01 December 2017

Our Ancestors' Work Conditions

My ancestors came to America to escape poverty and earn money for their families. There was no work for young men in their hometowns.

When they came to America, industries were growing and needed men for hard labor. Some of my ancestors worked in coal mines or for the railroads. My great grandfather developed black lung disease, forcing his early retirement.

When World War I began, some industries had to change their ways. Long before Rosie the Riveter, women employees kept things running. Businesses also relied more on black workers.

Between December 1917 and March 1920, the government consolidated our railroads under the United States Railroad Administration.

This was a big deal. Independent, competing railroad companies now joined forces for efficiency. A year earlier, President Woodrow Wilson pushed through an act ordering railroads to limit their workers to an eight-hour work day. The workers were about to go on strike.

Now he had to avoid strikes and ensure the smooth flow of goods across the country. Wages went up, but they went up a lot more for senior employees than lower-paid employees.

In September 1918, two months before the war ended, the Secretary of the Treasury wrote a report to the president about the progress of the United States Railroad Administration.

Two facts in this report are very surprising for 1918.

The U.S. government recommended paying women the same wages as men...in 1918!
This is from the Federal U.S. government in 1918!
The government recognized the importance of women workers. Imagine that! While they protected women from jobs "unsuited to their sex", they paid them "the same wages as men engaged in similar work".

The U.S. government recommended paying black men the same wages as white men...in 1918!
Again, this is 1918!

The government recognized the importance of black workers. I don't know which of these facts is more shocking for 1918. The Secretary of the Treasury believed that "equal pay for equal service without respect to sex or color" was an act of justice.

This seems so enlightened for 1918.

After World War I, the Railway Administration Act returned the railroads to private ownership. Maybe that's why one railroad worker in my family tree was "off on strike" from July to September, 1922.

This man's service record is marred by one strike.
I'm guessing the privately-owned railroads weren't so dedicated to keeping the workers happy.

Most of my women ancestors worked at home, sewing. At least they avoided the sweatshops and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City.

We're doing better than our ancestors on working conditions. But the fact that the government recommended equal pay for all in 1918 makes you wonder when and how that stopped.

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