By the late 1800s, most Western countries had granted all men the vote. Workers also won the right to organize unions to bargain on their behalf. Germany legalized labor unions in 1869. Britain, Austria, and France followed. By 1900, Britain had about three million union members, and Germany had about two million.
The main tactic of unions was the strike, or work stoppage. Workers used strikes to demand better working conditions, wage increases, or other benefits from their employers. Violence was often a result of strikes, particularly if employers called in the police or hired nonunion workers to keep their operations going.
Pressured by unions, reformers, and working-class voters, governments passed laws to regulate working conditions. Early laws forbade employers to hire very young children. Later laws outlawed child labor entirely and banned the employment of women in mines. Other laws limited work hours and improved safety. By 1909, British coal miners had won an eight-hour day, setting a standard for workers in other countries.
In Germany, and then elsewhere, Western governments established old-age pensions, as well as disability insurance for workers who were hurt or became ill. These programs protected workers from dying in poverty once they were no longer able to work.
Wages varied throughout the industrialized world, with unskilled laborers earning less than skilled workers. Women received less than half the pay of men doing the same work. Farm laborers barely scraped by during the economic slump of the late 1800s. Periods of unemployment brought desperate hardships to industrial workers and helped boost union membership.
Overall, though, standards of living for workers did rise. Working-class people began to benefit from higher wages and better working conditions. They, too, were able to afford a larger variety of goods and services. Many benefited from the growing movement to provide public education. Some were able to get access to health care. Efforts to curb diseases led to vaccination programs that reached into poor communities. Some workers were able to move out of overcrowded slums into the outer ring of cities and travel to work on subways and trolleys. Despite improvements in the standard of living, however, a large gap divided workers from the middle class.
Miners and steelworkers go on strike in Belgium.
Who do you think the men on horseback are? Why are they there? Explain.
What were some ways that life improved for workers?