Saturday, July 11, 2015

Labor and what we became

Lewis W. Hine's collection on child labor,
an Indiana glass factory

Indiana's development as an industrial center after 1880 is hardly anecdotal to the events that would transpire a few decades later at the conclusion of World War I.

To get from Point A to Point B, we need to take a snapshot look at Hoosier life as it transitioned from a purely agricultural state to something much more diverse.

As the railroads began to put their tracks through anything that contained two telephone poles and a post office, so came with it industry.

Lots of it. Even the Whitewater valley had its share, including Connersville, known then as a vital hub of commerce. The rails allowed workers some flexibility in going from rural areas into the towns to find work ... work that would be demanding, bordering on cruel and in some cases, life-threatening.

A well-organized book called "Indiana in Transition, The Emergence of an Industrial Commonwealth," by Clifton J. Phillips, is chock full of details.

The book was published in 1968 by the Historical Bureau and the Indiana Historical Society. (It's one volume in a set, but I didn't see any others.)

Phillips has the data. "Working conditions in this period (around 1880 forward) paralleled those found in other industrializing regions. Long hours and low wages sum up much of the story ... in the first two or three decades after 1880."

The average work week for a factory laborer was probably 60 hours, those making cement, wood pulp, corn products, paper, roofing. Steel mill workers could do 7-day shifts, often 10 hours at a time. Steel made the globe revolve. Autos, ships, rail lines ... virtually everything came from Gary.

Labor unrest was bound to follow, but organized unions were still in the future. Most labor strife was violent and often was counterproductive.

Phillips says the state legislature began to take the labor problem seriously around 1890 but was largely unable to enforce an eight-hour day. Most workers were still regulated by company rules. Work the hours or go elsewhere.

Building trades fared better but they held the hammer, so to speak, by controlling contracts on many public structures, such as bridges or corporate buildings. Fill-in labor was reluctant to challenge that clout.

By the turn of the century, legislative control over child labor had become effective and as factories became more diversified, they found a need for more skilled workers who could add leverage to better pay and shorter hours.

The glass industry that emerged in the 1890s led the way in training specialized workers, though unskilled laborers were still left with 12-hour days, mainly because the pay for unskilled labor was substantially less.

Women's pay was horrible though more began to work outside the home. Conditions were frequently deplorable. There is little evidence that this bothered anybody.

"Not until 1913 did the General Assembly create a commission on working women to investigate the hours and conditions of labor of women in the state," Phillips writes.

The legislature took a long hard look at the report and did ... nothing.

Paying the workers was sometimes a crap shoot, Phillips adds. Sometimes, pay would be monthly, or irregularly, or sometimes doled out instead of awarded as a regular reward for services rendered.

Laws changing that came around 1890.

Understandably, Indiana's industrial base was quite diverse, ranging from coal in the southwestern corner, to shipping on the Ohio River and Lake Michigan, where steel and iron work reigned.

The emerging auto industry followed the carriage era, and the gas boom across the central part of the state led to dozens of diverse companies. Indiana did it all, and grew more wheat and corn than almost anybody on Earth.

The average annual earnings for an Indiana family in 1894:

Less than $300 a year -- something close to abject poverty.

By 1900, it began to change.

"Wages in general rose gradually in the early years of the 20th century and spectacularly after the outbreak of the first World War."

Phillips's data shows that the average annual wage went from $490 in 1899 to $576 only 10 years later ... and it nearly tripled in 1919, mostly due to inflation. Higher than the national average, nearly equal to that of other neighboring states.

It is the war that inevitably interests us, because events leading up to it and resulting from it are partially what define Indiana as a state. The Whitewater valley is not exempt from that.

Working in the factories was not for the faint of heart. Factories were often poorly ventilated, poorly heated or lit, dangerous and unsanitary. One door in and no other doors out.

Child labor did, however, decline greatly in the first half of the century, ostensibly replaced by women who worked for about the same wage.

Steel mill rig, Gary around 1910
Militant labor movements began to find new alliances as membership grew, adding financial resources to the conversation.

By 1915, labor in Indiana had drawn the line. It endured, prospered and took aim on growth.

By the middle of 1917, things would change. Labor calmed down. The desire to win the war had replaced any selfish urge to argue with the company over working conditions.

America's entry into World War I was scarcely the economic driver that resulted from the "Rosie the Riveter" phenomenon a few decades later, but the first war did stabilize industry. Working to win the war was considered patriotic.

As well, the U.S. involvement in the war was of relatively short duration -- about 18 months, so the need to re-tool for war materials never came about. World War I was a trench soldier's war, not a tanks-and-ships war.

After it ended, Indiana's role in history would change permanently. Despite the mystery, it does indeed make social sense if not moral sense.

And with it came a new and divisive concept of government. Socialism.



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