At the beginning of the 20th century, people in America felt the strong necessity of reforms in the domestic economy. In response to this need, the progressive movement emerged, whose intention was to make the government more responsible for social inequity (Media Rich Communications [MRC], 2004). This paper will explore the labor conditions of workers before reforms, discuss the role of the government in regulating monopolies, and consider the contribution of progressive presidents to economic justice.
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The end of the 19th century was marked with the prosperity of monopolies owned by wealthy people. Such families as the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Carnegies were extremely rich thanks to their businesses, while their employees lived below the poverty line and suffered from terrible labor conditions (MRC, 2004). Business leaders did not intend to improve their manufacturing processes and workers’ qualifications, so they could not be called “captains of industry.”
Furthermore, the exploitation of cheap labor force did not seem to require much business acumen, so monopolists of that time could hardly be considered “shrewd businessmen.” However, they could justifiably be called “robber barons” because they exploited their workers without rewarding them fairly for their job, which could be regarded as robbery.
American working conditions in the Age of Industry were far from satisfactory. It seems that employers of that time did not care about workers’ protection and well-being. For example, a total disregard of safety rules led to a disastrous fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York, which resulted in 146 fatalities (Smith, 2017). The building had no sprinkler system, the floor was oily, the bins were full of flammable materials, and the exit doors were locked (Smith, 2017).
Sinclair reported terrible working conditions at meat-packing factories, where “rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them, they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go on the hoppers together” (as cited in MRC, 2004). Fortunately, progressives paid attention to these abominations and passed a set of laws protecting workers and improving their labor conditions.
The government played a significant role in reforming the working environment. Starting with Roosevelt’s presidency, American authorities began to regulate business. Roosevelt’s administration sued over 40 trusts, including the Northern Securities railroad trust, the American Tobacco company, and Standard Oil, because they turned into monopolies and used unfair business practices (MRC, 2004). Furthermore, Congress passed safety laws, forbade child labor, and established a national minimum wage after the tragedy at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory (Smith, 2017). Thus, if it had not been for the government’s actions, the working conditions would not have changed.
The primary benefit of the Federal Government regulations of monopolies was that, as it was mentioned above, big businesses’ maltreatment of workers became illegal, and companies’ leaders had to take care of their employees. Woodrow Wilson regulated business through the reduction of tariffs, which prevented the formation of monopolies and encouraged foreign competition (Crane, 2015). The governmental control of large companies restricted their power and forced them to care not only about their profits but also about public well-being.
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Three progressive American presidents made efforts toward economic justice and reform for workers: Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson. However, Theodor Roosevelt’s contribution was the most significant because he initiated the reforms in the domestic economy, which were continued by his successors (MRC, 2004). He dissolved many monopolies, passed the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, and took measures to preserve natural resources (MRC, 2004). Thus, Roosevelt started the government regulation of monopolies, ensured consumer safety, and improved labor conditions of employees.
To sum up, the position of workers in the early 20th century was deplorable. The unlimited power of business leaders and their disregard for the labor force’s safety led to the emergence of the progressive movement. Its members were campaigning for the government regulation of monopolies and the improvement of working conditions. Roosevelt, the first progressive president, initiated reforms designed for the accomplishment of those goals.
Crane, D. A. (2015). All I really need to know about antitrust I learned in 1912. Iowa Law Review, 100(5), 2025-2038.
Media Rich Communications. (2004). America in the 20th century, 2, the progressive era. Web.
Smith, P. (2017). The Triangle disaster: How a fire a century ago at a New York clothing factory changed U.S. labor laws. New York Times Upfront, 150(1), 11.