American Labor Pains in the 20th Century
While the nation generally prospered in the early 20th century, it was by no means a uniform prosperity. For every oil millionaire or steel tycoon in 1900, there were hundreds of thousands of people making the average annual wage of $400 to $500 — about $100 less than was needed to maintain what was deemed a “decent” standard of living.
To make matters worse, the working conditions for these people were often miserable.
Struggling in a changing workforce
A change was occurring in the U.S. workforce. As manufacturing expanded, jobs moved from the farm to the factory. In 1900, for example, there were about 10 million farm-related jobs as opposed to about 18 million nonfarm jobs.
By 1920, there were still about 10 million farm-related jobs, but there were more than 30 million jobs not related to agriculture. Women held 20 percent of all manufacturing jobs, and 1.7 million children under the age of 16 had full-time jobs.
“Full-time” meant just that. In the Pittsburgh steel mills, for example, 10-year-old boys were paid 14 cents an hour to work 12 hours a day, six days a week. Factory conditions were often horrendous.
Between July 1906 and June 1907, 195 people died in the steel mills of Pittsburgh — about one person every other day. In 1911, 146 workers, most of them women, were killed when a fire roared through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York. Casualties were high because fire exits had been locked to keep workers from sneaking out for breaks.
Initiating improvements to working conditions
Anxious to improve conditions, American workers increasingly tried to follow the example of the industrialists and combine into large groups — labor unions — to have strength through numbers. In 1904, the American Federation of Labor, which focused mainly on skilled workers, had 1.7 million members.
The number grew to more than 4 million by 1920. But the unions often faced brutal reprisals from companies and law enforcement. In Ludlow, Colorado, a 1914 strike against the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company resulted in state militia and private police firing on strikers. Fourteen people were killed, eleven of which were children.
Sometimes the government intervened. In 1902, a strike of more than 800,000 coal miners dragged on for months when mine operators refused to negotiate. Fed up, President Roosevelt summoned both sides to Washington and threatened to send federal troops into the mines and appropriate the coal for the national good. Finally, a presidential commission granted the miners a raise and a shorter workday.
A more typical strike was the 1912 textile mill strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. After a state law required mill owners to limit the weekly hours of women and children to 54, the owners responded by speeding up production paces and cutting wages by 32 cents a week — the price of eight loaves of bread.
The International Workers of the World organized a strike of more than 10,000 men and women. After 63 days that included beatings by police, the killing of a woman, the sending of strikers’ children to other cities because strikers couldn’t feed them, and a failed attempt to bomb one of the mills and frame the strike leaders, the owners gave in and granted the strikers all of their demands.
Within a year, however, most of the concessions had been rescinded, and the pre-strike conditions returned. It would be at least another generation before unions became a national force.