Big Business and Labor Exploitation in the US

On the turn of the twentieth century all main industries in the USA, like oil, railroad, tobacco, and sugar were concentrated in the hands of several millionaire families, like the Carnegies, Vanderbilts, and Rockefellers. They formed monopolies, turning them into trusts to eliminate competition and ensure the flow of wealth into their hands, enjoying the fruits of big business. Rockefeller argued: “The growth of large business is merely a survival of the fittest” (Media Rich Communications, 2004). However, the growth and prosperity of the “shrewd businessmen” were ensured by other’s labor.

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Millions of Americans during the Age of Industry were slaving away in sweatshops for long hours and left their working places to come to their homes in slums. Corruption in business and government left no hope for the end of child labor, racial prejudice, barbaric treatment by employers, and hideous level of healthcare. Such level of neglect and lack of responsibility for the workers alongside the exploitation of children made the big business leaders “robber barons” rather than “captains of industry.” Millions of people, including children, labored for extremely low pay, long hours, and in perilous working conditions; Factory workers were treated as less than human. All these added to the labor rights movement that tried to address such issues as workplace conditions, undocumented workers, working hours and child labor, and so on.

The Labor Movement was galvanized by the Triangle factory fire that broke on March 25, 1911, in New York City. Around 150 people were killed; most of them were teenage girls (Smith, 2017). This fire and especially the drama of immigrant women that burned to death behind locked exit doors or plunged to the ground out of windows shocked the nation. At the dawn of a new era, Americans began to demand change, equality, reform, and the progressive era was born (Media Rich Communications, 2004). However, the change did not happen overnight; it took 27 years since the Triangle Factory fire to ban child labor and set a minimum wage.

The process of reforming American working conditions started with addressing the monopolies. Progressives argued that the concentration of industries, money, and power in the hands of a few industrialists like Rockefeller was dangerous (Media Rich Communications, 2004). Roosevelt was not successful in eliminating the monopolies and had to accept them as an inevitable part of the American economy. Nevertheless, he managed to initiate a regulation process, demanding to impose rules for hours, wages, and attaining better working conditions for people.

His successor, Woodrow Wilson, called for regulated competition and, in tight cooperation with the Congress, dealt the threat to an economy by the Clayton Act, which gave a clear explanation of which practices were illegal. Hence, the discrimination in price, tie-in contracts, buying voting stock to control the companies, and interlocking directorates were prohibited or limited; the labors’ right to organize was also supported.

Most importantly, “the country was transformed from a relatively laissez-faire economy with a minimal government into a heavily regulated economy governed by an interventionist state” (Rothbard 2017, p. 10). These measures turned to be extremely beneficial for the economy and nation as the whole.

As previously stated, big business and exploitation of workers went hand in hand in the USA. Progressive presidents Roosevelt and Wilson contributed to the change in American social policy. It took several decades to succeed in promoting the interests of workers, to abolish child labor, and to improve working conditions significantly. Alongside that, monopolies had to change their politics to meet the new American society demands. Although the reforms were not prompt and took years of debates and strikes, the American economy and society progressed immensely due to these processes.

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Media Rich Communications (Producer). (2004). The Progressive Era. Retrieved from Academic Video Online: Premium database.

Rothbard, M. N. (2017). The Progressive Era. Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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. Web.

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StudyCorgi. "Big Business and Labor Exploitation in the US." June 29, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Big Business and Labor Exploitation in the US." June 29, 2021.


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