How did workers react to the conditions in early American factories?

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thisdayinhistory's profile pic

thisdayinhistory | Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

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Working conditions in most early American factories were quite horrendous. However, many people living in the cities, including immigrants, were desperate to find and keep work. Even if family members were injured, which often occured, these people would keep working in the factories because they were so desperate to make money just in order to live and support their families with homes and food. Workers, including men, women and children, worked long hours, for little pay, in unsafe conditions. Some who spoke out against these conditions in the beginning were fired and easily replaced. There were no governmental laws which protected workers rights during this time.

It was not until the rise of the labor unions in the 1880's, that progress was made, and working conditions became a predominant issue in society. The Knights of Labor and American Federation of Labor were two of the first large and important labor unions. Labor Unions were not always seen in a positive light however, as they sometimes were seen as violent. An example of this would be the Haymarket Riot in 1886. It was not until great tragedy occured that people became truly enraged by poor working conditions. One such tragedy is that of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, where 146 workers, mostly young immigrant woman, perished in a large fire in New York City, which could have been prevented, had there been building codes and laws which protected workers.

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Workers in the early factories in Massachusetts reacted to the new system in at least a couple of different ways.

On the one hand, they tried to make it more like the old system that had close community ties.  The women working at Lowell, for instance, created study groups and a newspaper and other things to meant to create a sense of community for themselves.

On the other hand, there came to be more conflict as time went by.  Workers started to try to organize themselves to demand better working conditions and wages.  As this happened, the young women who had made up the original workforce started to be replaced by immigrants who were more willing to accept low pay and tough conditions.

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