history of labor in america




The Industrial Revolution was dawning in the United States. At
Lowell, Massachusetts, the construction of a big cotton mill began in
1821. It was the first of several that would be built there in the
next 10 years. The machinery to spin and weave cotton into cloth
would be driven by water power. All that the factory owners needed was
a dependable supply of labor to tend the machines. As most jobs in
cotton factories required neither great strength nor special skills,
the owners thought women could do the work as well as or better than
men. In addition, they were more compliant. The New England region
was home to many young, single farm girls who might be recruited. But
would stern New England farmers allow their daughters to work in
factories? The great majority of them would not. They believed that
sooner or later factory workers would be exploited and would sink into
hopeless poverty. Economic "laws" would force them to work harder and
harder for less and less pay. How, then, were the factory owners able
to recruit farm girls as laborers? They did it by building decent
houses in which the girls could live. These houses were supervised by
older women who made sure that the girls lived by strict moral
standards. The girls were encouraged to go to church, to read, to
write and to attend lectures. They saved part of their earnings to
help their families at home or to use when they got married. The
young factory workers did not earn high wages; the average pay was
about $3.50 a week. But in those times, a half-dozen eggs cost five
cents and a whole chicken cost 15 cents. The hours worked in the
factories were long. Generally, the girls worked 11 to 13 hours a
day, six days a week. But most people in the 1830s worked from dawn
until dusk, and farm girls were used to getting up early and working
until bedtime at nine o\'clock. The factory owners at Lowell believed
that machines would bring progress as well as profit. Workers and
capitalists would both benefit from the wealth created by mass
production. For a while, the factory system at Lowell worked very
well. The population of the town grew from 200 in 1820 to 30,000 in
1845. But conditions in Lowell\'s factories had already started to
change. Faced with growing competition, factory owners began to
decrease wages in order to lower the cost--and the price--of finished
products. They increased the number of machines that each girl had
to operate. In addition, they began to overcrowd the houses in which
the girls lived. Sometimes eight girls had to share one room. In
1836, 1,500 factory girls went on strike to protest wage cuts. (The
girls called their action a "turn out.") But it was useless.
Desperately poor immigrants were beginning to arrive in the United
States from Europe. To earn a living, they were willing to accept low
wages and poor working conditions. Before long, immigrant women
replaced the "Yankee" (American) farm girls. To many people, it was
apparent that justice for wage earners would not come easily. Labor
in America faced a long, uphill struggle to win fair treatment. In
that struggle, more and more workers would turn to labor unions to
help their cause. They would endure violence, cruelty and bitter
defeats. But eventually they would achieve a standard of living
unknown to workers at any other time in history. In colonial America,
most manufacturing was done by hand in the home. Some was done in
workshops attached to the home. As towns grew into cities, the demand
for manufactured goods increased. Some workshop owners began hiring
helpers to increase production. Relations between the employer and
helper were generally harmonious. They worked side by side, had the
same interests and held similar political views. The factory system
that began around 1800 brought great changes. The employer no longer
worked beside his employees. He became an executive and a merchant who
rarely saw his workers. He was concerned less with their welfare than
with the cost of their labor. Many workers were angry about the
changes brought by the factory system. In the past, they