In the 1900's what happened between big business and workers as industry expanded?

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Michael Koren eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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As big business expanded in the early 1900s, the relationship between the business owners and the workers deteriorated. There are several reasons for this.

One reason why the relationship deteriorated was there was no legal basis allowing unions to exist. Additionally, the judges were often friends of the business owners. As a result, they often sided with the business owners when a dispute existed, especially since there were no effective laws supporting the existence of unions or protecting the workers.

Two other factors that contributed to the deteriorating relationship were the large numbers of workers available to work and the lack of government regulations on businesses. There were many immigrants coming into our country from South and East Europe between 1880 and 1920. With a large pool of workers from which to choose and with the work often requiring unskilled workers to do the job, business owners had little incentive to raise pay and shorten hours. There also were few laws protecting the rights of workers. There were no worker compensation laws and no child labor laws in the early 1900s. There were few standards regarding the cleanliness of the meat factories and the safety of the work environment. Since many strikes in the late 1800s involved violence, there also was a perception that the many workers in unions were anarchists. This lessened the likelihood that the general public would support the workers in a dispute.

Business owners took advantage of these factors. As a result, workers were often treated poorly. Low pay, long hours, and unsafe working conditions were common in the early 1900s. These conditions only began to change after reforms were made as a result of the Progressive Movement. 

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David Morrison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The American economy grew rapidly during this period, greatly increasing the nation's prosperity. At the same time, however, this period of rapid growth generated more than its fair share of social problems. One of the most pressing of these was the deterioration in relations between big business and organized labor. As employment opportunities grew, so too did the demand among workers for better pay and conditions. Workers railed against the obscene disparities of wealth between the gilded elite and the vast majority of the American workforce. They felt, along with their union representatives, that they were entitled to a greater share of the enormous wealth being generated by American business.

Suffice to say, big business was profoundly hostile to the very idea and, able to count on the unfailing support of successive administrations and Congresses, was pretty much given a free hand in how it treated its workers. The golden age of mass immigration into the United States meant that big business could keep wages low, as immigrant laborers were willing to work for much less than their native-born counterparts. As there was no minimum wage at the time, American workers were faced with a stark choice: like it or lump it. As one can imagine, this generated great hostility and led to numerous strikes, stoppages, and other forms of industrial conflict.

The mutually antagonistic relationship between business and labor was a major catalyst for the formation of the Progressive movement, which went some way towards ameliorating the worst excesses of big business during the Gilded Age.

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During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as big business expanded, relations with labor worsened. Part of the reason for this was that working conditions for many Americans also got worse. In heavy industries in particular, very long hours were the norm, and many industries, particularly mining and textiles, used immigrant labor and child labor to keep wages down. Businesses opposed even minor regulations on work conditions, and fought, sometimes literally, attempts on the part of workers to unionize. The period saw several violent labor disputes, including the Homestead Strike and the "Ludlow Massacre," and also the rise of radical movements. Eugene V. Debs, a Socialist, received a substantial number of votes during his multiple runs for president. In response to these conditions, many middle-class reformers, often known as Progressives, advocated reforms such as a shorter work week, higher wages, and regulations on working conditions.

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