The Socialist Challenge
"I bring you the stately matron named Christendom, returning bedraggled, besmirched, and dishonored from pirate raids in Kiao-Chou, Manchuria, South Africa, and the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle, and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies."~ Mark Twain, circa 1900
"In the face of the facts that modern man lives more wretchedly than the cave-man, and that his producing power is a thousand times greater than that of the cave-man, no other conclusion is possible than that the capitalist class has mismanaged .. . criminally and selfishly mismanaged." and "Let us not destroy those wonderful machines that produce efficiently and cheaply. Let us control them. Let us profit by their efficiency and cheapness. Let us run them for ourselves. That, gentlemen, is socialism..." ~ Jack London, 1906
Some theorize reasonably that having a few owners streamlining large businesses such as railroads and oil companies makes sense and allows things to run smoothly, for wages to be high and normalized, and for everything to be efficient, but as we see today and was evident at the turn of the century, "True, the very big businesses were not hurt [by recession], but profits after 1907 were not as high as capitalists wanted, industry was not expanding as fast as it might, and industrialists began to look for ways to cut costs." Safety measures and labor wages are two quick fixes to the cost-cutting demands, at least in the short run. Labor became standardized and mechanized as well, so more people, the poor and uneducated, women and children, could work at all hours in drudgery for lower wages. Many people got sick because of the poor light and air quality, and some died in fires caused by hazardous conditions.
A garment factory worker around this time was interviewed and said, "In these disease-breeding holes we, the youngsters together with the men and women toiled from seventy and eighty hours a week! Saturdays and Sundays included!... A sign would go up on Saturday afternoon: 'If you don't come in on Sunday, you need not come in on Monday.' ... Children's dreams of a day off shattered. We wept, for after all, we were only children."
"In the year 1904, 27,000 workers were killed on the job, in manufacturing, transport, and agriculture. In one year, 50,000 accidents took place in New York factories alone. Hat and cap makers were getting respiratory diseases, quarrymen were inhaling deadly chemicals, lithographic printers were getting arsenic poisoning."
"According to a report of the Commission on Industrial Relations, in 1914, 35,000 workers were killed in industrial accidents and 700,000 injured. That year the income of forty-four families making $1 million or more equaled the total income of 100,000 families earning $500 a year."
Howard Zinn tells some great stories about the history of unions at this time. Women and African Americans asserted their rights, with mixed success. I recommend you go to the book chapter and read them yourselves.
It is also interesting to see how there were different types of unions. You had conservative unions, which remind me of the Human Rights Campaign. They try/tried to promote equality and improvement in socieity, but they worked with the system one step at a time. Other unions didn't stop at just giving rights to white men but sought to dismantle the whole system and free women and blacks.
Conservatives at the time fought against socialism overtly, but Progressives met them halfway and enacted new rules and laws that alleviated some of the problems working people were fighting against but that ultimately gave more control to businessmen, pushing the government and big business further into bed together. As one Socialist at the time put it, "progressives would work for reforms, but Socialists must make only 'impossible demands,' which would reveal the limitations of the reformers."
The lengths taken to get even these small reforms were great. Working men, women, and children who decided to strike when faced with unhealthy, inhuman conditions were met by the police, the National Guard, hired private detective agencies, and they were often beaten or killed. Preachers and peaceful protestors were also silenced by any means necessary. The rights to free speech and assembly were suspended at times when martial law was declared. We haven't seen too much of that kind of escalation during the Occupy Wall Street movements, but I've known people who were arrested for peacefully protesting, and I am proud of them.