Labor Movement: American Workers in the Early Twentieth Century


Improvements in working conditions began to take shape as more and more workers joined unions. The concerns were long hours, child labor, and safety issues.

Labor Takes Center Stage

The second decade of the 1900s is one of the most progressive decades in United States history. During this decade labor unions continued to grow, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire brought the issue of unsafe working conditions to heightened recognition. Children continued to be hired to work in factories, mills, and mines for long hours in unsafe and unhealthy conditions.

By the middle of the decade, states passed laws requiring children to be a specific age in order to work. The American Federation of Labor barred skilled African Americans from joining the union. The women’s suffrage movement also made great strides.

In 1920, eight years after the first women’s suffrage parade in New York City, women ’s right to vote was ratified with the 19th Amendment. The immigrant population also grew to record heights during the 1910s.

As the United States grew with the many incoming immigrants so did the labor unions. By the late nineteenth century, American industries were growing, which enhanced the opportunity for jobs. The owners of mines, mills, and factories expected the workers to work long hours in unhealthy and dangerous working conditions for very little pay. Labor unions were established in the early nineteenth century and increased their membership as industries grew.

Unfair Working Conditions

The International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union organized workers in the women’s clothing trade. Many of the garment workers before 1911 were unorganized, partly because they were young immigrant women intimidated by alien surroundings. However, others were more daring and took a stand against the poor working conditions.

In the fall of 1909, a meeting took place for all the people who worked in the garment factories in New York City. Clara Lemlich, not yet in her teens, spoke to the many employees who worked in the factories. She said, “I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared now!” In the cold November air thousands of workers left the factories and walked to Times Square. With winter approaching and no fur coats to wear, the spirit of their determination kept them warm until they reached the meeting hall where they would rally and join the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. The union leaders hoped to have at least three thousand workers participate in the strike. Surprisingly, twenty thousand workers walked to join the strike. Although more than three hundred factory owners heeded the demands of the strikers, still working conditions did not change.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

On March 25, 1911, the worse factory fire in the United States history took place. The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory ignored safety regulations. The laws stipulated that doors were to open outward, Triangle’s doors opened inward. The company violated many other laws such as keeping doors locked in order to keep track of their employees. The result of the broken safety regulations, 146 young women died. When the fire broke out the girls had no place to go except to jump from the factory windows. The result of the broken safety regulations, 146 young women died.

After the incident, a huge memorial parade took place. At least 100,000 marchers participated in paying tribute to the lives lost in the horrible fire. The devastation of the fire brought much needed attention to the working conditions within the factories.

New York State adopted new laws and penalties for business owners who would not abide by the regulations. The American Federation of Labor and other union organizations continued to push for improvements for the American worker.


  1. Zinn, Howard. The Twentieth Century.(New York: Perennial, 2003)