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Labor and Reform

The Industrial Revolution created financial opportunities for people at all levels of the social order. The capitalists who invested grew financially secure and often wealthy. They joined the well-to-do merchants who made up the middle class of society. A new class of workers also found new financial opportunities in the factories.

The Industrial Revolution created not only new groups of people but also new sets of issues that society was forced to address. Granted, wages improved. However, concerns about work conditions, the length of the work day and work week, child labor, the sexual division of labor, and exploitation of workers grew as quickly as the industries themselves. When workers were unable to solve the problems themselves, they formed unions or turned to the government for intervention.

Better Wages but Worse Conditions

Both contemporary observers and modern historians have debated the extent to which wages rose for the factory workers during the Industrial Revolution. The most reliable figures indicate that wages and buying power didn’t improve significantly for factory workers until after about 1820 in Europe; until that time, improvement in wages came slowly. Certainly, though, economic conditions improved markedly after 1850 for most workers across Europe.

Why did workers go to work in the factories if the wages weren’t much better? Because of the population boom, there were simply more people in Britain and then in Europe. At the same time, new agricultural techniques allowed more food to be produced by fewer people. Simply put, there were more workers, and less agricultural work to do.

Conditions for factory workers ranged from good to horrible during the Industrial Revolution. For those who previously had made a living in the cottage industry, factories seemed like a major step backward. In the cottage industry, workers set their own schedules rather than working set hours (usually 12 per day), for a set number of days each week. Likewise, the former cottage workers despised the pace of work in the factories.

The machinery in factories also presented problems that cottage workers and those who came in from the fields had never faced before. The early machines were an open tangle of gears and levers and moving parts. Loose clothing, long hair, and fingers frequently got caught in the machinery, resulting in maimed workers. Factories often were dark, loud, and gloomy, sweltering in the summer and freezing in the winter.

Exploitation of Children

Would You Believe?

Many factory owners who hired families only wanted children older than about ten years of age. However, many parents only took jobs where their children would be hired, too, so factory owners often employed children as young as six or seven.

Owners often hired entire families to work in factories, including the children. The husbands often negotiated a wage for the family unit rather than separate wages for each member of the family. The entire family worked in the cottage industries, so it was only natural for workers to do the same in the factories. While the men did the heaviest and hardest labor, the women often operated the machines. Children, too, operated machines but they also swept, picked up scraps, and did other menial chores. Children worked the same hours under the same conditions as their parents.

There were occasions when families negotiated with factory owners to send their children to live in poorhouses and work in the factories.

The children worked in the factories in exchange for room, board, and a tiny wage that was sent to the parents. In such cases, the children often were exploited terribly. The children’s supervisors demanded strict discipline. The children worked in frightening conditions among dangerous equipment for pitiful food. Records show that children were sometimes forced to meet quotas before they could eat, take bathroom breaks, or even go to bed for the night. It should be no surprise that children who worked in factories rarely received an education.

Blame It on the Factory Owners

Early factory owners grew very wealthy and ascended to the heights of the middle class. As the Industrial Revolution moved into the middle of the nineteenth century, though, opportunities for first-time entrepreneurs grew increasingly rare because of the competitive nature of industry and because of the large number of factories that sprang up early on.

Usually the wealthy factory owners were “new money,” meaning that they were not from a wealthy family but had made their fortunes only recently. Critics blamed these entrepreneurs for the poor working and living conditions of the workers. Critics like Marx and Engels (see Chapter 17) maintained that the owners of the capital exploited the workers.

Many factory owners did exploit their workers, children and adults alike. However, to be fair, financial success was not guaranteed for the capitalists, and they constantly dealt with the challenge of managing production costs while maintaining a reasonable margin of profit. More so than the landed aristocracy, who managed estates and plantations, the factory owners often recognized the plight of the workers and the widening gap between labor and management. After all, many factory owners were themselves from humble origins.

The Reform Movement

As early as the first two decades of the nineteenth century, socially conscious reformers worked to eliminate the terrible conditions of the factories and mills. Government committees visited factory after factory to see for themselves if conditions were as bad as critics claimed. Reformer after reformer spoke before Parliament and urged politicians to take action.

Their cries did not fall on deaf ears. The British government eventually responded, as it did to cries for liberal political and social reform, with the Factory Act of 1833. The legislation limited the workday for children between 9 and 13 to 8 hours and the workday for teenagers to 12 hours. It also prohibited the hiring of children less than 9 years of age and required those children to attend school. The Factory Act of 1844 further restricted the hours for young workers and addressed work-related injuries and unsanitary conditions in factories. In 1847, the Ten Hours Act limited the workday for both women and young workers to a maximum of 10 hours. (The bill actually created a workweek that averaged 10 hours of work per day rather than limiting work to only 10 hours each day.)

Early Labor Movements

Guilds and workers combinations, which were primitive forms of unions, offered some protection for workers dating back several centuries. However, the prominence of the idea of economic liberty caused many politicians to work toward eliminating the old way of doing things. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, the British adopted the Combination Acts. The Acts effectively made trade unions illegal and prohibited unions from striking or harassing management about better hours or more pay. The legislation did not have the desired effect; many workers either disregarded the acts altogether or simply took their union underground. Parliament repealed the Combination Acts in 1824 and unions became part of industrialization by 1825.

Workers had not been very successful with trade unions, so a reformer named Robert Owen (1771-1858) decided to create a national union for workers, stemming from his plan for creating a new society. In 1834, Owen created the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union. He tried again in 1835 with his Association of All Classes and All Nations. Both attempts failed. Owen’s mills at New Lanark were a model of what he thought society could be: happy workers productively doing their jobs in a safe, healthy environment. He even experimented in New Harmony,

Indiana, with a Utopian society founded on the idea that once crime and the evils of society had been removed, man could be at peace. Like his unions, New Harmony didn’t last. His attempts at creating national unions, however, had a lasting effect even if the unions didn’t survive. Thanks in large part to Owen, unions grew in popularity and their strength and effectiveness likewise increased over time.

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