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Workplace Reform

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Workplace Reform

Imagine you faced a real threat of injury or even death every time you went to work. And despite the danger you were putting yourself in, your boss paid you barely anything and made you work over ten hours a day. You'd probably want to quit and find a new job, right? Well, prior to workplace reform in the United States, workers did not have much of an option. A lack of regulation allowed employers across various industries to take advantage of the working poor.

Workplace Reform Definition and Timeline

Before the Progressive Era, workers were at the mercy of their employers and often faced horrific working conditions. Beginning in the late 19th century, Progressives who were sympathetic to their plight took action and succeeded in passing workplace reforms across the country.

The Progressive Era

period of activism and reform spanning from the late 19th to early 20th centuries

Workplace Reform History

With the benefits of industrialization also came a host of problems. As industry leaders were accumulating extreme wealth, their workers struggled to make ends meet. Often, they could not even afford to buy the goods they produced. Unfortunately, workers did not find much support for their plight during the Gilded Age. In fact, even the government seemed to be under the thumb of big business.

The Gilded Age

a period of extreme wealth, but also extreme corruption, lasting from the end of the Civil war to the turn of the 20th century

The Pullman Strike

In May 1894, workers of the Pullman Palace Car Company, a producer of railway cars, went on strike. The year before, the company had cut their wages by 25% and a delegation of workers went before the company’s president, George M. Pullman, hoping to find an answer to their grievances. Instead, they were fired.

In support, not only did the Pullman workers go on strike, but so did members of the American Railway Union (ARU) who worked at other companies. On July 3rd, President Grover Cleveland ordered troops to put an end to the strike and boycott. After the strike's failure, the Pullman Company agreed to hire back workers, so long as they agreed to never join a union.

Outside of low wages, workers faced extremely long hours and a host of dangers on the job. Accidents and deaths were exceptionally common because of a lack of regulation, and without any workmen’s compensation, an accident or death could leave a family homeless and starving.

Workplace Reform in the Progressive Era

It was during the Progressive Era that workplace reform finally found widespread support.

Workplace Reform in the Progressive Era: The Growth of Labor Unions

The abuses of industry leaders led to the creation of labor unions across various professions. Members came together to protect their interests through strikes and boycotts. One of the first and most preeminent organizations was the American Federation of Labor (AFL), founded in 1886. The AFL limited its membership to skilled workers, so other labor unions formed to fill the gap. In 1905, Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) formed and opened its doors to unskilled workers.

Many members of labor unions were politically radical, supporting communism, socialism, and anarchism.

For the most part, labor unions took on an anti-immigrant position. They believed that immigrants were flooding the labor market and accepting less pay, leading to lower wages for everyone. The Women’s Trade Union League, founded in 1903, was a notable exception. It brought together middle-class reformers and immigrant workers.

Workplace Reform in the Progressive Era: The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Firemen traveling via horse-drawn carriage to the Triangle Shirtwaist FireFiremen traveling via horse-drawn carriage to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911 was a significant event in the push for workplace reform. On a typical Saturday afternoon, a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the Triangle Waist Company factory building. The fire escapes proved unstable and locked exit doors prevented the workers, mainly women, from leaving the building. In a desperate attempt to escape, some workers jumped out the windows to their death. The tragedy took 146 lives and was entirely preventable.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire led to increased membership in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.

The size and scale of the tragedy garnered nationwide attention and led to workplace reform across the states. Factory inspection laws enforced new health and safety standards (e.g., sanitation, proper lighting) and worked to prevent fire hazards and otherwise dangerous working conditions. In the case tragedy still occurred, state governments passed workmen’s compensation laws.

Workplace Reform in the Progressive Era: Women and Children

The subject of many workplace reforms were women and children, whose conditions both gained particular sympathy from the public. One of the larger victories for women was Muller v. Oregon. Oregon had enacted a 10-hour workday for women and fined the owner of a laundry company, Curt Muller, for violating the law. The case went before the Supreme Court in 1908 which decided against Muller and affirmed the 10-hour workday for women.

The Supreme Court argued women needed more time to devote to their domestic duties as a wife and mother.

Children as young as six or seven worked alongside adults in dangerous conditions, from factory work to mining. In response to public outcry, states began enacting minimum age laws and prohibiting unsafe working conditions.

Workplace Reform Goals and Successes

Although the Progressives were not always united in goals, workplace reform had almost universal support. As a result, state and local governments passed a variety of legislation to improve the condition of workers including:

  • Reduced work hours

  • Health and safety standards

  • Workmen’s compensation

  • Minimum wages

  • Prohibitions against child labor

Photograph of Theodore RooseveltPhotograph of Theodore Roosevelt, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Workplace reform also found support at the federal level. When President Theodore Roosevelt came to office in 1901, one of the main goals of his “Square Deal” domestic policy was to reign in corporations, which had become all-powerful during the Gilded Age.

Deep dive: United Mine Workers Strike

In 1902, President Roosevelt set the tone for his presidency when he mediated an agreement between the United Mine Workers and the coal companies that employed them. The coal companies agreed to increase wages and decrease hours, but they refused to recognize the United Mine Workers as a union

President Roosevelt’s successors, Woodrow Wilson and William Howard Taft, continued his legacy of dismantling large corporations and protecting workers’ rights in their own candidacies

Workplace Reform - Key takeaways

  • Prior to the Progressive Era, large companies had immense power backed by the government. A lack of regulation allowed companies to take advantage of workers who faced dangerous conditions, long hours, and low wages.
  • The Progressive Era saw the rise of labor unions and public interest in the plight of workers, in part due to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
  • The Progressives were successful in pushing for numerous reforms across the states including:
    • Reduced work hours

    • Health and safety standards

    • Workmen’s compensation

    • Minimum wages

    • Prohibitions against child labor

  • Leaders who were sympathetic to the plight of workers and willing to take on corporations (Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft) ended up in the presidential office.

Frequently Asked Questions about Workplace Reform

Factory and workplace reform was any new legislation or regulation that aided the plight of workers. 

Factory and workplace reform took place during the Progressive Era, from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. 

The Progressives reformed the workplace by pushing for legislation and regulation that aided the plight of workers. 

The Progressives wanted workplace reforms that would make work conditions safer. They also wanted to reduce work hours and increase wages. 

Three reforms of the Progressive Era were the introduction of new health and safety standards, the establishment of workmen's compensation, and the prohibition of child labor. 

Final Workplace Reform Quiz

Question

What was the period of extreme wealth and corruption before the Progressive Era called?

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Answer

The Gilded Age

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Question

What strike did President Grover Cleveland stop by sending troops?

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Answer

The Pullman Strike

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Question

Which labor union opened its doors to immigrants?

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Answer

American Federation of Labor

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Question

What event was a turning point in the fight for workplace reform?

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Answer

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

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Question

Which was not a widespread workplace reform of the Progressive Era?

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Answer

liveable wages

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Question

What three presidents pushed for workplace reform and took on corporations?

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Answer

Theodore Roosevelt

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Question

What Supreme Court case limited the workdays of women to ten hours?

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Answer

Muller v Oregon

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Question

Which labor union allowed unskilled workers?

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Answer

The American Federation of Labor

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Question

What was the name of Theodore Roosevelt's domestic policy?

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Answer

The "Square Deal"

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Question

What strike did Theodore Roosevelt mediate?

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Answer

The United Mine Workers Strike

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