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Is enough ever enough? A happy employee of any company who has job satisfaction in activity, wages, and benefits will change companies if offered the same job with better wages and better benefits. A Fortune 500 company is not likely to hire an candidate for Chief Executive Officer (CEO) who says they will do nothing to increase profit margins or reduce production costs. The human condition pushes individuals to want to improve their situation, even when they have enough. Though these statements are general and simplified it is hard to argue with their validity. The CEO’s perspective and responsibility is to keep the company viable and profitable, thus insuring and creating jobs for the employees. The employees perspective and responsibility is to complete the tasks assigned to create the product or service of value. These differences in perspectives and responsibilities often place employers and employees in conflict. No time in the short life of the United States of America have these perspectives and responsibilities been in more conflict then the years between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the 20th Century, the Gilded Age.
The spring of 1865 saw the end of the civil war, ushering the United States of America, like a mother delivering a child, into the painful birth of a nation reborn (Shi 533). This rebirth would lead the United States of America to become a global juggernaut in the areas of technological innovations and advancement, industry, and agriculture. America’s rapid growth came with growing pains created through the widening divide between the “captains of industry” and the working class. Conditions for the working class of Americans suffered at the hands of the leaders of industry’s focus on reducing costs and increasing profits, at the expense of the workers. The captains of industry had the greatest wealth which gave them influence with elected government officials keeping regulations nonexistent. As written by historian David Emory Shi, “In general, both Congress and the presidents in this period accepted the traditional economic doctrine of laissez-faire, a French phrase meaning “let them do as they will,” which opposed government interference in the economy (Shi 592).” The working class had little to no access to the government leaving them initially powerless to improve their plight. This created conflict and distrust between the leaders of industry and the working class, generally posing negative impacts on the working class. In Andrew Carnegie’s article “Wealth”, Carnegie suggests how an employer hires thousands of employees ending the “intercourse” between employer and employee breeding “rigid castes” with mutual ignorance and distrusts the other, “ready to credit anything disparaging” to the opposing caste (Carnegie 654). “Under the law of competition,” says Carnegie, “the employer of thousands is forced into the strictest economies, among which the rates paid to labor figure prominently, and often there is friction between the employer and the employed, between capital and labor, between rich and poor. Human society loses homogeneity… (Carnegie 654-655).” Powderly’s statement, “Narrow prejudice, born of the injustice and oppressions of the past, must be overcome, and all who interest themselves in producing for the world’s good must be made to understand that their interests are identical” supports Carnegie’s claim (Powderly). The deteriorating working conditions and growing distrust prompted the creation of labor unions.
During the Gilded Age wage levels grew overall, but the wage disparity between the skilled and unskilled workers was significant. The working class worked nearly 6 10 hour days a week, with steel workers working 12 hour days. With no safety regulations or government inspections, dangerous working environments were created, making American industry the world leader in workplace accidents and deaths, as the only industrial nation with no insurance program to cover on-the-job injuries. Workers under the age of 14 also worked full time in the various industries, suffering greater numbers of accidents and respiratory diseases as adults. Women working in industry, averaged only 70% of the wages of men doing the same jobs. During negative economic cycles unskilled laborers were the first to have wages cut or to be laid off. As working conditions failed to improve the working class had trouble organizing. Language, cultural differences, and distrust among workers all contributed to the difficulties of organizing labor unions. Unions were needed by the working class, as David Shi states, “to force employers to recognize their needs and concerns.” The Knights of Labor was one of the labor groups that gained national standing around 1869. Other labor unions were The Working Man’s Party of California, The National Labor Union, and railroad workers that organized and performed The Great Railroad Strike of 1877. Terence V. Powderly became the head of the Knights in 1879. The Knights argued for change in profit distribution, elimination of child labor, equal pay for equal work, and an 8-hour workday. The Knights biggest accomplishments were an 1880 law providing for arbitration of labor disputes, the creation of The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1884 along with many state labor bureaus, and a law prohibiting businesses from importing immigrants to lower wages (Shi).
Some of these issues surface today, primarily wealth distribution and profit sharing. It is easy to recognize the concerns of both sides of the labor issues of the Gilded Age. The laborer needed to work to earn a living and the employer needed the laborer to produce a product to earn a profit. The employer provided the mechanism to earn for the laborer assuming the risk of failing to make a profit while being responsible for their workers. Every business must be profitable enough to be worth the risk and survive. Like beauty, survival is in the eye of the beholder with the business owner being the beholder. If the business fails to survive jobs for workers will be lost and the owner assumes the burden of failure and suffers the consequences.
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