Labour Reforms During the Progressive Era Essay

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Since the early stages of its history a few centuries ago, America has consistently been one of the fastest-growing countries and economies that the world has witnessed, especially since the late nineteenth century. From industrialization in the late 1800s to the Roaring Twenties, Americans watched as the economy became vastly urbanized and modernized due to the traditional ways of life being replaced with new ideas and ways of living, with a big factor being the building of new American cities. These new cities such as Chicago, New York, and Boston were attractive to many Americans and immigrants because they offered new changes in living and provided many with new industrial and factory jobs due to the growth of these factories and businesses in big cities. Thousands of native-born Americans and overseas immigrants were drawn to the new employment opportunities that these cities had to offer. In addition to immigrants, African Americans migrated to these large cities in the North to escape from the South after the Civil War, and to avoid persecution, segregation, and the Jim Crow laws in search of better lives, known as the Great Migration. These large cities were densely populated with African Americans and immigrants due to these migrations; and due to the building of the railroad industry, these cities became more easily accessible to the average American.

While the growth of the urban landscape and new cities brought new jobs and opportunities, the vast changes led to many social inequalities between the wealthy and poor as what we know today as the Gilded Age. These changes and population growth led to a higher crime rate, racial tensions, issues with sanitation and disease, over-crowdedness, and wealth disparities. Americans began to see large worker strikes as workers during the late nineteenth century had few rights and were taken advantage of by wealthy business owners. These strikes were particularly bloody and violent, where the strikers rarely won or achieved any of their goals due to the strikes being shut down because the government typically sided with the businesses. As Henry George stated, “…the evils arising from the unjust and unequal distribution of wealth, which are becoming more and more apparent as modern civilization goes on, are not incidents of progress…” (George). George argued that these issues would not go away on their own and that they would continue to grow, swallowing and condemning us as a country, leading us back into “barbarism.” Some historians and scholars may even argue that the rapid growth of industries and cities caused more harm than they did well during this time due to the crippling poverty that became linked and associated with it. The pros of a city’s job growth, entertainment, social networking, cultural inclusion, and convenience may not have outweighed the cons of a city’s poverty, expensive cost of living, crime, lack of health services and sanitation, and corruption.

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The working class had to make their living by working in extremely dangerous and harsh conditions where they were not offered fair wages for their work. Because this was a nationwide problem, these workers had no other option but to stay at their jobs where they were repeatedly taken advantage of as the government did little to help aid them. Workers were forced into starting dangerous strikes to fight for their labor rights but were consistently shut down. Two important strikes during the late nineteenth century were the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and the Homestead Strike of 1892 at Andrew Carnegie’s steel plant. Strikers very fighting for safer working conditions, better wages, and shorter workdays. People were killed in both strikes as a result of the government sending in the militia to put the strikes to a violent and expeditious end. The Homestead Strike was so detrimental in a way that the workers did not unionize again for nearly forty years afterward. The aftermath of violent strikes during this era exemplified the corruption, exploitation, and inequality that labor workers were faced with by wealthy and powerful business owners such as Carnegie. Carnegie believed that he was a rich and powerful business owner due to his being a supreme man; a belief that fed into the ideas of Social Darwinism. He argued that these wealth disparities were beneficial to everyone and that, “while the law may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the human race because it ensures the survival of the fittest in every department” (Carnegie). Ideas like these began to fuel the inequalities between the rich and the poor and between capital and labor. As the rich got richer, the poor only got poorer.

America was then introduced to the Progressive Era that continued from the 1890s to the 1920s where reformers began fighting and advocating for social reforms that spanned from women’s rights to workers' and farmers’ rights, and more, that resulted from the massive industrial and economic growth and inequalities of the Gilded Age. Progressives fought for democracy, social justice, and efficiency, and were anti-monopoly. America began to see its first progressive Presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt, who did not believe in big business and broke up trusts, and Woodrow Wilson, who passed legislation that protected labor workers. Another important figure during this era was Jane Addams, who co-founded Hull House, one of many settlement houses opened to help provide services for women and immigrants, and stated that these houses were, “…an experimental effort to aid in the solution of the social and industrial problems which are engendered by the modern conditions of life in a great city…” (Addams). Progressives hoped to accomplish more labor rights, government oversight of big businesses, and an income tax; they also hoped to put an end to political corruption within the government. Populism ended up slowly dying out due to the efficiency and effectiveness of the Progressive reformers, by voting in Presidents and Senators that shared progressive and reformist ideologies. While the Progressive era addressed and resolved many inequalities within labor unions, achieved women’s suffrage and established a lasting legacy for optimism for social change, it failed to address civil rights, and racial tensions and inequalities.

Within the few decades between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, America arguably expanded more rapidly than any other era in American history. From seeing immense population growth due to the increase in migrating immigrants from Europe to the vast expansion of industries and cities, America established itself as one of the most influential and powerful countries in the world. While Americans achieved a lot during this era, the country still has a long way to go following the 1920s on its path to fighting corruption and the injustices of any American. As Emma Goldman stated, “…we love the dreamers and the philosophers and the thinkers who are giving America liberty. But that must not make us blind to the social faults of America” (Goldman). As long as Americans are not afraid to use their voices to stand up for what they believe in, fighting together for freedom and justice for all, there will always be hope for equality and justice in America.

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