There’s a lot of things that most of us take for granted: the eight-hour working day, child labour laws, overtime and workplace safety. But if you were to leave North America you would find that outside of western Europe and one or two other countries we are the exception not the rule.
”Where do you think these came from... generous and benevolent bosses?...
Utah Phillips: Fellow Workers
In Canada, United States, and Europe, the last couple of decades of the 19th century marked the real shift in economic life from agrarian to mass industry. The process had started before that, but it wasn’t until after the American Civil War that it really began to flourish. This was the time which saw the formation of most of the countries of Europe as we know them today, and the first real period of extended peace for most of the industrial world.
The invention of the steam engine had made the Atlantic crossing easier and international markets more accessible. When it was combined with the proliferation of rail across the United States and Canada, the domestic markets were now only days apart. For the United States the timing couldn’t have been better.
The Civil War had devastated the country in a lot of ways, but it had also hastened its industrialisation. Both sides had utilized the new technologies available during the war for the production of arms, the movement of troops, and for battles on the water. Rail lines had been laid for troops which now could be used for shipping, and the steel-hulled battleships had proved effective enough that steam and steel would soon be replacing wind and wood in the shipping industry.
But the work was dangerous and dirty. There were no rules governing how an employer treated the workers under his control. In a lot of cases conditions and jobs were little less then indentured slavery.
Small children were employed to go into the mines that were too tight for full-grown men. If you got sick you lost your job. If you were injured working you were doomed. There wasn’t even any guarantee that you’d get paid. Sometimes if you were unlucky enough you could end up owing your employer money.
If they supplied you with a shack to live in and gruel twice a day it would be docked from your wages. If you were being paid on a quota system and for some reason, anything from equipment failure to bad weather, you fell short of your mark, you wouldn’t get your full pay and couldn’t cover the cost of your board. It could take a person months to work out from under that debt. If you didn’t pay you could get arrested.