In the late 1800s and early 1900s, immigrants traveled to America with the hope of religious freedom, democracy, equality and economic prosperity. America was booming with new industries and large-scale factories that needed competent workers. Some immigrants accepted jobs at factories because they had skills that were useful to industry developers and factory owners. Most joined factories because they needed money for food and necessities as they settled into their new lives in America.
Industries flourished from the late 1800s into the 1920s, so business owners needed reliable laborers who were willing to work 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week. Employers had construction projects, merchandise production lines, millwork demands, textile factory demands and steel mill expectations that required an intense and expansive labor force. Immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia, Italy and other European countries poured into the United States searching for employment. It was a good fit -- factory job demand was high and immigrants needed work.
Many factory owners hired immigrants over locals because they could get more work for less wages. Immigrants didn't typically demand wage increases and were willing to work in unappealing, often unsanitary conditions. Some immigrants complained that industrial labor was more difficult than work back home, however, most kept their factory jobs because they were only qualified for labor positions. In some cities, such as Chicago, wages and benefits only grew an average of 0.1 percent a year.
Even though perks associated with factory labor weren't glamorous, many immigrants accepted industrial positions because owners supplied free or cheap housing for their workers. Immigrants didn't usually have enough money or resources to purchase or rent their own housing, so they couldn't turn down the additional economic support. Political bosses and factory owners often took advantage of their financially dependent laborers and used them as a strong voting base to pursue their own political agendas.
National child labor laws weren't enacted until 1918, so immigrants often joined factories because they could put their whole family to work. Young children and mothers of young children didn't work, but teenagers often worked alongside parents to help earn more money for the family. Factory bosses were willing to hire unskilled, underage workers willing to accept especially low wages. Children learned the trade from family members who had experience in the industry and offered instruction in their native languages.
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