You have just moved to a new country where you don't speak the language. You need a job because you also need food and shelter. What would you do? How hard would the situation be and what job would you be qualified for? Immigrants traveling to America in the late 1800s and early 1900 faced the exact same situation. They immigrated with hopes of religious freedom, democracy, equality and economic prosperity. America was booming with new industries and large-scale factories that needed competent workers. Some immigrants accepted jobs at factories because they had skills that were useful to industry developers and factory owners. Most became factory workers because they needed money for food and necessities as they settled into their new lives in America.
Industries flourished from the late 1800s into the 1920s, so business owners needed reliable laborers who were willing to work 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week. These employers needed an intense and expansive labor force to fill these jobs in industrial fields like construction projects, merchandise production lines, millwork, textile factories and steel mills. Immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia, Italy and other European countries poured into the United States searching for employment. It was a good fit as factory job demand was high and immigrants needed work.
Many factory owners hired immigrants over locals because they could get more work for less wages. Immigrants didn't typically demand wage increases and were willing to work in unappealing, often unsanitary conditions. Issues like language barriers kept many immigrants from non-factory work that required direct contact with customers. Some immigrants complained that industrial labor was more difficult than work back home. However, most kept their factory jobs because they were only qualified for labor positions. In some cities, such as Chicago, wages and benefits only grew an average of 0.1 percent a year.
Even though perks associated with factory labor weren't glamorous, many immigrants accepted industrial positions because owners supplied free or cheap housing for their workers. Immigrants didn't usually have enough money or resources to purchase or rent their own housing, so they couldn't turn down the additional economic support. Political bosses with strong influences into the workplace through unions and factory owners often took advantage of their financially dependent laborers and used them as a strong voting base to pursue their own political agendas.
National child labor laws weren't enacted until 1918, so immigrants often joined factories because they could put their whole family to work. Young children and mothers of young children didn't work, but teenagers often worked alongside parents to help earn more money for the family. Factory bosses were willing to hire unskilled, underage workers willing to accept especially low wages. Children learned the trade from family members who had experience in the industry and offered instruction in their native languages.
As curriculum developer and educator, Kristine Tucker has enjoyed the plethora of English assignments she's read (and graded!) over the years. Her experiences as vice-president of an energy consulting firm have given her the opportunity to explore business writing and HR. Tucker has a BA and holds Ohio teaching credentials.