Enjoy this three-minute excerpt from Upton Sinclair’s 1906 exposé, “The Jungle.” Go ahead, pull out a snack and beverage if you’ve brought it. Maybe some sausage and eggs… (Here’s the full text of the book along with the Spark Notes. There are no Thug Notes for this book). This book made it all the way up to the ears of President Teddy (“Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick” ) Roosevelt. At first, he dismissed it as Socialist nonsense, but sent labor commish Charles Neill to investigate. They found the claims to be true. Perhaps they cared for the workers or maybe they were revolted because they had sausage and eggs for breakfast, but soon enough the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act (sorry guys, no more laudinum, heroin, and opium in your cough syrup or soda) in 1906, Congress, (who must’ve been awake that day) passed some of the most epic legislation of the Progressive Era.
The Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911 resulted in 146 deaths, but it raised awareness for safety in factories resulting in some of the improvements workers–maybe you–enjoy today. Rhode Island’s own Zachariah Allen was a leader in safety. As a textile mill owner, no one wanted to see fires less than him. He innovated many safety features, such as the fire door, sat on the town council when Providence got its first fire truck. Eventually, he helped found Providence Mutual Fire Insurance Company. He was angry that his rates were so high after all that safety innovation (rates should reflect risks) and went on to found his own companies that took risk and safety into account. Sadly, he went bankrupt on the Panic of 1857. Nice guys finish last.
After World War II, the US began to see a whole different direction in worker’s rights as the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act tied workers’ hands, making striking illegal, leading to one of the largest strikes in US history, the 95 day Longshoreman’s Strike of 1948.
Critical Thoughts and Questions:
1. After looking through these links and assets, what rights do you enjoy now that weren’t there at the onset of American labor history?
2. Show how these key events, movements, and situations in American history defined how we consider labor law today.
3. “Companies must make profits. Workers accept jobs freely.” or “Government must be able to regulate industries and protect workers.” Which is true? Find examples from history and present day.