Personal Stories

College Paper: The American Worker in the Industrial Age.



The industrial America was a busy one at that.  Factories were littered along the United States due to the demand of new products.  The Intercontinental Railroad completion assisted goods to be transported from one coast to another.     Protective tariffs helped the American business become richer.  Large corporations began to thrive which spurred the culture of consumerism among Americans.  Businessmen were becoming richer and the industrial machine was in motion.  However there was a segment of the American public that did not reap the benefits of this age.  This was the American worker.  Without the introduction of the unions, Americans would still be underpaid and undervalued.  American workers would not have the protections we have today such as the right to strike, decent pay and the eight-hour work day.  This essay will discuss the beginning of the Industrial age, the American worker and the union that came to the American workers rescue.

Industrial Beginnings – The Railroad

What set the Industrial age in motion?  It was the introduction of the railroad. On May 10, 1869 the Intercontinental railroad was completed at Promontory Point Utah with the gold spike that truly set the American industry on fire.  With this coast to coast railroad, this meant the transfer of goods from one state to another.  In 1890, $7.4 million dollars in imports left San Francisco to various parts of the country.  By the time that the railroad was in full swing in 1890, over $49 million dollars in imports were transported across the country to the east coast.  By 1900, the railroads covered most of the United States.  The reason the railroad was so successful?  It was due to the private-public investors that rallied monies into the railroad projects, hence why the railroad was built in record time.  This created large companies as well (Henretta, 2012).

Industrial Protections – The Tariffs

 Tariffs give a price advantage to United States goods over similar goods which are imported, and they raise monies for governments. Tariffs were created in the 1880s by Republicans who wanted to build industries throughout the United States.  Industries who benefited from tariffs were the textile and steel industries in the East and the sheep herders in the Midwest.   In fact, back in the 1880s there was no income tax and the tariffs wiped the Civil War debt.  Tariffs gave our country a competitive advantage, especially after the advent of the railroads.  Tariffs made business men extremely wealthy as well (Henretta, 2012).

Industrial Awakening- Capitalism and Consumerism

Railroad not only revolutionized trade and transportation, but it pushed capitalism to new heights.   Utilizing key natural assets such as lumber, coal and minerals, it helped develop the West.   The commercial agricultural business produced so much that it created a glut of products in the marketplace.  Water power was being replaced with kerosene.  Homes and factories were being converted to electric.  Beef production skyrocketed with the assistance of the railroads and vertical integration was introduced.  Vertical integration is the model where a business controls all aspects of the product from start to finish.  Capitalism gave rise to the telephone, chemicals, electricity, rail lines, and oranges, Woolworths, Sears and Standard Oil (Henretta, 2012).

The American Worker

Expansion of business in the United States gave rise to employment for all.  However, what did this expansion mean for the American worker?  In the land of opportunity, did the American worker better themselves?  The industrial revolution created jobs as early as the 1870’s by way of the traveling salesman who would sell items from oils, to cash registers and products such as cigarettes and soda (Henretta, 2012).   Children were considered an asset to a family and were sent to work in factories with low wages and long hours (Henretta, 2012).  Immigrants became part of the workforce as well, holding the lower paying jobs due in part to discrimination (Henretta, 2012).  In the beginning of the Industrial age, men held the higher paying jobs. Men who had a specific skill, such as woodworking or the ability to work with steel made a significant amount of money than the layman.  These gentlemen were craftsmen (Henretta, 2012).  Individuals who worked in factories needed supervision; hence the manager was created to keep the American worker in line (Henretta, 2012).

Maggie and the Female Worker

The fairer sex did not fare well during this time period.  Women were not welcome in factories and if a woman did have a job, she faced certain discrimination.  Women joined the workforce in jobs such as clerks, secretaries, and typists.  Women worked in factories as seamstresses or in textile mills such as Maggie in “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets” by Stephen Crane.  Maggie came from little education and the offerings when she grew older were not much better.  She worked in a factory for long hours and faced discrimination from her family at home.  She wanted to be a modern woman but was cast aside by society (Crane, 1896). Unfortunately for women, most jobs that women worked were low wage jobs with no hope of moving forward in the company.

Mass Production

As the Industrial age progressed, so did the technology and mass production was born.  Mass production was the idea of Henry Ford, who decided that cars could be built in an assembly line.  The machines would and did take the place of workers.  Ford was able to build a vehicle fast and at a low cost.  Hence, this would drive out the skilled worker out of the workforce and the individual who did not have a craftsman skill could be paid for less.  Threats of losing their jobs by Ford and other employers who took up the mass production line took a common theme during this time (Henretta, 2012).  Working conditions became unsafe and the workers had no representation to protect them from such harsh conditions.

Union Protection 

With the harsh realities of mass production, low wages, long hours and unsafe working conditions became the norm in the Industrial age.  To bring in a union to protect workers was not a popular proposition.  Even the railroads suffered strikes.  The most violent was the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 which left over fifty people dead (Henretta, 2012).  Companies would create blacklists so that men who participated in union strikes could not get jobs.  Groups such as the Greenback Labor Party tried to regulate companies in the South (Henretta, 2012).  The Knights of Labor were transformed in Philadelphia and believed that ordinary folk should have some control in the jobs in which they were employed (Henretta, 2012).  Cooperatives were formed between the workers and farmers to regulate prices.  The union with the most power was the American Federation of Labor (AFL).  This union comprised of skilled and un-skilled workers who were tired of not receiving good pay.  Unfortunately, this union did not protect women or blacks.  The AFL did not represent clerks, service workers or farm workers in the field.  However, their union grew exponentially from 447,000 to over 2 million in 1904 (Henretta, 2012).  Clearly, the union was needed to protect the worker in the workplace.

Wal-Mart – Anti-Union

Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retail chain is fighting the representation of unions in their stores.  In an article titled “Leaked PowerPoint Reveals Walmart’s Anti-Union Strategy” by Jillian Berman, Wal-Mart goes through great lengths to educate their managers in pushing back on the “u” word in their stores.  The PowerPoint details how to educate the employees on why unions are bad for them.  One PowerPoint in particular states “As union membership rates decrease, middle-class incomes shrink” is the most shocking PowerPoint slide and could be the reason low wage workers don’t organize because it makes the workers “nervous to speak up.”  This is unfortunate as unions made strides decades before to protect the worker.

In closing, although unions were introduced in the beginning of the Industrial age, unions had a long way to go to pave the way for the American worker.  Union strikes caused violence between the worker and the employer, and were not popular.  However, it was the push from the unions that that protected workers from long work hours, better pay and began to pave the way for a safer place for the American worker to work.   Without the hard work of the unions of yester year and the workers who participated in the strikes, Americans today may not have the protections that the American workers had to fight for.


Crane, S. (1896). Maggie: A Girl on the Streets. New York: D. Appleton and Company.

Henretta, J. E. (2012). America: A Concise History. In J. E. Henretta, America: A Concise History (5th ed., Vol. 2). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Berman, J. (2014, January 15). Leaked PowerPoint Reveals Walmart’s Anti-Union Strategy.  Retrieved from Huffington Post: