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Labour Changes and the American Industrial Revolution

Info: 4185 words (17 pages) Essay
Published: 19th Oct 2021 in History

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The building of the railroad system during the Second Industrial Revolution came at an untold cost of human sacrifice. The engineering marvel of a transcontinental railway could have been achieved at a sustainable pace using more ethical labor. The stories of displaced peoples, stolen land, and harshly treated workers lie at the heart of this great technological innovation. The people affected by these practices and ventures into unbridled capitalism have not been properly compensated to this day.

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The Industrial Revolution is generally thought to be a singular period in American history, characterized by drastic innovation and improvements in quality of life for all citizens. This could not be further from the truth. To date, there have been three eras in Western civilization that can claim ownership of this title. The First and Second Industrial Revolutions in America could then be termed the second and the third, respectively, with the first taking place in Britain in the mid-18th century (British Museum 2019). It is true that the revolutions of steam and coal employed great numbers of people at then unsurpassed rates, but as many great leaps in innovation, the price was paid in human suffering and dubious business practices. During the British Industrial Revolution, wages increased, notably in cities and urban areas, but scholars argue that the quality of living decreased in turn. There was also a greater disparity in the distribution of income than before (Econlib 2019).

Prior to the Revolution, Britain remained a mainly agricultural landscape, with the upper classes of society owning much of the land used for farming. New tools and methods of farming were used to feed an ever-increasing population. In this way the farmers of Britain both contributed to and helped bolster the largely urban centered industrialization process (British Museum 2019). In both rural and city life, technology began to take over. The work of animals and water power were eclipsed by the advent of coal and steam inventions. The combination of technological advances and access to numerous coal deposits found in the northeast of England spurred innovation forward, and gave rise to a new energy source that was largely assisted by steam. During the first Industrial Revolution, which is roughly held to have taken place from 1760 to about 1850, the price of coal in London dropped 40% while coal output increased by 18% (Clark and Jacks 2007).

China was the world leader in the formation and usage of iron as a tool since the Middle Ages, but Britain would come to overtake them by the 1860’s. The epicenter of the drastic growth found in England is most commonly thought to be Sheffield, a city in the north. Known as the “backbone of England,” the Pennines mountain range nearby held vast quantities of iron ore, and there were large coalfields close at hand, coal being the desired smelting agent in the creation of iron and steel goods. Lastly, the Don river that runs through Sheffield was a vital source of the water power needed for the furnaces (Marsh 2012).

The invention of new machines and techniques driven by the increase in coal use made coal easier to mine and work with, and in turn made more machines possible, in a progressive sort of positive feedback loop. As the revolution continued, the cost to extract the raw materials decreased due to technological innovations. These changes bolstered the whole of the economy. Estimates put the growth in coal productivity at about 0.17% per year. Production in the textile industry, by that same token, increased by approximately 3.1% per year (Clark and Jacks 2007).

The use of coal at the advent of the Industrial Revolution greatly assisted in England’s self-reliance. Though the energy needs of England could have been satisfied with lumber, the added costs of transporting material made coal by far the better choice. (Clark and Jacks 2007) The man who could be said to be the father of these changes was Benjamin Huntsman, who moved to a village near Sheffield in 1740. Huntsman was a clockmaker and locksmith who was greatly unsatisfied with the steel used in the construction of his products, and so decided to try making the metal for himself. His “crucible” method of creation was only useful for making small steel items, but what made it ideal was that it was a repeatable process that resulted in the same exact products (Marsh 2012).

In tandem with the Huntsman’s style of creating products, another push in technological design helped usher in this new revolution. In 1769, a man named James Watts created a steam engine by building up on previous designs and ideas. This engine was a valuable tool, as it was both usable for a wide variety of tasks and able to be upgraded to handle greater workloads. These favorable circumstances and prominent inventions, along with a few others, set the stage for approximately 70 years of growth that came to be known as the Industrial Revolution, and was concentrated primarily in Britain (Marsh 2012). The world was soon to catch on to these advances, and in America this spread of information and machinery was greatly assisted by an English born industrialist named Samuel Slater.

Samuel Slater was born in Belper, England on June 9th, 1768, one year before Watt’s steam engine was built. While in England Slater learned the textile trade from Jedediah Strutt, a British businessman (Tucker 1981). At 21 years old, Slater emigrated to Rhode Island and began to build cotton-weaving machinery designed by Richard Arkwright (Conrad 1995) with the financial assistance of a prominent Rhode Island family, the Browns, and a man named William Almy. Once his production was up and running, Slater hired children who were between the ages of seven and twelve to run the machinery (Tucker 1981).

The practice of exploiting child labor at this time was not a novel concept. In fact, in the colonies there were records of both the practice and the negative physical and mental effects suffered by the child workers as far back as 1620 (Bradford 1898). Despite this knowledge, placing children in the workforce was seen as an economical maneuver. As boys and girls were considered unsuitable to the harshness of agricultural jobs, factory jobs manned by youth were seen as a boon to growing towns. The younger a family could send a child to work, the less of a financial burden they would be on the adults. In 1770, William Molineux of Boston, Massachusetts petitioned the government to employ girls as young as eight as a way to earn their keep. In this way, he and many others argued, they are both useful to their parents and to the community (Abbott 1908).

The employment of children was not strictly limited to the United States. Samuel Slater was known to employ entire families in his mills, which was an idea he borrowed from his time in England. Through this method, an entire towns economy could be dependent on the success of his businesses (Abbott 1908). Some print advertisements specified for the families applying to be large, comprising of at least five or six children. (Tucker 1981) During that time, those in the manufacturing industry also considered the long hours of child manual labor as a sort of positive moral compass. Smith Wilkinson, quoted in a memoir of Samuel Slater one year after his death in 1835, contended that the twelve-hour workdays held six days a week did good for the children who would otherwise be engaged in “idle or vicious amusements.” Wilkinson, who personally worked with Slater, goes on describe the poorer families, especially those with children in the workforce, as particularly “ignorant” and “vicious,” who are thus made into more reliable and trustworthy citizens by gainful employment (White 1836).

The employment of women and children was of great benefit to the owners of the factories, due to their lower wages in comparison to men who would do the same work. The Puritan ideals of finding sanctity through labor greatly assisted in motivating a highly religious population. Manufacturers in the United States reinforced such ideals in the towns in which they owned factories, as in doing so they could more readily employ those who were typically seen as unemployable, namely women and small girls and boys (Abbott 1908).

In 1882, Carroll D. Wright, then the Commissioner of Labor, spoke highly of the American manufacturer’s introduction of factory labor to the lives of the citizens. The main benefits, as had been espoused elsewhere, were the reduction in the prices of goods and the increase in wages brought home by those employed. On the same token, he acknowledged that the “evils” of people may be made manifest through this system (Wright 1882). Indeed, twelve years later he penned another report extolling the wages gained by laborers working for trusts. This four page report held plenty of harsh words for the detractors of such a system, but in no instance was there mention of the age of the children who were under the umbrella of the all encompassing “unskilled labor” title (Wright 1900).

The need for inexpensive workers continued beyond a lull in innovative processes and inventions through to a time that has come to be known as the Second Industrial Revolution. Sometimes termed the Technological Revolution, this era is typically dated between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I (Jevons 1931). Whereas the First Industrial Revolution chiefly centered around the blossoming and expansion of mining and textile industries via inventions such as the steam engine, the Second Revolution is heralded by advances such as steel rails, telegraph and electricity lines, and quality of life measures such as increased access to adequate sewage lines. However, no technology was as essential to the economic growth of America as the building and maintenance of the railroad. The movement of goods and people across vast distances is instrumental in the handling of livestock, materials, agricultural goods, and much more (Plowman 1966).

By the time durable, reasonably priced steel became available for use in the railway system, the United States sat at the perfect blending of culture and technological progress to view human labor chiefly as an exploitable commodity. A nation founded on the idea that a man’s labor is the chief determining factor of his status and wealth played out in front of the population as wealthy businessmen and bankers held vast amounts of money and power both before and after the formation of anti-trust laws, which were enacted to limit the influence of singular corporations on any one market (Department of Justice 2017).

The Second Industrial age came hand in hand with the Gilded Age, a time in which financial disparity and inequality was at its zenith in the history of the United States (Maryland University 2019). The American steel industry produced 4.2 million tons of steel in 1890, a startling number in comparison to the 68,000 tons produced in 1870. Similarly, only 23 miles of railroad existed in 1830, but that grew exponentially by 1916, as Americans had built 254,000 miles of track. At the start of the first World War, railroad workers made up 4% of all employed workers (Mintz and McNeil 2018). By 1901, the US Steel Corporation was formed by steel magnates Elbert Gary and Andrew Carnegie, along with bankers J.P. Morgan and Charles Schwab. USS soon became the first billion-dollar corporation in the world (Britannica 1998). This huge growth was not without consequence. Worker strikes, mainly led by steel miners and railroad laborers, were recorded at approximately 500 per year in the 1880’s. By the start of the 1900’s this number soared to 4,000 strikes a year, involving a combined total of 700,000 workers (Mintz and McNeil 2018).

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The life of the common American worker was rapidly changing. Immediately before the Civil War, about four out of five free white men owned property (Mintz and McNeil 2018). The migration of workers to cities and factories mirrored the economic changes of England in the early 1800’s. Longer hours in mines and factories coupled with an influx of laborers from overseas escalated tension between workers and bosses. Railroad lobbyists plied politicians with favors and bribes to gain greater industry control and more lax regulations, a practice that was greatly detested by those they employed (Opper 1902).

In 1842, the Supreme Court ruled that the formation and maintenance of employee unions were legal. However, public perception of unions remained generally unfavorable until the Great Strike of 1877. Many factors culminated in the transpiring of such a pivotal event. The workers of the era held almost no political or bargaining power, and the constant migration of workers from rural areas as well as other countries created an excess of labor (Piper 2013). Though industrial growth was spearheaded by the United States in the late 1800’s, much of Britain’s capital was invested in American stocks. As the Bank of England increased their lending rate the ability to borrow money from outside banks became almost impossible. Hence railroad investors undertook short term, high interest bank loans to be able to afford the necessary construction materials. When Jay Cooke, an investment banker from Sandusky, Ohio, defaulted on his loans the stock market fell drastically. This had a massive impact on the banking industries both in America and Britain (Nelson 2011).

These events culminated in the Panic of 1873. All manner of strikes took place in the ensuing four years as unemployed laborers demanded work. At times gathering protestors and law enforcement were civil. In other cases, such as Tompkins Square in 1874, police beat thousands of men and women with clubs to get them to disperse. The Molly Maguires, a labor group in Pennsylvania, were involved in a shoot out in 1875 against a private police force that was paid for by the state (Nelson 2011). The largest of these displays of civil unrest, however, was the Great Strike.

In response to less pay, longer working hours, and a heavier workload, unions protested in earnest. The railroad companies, in turn, responded by firing union workers, or even those suspected to be in unions. They exacerbated the issue by blacklisting them from future work sites. In this way, unions lost a considerable amount of their bargaining power. Over only three years, the number of union members in New York City dropped to a ninth of what it was in 1873, from 45,000 members to only 5,000. The brotherhood of engineers striked once more in retaliation to a ten percent pay cut in February of 1876. The strikers were simply fired and replaced (Piper 2013).

The governor of New York was prepared for another strike as a result of this, and began to move in police and members of the militia on July 22nd, 1877. Railroad companies relocated their trains and materials from West Albany toward Syracuse to keep their property safe from sabotage and collateral damage. On the planned day of the strike, it was found that many people who attended had no direct ties to the railroad industry. Many of these workers were dry goods clerks. A committee decided to refuse the latest pay cut, and instead demand a pay raise of twenty five percent. In order to achieve this, they planned to suspend work indefinitely. However, they did allow to send a telegram to their work headquarters and await a response before striking (Stowell 1995). In West Virginia, much of the same was occurring. The state governor Henry Matthews was unable to contain the strike that was occurring as a result of the pay cuts, and President Hayes sent federal troops to the state. Within days, scores of other railroad-based cities took up the movement (Piper 2013).

This strike was notable in that those protesting had widespread public support. This was a rarity in a culture that, until this point, had seen unions as an unnecessary ploy for undeserved wages. Farmers and engineers alike were upset at the high costs of shipping products, and many of the general public were incensed by the systemic corruption perpetuated by railroad officials. The militia in Pittsburgh in fact refused to confront the protesters gathered there. As the governors of the affected states, backed by the railroad corporations, entreated President Rutherford Hayes to act, violence escalated. Within three weeks the strike was broken, leaving over one hundred people dead, and thousands injured (Piper 2013). On the whole, the Great Strike of 1877 could be considered a failure in that it did not achieve its proposed goals. It did, however, set the tone for worker-employee relations in the post-war industry, and set into motion direct action as a means to secure power from the ruling class (Ullmo 1976).

Of those affected by the continual pressuring by railroad corporations to perform without regard for health or livelihood, the experiences of immigrants cannot be discounted. In 1869, 1,408 workers laid 4,462,000 pounds of railroad material down in one day, in a record setting pace that would remain unmatched by other crew of the time. Irish workers made up eight of those builders. Chinese immigrants account for the rest. Conversely, the strikes of Chinese workers who emigrated here for a better life stood in stark contrast to the typical strikes seen during this time. The 1854 strike of Chinese rail workers in Marysville, California was an almost peaceful affair. This has been attributed to Chinese culture’s view of a what a respectable man should be, and that compromise should be a value that is upheld (Chung 2015).

The immigration of labor from Western European countries can easily be attributed to the desire for economic stability that factory jobs in the northern United States could provide. The supply of Chinese labor would instead be fueled by America’s relentless westward expansion toward the Pacific. In 1862, the Pacific Railway Act marked the beginning of the largest singular construction undertaking in American history. The Central Pacific Railroad and Union Pacific Railroad were inundated with subsidies and grants that would allow them to complete 1,800 miles of rail in only six years (Chung 2015).

In a country that was in the midst of a civil war over the right to claim people as property, it would stand to reason that foreign-born workers, many who could not speak English, were subject to much worse conditions than their native-born coworkers. It was believed that Chinese men were easier to control than both enslaved and recently freed black men, and they were worked much harder than white laborers. Though they were segregated by race and made to do the more dangerous labor, the Central Pacific Railroad was completed primarily by Chinese hands (Chung 2015). Once completed, Chinese workers found much of the same backbreaking manual labor in industries such as coal mining (Carson 2005).

Much of the data on Chinese railroad workers was destroyed in the San Francisco fire of 1906. Regardless, it’s an accepted fact based on widespread records that many Chinese people came to California both in search of gold and to escape the British imperialism and opium war taking place in their mainland (Carson 2005). What they found instead were terrible labor conditions and oppression based solely on their race and their employer’s capitalistic hold on the American economy. The examination of the remains of Chinese rail workers show markings of poor health and intensive work endured through the course of their lives (Chung 2015).

Workers in the United States have always had to fight to be seen as a coequal branch in the industrial world. When allowed to run unchecked, businesses and corporations have been shown time and again to gladly amass greater power for themselves, both over their workers and in the political realm. America’s culture continually rallies the populace to earn their self-worth and fortune through sweat equity. Corporations and businesses squeeze the maximum allowable amount of labor from their workers while continually lobbying for greater control. The labor of a worker is both their greatest asset and most valuable bargaining tool. Many factors affect the employer’s valuation of the worker providing the labor, including race, age, and gender, and at no time was this more prevalent in a post-slavery society than immediately preceding such.

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