The Rise of Labor
When Cyrus Hall McCormick opened the McCormick Harvester Works in Chicago in the 1840s, he worked alongside his forty-three employees. He knew them all by name. That was the way of business in early America. Corporations were changing that. The McCormick factory grew and was soon making 1,000 reapers a year. Cyrus still knew all 200 of his workers. By 1884, the year McCormick died, his place covered twelve acres, and 1,300 men worked ten-hour days, six days a week. That year the company showed a profit of 71 percent. And McCormick no longer knew his workers. American business was heading in a different direction. Some owners of these huge, rich companies treated workers as if they were commodities, like coal or lumber. They seemed to forget they were human beings.
Steelmen worked twelve hours a day, six days a week, for little pay. Textile workersmany of them childrenworked sixty to eighty hours a week. Conditions were often dangerous. Miners worked underground with explosives but without safety regulations . In one year, 25,000 workers died on the job; many more were injured. Child workers had three times as many accidents as adults. If a person lost an arm in an accident, no one helped with doctor's bills. If a worker complained, he was fired. And women were often paid half a man's wages. And then workers began to come together. One mill worker wrote: "A family of bright girls proposed that we should join with them, and form a little society for writing and discussion. We met, prepared a constitution and by-laws, and named ourselves the Improvement Circle."
That was the way some unions got started. Workers came together to try to fight for better conditions, better pay, or perhaps just for self-improvement . The union was like a club for workers. People tried to help each other solve the problems they had in common. Sometimes they decided not to work unless they were paid better wages. In other words, they went on strike. Naturally, owners hated strikes. They got laws passed that were anti-union. And they often fired anyone who joined a strike. Sometimes they hired police to break a strike, as Andrew Carnegie did when workers struck at his steel mills. Businessmen often took the law into their own hands. If they were powerful enough, they got away with it. Cornelius Vanderbilt once said: "Law! What do I care about law? H'ain't I got power?"