During the period of time between 1865 and 1900, the United States was going through a difficult time. The country had just come out of a war and, at the same time, was making an attempt to industrialize. The plight of laborers during this time was a terrible one. Not only were the working conditions atrocious, the workers’ salaries were meager, and they had no benefits or retirement options.
The Civil War had created many jobs for unskilled workers. Jobs such as digging trenches for the troops, transporting the dead and wounded, and providing food for the South. At the conclusion of the war the majority of these jobs became unnecessary, therefore putting thousands of people out of work. Most families were large because of the Agrarian society that existed prior to the War. This put a lot of people in a situation in which they simply needed a job, any job. Owners of newly founded factories took advantage of these people.
The idea of industrialization had hit America by storm. The owners of factories justified poor conditions by saying that they were doing the “poor” people a favor and that they should be thankful. They were trying to keep labor and production costs down. Therefore, they had no qualms about paying them meager wages and giving them no benefits. The average factory worker made $400.00 per year. The amount needed to survive was $600.00 per year. This forced many women and children to go to work for the factories as well. This had far reaching effects. Mothers were not home to care for their children and older children dropped out of school and did not receive an education.
Children as young as eight and ten years of age went to work in factories. This was done simply to feed the other members of the family. Women and children were paid only a small percentage of the wage that a man received. Benefits for factory workers were nonexistent. If the father, the head of the household, fell into a piece of unprotected machinery and was killed, the children would probably have to go to an orphanage.
Even though the working conditions were terrible, there was still stiff competition for these factory jobs. Many immigrants would work longer hours for less money than the white people. Employers also took advantage of this by hiring the immigrants instead of the whites. I believe that immigrants were exploited even more than the original workers. Most of these immigrants did not speak English, and felt very privileged to be in America and have a job. This was their dream. In the novel by Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, a worker named Jurgis was made to do horrible things and work in unimaginable conditions. I think that this is a prime example of the exploitation that took place during this time period.
Many different labor unions and organizations arose during this time to aid the workers in their plight. Perhaps the most famous were the Knights of Labor. The ideals that this group strove for are some of the same things we are still fighting for today. Things such as equal pay for men and women, the abolition of child labor, and safety codes for factories. Although the changes were not immediate, there was a gradual change for the better for the plight of the workers.