Unions and the Labor Movement

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Consider the social forces that brought women and other unrepresented groups (factory workers, child laborers, miners, and the poor) into the new mass politics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Social forces that brought women and other underrepresented groups into mass politics in the Progressive Era usually revolved around the exploitation of workers and poor living conditions in cities. With disenfranchised groups usually suffering the most, many began unionizing and banding together to press for improvements. This sometimes took the form of political pressure that resulted in more direct democracy, such as with the 17th Amendment and voter initiatives.

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The Progressive Era saw marginalized populations enter politics largely in response to changing population and work patterns. With mass immigration and rising birthrates, the population of the United States grew like never before. This was particularly apparent in cities. This both led to and resulted from the growth of an...

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The Progressive Era saw marginalized populations enter politics largely in response to changing population and work patterns. With mass immigration and rising birthrates, the population of the United States grew like never before. This was particularly apparent in cities. This both led to and resulted from the growth of an industrial capitalist society. The resulting social problems—urban overcrowding, worker exploitation, and lack of health services—were not new to the Progressive Era, but the massive urban growth made finding solutions more urgent.

At this time, there were many concerns that industrialization was concentrating too much wealth in the hands of a privileged few, thereby limiting the freedoms of underrepresented populations. Furthermore, mechanization was limiting opportunities for skilled workers.

With the needs of corporations to maximize profits, workers often experienced poor wages and horrendous work conditions. This was felt the most by the disenfranchised parts of the population, namely women, child laborers, minorities, and immigrants. It became clear by the end of the nineteenth century that corporations were not going to make improvements on their own. Therefore, progressive activists worked hard to organize and get more people involved in political solutions.

At first, there was little political will to make progressive improvements. Marginalized workers began banding together in unions, such as the Industrialized Workers of the World (IWW), which represented many immigrants.

Particularly at the state and local levels, progressives of all backgrounds began pushing for protections. Since women and other underrepresented people were often the most exploited by the industrial system, they began getting more politically involved than ever before. This all led to an increase in popular democratic participation that came to define much of the Progressive Era. At the national level, this led to the 17th Amendment (direct election of senators) and eventually the 19th Amendment (women's right to vote). At this time, many states began utilizing voter initiatives and referenda, which allowed voters to vote directly on laws.

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