Pride | The Extraordinary Journey Series | WVIA
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The Extraordinary Journey - Pride

Prejudice and the Iron Hand

 

Prejudice and the Iron Hand of the American Corporation

 

Not surprisingly, the social ills that surfaced from rapid urbanization was blamed on the recent influx of immigrants. Often unfairly deemed uncivilized, many immigrants were judged on the poor living conditions they faced as a result of careless factory and mine owners and an urban infrastructure that was inadequate for the rapid population growth.

While this population boom was instrumental in the expansion and development of the United States and its economy, it also fueled urbanization at such a rate that, invariably, led to social ills.  Although these problems, such as crime, poverty, unsanitary conditions and illiteracy, were the inevitable “growing pains” of a society that was growing too fast to provide for its citizens, they were blamed on the poor character and quality of the immigrants themselves.   Americans who had long forgotten their own stories of immigration viewed these problems as a direct result of the inferior, new “race” of people. However, the struggles the immigrants faced were a direct result of circumstances created by the people responsible for bringing them to America; those who depended on their labor and exploited  them for their own economic gain.

As previously noted, the rapid industrialization of America had left a vacuum of unskilled labor that could not be filled by the limited population of the United States.  Mine and factory owners desperately needed the unskilled European laborers to grow their businesses and increase their profits.  They actively recruited peasant workers in Europe.  In addition, the unionization and growth of the labor movement by skilled English and Irish miners and factory workers who were being squeezed out by mechanization was also a threat to their authority.  The unskilled Eastern European masses, who were illiterate and spoke no English, were a perfect way to staff their companies and undermine the growing labor movement. They used immigrants as strikebreakers; thus attracting the ire of the organizing Irish and Welsh laborers and further undermining the movement through ethnic rivalries.   Prejudice from the English, Welsh and Irish miners toward the newcomers whose constant supply of unskilled labor made unionization nearly impossible was debilitating, both to the Eastern European native and the labor movement itself.

Company owners often took advantage of their new employees by setting up “company” towns for them. The benefits for the owner, and subsequent drawbacks for the workers, were many. First, connecting living quarters to one’s job was problematic. If a laborer quit his job, his family would be homeless. Second, employees and their families could be watched for any union activities 24 hours a day and were easily terrorized in such a situation. Perhaps the most well know symbol of employer control in the anthracite region, however, was the company store. The company store, owned by the mine, charged exporbitant prices for everyday items miners and their families needed, including their own mining equipment. Since the mining region was still quite rural, and in some areas desolate, the risks associated with purchasing from a nearby town far outweighed the benefits – especially in cases where miners were actually forbidden to shop anywhere else.

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