Monopolies and Workers Exploitation in the Industrial Age


During the Industrial Age, the labor sector in the U.S. market faced a lot of challenges which led to its revamping. Most of the people then were farmers, and with the introduction of machinery, many abandoned the rural areas and moved to the urban region. However, the labor market was monopolized by several industrial leaders who controlled every aspect of the market, right from production to marketing. This paper aims to identify the business tycoons in the Industrial Age, the labor conditions during that period, and how the federal government participated in improving the working conditions.

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Were Big Business Leaders “Captains Of Industry,” “Shrewd Businessmen,” or “Robber Barons”?

Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John D. Rockefeller were the leading business tycoons in the late 19th century. These prominent business leaders transformed the American business sector, which was by then largely unregulated by the federal government, by focussing their power; hence monopolizing the market. Describing these leaders as “robber barons” or “captains of industry” is heavily dependent on an individual’s perspective. For individuals who were adversely affected by these business leaders, they would refer to them as robber barons. This is because these business leaders failed to give farmers rebates for shipping their crops by rail (Media Rich Communications, 2004). Conversely, other business owners were granted discounts. Moreover, those who worked for these barons complained of unfair wages. On the other hand, those who viewed the business leaders as captains of the industry did so in regards to how they efficiently ran their companies and were able to lower costs and provide products at relatively lower prices. Moreover, they were innovative and would find new ways of employing resources to enable their business gain a competitive advantage, for instance, John Rockefeller found techniques of using by-products obtained from the conversion of crude oil to kerosene.

The American Working Conditions and Exploitation of Workers in the Age of Industry

In the Industrial Age, the working conditions were hazardous for various reasons. This is because the then underdeveloped technology lacked any safety protocol was susceptible to breakage and fires. However, it was particularly risky because the factories operated under no regulations; hence, the managers lacked a financial purpose of protecting their workers. For instance, in the Triangle Fire Disaster, many of the workers died as the factory did not have any sprinkler system nor emergency exit (Smith, 2017). Moreover, factory managers wanted cheap labor, and the operating machines did not need much skill. Therefore, they were inclined to hire women and children who worked for half the wages of men. Consequentially, the prevalence of child labor was at its highest during the Industrial revolution. This is elaborated in the Triangle Fire tragedy where many immigrant teenage women working in the clothing factory died (Smith, 2017).

The Role that the Government Played in Reforming American Working Conditions

The American federal government played a vital and significant role in improving the working conditions in the Industrial Age. These include President Grover Cleveland signed new legislation in 1894 during the Pullman strike to create a federally mandated legal holiday to recognize and celebrated labor, otherwise known as the Labor Day (McNatt,1944). Furthermore, there have been several progressive Presidents elected who advocated for the regulation of business practices, prices, and labor conditions of monopolies.

The Benefits of the Federal Government Regulations of Monopolies

Many of the leading industrialists combined the operations of several large corporations forming a trust. For instance, John Rockefeller created Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust that monopolized the oil sector, thus significantly preventing the threat of new entrants (Media Rich Communications, 2004). Monopolies were often indicted for threatening smaller competitors to maintain higher prices and profits. This economic power gave these companies political advantage as well; therefore, the federal government even implemented policies which protect the U.S. industries from foreign competition. However, with the election of progressive leaders, the Interstate Commerce Act was formed (Media Rich Communications, 2004). This law directed railroads to charge affordable and reasonable rates. Moreover, in 1890, the Sherman Act was passed. The antitrust law prohibited combination in the form of trust with the aim of monopolizing trade among states. As a result, the implementation of the before-mentioned laws led to the public being offered the advantages that flow from free competition.

Analyze Which Progressive Presidents Attained Economic Justice and Reform for Workers

Three progressive presidents facilitated the attainment of economic justice and reformed for workers in the U.S. They include Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Eugene V. Debs. Theodore Roosevelt perceived that the federal government should have the power to supervise and regulate all companies participating in interstate trading. He took the role of a “trustbuster” to break up the monopolies in the industry, and this resulted in him filing suits under the Sherman Act against several big companies such as the Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust (Media Rich Communications, 2004). Theodore Roosevelt was succeeded by William Howard Taft, who used truth busting to break up monopolies by filing suits under the Sherman Act, which included U.S. steel (Media Rich Communications, 2004). President Taft was followed by Eugen Debs, who perceived monopolies as an inevitable part of the modern economy, hence recommended that regulation should be managed by the federal government and run in the public’s interest.

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Labor is a vital component of any business. Therefore, corporations should strive to provide better working conditions for their employees. In the Industrial Age, workers were faced with hazardous working conditions, which led to dangerous outcomes. However, as a result of the effort of several progressive presidents, the monopolistic market was broken up and labour conditions revamped.


McNatt, E. B. (1944). The Pullman strike (Book). American Economic Review, 34(1), 184–186.

Media Rich Communications (Producer). (2004). The progressive era [Video file]. 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.

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