What were Working Conditions like for Immigrants?
Factory conditions were poor and, in some cases, deplorable (bad). Lack of effective government regulation led to unsafe and unhealthy work conditions. Thanks to people like Upton Siclair, Ida Tarbel, and Lincoln Steffens things began to get better during the Progressive Era.
In the late nineteenth century there were more industrial accidents in the United States than in any other industrial country in the world. An employer almost never offer help to worker who were hurt or to the families of workers who were killed on the job. As the country grew, industry and factories began growing larger and more dangerous. By the 1900’s industrial accidents killed thirty-five thousand workers each year and injured five hundred thousand others, and the numbers continued to rise.
The general public became concerned and more aware with industrial accidents when large numbers of workers were killed in a single widely reported incident, such as the many coal-mine explosions or the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire. In one year alone 195 workers in steel and iron mills were killed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In order to save money many employers hired women and children to work in factories because they would work for lower wages than men. Some women were paid as little as six dollars per week, a wage much lower than a male would have received. Most female workers performed unskilled or semi-skilled machine work but some worked in industries that demanded heavy labor. Some women, for instance, worked on railroads, while others were employed as machinists.
Workers try to fight back
Worker responses to poor factory conditions and low wages were varied. Some employees intentionally decreased their production rate or broke their machines, while others quit their jobs and sought work in other factories. Other workers resorted to a more organized means of protest by joining labor unions (Knights of labor, American Federation of Labor) although most industrial workers were not union members. Union members began to picket and go on strike, requesting shorter work hours, higher wages and better working conditions. Unfortionatly most workers, having few alternatives, due to the fear of loosing their jobs. Many simply endured the hardship of factory work.
In 1912 the Children's Bureau was established as an agency of the Department of Commerce and Labor. Its mandate was to examine "all matters pertaining to the welfare of children," which included child labor, and it was led by Julia C. Lathrop, the first woman to head a federal agency. One women who faught for childrens rights prior to Mrs.Lathrop was "Mother Jones" who organized a march to fight for childrens working rights from Philidelphia to the presidents front door steps in Long Island, New York. Progress, however, was still slow. In 1916 senators Robert L. Owen and Edward Keating sponsored a bill that restricted child labor; the bill passed both houses of Congress with the strong support of President Woodrow Wilson (1913–1921). The law was based on a recommendation of the National Child Welfare Committee but it only prevented the interstate shipment of goods produced in factories by children under 14 and materials processed in mines by children under 16. It also limited children's workday to eight hours. In 1918 the Supreme Court declared this law unconstitutional because it was directed toward the regulation of working conditions not the control of interstate commerce. In 1919 Congress passed the Child Labor Act, which placed a tax on companies that used child labor, but the court again overturned the law. In 1924 there was an attempt to amend (make changes to) the Constitution to prohibit child labor but it never received approval from the required number of states.