Unlike today, where the closure of factories and their relocation is blamed for falling incomes and wealth disparities, similar economic and social concerns were experienced and repeated at the commencement of large-scale industrial production.
During the 1840s the factory system practically ruined the working classes of Great Britain. As told in The life of Andrew Carnegie, early industrialization of the textile industry demanded that intelligent and self-respecting business proprietors surrender their social position to become “the servitor of manufacturers,” as the weavers themselves described it. Of the hundreds of thousands of hand-loom operators across Great Britain the factory system only required a small percentage. As a consequence, many families lived on the edges of starvation.
Prompted by economic despair, the mother of America’s gilded era steel magnate Andrew Carnegie relocated her family from Scotland to Allegheny, Pittsburgh. Forty-four years after their arrival, Homestead steel mill, which Andrew Carnegie had purchased in 1888, became a battleground over a dispute for union representation by the site’s most skilled metalworkers. The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers had rejected an offer that would bring workers’ pay in line with those at western mills where the union was entrenched.
During the same decade as the Homestead dispute, a political group representing farmers and known as “Populists” emerged. They were not unlike the Chartists in Great Britain who sought political representation for workers. Andrew Carnegie’s father was a local Chartist leader when the family lived in Scotland; from who he is likely to have derived a lifelong interest in politics albeit as a Republican and not Democrat into which the Populists folded.
Ironically, it would be Republican “Progressives,” historically known for Patrician ruling class values, who emerged to challenge what was seen as the excesses of the America’s Gilded Age. Most notably, the Anti-Trust legislation enacted under President Theodore Roosevelt would result in an eventual 1911 dismantling of J D Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust. Roosevelt remains one of the wealthiest presidents to this day and was seen as a traitor to his class by the banker J Pierpont Morgan. Not dissimilarly, Carnegie was viewed as a traitor by his competitors by forcing their less productive plants to compete with his higher rates of pay.
Within a few short years of the Anti-Trust ruling against Standard Oil, Henry Ford, whom in due turn succeeded Carnegie and then Rockefeller as the World’s richest person, doubled the rate of worker pay at his Michigan automobile plant to five dollars a day. Like Carnegie, Ford’s capacity to pay higher wages to largely unskilled workers was based on his installing better production technologies than competitors. Many of Ford’s initial workers were farmers who worked in his factory to supplement their declining incomes. Again like Carnegie, Henry Ford would fall foul of the unions during what is known as the 1937 “Battle of the overpass.”
Every battle has its vanquished. Henry Clay Frick was vanquished as a consequence of Homestead. For Rockefeller, it was his son, John D Jr., at the infamous 1914 “Ludlow Massacre”. There are conflicting reports as to whether the younger Rockefeller went to Ludlow, Colorado, to appease or exacerbate poor relations with mineworkers. By contrast, it was Ford’s Head of Security, Harry Bennett, said to have had mob connections, who was the fall-guy after the “Battle of the overpass.” Ford had intended Bennett to succeed him, however, his wife Clara threatened him with divorce if he did not appoint his grandson Henry Ford II.