Reforming the New Industrial Order
Reforming the Workplace
In 1900 the average laborerworked nearly 10 hours a day, six days a week, for about $1.50 a day. Women and children earned even less.
Female and child laborers. In the early 1910s almost half of the women who worked in such jobs as factory workers, store clerks, and laundresses earned less than $6 a week. The Commission on Industrial Relations reported in 1916 that this salary "means that every penny must be counted, every normal desire stifled, and each basic necessity of life barely satisfied."
Women often faced significant barriers when they tried to increase their income. For instance, pieceworkers could be penalized for working too fast. Rebecca August, a buttonhole maker in Chicago, recalled that she was paid 3.5 cents per buttonhole. When her supervisor realized how many buttonholes she was able to make—and thus how much money she could earn—he cut her pay. The supervisor said,"It was an outrage for a girl to make $25 a week." When August tried to organize a protest, her employer fired her.
The commission's report also attacked child labor practices. It declared, "The Nation is paying a heavy toll in ignorance, deformity of body or mind, and premature old age [among children]." In The Bitter Cry of the Children (1906), John Spargo charged the textile industries with the "enslavement of children." He reported that children were employed to do work that he "could not do . . . and live."
Spargo found that few child laborers had ever attended school or could read. Many mothers explained that they put their children to work in the mills because it was either that or their entire family would starve. During an investigation of a miners' strike in 1903, a nine-year-old child reported that he was being forced to pay money that his father, who had died in the mine, owed the company for rent.
Labor laws. Progressives and labor union activists campaigned for new laws that would prohibit or limit child labor and improve conditions for female workers. Reformer FlorenceKelley worked tirelessly for this cause. She helped persuade the Illinois legislature in 1893 to prohibit child labor and to limit the number of hours women could work.
Although most children worked in agriculture, children in the factories—more than 2 million by 1910—faced the worst conditions. Reformers heard stories of supervisors splashing cold water on children's faces to keep them awake and of girls working 16 or more hours a day in canning factories. Orphans also were sent to work in factories. "Capital has neither morals nor ideals," cried one critic.
In 1904 Kelley helped organize the National Child Labor Committee to persuade state legislatures to pass laws against employing young children. By 1912, child-labor laws had been passed in 39 states. Some states even limited older children's employment to 8 or 10 hours a day and barred them from working at night or in dangerous occupations. Other states required that children be able to read and write before they were sent to work.
Enforcement of such laws was lax, however. Claiming that their business success depended on cheap child labor, many employers simply refused to obey the laws and continued to hire child workers. George Creel was a journalist and the author of Children in Bondage (1913). He estimated that "at least two million children were being fed annually into the steel hoppers of the modern industrial machine . . . all mangled in mind, body, and soul."
Progressives also campaigned for laws to force factories to limit the hours employers demanded. In 1903 Florence Kelley helped lobby the Oregon legislature to pass a law limiting female laundry workers to 10-hour days. Earlier, Utah had enacted a law limiting workdays to eight hours in certain occupations.
Progressive reformers also fought for higher wages. Some 30 million men and 7.5 million women were employed in 1910, and about one third of them lived in poverty. That year Catholic Church official Monsignor John Ryan called for "the establishment by law of minimum rates of wages that will equal or approximate the normal standards of living for the different groups of workers." Two years later Massachusetts responded to progressive lobbying by passing the nation's first minimum-wage law. This law set base wages for women and children. Other states gradually followed suit. Not until 1938, however, did Congress pass a national minimum-wage law.