Millennial History

By Steve Jackson

Abuses of Capitalism

For many decades in America, free enterprise capitalism was encouraged and grew without constraints. President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed that ” the business of America …is business”. The proletariat workers had no legal recourse against the abuses of the capitalist owners who made working rules with no limits in re to number of hours nor safety precautions.

Two incidents would alter the balance of power between owner and worker and lead to workplace safety.

The first incident was the Haymarket Square Riot in Chicago(1886). It began as a peaceful protest as marchers were asking for an eight hour work day, the day after police had killed one and injured several others. An unknown assailant hurled a dynamite bomb at the police resulting in the deaths of seven officers and more civilians. Several conspirators were tried then put to death but this only served to increase the clamor for the expansion of bigger and more powerful unions, which would eventually come to fruition.

The second incident that acted as a vehicle for workers rights was the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory (1911). On March 25, in one of the most infamous incidents in America’s industrial history, the factory burned to the ground. The tragedy led to the development of a series of laws and regulations that better protected the safety of factory workers. The factory was located in the top floor of the Asch Building in Manhattan. It was a true sweat shop, employing young immigrant women who worked in a cramped space at lines of sewing machines. Nearly all the workers were teenage girls who made about fifteen dollars a week, working twelve hour days, every day. There were six hundred workers at the factory when a fire began in a rag bin. The manager attempted to use the fire hose to extinguish it, but the hose was rotted and its valve rusted shut. Exits were inadequate. Within eighteen minutes, dozens of workers burned to death, were suffocated by smoke, fell to their death in elevator shafts, or died leaping from windows(doors were locked from the outside to prevent too long work breaks and to prevent theft of merchandise) A total of 146 people perished as a result of this blaze.

These two incidents resulted in the meteoric rise of labor unions and the creation of OSHA( Occupational Safety and Health Administration). The unions were able to negotiate for eight hour work days and laws that prevented child labor. Over time minimum wages began to rise so that workers could afford to move out of overcrowded tenements that were also fire traps. Unions began to share more of the wealth that was once completely controlled by the owner and management.

OSHA became the regulatory agency of the US Department of Labor and was granted the power to inspect and examine workplaces. OSHA can fine and shut down workplaces not in compliance with federal rules concerning safety and inspections. OSHA’s workplace safety inspections have been shown to reduce injury rates and injury costs without adverse effects to employment, sales, credit ratings or firm survival.

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