Industrial Revolution Conflicts
Working conditions in most industries were appalling. Gone were the days when business owners knew and cared about the people who worked for them. As the factory system developed, working conditions worsened. Factory owners wanted their employees to work longer hours in order to produce more goods. By 1840 factory workers averaged 11.4 hours a day. As the workday grew longer, on-the-job accidents became more and more common.
Factory work involved many dangerous conditions. For example, the long leather belts that connected the machines to the factory’s water-powered driveshaft had no protective shields. Workers often suffered injuries such as lost fingers and broken bones from the rapidly spinning belts. Young children working on machines with powerful moving parts were especially at risk.
Gone too were the days when factory workers could expect decent pay. With so many people looking for jobs, business owners could pay low wages. Many wages were so low that men could not support their families. To get by, wives and children had to work as well, usually at even lower wages.
Most factory women earned about $1 to $3 per day. If business was slow, wages dropped. A boss might not pay a new worker anything until she had learned her job. Then he would charge her for the sewing machine she worked on. If a worker complained, she could easily be replaced with a new one, perhaps for less money.
Millions of young children worked in mines, mills, and factories. A newspaper reported that young boys hired by coal miners to separate lumps of coal from rocks, “go to work…at seven o’clock in the morning and work till it is too dark to see any longer. For this they get $1 to $3 a week.” They also got curved spines from bending over piles of coal all day.
Workers often labored under unpleasant conditions. In the summer, factories were miserably hot and stifling. The machines gave off heat, and air-conditioning had not yet been invented. In the winter, workers suffered because most factories had no heating.
Of all working dangers, fire claimed the most lives. In New York, tall buildings often lacked fire escapes. New York City’s fire chief wanted buildings to have fire escapes and sprinkler systems that could put out fires quickly. But factory owners objected to such added expenses. New York City did require that factory doors “open outwardly” and “shall not be locked” so workers might escape quickly in case of fire. The law was not enforced, however.
Factory owners often showed more concern for profits than for the comfort and safety of their employees. Employers knew they could easily replace an unhappy worker with someone else eager for the job. No laws existed to regulate working conditions or to protect workers.
By the 1830s workers began organizing to improve working conditions. Fearing the growth of the factory system, skilled workers had formed trade unions – organizations of workers with the same trade, or skill. Steadily deteriorating working conditions led unskilled workers to organize as well.
In the mid-1830s skilled workers in New York City staged a series of strikes, refusing to work in order to put pressure on employers. Workers wanted higher wages and to limit their workday to 10 hours. Groups of skilled workers formed the General Trades Union of New York.
In the early 1800s going on strike was illegal. Striking workers could be punished by the law, or they could be fired from their jobs. In 1842 a Massachusetts court ruled that workers did have the right to strike. It would be many years, however, before workers received other legal rights.