The Progressive Era was a difficult time to be a worker. While Progressives did try to make working conditions better for laborers, their efforts only yielded mixed results. Furthermore, workers' own actions sometimes proved more effective than the Progressive reforms enacted in their names.
America never could have risen to its preeminent place in the world of industrial nations without the backbreaking toil of its workers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Laborers were behind the railroads that stretched across over 3,000 miles of the continent, the steel rails that provided the tracks, the skyscrapers that dominated the city skylines, the textiles that clothed the Western world, and the coal and oil that fueled a transportation revolution. They toiled in the steel mills of Braddock and Homestead, the textile factories of the South, the coal mines of Allegheny County, and among the oil derricks of northwestern Pennsylvania. They typically worked seven days a week, twelve hours each day, some enduring 24 straight hours of intense labor every other Sunday on what was known as the "long turn." This was hard manual labor that seldom gave employees any pause for rest during their shift. There was no nationally mandated minimum wage until 1938; railroad workers in the 1880s could expect to make about 10¢ an hour and if the economy turned sour, the company would cut all wages down to 9¢. It was an excellent month for a railroad worker if he made as much as $25. Steel workers could make fourteen cents an hour in the late nineteenth century and seventeen cents an hour by 1908; this amounted to about $13 for 84 to 96 hours' worth of work. Author Thomas Bell, himself a descendant of Slovak immigrants who worked in the steel-mill town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, noted that with such a wage, a couple "could just keep alive....Two people, if they were thrifty and their wants were simple, could manage on that; two people with debts and growing children could not."54 And poverty for hardworking Americans was not confined to Braddock, Pennsylvania. As historian Alan Brinkley has noted, "[At] the turn of the century, the average income of the American worker was $400 to $500 a year—below the $600 figure that many believed was the minimum required to maintain a reasonable level of comfort."55
Workers in the early twentieth century paid about $5 a month in rent and their wives ran boarding houses, did laundry, and performed seamstress duties in order to earn the extra income that might help make ends meet. If the workers had daughters, they began working in childcare or other odd jobs before the age of fifteen to help the family survive. Boys as young as twelve got jobs crawling into newly blasted areas in the coal mines to scoop up loose chunks of coal.56 Other young boys adjusted spindles on the large textile machines of southern factories, where their mothers often also worked. Of the 20 million industrial workers nationwide in 1900, 1.7 million were children; this was twice as many child laborers as there had been in 1870.57 If employees were hurt on the job, there was no form of workers' compensation offered to support them until 1910. Before that, workers faced what Thomas Bell described as "an appallingly bad accident record" in the steel mills, mines, and railroads of the United States.58 Between 1880 and 1900, some 35,000 workers perished each year in factory and mine accident—the highest rate in the industrial world. Another half million to a million laborers were injured every year. Exhausted workers could not afford to make any mistakes, as the intensely hot steel furnaces and the potentially unstable mines constantly threatened injury or death. Even still, some accidents proved beyond human control; in these cases, a company might make a $75 contribution toward funeral expenses; families had to rely upon worker's associations and unions for the rest. Widows and orphaned children were left to their own devices for survival. Retirement was a pipe dream for most Americans; pension plans and social security did not come into widespread existence until the Great Depression.
Many Progressives responded to industrial America's deplorable working conditions by trying to make life better for workers, particularly the women and children who, according to Christian teachings and social tradition, were considered the most vulnerable, weak, and impressionable. By 1900, women composed 20% of the manufacturing workforce, many performing double duty as wage workers and unpaid homemakers who were held responsible for the childcare, cooking, and cleaning. They were paid less than male workers, who were not even making living wages themselves. At the same time, over 1.7 million children under age sixteen worked in factories or fields; 20% of all boys and 10% of all girls aged ten to fifteen labored for wages. Progressives—especially middle-class female activists—helped spearhead the movement for laws that restricted child labor in 38 states by the late nineteenth century.59 Yet these laws did not eradicate child labor; they usually just set a maximum ten-hour workday and established the minimum age for employment at twelve years. And 60% of child workers labored in agriculture, which remained exempt from child labor laws. Nor did these laws address the overwhelming poverty and the lack of adequate childcare that brought about child labor in the first place.60 Addressing these issues, Progressives helped enact state legislation that granted financial aid in an early form of welfare to working mothers in eight states by 1913 and in all but four states by 1930. Some states also began to provide relief for the elderly poor (a very early and limited version of social security) in 1914. Progressives also pushed for public accident insurance plans, which would provide accident victims and their families with a monetary payment to offset expenses. Such plans were enacted beginning in 1910 and a policy in all states but five by 1920.61
Yet several of the most substantial gains won by workers in the early twentieth century were not the design or product of Progressive agitation. After a horrific fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York killed 146 garment workers in 1911, public outrage prompted the creation of a state commission to study the origins of the fire and the condition of the industrial workplace. Senator Robert E. Wagner and Assemblyman Alfred E. Smit—two Democrats from working-class backgrounds who were products of the New York political machine known as Tammany Hall—were actually responsible for leading the push for effective labor legislation. Progressives typically opposed political machines as corrupt organizations antithetical to a true democracy, but at least in this case, those machines took the lead in spearheading important reform legislation. Other Tammany politicians in the New York legislature, not middle-class Progressive representatives, provided the necessary votes and support to impose restrictions on factory owners and provide means of enforcement for the new labor legislation. In the West, it was not middle-class Progressives but working-class Americans who spearheaded the formation of the Union Labor Party, which prompted passage of California legislation to limit working women's maximum hours on the job, as well as a child labor law. Unions organized to support similar reforms in other states.
Recent studies have also indicated that Progressive reformers were not solely responsible for enacting worker's compensation laws in the 1910s. The key economic interest groups with a stake in the legislation—employers, workers, and insurance companies—anticipated benefits from the new regimented system. Employers and insurance companies found themselves increasingly at risk for paying large sums due to recent state laws on employer liability, court decisions that limited employers' defenses in liability suits, and rising workplace accident rates.62 In other words, life insurance companies and employers found federal regulation preferable to potentially more radical state taxes and controls. Similarly, some small businessmen favored stronger government regulation of railroads in the 1880s, because they were at a disadvantage compared with the preferential rates and treatment given to large industries. Most bankers, from Wall Street to small-town Main Street, could agree that the new federal controls and regulations of the Wilson administration offered their industry an important measure of stability. Besides, such regulation was certainly preferable to public ownership of the banking system. Additionally, public utility executives opted for government controls in order to avoid municipal ownership.63
Business support for such measures prompted revisionist historians like Gabriel Kolko to argue that the Progressivism really represented a "triumph of conservatism," as business groups exploited the reformist zeal of the Progressive Era to serve their own ends and circumvent more fundamental or radical remedies.64 And the Progressive reforms that did pass soon prompted a response from other employers and their alliances, such as the National Association of Manufacturers, founded in 1895. These groups worked in order to influence legislators so they would not pass laws governing working conditions. Employers sometimes helped to write the nominally reformist legislation and made sure that the government regulatory boards were staffed with "people favorable to their interests."65
The industrial giants possessed overwhelming wealth and power; employers actively prevented or diluted workplace laws and the conservative Supreme Court frequently reversed much of the key legislation that actually was passed. Given all these factors, little in the way of fundamental change resulted from the Progressive push for political reform. Many Progressives gradually lost their faith in legislation as the means of obtaining real change in American society. Some, like Muckraking writers Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair, turned to socialism as the only cure for a system they considered irreparably damaged by capitalist greed and the influence of big business. Workers benefited nominally from the reforms that did pass, but without real change, they turned to unionization or spontaneous strikes in order to obtain better wages and working conditions. Yet the unions of the American Federation of Labor persisted in excluding unskilled workers from their ranks. The government persecuted radical associations like the International Workers of the World. Between the elite unions of skilled workers and the splintering radical organizations, many industrial and agricultural employees struggled to find representation until the Great Depression. In the early 1880s, more than half of all strikes did not involve a formal trade union organization. The proportion of work stoppages rose over the next twenty years, but by 1900, one third of all strikes were still waged without union intervention. In the absence of effective legislation or union support, workers set out on their own to assert their collective power over the production process. To the extent that Progressive reforms actually succeeded, it may have been that employers and the government welcomed legislative regulations as an alternative to strikes, which could disrupt large sectors of American society. In this sense, workers bolstered the Progressives' cause and played a direct role in the attempt to better their lives for themselves and their children.