of replacement from immigrants. The effects of the working conditions controlled the lives of the laborers, until unions began to seek equality from both the government and their employers. If it weren’t for fear of job loss, labor unions could have banned together to establish conditions of employment from both their employers and the government earlier on in the Gilded Age. With more supervisors working to ensure the safety of the employees of factories and mills, things such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire could have been prevented.
- Shi, David E., and Holly A. Mayer. For the Record: A Documentary History of America. 5th ed. Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. Print.