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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.
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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