Has Progress Been Made Since The 1890s?

The Fourth of July holiday brings out a lot of passion in Americans.  We celebrate the birth of our nation by reminding ourselves just what is important to us as individuals and as a nation.

Last week, our blog laid out some of those important basics.  This week we go a little deeper into some of those basic areas by comparing where we currently are and where we were in the 1890s.

Over the July 4th weekend, Ohio Village in the Ohio Historical Center celebrated by showing how what life was like  in Ohio during late 19th century.  Ohio Village, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is a historical recreation of small town Ohio during the 1890s.  People are dressed in costume and provide narratives about life in small town Ohio and also about the issues during that same time period.

A mayoral campaign was going on in the village and there were a couple of big campaign issues of the time period.   They were women’s rights and labor issues.  Labor issues also included the need for child labor laws and women campaigned not just for their rights but to enable themselves to vote for child labor laws.  Labor issues were also important to women and their needs.  Women also viewed unions as being necessary.  Both worked hand-in-hand to encourage women’s rights.

This was an important time in history because it was during the Industrial Revolution and workers were needed for the factories, mills, and mines.  While the need for workers provided women with some opportunity to earn a living and work outside the home, it also created new problems.  Although men were not overly eager to work in these areas they were paid much more than women and the children that worked there.  They provided business owners with a less expensive labor alternative than men.  Women made a third of what the men did and children, though expected to do the same as men and women, earned even less.  That small income for the women and children went to family support just as the men’s income did.

Wages weren’t the only problems as working conditions were not ideal.  Hours were grueling – from sun up to sun down with breaks only at lunch and dinner.  By 1852, however, legislature was enacted that changed the number of hours a woman could work to a maximum of 10 hours per day.  That was an improvement over the 96 hours per week a lot of women worked.  Lighting and air conditions were terrible.  Safety concerns were a big issue.  If anybody was hurt on the job they were immediately fired.

Children had it no easier.  Some lost limbs and even their lives, especially those who worked in the mines.  Children were especially wanted in the mines because of their size.  Since they were small, holes would not have to be dug as deep and they could get more out of them.  Those that did go way inside the earth risked not coming back out.  By the 1890s, there was some legislation for child labor but not enough to prevent some owners from using children as cheap labor.

It was the wages and working conditions that encouraged women to need unions.   Unions not only helped in the workplace but they also helped the women’s movement.   They became a loud voice for women’s rights and children, too, as women campaigned against child labor.  After all, how would children be able to speak up for their rights?  One woman in Connecticut worked with her husband to open a school that became a training ground for union activists which also helped train women activists for the women’s rights movement.  Hoping to improve wages and working conditions for women in the garment industry, the Female Protective Union was formed in Cleveland in 1850.  This, too, allowed greater opportunity for women to speak out and fight for rights that would improve lives.

What is interesting, though, is these issues and the need for a greater voice to improve lives is just as important today as it was in the 1890s.  If it hadn’t been the historical setting and the period dress, it would have been difficult to determine if the time was the 1890s or now.  The same message was and is being delivered.

Today, wages are a huge issue.  A report from the National Bureau of Economic Research about incomes in the U. S. in the last 60 years is rather dismal.  Just in the years from 1967 to 1983, the median lifetime income of males declined almost 20%.  For women, it was worse as it declined another 10%.  The news for the future doesn’t appear to be bright either as they say lifetime incomes will continue to stagnate for some time unless major changes with younger workers improve.

Many local legislators this last week just voted to increase minimum wage after several years and it still doesn’t bring workers to a livable wage or to the increase level of executives and CEOs.  Benefits have decreased as well.  According to the Economic Policy Institute, between the years of 1979 and 2013, wages for the bottom 70% of people earning an income increased only about 8% over that period of time!  EPI also says that is despite an enormous economic and productivity growth for the same period of a whopping 65%!  Some of the problems they attribute that too are globalization, wage inequality, increased unemployment, erosion of the ability to buy under minimum wage, lack of collective bargaining power, and, as our ancestors in 1890s saw financial abuse of workers within the workplace – wage theft,  inappropriate classification of workers, changes in labor standards and policies and the overall lack of empathy and indifference toward workers by some employers.

In addition, gender pay issues are STILL a problem.  Women have not gained much from those in 1890.  Instead of being paid a third less than men, women are now paid 22% less.  In other words, in over a 120  years women have only gained roughly 10% more in pay!  In the report from the National Bureau of Economic Research, they see very little improvement in inequality.

While working conditions may have improved for many workers since the 1890s,  workplace safety is still a major concern.  It hasn’t gone away.  Workers still put their lives on the line for their job just as they did in 1890.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration report more 4,500 workers die each year in work-related accidents.  This year alone through March, there were almost 200 worker deaths.  One worker dying from a workplace accident is one too many.  Some employers do a very good job of trying to keep workers safe and, unfortunately, accidents do happen.  The problem is, though, there are some workplaces that don’t place much emphasis on safety and this is simply irresponsible to not stress the importance of workplace safety.

As we have previously blogged, the savings of having a strong safety program and process in practice has helped one small business owner send his employees home at night and with all the fingers and toes they came in with that morning.  In addition, this owner has been able to expand his business and provide additional benefits for his employees.

But we’ve also blogged some workers have to decide whether to stay home with a sick child and lose wages or go to work.  What if that child has a significant illness?  Some workers have no ability to plan their lives as schedules are sometimes put up a day before their work week starts.  For women, the tech industry seems to be a breeding ground for inequality and sexual harassment.  We’ve heard about Uber and the work climate that caused an investigation into a massive sexual harassment scandal.  This week, word has come out that Tesla is having similar problems.

And we also have this significant problem.  Many illegal immigrants have been brought to this country through human trafficking.  Many of these people are forced into the sex industry or other forced labor situations.  Some work in agriculture, some work in factories for either very little or no money.  Some have obligations they pay back through forced labor. It is slave labor.  Some of these are children and treated no differently than those in the 1890s.  Their lives can be and are threatened or a family member’s life is threatened.  More info about this horrible life can be found here.  According to a Reuters article, there are more than 32,000 cases of human trafficking reported in the U. S. in the last 10 years.  That’s not to say there aren’t more cases because many victims are afraid to come out and it’s hard for officials to know if they are occurring if nothing is said or done.

Today, unions continue to be a movement and a voice not just for workers but those who need help just as they did back in the 1890s.   Unions still  fight for better wages, benefits and working conditions including health and safety but if you look at the AFL-CIO website, there is a long list of other issues they work on that improve lives not just in the workplace.  Some of these include healthcare for all, equality, education, civil rights and forced labor conditions.  But, as loud as they are, unions cannot and should not be the only voice.

And so that leads us to this question, are we better off today than in the 1890s?  Has progress been made?  Yes, in some ways we are but when it comes to our work lives and, for some, our everyday lives, we have a long way to go.  Some may say it’s an individual situation.  Everybody has a choice.  That may be true but does everybody?  Why do we have to continue  to have the  same issues?



About CALMC Blog

Columbus Area Labor-Management Committee is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to involving employers and employees to preserve jobs, resolve workplace issues, and promote labor-management cooperation. Visit our website at http://calmc.org
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