The Industrial Revolution took place from the mid 18th century. The United Kingdom began the trend, with other countries of northern Europe following suit. In the United States the industrial revolution began in the 1790s. The revolution brought about rapid industrialization. Progression in economic and social spheres that centralized the role of wages, incomes, and work in economic production contributed towards industrialization. Economic and social activities were changed from being primarily agricultural and focused on the production of raw materials. Focus instead shifted to manufacturing and complementary services. Moreover, these activities were relocated from rural cottage industries to urban areas where industrial production took place in the factory (Mokyr, 1985). The emergence of the industrial revolution helped shape the modern societies in Europe and North America by improving industrial labor and immigration.
In the factory, greater amounts of fixed capital equipment were utilized through the use of technology. Industrial growth went hand in hand with urbanization (Snooks, 1994). Industrialization brought about great changes in societal organization especially in the way different groups relate in the society. Industries were mainly located in the emerging cities although a much smaller amount of manufacturing occurred in rural areas. Consequently, individuals migrated to cities to look for work. Industrialization in the US was modeled on the European experience. However the United States had exceeded the UK mainly in production of iron and steel by the closing years of the 19th century.
The changes that took place indicate the importance of personal and human aspects of industrialization. The human feature of industrialization is evident in the escalation of cities, higher participation of women in labor, the end of farming by families. The other defining characteristic is the growth of unions in manufacturing and service sectors. Problems that cropped up as a result of industrialization include income inequality, pollution, unjust labor practices and monopolistic practices. In the 19th century in the US, policies to deal with these problems were introduced.
The progression of industrialization can be deduced from analyzing the world’s oldest and largest industrial economies in Europe and North America. In the pre-industrial economies of these countries, economic activity was mostly aimed at commerce. The emphasis was on trading with other countries within their empires. Most individuals lived at a subsistence level. The economic activity of this group was mainly food production. The era characterized by primitive technology. Most of the tools that were produced were generally meant enhance trade and farming. Transportation of goods was limited to short distances. The trading centers where exchange of produce took place were the market towns. Economic activity could easily be disrupted by crop failures that resulted from disease or unfavorable weather. As a result, accumulation of capital that could finance further economic growth and generation of more wealth was almost non-existent
Life in eighteenth century Europe was rural based. The main mode of production was agriculture. Some people engaged in other domestic ventures like weaving and spinning. Seventy-five percent of economy of France and England was agricultural as of 1750. To increase profits, many landowners started fencing in large areas in where sheep were raised. Peasants were therefore found themselves dispossessed of the land they had previously depended on. This marked the first time that individual and family independence was lost. Peasants became subjects to the wealthy land owners who owned the means of production. They ended up becoming hired laborers who relied on wages paid by landowners. This situation changed with the onset of the industrial revolution. The technological aspect of the industrial revolution made England the leading industrial producer the world between 1760 and 1860. This was as a result of the improvement in education and an increase in capital stock. Furthermore it resulted in increase in real income per person in the UK and the rest of the Western world (Nardinelli, 2008).
The main contribution by the US to industrialization was mass production. As from 1913, American industrialist Henry Ford began using mass-production methods in Ford Motors. Production was broken down to its component tasks. These tasks were then done in order on a production line. This practice made it possible for higher wages to be paid whilst reducing the costs operation. Up to the 1960s, the US led the world in productivity using the mass production system. However, in more recent times, mass production practices have been discredited due to inflexibility and the negative impact it has on the labor force through diminishing of skills
In the United States, industrialization resulted in conflicts comparable to the ones experienced in the UK and the rest of Europe. Stakeholders of the traditional economic dispensation found themselves dispossessed because mechanical system of production substituted manufacturing at the household level. Workers who were skilled viewed mechanization and division of labor as a threat to their income and status. Up to that time the power balance between businesses and labor had been in favor of the former. Businesses had considerable power over labor (O’Connor, 2004). As firms grew larger, the balance of power became even more favorable. So as to offset the immense power held by the businesses, workers organized themselves into labor unions that were meant to represent them and negotiate for a good deal for them. A Labor union is an association of workers who come together to improve their working conditions and economic state by the use of collective bargaining with their employers (O’Connor, 2004). Even though associations of journeymen existed in medieval times, labor unions came about in essence as a result of the Industrial Revolution.
In the United States, labor union organization is almost as old as the nation. In the late 18th and early 19th century, carpenters, printers, tailors, and weavers formed unions. The main goal of these unions was to maintain craft standards and to stop employers from importing alien workers or hiring amateurs. Union development thrived in the early years of 1830s. This was an era of industrial prosperity. The National Labor Union was formed in 1866 after the Civil War. Its goals included abolition of convict labor, the eight-hour workday, and the restraint of immigration. The union collapsed in 1872.
The standards of life of people in factory towns were bad. Factory conditions were even worse. The factories were dirty, poorly ventilated, noisy and lacked proper lighting. Factories were dangerous and unhealthy places to earn a living. (Newman, Brown 1997). The factory system however transformed the way work was done. In factories, workers were seen by employers just as hands. Workers began to realize the strength had if only they acted as a unified force. The road to official recognition was hard and long. Workers had no political clout whatsoever.
The government employed a laissez faire approach to business regulation before the official recognition of labor unions. The policy changed with time as the pressure from growing trade unions became greater. The labor movement was beginning to emancipate the workers from injustices suffered in the factories. Political leaders started to take notice. They began calling for legislation which would reform the factory system that was riddled with injustices.
In the beginning, labor union success was limited. Sporadic incidents of industrial strikes, which degenerated into violence at times, were indicative of deeper tensions (O’Connor, 2004). Up until the Great Depression, the only group that had a modicum of success in labor union matters was the skilled craft workers. The American Federation of Labor was the base of the most illustrious unions. Members of the labor unions were not opposed to the industrial society. All they demanded was improvement of wages and working conditions. The US ultimately resolved tensions that arose from industrialization and urbanization. Regulations and antitrust laws were enacted by the government in a bid to regulate businesses. Some of these regulations include The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. This act was sought to check corporate trusts and monopolistic tendencies which inevitably led to price fixing. Labor laws aimed at protecting the worker were enacted as well. Such laws include the Fair Labor Standards Act, of 1938. This law led to the adoption of the 8-hour workday together with the 40-hour workweek. Increasing incomes and high economic growth rates aided in the resolution of industrial tensions. Many Americans became persuaded to view industrialization as a positive development because of the resulting material advancement. The challenge of protecting the rights of workers and promoting business growth though is still present even now.
In the case of the UK, following the French Revolution, unions were declared illegal because of the fear of unrest among the working class people. Unions were declared illegal through the enactment of the Combination Acts. The acts were later repealed in 1824. This did not result in any immediate benefit for labor unions. Miners and textile workers organizations only started growing until later. After the 1860s, the struggle for recognition of unions in law was conducted with more force. British labor unions were granted legal recognition in the Trade Union Act of 1871. But they were still not assured of their legal status until the 1913 and 1915 labor laws
Trade unions are often credited with leading the labor movement in the early 20th century. The movement sought to stop child labor, improve safety of workers and achieve wage increase for workers. Also unions aimed to raise the standard of living of the entire society as well as reducing the hours in a work week. They sought to provide public education for children, and to deliver other benefits to working class people. Scholars are in agreement that the industrial revolution was a defining moment in history. It led to the rapid conversion from the traditional medieval system to the modern age. What is contested is opinions on the changes brought about by the industrial revolution to working class people (Snooks, 1994). Pessimists advance the argument that the standards of living declined. Optimists on the other hand believe that living standards improved.
To reinforce the optimist position, Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson published estimates of real wages in England from 1755 to 1851. The new estimates take into account wages for workers employed in both blue-collar and white-collar jobs. Lindert’s and Williamson’s cost-of-living index seeks to represent real working-class budgets of the time. The analyses had remarkable results. They showed that real wages increase steadily between 1781 and 1819. Then after 1819, real wages increased quickly. This applies to all the various groups of workers. For blue-collar workers the indication was that real wages doubled in a period of only thirty-two years (Williamson, 1985).
It is justified to state that it is as a result of the industrial revolution that Western Europe and the United States is the way it is at present. The US and Western Europe are the most economically prosperous regions in the world. These two regions are not only economically rich; the labor practices applied is the best in the whole world. Workers are not exploited because of labor unions and sound labor laws. These regions have also experienced growth in cities as a result of internal immigration during the industrial revolution and more recently immigrants have poured in from different parts of the world.
O’Connor D. E. (2004) The Basics of Economics Greenwood Publishing Group
Snooks, G. D. (1994) Was the Industrial Revolution Necessary? Routledge
Mokyr J. (1985) The Economics of the Industrial Revolution Rowman & Littlefield
Newman, G. and Brown L. E. (1997) Britain in the Hanoverian Age, 1714-1837: An Encyclopedia Taylor & Francis,
Williamson, J. G. (1985) Did British Capitalism Breed Inequality? Boston: Allen and Unwin
Nardinelli, C. (2008) Industrial Revolution and the Standard of Living