“Wage-earners of Pittsburgh” chronicles wage and working conditions of nearly all the industrial occupations in the city. Authors John R. Commons and William M. Leiserson perform their inquiry to learn about the experience of common wage-earners in this boom: what was their share of resources and products, and how did they get it? They contrast the “great ocean of common labor,” the unskilled, essentially interchangable workers who made up 2/5- 1/2 of the total, with those who through “skill, physique, talent, trade unionism, or municipal favoritism lift above the fluid mass” (116). The article reviews the work characteristics (hours per day and per week, nature of the work), wages, and level and success of unionization of occupations under the categories of transportation, supply trades, metal trades, building trades, mine workers, and steel workers, then addresses the issue of unions in more detail.
Themes of mobility of the labor force and the successes and impacts of union organization run throughout. Commons and Leiserson take an exploratory approach, working mainly to chronicle industry in this period, without making recommendations for the future.
Combined union membership 1907-08 for all trades in the Pittsburgh District is estimated at 50,000; 1 of every 4-5 workers was a union member. Union organization occurred either by trade (e.g. bricklayers), or by industry (e.g. mine workers), where regardless of occupation within the industry all were included in a single union. Most basic was the local union; as membership grew unions organized district councils made up of local unions, and finally into larger legislative bodies such as the Iron City Trades Council. Unions aimed to reduce hours and to raise wages for workers, operating as a group to advocate for benefits and improvements in conditions. In addition, unions functioned as important advocates against reduction of wages during bad times, such as the 1907 panic. Finally, union efforts often had a positive impact on non-union workers as well by generally increasing employer awareness and attention to wage and working condition issues.
Through their work, the authors conclude that wages were highest and working hours most successfully reduced in trades with the strongest unions; wages were lowest in occupations that were difficult to organize or where employees more commonly negotiated directly with employers. They contributed these differences not necessarily to higher skill level or intelligence, but instead to a “strategic advantage” held by one group. The greatest advantage was to be in an industry with high competition among many companies of a small size; importantly, this gave workers a voice in negotiations with employers. As an example the authors point to differences between coal miners and steel mill workers, many of whom were employed by the same companies, yet experienced different outcomes in terms of union organization and advocacy. Depending on occupation, mine workers were paid as much as 90- 100% more per hour than mill workers, and were generally judged to be “fifty to ninety per cent better off than the same grade of laborers employed at their mills and furnaces” (Commons and Leiserson, 179). Much of this was because mines operated under many companies, giving mine workers more leverage toward their demands.
The Industry section of the Pittsburgh Survey contains two additional articles: “Factory Inspection in Pittsburgh,” written by Florence Kelley, and “Industrial Hygiene of the Pittsburgh District,” by H. F. J. Porter.
“Factory Inspection” describes inspection policies and enforcement for the period 1903-1913, focusing primarily on regulations and the working conditions of women and children. The system was unable to operate effectively for a number of reasons, most clearly because of pressures faced by inspectors. “Faithful inspectors who insististed that the law should be obeyed, might be removed at will in the interests of powerful employers” (Kelley, 191). In addition, inspectors lacked protection under civil service law, and were therefore under constant threat of losing their jobs. In her article, Kelley indicates a high level of disregard for the occupational health and safety of employees, and a tendency toward exploitation of workers through long hours. Poor child labor laws enabled underage children to sneak through the system, leaving school before the legal age of 14 for factory work.
Kelley presents a series of recommendations that aim mainly to boost reliability of the inspection system, to increase safety measures in factories, and to standardize work hours for women and children. Some progress was made; as of 1913, the inspection department had been reorganized and restructured, and limits to the number of weekly hours and work times were put in place for women and children.
In “Industrial Hygiene of the Pittsburgh District,” the author surveys 38 companies with respect to: recruiting of employees; the physical environment and employee comfort; safeguards against accidents and disease; and development and stability. Recommendations are given mainly on ways to improve employee health, safety, and comfort as a way to encourage greater employee participation and better output. Among other things, the authors suggest improving ventilation, providing better access to drinking water, planning fire escape routes and conducting fire drills, addressing issues of alcoholism and fatigue, and forming preventative health care clinics on site.
Porter concludes that employer efforts are directed toward a “merely mechanical increase in the quantity and quality of output,” and that for the most part, minimal attention is paid to issues of worker health and well-being. He warns about the importance of this effort, noting: “if they stop short in this endeavour Pittsburgh will lose her industrial supremacy altogether” (Porter, 278).
Reactions to Industry
The Survey’s comprehensive review of wages and industrial conditions in Pittsburgh was impressive. The Survey presents detailed data on many industries and positions, and traces changes over time. Many of the trends discussed are unsurprising: workers were overworked, underpaid, and generally marginalized. Women and children had the fewest rights and least power to affect change. Workers who were able to create effective unions seemed to see improvement in their working conditions and pay, however success varied. I liked that the Survey traced industry over a 5-10 year period; this enables readers to see improvement especially of working conditions and quality of inspection over time.