Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association

The Workers' World

Photo of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island

These men are at the top of the blast furnace.  Notice the two handcarts in the picture that the men used to load items into the furnace.

Working 9 to 9

A very different workplace

The workplace that new immigrants entered when they came to the U.S. was very different than anything they had known before. For that matter, the world of work was changing so rapidly in the 1800s and early 1900s that it was different from what anyone had known before! In fact, the huge changes in how people (and nations) made a living how and how this work was done, were the major PULL factor (see the Push and Pull thread) attracting immigrants to the United States.

Still, few who came in the great immigration wave of 1890 through 1914 were quite prepared for what they found. Most from eastern and southern Europe had been peasant farmers and herders whose lives ebbed and flowed with the passing of the seasons. Craftsmen and merchants owned their own businesses, living and working under the same roof. Community life revolved around church and synagogue and the calendar around religious holidays. Without question, they worked hard, but celebrating a multitude of saints' feast days and other holidays, broke the monotony. Working from sunup to sundown was grueling during spring planting and fall harvest, but the work eased with the dying of light in the winter.

Culture shock for new immigrants

Imagine the culture shock these folks had as immigrants! Their new jobs were ruled by the company time clock, not the sun and seasons. Every day, not just long summer days, was 12 hours long; every week was 6 days long. Half the time, those 12 hours were nighttime hours, because mills and mines worked round the clock. Workers labored the day shift for two weeks, then the night shift for two weeks, with a 24-hour shift between. Workers had no "vacation" except lay-offs without pay when business was bad. There were few holidays and no paid holidays. But they still didn't make enough money to pay their rent and buy food for their families.

The work was dangerous, too -- especially for "greenhorns," as newcomers were called. Explosive gasses and cave-ins made miners' families dread the disaster whistle. Steelworkers had to avoid cranes moving hunks of hot steel weighing tons or be crushed. Molten steel could splash and burn. Most horribly, when workers fell into a furnace, no body was left for a funeral! Out of respect, the whole load of iron or steel was buried right at the mill site.

Workers hurt on the job didn't receive disability, though Cambria Iron and Steel Company did build a company hospital to treat injured employees. Coalmines had infirmaries and called in their company doctor to treat injuries (of course, the company deducted several dollars from the miners' pay every month to pay the doctor!).

Huge factories where companies hired thousands of workers were new. With the old way of manufacturing by hand, workers worked right beside their bosses. Having children help wasn't so bad when or older brothers and sisters were nearby and made sure they were safe. But when thousands of workers labored in hot factories or cold mines far from their bosses who worked in comfortable offices, no one knew each other personally. It became easier to think of workers as "labor" -- a cost of manufacturing -- not as people. Many companies (though not all) tried to pay less and less so they could sell more and more cheaper products. Instead of getting raises, workers sometimes had to suffer pay cuts!

Companies were free to treat workers however they wished. There was no minimum wage. There was no minimum workday. When fathers weren't paid enough, many times children had to go to work to help feed the family. It was a hard decision that many families had to make.

These wages and work conditions sound unfair and wrong to us today. But in 1900 it wasn't illegal. Nothing prevented the companies from making all their decisions based on making as much money as possible, even if workers. Until a few people, then a few more, started "making noise" to make a change!

Workers taking care of themselves

Beneficial societies

If workers were killed, companies might give widows a small amount of money to cover burial costs. After that, there was nothing. Companies didn't think they needed to help support a worker's family after they died in an accident on the job. Ethnic groups settling into their new homes, saw the need and organized "beneficial societies" to help. Similar to insurance companies (in fact, many of them later became insurance companies), these societies collected dues from their members every month and saved the money in a special fund. If one of their members was injured or killed on the job, they or their families received payments (benefits) from the fund. (Learn more about beneficial societies in the "Making a Life" thread.)

Workers unite

Some of the workers tried to talk to their bosses about being treated more fairly. The bosses didn't think the workers had the right to tell them how to run their businesses.

By themselves workers didn't have much power to change things. After all, if they told their bosses they didn't want to work 12 hour days for very little pay, their bosses could just say, "Fine, then go find another job!" They would just hire some new immigrant. 

But what if every worker in the factory said they wouldn't work 12 hours a day for low pay? What if they were willing to all walk off the job at once? Then the factory would have to either close down or hire many new workers all at once.

When workers band together to change their pay and working conditions, it is called a "union." Instead of every single worker asking his boss for a raise, union representatives would meet with the company and discuss a "contract" that both sides could agree to. It was called "collective bargaining." Everyone in the union benefited from the new wages or hours. It is easy to see why companies didn't like unions -- they would rather not give anyone a raise, much less everyone!


What happened, then, when companies refused unions' request for higher wages or shorter hours? The workers found a way to make them see how important they were to the business They stopped working until the bosses would listen to what they had to say! This kind of protest was called a "strike."

Neither the companies nor the unions wanted a strike.

A company could easily hire replacements if just a few workers quit. But if a large number quit, the mill or mine had to shut down! Blast furnaces went cold; mines went quiet; orders couldn't be filled; customers stopped sending money.

Workers would rather not strike because they wouldn't be paid for the time they were on strike. They might even lose their jobs completely, if the company hired enough "strike breakers" (called "scabs" by the union members).

To keep strikebreakers from coming in, striking union members would surround their workplace in a "picket line" to convince replacement workers not to cross into the mill or mine. They used signs and songs to explain why they were striking. Some strikes got very ugly at this point. Workers might use their fists to keep "scabs" from crossing the picket line. Companies hired private police "Coal and Iron Police" to break up the picket lines to let strikebreakers through. Some of these "policemen" were just men who owned guns and like to use them. They often used violence against strikers, including murder. Union members called them "goons" or "thugs."

Company owners tried to keep unions from organizing in the first place. They could fire the union organizers. They could send the Coal and Iron Police to break up union meetings. If union members lived in company houses, the police would evict them and their families. Evicted families would live in tents off company property to embarrass the owners. Violence broke out many times. Some early union members paid their dueswith their lives

The unions would keep organizing, though. Before long, they had so many members that factory and mine owners couldn't ignore them or use violence against them. Changes came slowly, but eventually, they won an eight-hour workday and higher wages.

Reformers: Making changes when you aren't in charge

Workers weren't alone in trying to change how they were treated. Others also noticed how out of balance things had become after the rapid changes of the 1800s. Company owners were getting richer while workers were getting poorer and sicker.

One way people found to make changes was to investigate the truth about what was going on. Some were reporters. Some were social workers. They all published what they found out. It wasn't pretty!


Reporters who tried to find out and report what was wrong in business and government. Their enemies (mostly people in business and government!) called them muckrakers because they dug through the "dirt."

Ida Tarbell was Pennsylvania's most famous muckraker. She grew up in Titusville, in the middle of Pennsylvania's oil industry. She wrote about how John D. Rockefeller formed his company Standard Oil by putting smaller oil companies out of business. Because of her article, the Supreme Court made the huge Standard Oil break into smaller companies.

Not all muckrakers reporting on the problems in Pennsylvania were from Pennsylvania. Lewis Hine used his camera to make changes. His photo stories from Pennsylvania brought attention to problems that needed to be solved. One of his most famous photographs "Breaker Boys Inside the Coal Breaker" was taken in eastern Pennsylvania's anthracite (hard coal) coal region.

Stories and pictures like these, even if they weren't about Johnstown, helped people in Johnstown. When lawmakers read stories about the breaker boys in eastern Pennsylvania's mines, they started to worry about the children who worked in mines in western Pennsylvania, too. New "anti-trust" laws were passed to keep all businesses, including steel and railroads, from getting so big that it was unfair to smaller companies.

Social Workers

Another group of people called social workers studied the people who could barely make a living even though they were working 12 hours a day 6 days a week. The social workers spent time in workers homes, interviewing family members, finding out what they ate and what it cost. "The Pittsburgh Survey," one of the largest studies ever made on a city, brought attention to how steelworkers lived, not only in Pittsburgh, but also all over Pennsylvania.

Johnstown was the subject of an important study on infant mortality. Social worker Ewa xxxxx wanted to find out why so many children of immigrants died when they were just babies. She found out….[summarize]

When these surveys were published, they proved that low wages weren't just about math and money -- they were about real men, women and children who couldn't afford to buy milk or meat, who had to send kids to work instead or school, whose babies died from unsanitary housing.

After reporting the problems, social workers tried to help through charities. They started "settlement houses" to help immigrants settle in, learn English, and keep their babies healthy. Special "fresh air farms" let children get out of the smoky, crowded neighborhoods and get exercise out in the country.


When people read these stories and reports, many were embarrassed about such things happening in Pennsylvania. The state's General Assembly passed laws making it illegal to hire children under the age of 12 (later raised to age 16). They required children to stay in school. Cities built playgrounds and gave free milk to poor families with children.

Cities also started to listen to scientists who warned about germs in the untreated river water. Many people were getting sick with deadly diseases. Building water and sewage treatment plants saved many lives by killing germs in river water before it was piped to the cities.

Change -- finally

Slowly, but surely, the lives of workers got better. With higher wages, they could save to buy their own houses instead of living in crowded companying houses. Children could stay in school instead of going to work to help support their families. When they did get old enough to get jobs in the mills and mines, they only worked 8 hours a day, five days a week. They wore hard hats and special safety clothing and equipment.

Section divider

About Us | Site Map | Privacy Policy | Contact Us | ©2006 Johnstown Area Heritage Association