The most interesting stories about labor history come from America's transition to industrialization beginning shortly after Reconstruction (from the Civil War). The truth is, while industrialization changes the parameters for what is possible in a society (like the ability to mass produce weapons that allowed our successes in the World Wars) or the ability to move raw material quickly to plants and factories across the country, the process of becoming industrialized isn't without its shortcomings.
The plight of the factory worker, a pioneer in a new industry in which profit is king, was a serious one. Perhaps the most clear challenge was to craftsmen and skilled tradesmen who had spent lifetimes honing their art. The advent of Taylorism, which broke large complex projects into individualized, repetitive tasks (think assembly line) made the skilled worker practically obsolete if not replaceable entirely by machines. The men who could find their livelihood on the factory floorfaced grueling work hours, unsafe conditions and low wages implemented with strict oversight emphasizing productivity above all else. Perhaps the most resilient group of workers were the unskilled laborers, whose work was largely unaffected by these transitions. These men performed physical labor often moving from job to job in order to seek better conditions and wages. In order to overcome the obstacles that had arisen due to industrialization, workers organized and formed unions which would unite them in pursuit of a common goal. Successful strikes encouraged more union involvement and the establishment of new unions.
Change is always a struggle, but the fruit of this difficult time can be seen by analyzing the face of labor today. Unions, government oversight including a minimum wage, even the technology we use, all got their start here with Industrialization.
This Labor Day, let's be thankful for change and for having the ability to forge our own way.
Source: Steven Diner, “A Very Different Age: Americans of the Progressive Era,” 1998, pp. 37-65.