Brief Exploration of Possible Solutions to the Labor Class Struggle of the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries.

The backdrop of economic and technological change in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was vastly overshadowed by a dominant force or that same era; Social Change. During those years, in between the late 1870’s and the late 1910’s, many fought for socio-political change. Still present from the times prior to, and of reconstruction, the growing race problem only worsened due to the influx of immigrants from Europe and the growing acceptance of Social Darwinism. Women were fighting with growing vigor for the right to vote. And towards the early 20th century, the temperance movement was growing in strength. Another movement was the labor class struggle.

The labor class was primarily immigrants who had immigrated to this country for an opportunity to make money, and then planned on moving back to the country from which they came (Class Lecture, Gerstle, 9/25/02). As more and more immigrants came over, the owners and administrators of large factories and business trusts saw that they could easily take advantage of the surplus numbers of available employees. Low wages, poor working conditions, and harsh hours were the norm, with little to no variance. It wasn’t until the late 1880’s that a change, of various sorts, was needed.

Andrew Carnegie, of steel industry fame, was one such ‘reformer.’ In a published work called Wealth, he argued that the current conditions, no matter how bleak, were much better than they were generations before; “The poor enjoy what the rich could not before afford” (Wealth, 654). Indeed, it was true in general that a factory worker could now afford a few small luxuries that previous generations, of the same class, only dreamed of, but Carnegie’s conclusion is impractical. He also argues that the problem with the working class’ living and working conditions had nothing to do with the hours they worked or the wages they made, but instead argued that the conditions were created by the millions of dollars that sat idly in bank accounts of a handful of men. He encourages these millionaires into “shunning the display of extravagance” and to “promote the most beneficial results for the community” with an emphasis on educational facilities (Wealth, 661, 662). Carnegie himself was, for the most part, true to his words. He gave massive sums of money to colleges, philanthropic organizations (which Carnegie would later devote his later life to after he sold Carnegie Steel), and he also attempted to construct free libraries in every community; he built around 2,000 of these.

Another gentleman of upper class standing was Frederick Winslow Taylor, commonly referred to as the ‘Father of Scientific Management.’ In his best-selling book The Principles of Scientific Management, Taylor argues that the only reason poverty exists is because the labor class wasn’t working hard enough; “the greatest prosperity can exist only as the result of the greatest possible productivity of the men and machines of the establishment” (Principles, 12). He calls for the elimination of “soldiering,” which limits the output of each man, and even argues that working more efficiently would result in higher wages for the laboring class, and a better life.

Andrew Carnegie and F. W. Taylor only offered solutions that would mostly benefit the wealthy factory owners. Carnegie’s solution offered a better public image, and Taylor’s solution offered more money for the owners through decreased production time, it should be noted that he also promoted the idea to pay the workers more at the same time. Looking at these two sources, it would appear as if the growing labor crisis and the Labor Unions’ association with socialism would only damn the labor class into longer, harder work. Yet for one side of an argument there is always at least one other side. The laboring classes had their own champions, one of which was the IWW, or Industrial Workers of the World; a labor union with strong socialist ties.

The IWW was founded in 1905 and was most notably known for its attempts to globally organize all workers under one union instead of craft unions, i.e. United Mine Workers. Despite its low membership, the IWW was one of the most feared Unions of the early 20th century. Its radical, almost communistic ideals were carried out almost ruthlessly by its bold leaders. They fought repeatedly for better working and living conditions, the eight hour workday, and the abolishment of the wage system. The preamble to the IWW Constitution stresses violence, socialism, anti-craft unions, non-negotiation with employers, and most often, the abolishment of the wage system. The most compelling argument in the preamble is as follows;

“These conditions can be changed... only by an organization formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one, an injury to all” (Preamble, 87).
The IWW succeeded and failed at the same time. Its attempts to overthrow capitalism and socialistic ideals were too radical for the general populous of the labor class, and the ‘numbers influence’ remained low. However, the IWW introduced many ideas that were at the time radical, but soon grew to be very moderate and acceptable ideas, and in time, many even became law.

Less radical, but radical in his own right, was Henry George, an economist and hero to industrial laborers. His best-selling book Progress and Poverty highlighted that amidst so much wealth, there was no need for the extraordinary amount of poverty that existed in the world, noting early that the problem is global; “From all parts of the civilized world come complaints of industrial depression; … There is distress where large standing armies are maintained, but there is also distress where the standing armies are nominal” (Progress, 5-6). He also argues extensively that progress and poverty are connected, and almost inseparable. He does offer a solution however, the elimination of all taxes except land tax. This radical solution would heavily tax the wealthy land owners while leaving the lower classes free of all taxes, thereby granting them more wealth and more luxury. However, this noble and unique solution gained very little support, even amongst peers.

The problem is simple; there is poverty. The solutions offered however, were problems themselves. All were either heavily biased, too radical, or weren’t thought out at a sufficient level. The “best” of the solutions provided would appear to be Andrew Carnegie’s, and his solution, has in fact endured to this day with the numerous colleges, libraries, and foundations that he created and donated vast amounts of his wealth to. But at the time, his solution was heavily biased to help the middle and upper classes, since the average laborer could not afford to attend universities, and in some cases couldn’t read nor afford to allow their children to attend schools. The next best solution provided would be the IWW’s, no matter how radical. Their solutions would directly affect the laboring class by granting him more political and economic power, but their ways to turn their ideals into reality were entirely too radical to succeed in the immediate era. The remaining two solutions, Henry George’s and Frederick Winslow Taylor’s, are both entirely too dumbfounded to ever succeed. While there was evidence supporting Taylor’s solution, the average laborer was still working and living in the same conditions as any other laborer; which didn’t help Taylor’s solution gain the support it needed to succeed on a large scale. George’s solution, on the other hand, directly aided the laboring class, but had too many loop holes which the wealthy land owners could slip through, i.e. “renting” land. George’s solution also punished land owning farmers, who, when times were at their worst, barely made money enough to survive, let alone pay a 100% land tax. In conclusion, Carnegie’s solution is best, and has defiantly had the most positive impact upon society in the past century, and will continue to do so.