Working Conditions During the 1900s

The industrial booms of the First and Second Industrial Revolution historically altered industry across the United States.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, working conditions for employees were at an all-time low, with hazardous factory conditions and minimal pay.

The rise of labor unions advocated for workers’ rights and fundamentally changed industrial practices in the 1900s. Read on to learn how unions garnered political reformation.

Industry in the 1900s

The First and Second Industrial Revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries introduced major booms in industrialization, urbanization, and economic growth to the United States from mass increases in production and job availability. However, with these booms came a rise in pollution and hazardous conditions for factory workers. The early 1900s saw many of the same poor working conditions as the previous two centuries, including:

  • Low wages
  • Long hours
  • Child labor
  • Dangerous conditions
  • Physical discipline from employers

Read more: Working Conditions During the Industrial Revolution

With these persistent conditions came frequent strikes, riots, and walkouts from workers, who demanded fair compensation, child labor regulations, and safer conditions. Many also advocated for equal pay among women and minority workers, who earned significantly less compensation than white men.

Throughout the late 1800s, many labor unions began to emerge as conditions worsened with more technological advancements. The United Kingdom took the lead in workers’ rights with the Factory Acts in 1833, and the United States slowly began to follow suit as more workers went on strike throughout the country.

The Rise of Labor Unions

While unions first emerged in the late 1700s, they lacked widespread membership and awareness, and subsequently lacked substantive negotiation power with industries. In the late 1800s, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was founded to advocate for better working conditions, including:

  • Child labor laws and compulsory education for children
  • Legal recognition of unions and the right to strike
  • Establishment of an 8-hour workday
  • Ventilation and inspections for factories and mines

Initially, these organizations lacked enough membership and recognition to hold any negotiation power. However, in 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 workers in New York City. The deaths would have been largely preventable with proper safety precautions, such as fire exits and smoke ventilation. The tragedy sparked national attention to the poor conditions in factories, and by the 1920s, the AFL had millions of members nationwide. This growth in membership gained enough traction and collective bargaining power to influence Congress to create the Department of Labor and led to a cascade of federal legislation that enforced:

  • Minimum wage
  • Paid overtime
  • Basic child labor laws
  • Protection of strikers

While these regulations did not substantially improve civil rights or equal pay for minority populations, the AFL and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) played critical roles in helping pass civil rights legislation in the 1960s, largely due to their high percentage of Black members.

Improving Working Conditions

The rise of industry in the 1900s saw substantial growth in a number of industries, primarily:

  • Textile
  • Oil
  • Steel
  • Railroad
  • Food production
  • Automotive

While the railroad industry eventually lost its traction as the automotive industry took over and personal cars became commonplace, the other industries became extremely prosperous by the late 1900s.

Technology increased substantially with the rise of these industries, and with it, new safety precautions came into practice. Automation removed people from some of the more dangerous aspects of manufacturing, and emergency stop systems enabled machinery productions to halt in the case of an accident.

However, workers’ rights still struggled, and the mid- to late- 1900s saw large growth in union memberships across the country, with increases in Black, Latino, Jewish, and women support. By 1979, union membership in the United States reached its peak with 21 million people. As a result, rising strikes and boycotts gained more recognition from the public and policymakers. This led to an expanse of federal regulation that protected workers, including:

  • Equal pay regardless of race or gender
  • Strict child labor laws
  • Minimum wage

The resulting legislation allowed workers to rely on federal protection to ensure their rights and safety, and dramatically increased the conditions in industries across the country.

However, as labor laws improved in the United States, many companies began to outsource their production to developing countries that lacked similar laws. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, many major companies sought production in countries like China, Bangladesh, and Indonesia for inexpensive means of manufacturing. And so, while factory conditions improved dramatically in the US, workers across the world continued to be exploited.

Read more: Working Conditions in Modern Factories

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