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Dying to WorkDeath and Injury in the American Workplace$

Jonathan D. Karmel

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9781501709982

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: September 2018

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9781501709982.001.0001

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America Goes to Work

America Goes to Work

(p.9) 1 America Goes to Work
Dying to Work

Jonathan D. Karmel

Cornell University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents a brief history of the significant events that changed the American workplace in the Nineteenth century. The upheaval from the Industrial Revolution, supported by waves of immigration, along with the rise of unions and worker unrest, are all discussed as America transitioned from an agrarian economy into an industrial giant.

Keywords:   Industrial Revolution, immigration, unions, strikes, Louis Brandcis, Clara Lemlich

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.


In order to understand where America is today in terms of worker health and safety, as well as where it needs to change, it is important to understand the arc of history in the American workplace.

America before the Civil War was largely a rural agrarian society. Americans lived in isolated communities, tenuously connected to others living within a short distance by horse-drawn wagons traveling over poor and primitive roads. These Americans, living in isolation, were self-sufficient in housing, food, clothing, and other life-sustaining essentials. The farm was the primary workplace, staffed by family members. There, almost all of one’s needs could be manufactured or grown. The industrial sector, as it was until around 1870, consisted mostly of small firms and workshops that relied on artisan technology to produce goods for local consumption. In communities with a river for a power source, there were small industries, primarily sawmills and grain mills.

Although there is little reliable information on worker safety from back then, the Eden of the pre-industrialized America could be a mean and (p.10) nasty place. Preindustrial workers risked injury from animals, hand tools, ladders, and water wheels. But for the most part, worker injuries were infrequent and thought to be the fault of the victim, who most often was also the “employer.” This all changed with the onset of the Industrial Revolution.

The workplace that Americans found at the end of the nineteenth century was created in the cauldron of the Industrial Revolution, beginning well before the Civil War. Between the Civil War and World War I, and fueled by a historic wave of immigration, the United States rapidly intensified its transformation from a rural-based economy to an industrial powerhouse, centered in its growing and teeming cities. There is little dispute among historians and economists that the American Industrial Revolution occurred because of the embarrassment of natural resources, the emergence and development of American-style manufacturing (including the rise of the managerial firm), the growth of the railroads and lowered costs of transportation, and the education of the workforce. But none of this would have been possible without the more than thirty-three million immigrants who, from 1820 to 1920, landed on the shores of America, mostly from Europe, seeking the promises of the United States.

In 1880, almost one-half of American workers were farmers. Less than 15 percent worked in any kind of manufacturing. By 1920, only a mere forty years later, the numbers were almost dead even. In this same period, manufacturing employment, centralized in growing cities, increased from 2.5 million workers to 10 million by 1920. While a portion of this workforce was a product of rural-to-urban internal migration, mostly it was a result of the flood of external immigration. More than 14 million foreign-born workers were the human fuel that powered the American Industrial Revolution. Counting their children during this forty-year period, 23 million strong, more than one-third of the 105 million Americans in 1920 were first or second generation. In 1900, three-quarters of the population in most large cities were immigrants and their children.1

With this massive influx of immigrant labor into American cities, together with the power, transportation, and communication revolutions, the pieces were all falling in place for the industrial transformation of America. Electrical power replaced steam; railroads expanded and connected manufacturing output to markets all over the United States; telephone and telegraph altered the meaning of time and space. The final (p.11) piece was the development of the organizational firm. Large corporations were located in urban cities, where the source of cheap labor lived. Giant corporations developed and became the prototype of what would become a corporate society. American corporations became more formalized, organized, and integrated.

In 1925, half a century after the end of the Industrial Revolution, Calvin Coolidge surveyed America, whose transformation he had witnessed firsthand, and declared: “After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of the opinion that the great majority of people will always find these the moving impulses of our life.” Some have argued that this statement has often been unfairly used by his detractors as evidence of Coolidge’s pro-business philosophy. Fair or not, it is an accurate and clear-eyed description of the United States as an industrial and economic colossus, embodying the world’s richest and most powerful industrial nation. But at what price?

The labor force that arrived on steamships from ports all across the Atlantic were not necessarily lured by the promise of factory jobs in American cities. They were mostly unskilled laborers, farmer and artisans with very little, if any, factory experience. The potato famine in Ireland, and crises and privation in other parts of Europe, were the primary causes of immigration at the end of the nineteenth century. It was in this period that the unskilled immigrant laborer became the “dominant factory manufacturing labor force.”2

Fleeing from famine and other adversity, this nascent industrial workforce, largely unskilled and uneducated, was tossed into the grinder of America’s Industrial Revolution. Immigrant workers who in Europe had only used small hand tools and animal-powered plows and wagons were now operating unguarded mechanical equipment, powered by steam, and later electricity, in a high-speed factory setting.

Enormous manufacturing output and productivity were spawned in the Industrial Revolution. But so were dangerous working conditions previously unknown in the history of humankind. And this increased output correlated with increased worker injury and death. As American industrial might grew to unprecedented heights, producing material riches for its owners and creating a consumer society, the risk of dying or becoming seriously maimed in the workplace grew as well. This all occurred within (p.12) a legal and regulatory climate that did not exactly encourage an employer to be concerned about the safety of his workers. As a result, American production methods were extremely productive, and extremely dangerous. Workers initially had little or no say about their safety, and legal liability for workplace injuries was usually shifted to the employee under assumption of risk or negligence theories, thereby making compensation for injuries nonexistent. Injuries were cheap, and workers were replaceable. There was simply no economic incentive for employers to create a safe workplace.

Nowhere was this correlation between increased production and dangerous working conditions as stark as in American coal mines and on its railroads, especially compared to their counterparts in Great Britain. Some of this can be explained by differences in mining methods, and the vast geography of the United States that railroads had to travel. But it is undeniable that in the decades immediately before and after the turn of the century, American workers were getting injured in these jobs at twice the rate of English workers. American mines yielded more coal per worker than British mines, but at double the injury rate.3 On the rails, geography and low population density turned American railroads into primarily freight haulers, a far more dangerous business for workers than hauling passenger traffic. “The slaughter of railroad employees began almost as soon as the first lines were built.”4 Derailments and collisions were common and deadly, owing to the lack of signals and the poor condition of the track and rail bed. Worse, men had to work between moving train cars to couple and uncouple, and to work the brakes. At the end of the nineteenth century, railroad workers experienced an extraordinary level of risk, with a fatality rate of 3.14 per thousand, and likely much higher because of underreporting. By the new century, dubbed the Century of Progress, the slaughter continued. In 1907 alone, accidents killed 4,534 railroad workers.5

Mines and railroads were not the only dangerous workplaces. Garment workers, mostly Jews from Eastern Europe, were employed in sweatshops up and down the East Coast, but primarily in New York City, the home of the garment industry. By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, more people worked in factories in Manhattan than in all the mills and plants in Massachusetts. Most of the workers there were employed in the garment industry.

(p.13) Looking back, in 1791, treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton estimated that more than two-thirds of all clothing in America was homemade. Little changed over the next fifty years until Elias Howe developed the lockstitch sewing machine in the mid-1840s. This innovation made strong, straight seams and made possible the mass production of commercial clothing manufactured in a factory. Courtesy of the Civil War, demand for mass-produced clothing was created as hundreds of thousands of soldiers wore the same uniform manufactured and cut to standard sizes, differentiated only by blue and gray. The war experience, horrific as it was, spelled the death knell of homespun clothing. Such laboriously made clothing was eventually replaced by the convenience and quality of manufactured clothing, easily purchased off-the-rack in America’s new department stores, or through the ubiquitous catalog. The next technological change occurred with the invention of the cutter’s knife in the 1870s, which enabled a garment worker to cut pieces for identical garments in a few strokes.

With the technology in place, the millions of skilled and unskilled immigrant workers arriving daily in America from Eastern Europe, Russia, and Italy provided the final piece to the rise of the manufacturing garment industry.6 By 1900, homemade clothing was a preindustrial relic. In its place was a booming garment industry, centered in Manhattan, and dependent on immigrant workers, mostly women, who worked twelve-hour days, seven days a week, for a few dollars a day. Garment workers were crowded into dark and squalid tenement rooms and hallways on the Lower East Side, poorly ventilated, and with locked exits. The tenements became known as sweatshops, not so much for their deplorable conditions but because of the practice of “sweating” the workers for more work and less pay. In addition to receiving low wages for piecework, workers were charged for needles and thread and for the use of old sewing machines and the privilege to pump the sewing pedal with their feet for hours on end. At the end of their shifts, workers were lined up at the single unlocked exit and bodily searched, just in case they tried to take home a strand of thread or swatch of cloth. Communicable diseases were common for these workers crowded together in tiny rooms with little ventilation and no windows. Tuberculosis was known as “the tailors’ disease,” or “the Jewish disease.”

On June 3, 1900, in response to the long hours, low pay, and dangerous working conditions in the garment industry, eleven delegates representing (p.14) local unions in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Newark formed the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). The local unions banding together were the United Brotherhood of Cloak Makers, the Skirt Makers Union No. 1 of Greater New York, the Cloak Makers’ Protective Union of Philadelphia, the Cloak Makers Union of Baltimore, the Cloak Makers’ Union of Brownsville (in Brooklyn), and the Cloak Makers’ Union of Newark, New Jersey. They were composed primarily of Jewish immigrants who had recently arrived from Eastern Europe, many of whom were socialists and had been active trade unionists before coming to America. The ILGWU was granted a charter from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) on June 22, 1900.

The decade that followed in the garment industry, especially in Manhattan, was turbulent and marked by wildcat strikes and other actions, as workers struggled for better wages and working conditions. In the summer of 1909, hundreds of tailors, buttonhole makers, neckwear workers, and waist makers from shops all across Manhattan walked off work on wildcat strikes. The strikes were short-lived, lasting briefly until the owners gave the workers a modest wage increase.

But in September 1909, events occurred that fundamentally changed the relationship between workers and their employers. Workers, mostly women, at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan went out on strike. The manufacture of shirtwaists, or blouses, was a rapidly growing industry. New York had more than five hundred “waist” factories operating, employing more than forty thousand workers. The strike began when workers at Triangle overwhelmingly voted to join the United Hebrew Trades, an association of Jewish labor unions, rather than continue participation in the company-run “benevolent” association. Triangle’s owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, once “greenhorns” themselves, were now wealthy Manhattan industrialists, living with servants near the Hudson River at their in-town mansions. Triangle was a million-dollar business, the largest shirtwaist factory in Manhattan, with more than five hundred employees. Blanck and Harris responded to the strike by firing the union organizers and replacing them with prostitutes. In sympathy, other workers at Triangle joined the strike. Doubling down, Blanck and Harris hired gang members, who worked for Tammany Hall bosses, to threaten and assault the striking women, sometimes with the assistance of the New York police.

(p.15) After five weeks of being out on strike, shirtwaist workers held a meeting and rally in the Great Hall at Cooper Union. Samuel Gompers, president of the AFL, was there endorsing the strike. But it was Clara Lemlich who carried the day. Barely five feet tall, Lemlich backed down to no one. At age twenty-three, she was a seasoned union organizer. The Triangle strike was her third strike in three years. In today’s parlance, she was a “salt,” an organizer who, unknown to the employer, gets herself hired solely to work inside the workplace for the purpose of organizing the workers. She had already survived broken ribs and other injuries in a brutal beating by a hired thug who had twice done time for burglary. On this night, following Gompers, she stood at the podium, her curly hair tightly pulled back and parted on the right, and forcefully declared in Yiddish, “I have no further patience for talk. I move that we go on a general strike! Enough is enough!” Genuv iz genuv! A general strike was called across the Manhattan garment industry, and workers from other sweatshops, again mostly women, walked off their jobs. Known as the “Uprising of the Twenty Thousand,” it is believed that more than forty thousand garment workers participated in the strike called by Lemlich.

Once again, the owners turned the gangs loose on the strikers. But it was public opinion that turned the tide in favor of the workers. The images and stories of young women being harassed, threatened, and in some cases beaten, by gangs, company guards, and police, helped build public support for the strikers. And much of the support came from the unlikeliest of sources. Wealthy Manhattan women, many of whom undoubtedly owned the dresses painstakingly manufactured by the strikers, became their biggest supporters. These progressive socialites, who themselves were struggling for the rights of women’s suffrage, found common cause with the immigrant women strikers. J. P. Morgan’s daughter Anne announced in the New York Times her support for the strikers by joining the Women’s Trade Union League:

If we come to fully recognize these conditions we can’t live our own lives without doing something to help them, bringing them at least the support of public opinion. We can see from the general trade conditions how difficult it must be for these girls to get along. Of course, the consumer must be protected, but when you hear of a woman who presses forty dozen skirts for $8 a week something must be very wrong. And fifty-two hours a week seems little enough to ask. … These conditions are terrible, and the girls must be helped to organize … and if public opinion is on their side they will be able to do it.7

(p.16) Another supporter of the strike was Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, whose first husband was the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt. She divorced Vanderbilt as an adulterer and married August Belmont, whose father was a Jewish investment banker for the Rothschild family.8 His mother was the daughter of Commodore Matthew Perry. By her birth and social status, she seemed the most unlikely benefactor of immigrant women garment workers. But after August Belmont died suddenly, Alva used her considerable wealth in support of women’s and workers’ rights, including financial support for the Women’s Trade Union League. She also kept the socialist newspaper The Masses from bankruptcy. And in the “Uprising of Twenty Thousand,” she gave considerable financial support to the strikers, including paying the bail of arrested strikers.9 Anne Morgan, Alva Belmont, and others like them were bound together with Clara Lemlich, the small, skinny Jewish girl from the Ukraine. The right to vote, and the right to better working conditions and pay, were now united.

Their support proved pivotal, as the shirtwaist companies bowed to public pressure and agreed in early 1910 to negotiations and arbitration with the ILGWU. An agreement was reached on February 13, 1910, limiting the workweek to only fifty-two hours, while giving workers four paid holidays. In addition, employers were required to provide all the tools and materials necessary for the work, instead of charging workers for needles and thread. However, not all shirtwaist companies signed the agreement. Most notably, Blanck and Harris at Triangle did not.10 Their refusal to move with the progressive tide would prove fatal to 146 of their workers a little more than twelve months later.

But, before that, there was more unrest. On July 7, 1910, more than sixty thousand cloak makers, this time mostly men, went on strike, affecting around eighteen hundred shops and stores across the nation.11 With public opinion still on the workers’ side, pressure to settle came from a new source—retail store owners led by Abraham Lincoln Filene, owner of the Boston-based Filene’s. Filene, born of German-Jewish immigrant parents ten days before his namesake was assassinated, was unusual among the wealthy businessman of his time. He was an early supporter of women’s suffrage, and much later bucked the trend of his business class and supported Roosevelt’s New Deal. He was what some might call an enlightened capitalist. Although his strong personal beliefs guided many of the decisions in his life, he also had an economic self-interest in resolving (p.17) the cloak makers’ strike: he sold the coats and garments that they made, and without new merchandise arriving in his stores, his sales would fall off. So he would lead the effort to settle the strike, and sought the help of another Jewish Bostonian. He hired lawyer Louis Brandeis to negotiate and mediate a settlement.

Brandeis, born in Louisville, Kentucky, started his first law practice in Boston, after attending Harvard Law School, where he graduated first in his class. Graduating number two at Harvard was his partner, Samuel Warren. Brandeis soon became known as the “people’s lawyer” for the many public-interest cases he handled, often for no fee. He was a brilliant lawyer and tactician, and later a United States Supreme Court justice. Filene also reached out to Meyer Bloomfield, a prominent Boston social worker and industrial reformer. Teamed with Brandeis, they were the perfect delegates for Filene to navigate the ever-widening gap between the cloak makers’ manufacturers, who formed a protective association, and the striking workers and their union, the ILGWU.

Beginning in late July 1910, Brandeis and Bloomfield mediated and negotiated between the manufacturers and their corporate lawyer, Julius Cohen, and the union and its leaders. Brandeis attempted to craft a compromise, which early on the union had rejected and walked away from. This proved to be a tactical mistake, as for the first time public opinion began to turn against the union and the strikers, with the New York Times leading the way, writing that the workers were greedy and selfish. This setback made it harder for Brandeis to find a settlement. In the end, and after Cohen moved the strike into the courtroom, where he obtained an injunction against the ILGWU, a deal was reached on September 2. Dubbed the “Protocols of Peace,” the agreement ushered in a new system of industrial relations. It was a watershed event in labor relations. It contained the common terms found in a labor contract today, covering wages, hours, and other working conditions, and was far better than most contracts of the day. Most important, and lasting into today, the protocols codified Brandeis’s vision of industrial peace that would ban all strikes and lockouts during the term of an agreement, and replace strife with a grievance and arbitration procedure. Disputes would be resolved in arbitration and not on the streets. Finally, the protocols created the “preferential shop,” which was, for all practical purposes, a closed union shop.

(p.18) As 1910 came to a close, and with nearly 90 percent of all cloak makers now in the union and covered by the protocols, the manufacturers believed that the days of wildcat strikes and labor unrest were over. They could go back to making blouses and coats and other garments for the new American consumer, who was buying manufactured clothing at the rate of $1.3 billion in sales per year. In today’s dollars, they sold $23 billion through stores like Filene’s and in Sears, Roebuck catalogs.12 Abraham Lincoln Filene, with Brandeis and Bloomfield, believed that they had created a template for industrial relations, built on mutual respect benefiting both capital and labor. Their peace, however, lasted only a short time. The revolution in industrial relations that the workers’ strikes of 1909–1910 begat would continue following the Triangle fire, but at the cost of 146 lives.


(1.) Charles Hirschman and Elizabeth Mogford, “Immigration and the American Industrial Revolution from 1880 to 1920,” Social Science Research 38, no. 4 (December 1, 2009): 897–920, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2760060/.

(2.) Sukkoo Kim, “Immigration, Industrial Revolution, and Urban Growth in the United States, 1820–1920: Factor Endowments, Technology, and Geography,” working paper, National Bureau of Economic Research, January 2007, http://www.nber.org/papers/w12900.

(3.) Mark Aldrich, “History of Workplace Safety in the United States, 1880–1970,” encyclopedia entry, EH.net, Economic History Association, August 14, 2001, https://www.eh.net/encyclopedia/history-of-workplace-safety-in-the-united-states-1880-1970-2/.

(4.) Mark Aldrich, Safety First: Technology, Labor, and Business in the Building of American Worker Safety, 1870–1939 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

(6.) David von Drehle, Triangle: The Fire That Changed America (New York: Grove, 2003).

(7.) New York Times, December 14, 1909.

(9.) Ibid., 77.

(10.) Ibid., 86.

(11.) Richard A. Greenwald, “‘More Than a Strike’: Ethnicity, Labor Relations, and the Origins of the Protocol of Peace in the New York Ladies’ Garment Industry,” Business and Economic History 27, no. 2 (Winter 1998): 318–29.