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America's History in the Making

Industrializing America

Theme 3

Industrial expansion and the influx of new populations brought about major changes, including the rise of a labor movement and the emergence of women's organizations as important agents of social and political reform.

The conditions under which industrial labor worked could be difficult. Unrestrained by regulatory laws, employers obliged their laborers to work ten- to fifteen-hour shifts, usually six days a week. They could fire workers who complained or refused to stay on the job, especially in periods when demand for output was high. In bad economic times, employers cut wages and increased the number and speed of machines workers were expected to operate. Some machines were highly dangerous. The rate of industrial accidents rose, and workers rarely got adequate compensation. At this time, no government assistance programs existed to protect workers from accidents on the job or from cyclical unemployment.

Labor responded to such conditions in a variety of ways. Some tried to control the production process by denouncing—or even injuring—workers whose output exceeded the norm. Others formed local and national unions, which organized collective actions such as walk-outs and strikes. Over the last three decades of the nineteenth century, unions waged thousands of strikes. Some of these actions turned violent. The authorities often blamed "outside agitators" espousing radical ideologies such as socialism, communism, and anarchism, for these developments. Anarchists were especially feared, as they opposed all forms of government authority, and sometimes incited followers to acts of terror.

The coming of the second industrial revolution changed the role of middle-class women in American society. For the most part removed from the production process, they focused their lives increasingly on being good consumers. But, because the goods they bought were generally mass-produced far from their homes and under conditions that might not be healthy or safe, many middle-class women began to work through their voluntary organizations—church groups, clubs, and reform societies—to call for not only safer industrial products but also improved working conditions for industrial labor. The tradition that women should be concerned only with the private, domestic sphere became weaker as a result of their activism.

Primary Sources