The Vanishing American Wage-Earner


THE native American wage-earner is rapidly disappearing. Along with him have also gone his working companions of former years, the English, Irish, Scotch, Swedes, Norwegians, and Germans. In their places have appeared the representatives of almost two score alien races from the south and east of Europe, and the Orient. Only one fifth of the workers in our mines and manufacturing plants to-day are native Americans. About one tenth of our wage-earners are the native-born children of parents from Great Britain and Ireland, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries. More than three fifths of our great body of industrial workers are southern or eastern Europeans.

There is scarcely a city or town of any industrial importance east of the Mississippi, and north of the Ohio and Potomac rivers, which has not its immigrant colony, composed of members of the Italian, Magyar, and Slavic races. Practically the same situation exists in the mining states of the West. The Pacific coast, in addition to its Chinese, Japanese, and Hindoos, has also received its contingent of southern and eastern Europeans. Wherever there has been any industrial development — in the coal mines of Kansas and Oklahoma, the iron-ore mines of the Mesabi and Vermilion ranges of Minnesota, the furnaces and mills at Pueblo, Colorado, and Birmingham, Alabama, the packing-houses in Kansas City, South Omaha, and Fort Worth, the copper mines of Tennessee, the coal mines of Virginia, as well as in the mines and mills of the East — the Slav, the Hungarian, and the Italian have found a lodgment in the operating forces. As a rule, the extent of their employment decreases as industry moves westward, but even in the West these races are rapidly becoming predominant among the industrial workers. Their status is also not confined to the substratum of unskilled workmen, but they are found in all grades of the industrial scale, — with the exception of the executive and the technical positions, — from the highest to the lowest occupations. A brief review of several basic industries will forcibly disclose the real significance of the recent racial substitutions in our mines and manufacturing establishments.


Only one fourth of the iron and steel workers of to-day are native Americans, and only one eighth are the descendants of the older skilled immigrant employees, who received their training in the mills and furnaces of Great Britain and Germany. Practically all of these are in the more responsible executive and technical occupations. The superintendents of our iron and steel manufacturing plants are unable to persuade the native Americans to enter the industry, and are wondering whom they will get to take the places of the foreman and skilled workers of the present generation. Three fifths of the employees of our furnaces and steel mills are of foreign birth. Two thirds of these immigrant workmen are southern and eastern Europeans of recent arrival in the United States. Polish, Magyar, and Slovak iron and steel workers, combined, equal in number the native Americans in the industry; and the North and South Italians, Lithuanians, Russians, and Croatians together outnumber the English, Irish, Scotch, and Germans. The operating forces of the industry until twenty years ago were exclusively composed of native Americans and older immigrants from Great Britain and Northern Europe. In the decade 1890-1900, southern and eastern Europeans found employment in the mills and furnaces, and the pressure of their competition has gradually driven out the members of races at first employed.

The displacement of the native American miner has been even more sudden and widespread than that of the iron and steel worker. Only one fifth of our bituminous coal miners are native Americans, and less than one tenth are of native birth and foreign parentage, the children, that is to say, of British and northern European immigrants. More than sixty per cent are foreign born. Three fourths of the immigrant employees are from the south and east of Europe, and among these the Italians, Poles, Slovaks, Croatians, and Lithuanians are numerically predominant.

The low-paid and unskilled southern and eastern European immigrants were first employed in the western Pennsylvania mines. With their advent, native workers and northern and western European employees were gradually displaced. Some went to the mining localities in the Middle West and Southwest, and some left the industry entirely to engage in other occupations. The native American and older immigrants, who remained in the Pennsylvania mines, were those who held or were advanced to more responsible positions, and the few who were left in the unskilled occupations were usually the inert and the unprogressive. The recent immigrants, after inundating western Pennsylvania, moved on to the Middle West, and the American miners and those of British extraction in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, are being steadily displaced by them. As in the case of the Pennsylvania mines, the older immigrants are leaving the industry or moving to the coal fields of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Colorado, where the competition of the southern and eastern European is less keenly felt.

Practically the same conditions with the same results have been brought about by the entrance of the southern and eastern European into the anthracite mines. The American and older immigrants, originally employed, have left the industry, or have migrated to the western coal and metalliferous mining fields, and those who remain are chiefly in the supervisory and responsible positions.

The recent immigrant industrial invasion has also extended to the iron-ore and copper mines. The great majority of iron-ore workers in the Birmingham district in Alabama are Negroes, the tide of recent immigration to the Southern Slates thus far having been very small. On the iron-ore ranges of Michigan and Minnesota, however, only about one eighth of the employees are native Americans. Three fourths are of foreign birth, the principal races represented being the Croatians, Finns, North and South Italians, Poles, Slovaks, Slovenians,1 and Swedes. In the copper mines of Michigan and Tennessee the same preponderance of foreign-born employees exists. About one fifth of the workers in the copper mines are native Americans, and about one eighth were born in America; but their parents were born abroad. The great majority are Croatians, Finns, Poles, North Italians, Slovenians, and Engglish. The Finns and the English were the original copper-mine workers, but they have been, and are gradually being, displaced by the southern and eastern Europeans.

With the exception of a few Italians in the mills in New Orleans, there are no foreign-born textile operatives in the Southern States. The immense labor force called into existence by the demand for labor growing out of the extraordinary development of cottongoods manufacturing in the South has been recruited from the native-born agricultural classes and mountaineers of that section. In New England, however, the situation is entirely different. There is scarcely a race from the south and east of Europe or the Orient which does not have its representatives among the employees of cotton, woolen, worsted, silk, hosiery, and knitgoods mills.

When the cotton mills were first started in New England, the looms and spindles were tended by the sons and daughters of the farmers who lived in the surrounding country. As the industry expanded, skilled and experienced operatives were attracted from England, Scotland, and Ireland. After 1850 the French-Canadians came in large numbers in response to the growing demand for operatives. These sources of labor-supply continued until 1890, when southern and eastern Europeans began to find employment in the mills. As their employment became more extensive, the immigration of English, Irish, Scotch, and FrenchCanadians declined, and during the past decade has practically ceased. Not only has this class of work-people stopped entering the mills, but those already employed have sought work elsewhere, and the southern and eastern European employees are now predominant.

The same condition of affairs prevails in the other branches of the textile industries, — woolen, worsted, silk, carpet, hosiery, and knit-goods manufacturing, — as in the cotton mills. The native Americans and older immigrant employees have been superseded by foreign-born operatives of recent arrival in the United States.

At the present time, the native Americans in the New England cotton mills scarcely make up one tenth of the total number of operatives employed. The proportion of native Americans in other branches of textile manufacturing, as compared with cotton goods, is slightly larger, but even then is exceedingly small. Only one seventh of the employees of our woolen and worsted mills and silk-dyeing establishments, and only one fifth of those in our silk mills and carpet factories, are of native birth, and of native fathers. About one operative out of each three workers in hosiery and knit-goods establishments is a native American. Three out of every five operatives of cotton, woolen, worsted, and carpet mills are of foreign birth, and two out of three of these foreign-born wage-earners are of recent arrival from southern and eastern Europe and the Orient. Three out of every four operatives of dyeing establishments for silk goods are aliens.

The Poles, Greeks, Italians, portuguese, and Lithuanians are the predominant races of recent immigration employed in our cotton, woolen, and worsted mills. In the spinning, weaving, and dyeing of silk goods and carpets, and in the manufacture of hosiery and underwear, the North and South Italians, Magyars, and Poles are the leading races of recent arrival in the United States among the employees. Among the immigrants in all of these industries are also to be found considerable numbers of skilled operatives from England, Scotland, and Ireland, and from Germany. The French-Canadians form an important proportion, especially among the cotton and woolen mill operatives.

Such are the racial elements in the operating forces of our basic industries. Furthermore, this situation is typical of all the less important divisions of industry. The United States Immigration Commission included within the scope of its exhaustive investigations in all parts of the country more than forty of the leading branches of mining and manufacturing. Everywhere — in the manufacture of agricultural implements, cigars and tobacco, boots and shoes, clothing, furniture, glass, gloves, leather, petroleum, collars and cuffs, electrical supplies, machinery, locomotives, and a score of other industries 舒 the same condition of affairs was found to exist. The native American occupied numerically a subordinate position among the wage-earners and, along with the representatives of older immigrant races from Great Britain, was being rapidly displaced by southern and eastern European employees, who had been securing employment in all kinds of mines and manufacturing establishments.


The southern and eastern European immigrant who has so extensively found employment in our mines and factories has had no industrial training abroad. He has also brought with him a low standard of living, and has been tractable and subservient. As a result, his competition has exposed the native American and older immigrant employees to unsafe or unsanitary working conditions, and has led to or continued the imposition of conditions of employments which the Americans and older immigrants have considered unsatisfactory and, in many cases, unbearable. Where the older employees have found unsafe or unsanitary working conditions prevailing, and have protested, the recent immigrant wageearners, usually through ignorance of mining or other working methods, have manifested a willingness to accept the alleged unsatisfactory working conditions.

The southern and eastern European also, because of his tractability, necessitous condition, and low standards, has been inclined, as a rule, to acquiesce in the demand on the part of the employers for extra work or longer hours. The industrial workers have also accepted without protest the system of so-called company stores and houses, which prevails extensively in bituminous and anthracite coal, iron-ore, and copper mining, and other industrial localities.

The presence of the recent immigrant industrial worker has also brought about living conditions or a standard of life with which the native American and older immigrant employees have been unwilling, or have found it extremely difficult, to compete. The southern and eastern European wage-earner is usually single, or, if married, has left his wife and children abroad. He has no permanent interest in the community in which he lives or the industry in which he is employed. His main purpose is to live as cheaply as possible, and to save as much as he can. Consequently, he has adopted a group method of living known as the ‘ boarding-boss’ system. Under this plan, from eight to twenty men usually crowd together in a small apartment or house in order to reduce the per capita outlay for rent, and buy their own food and do their own cooking. The total cost of living ranges from eight to fifteen dollars per month for each member of the group. The impossibility of competition by the native American with such standards of living needs no discussion.

In addition to these conditions, brought about by the influx of southern and eastern European industrial workers, another factor, mainly psychological in its nature, but no less powerful in its effect, has been operative in the displacement of native Americans and older immigrant employees. In all industries, and in all industrial communities, a certain reproach has come to be associated with native American or older immigrant workmen who are engaged in the same occupations as the southern and eastern Europeans. This feeling on the part of the older employees is mainly due to the habits of life and conduct of recent immigrants, and to their ready acceptance of conditions; but it is also largely attributable to the conscious or unconscious antipathy, often arising from ignorance or prejudice, toward races of alien customs, institutions, and manner of thought.

The same psychological effect was produced upon the native Americans in all branches of industrial enterprise who first came into working contact with the older immigrants from Great Britain and northern Europe. In the decade 1840-1850, when the Irish immigrant girls were first employed in the New England cotton mills, the native women who had previously been the textile operatives protested; twenty years later the Irish girls, after they had become firmly fixed in the industry, rebelled because of the employment of Freneh-Canadian girls in the spinning rooms, just as the Freneh-Canadian women refuse to be brought into close working relations with the Polish and Italian women who are entering the cotton mills at the present time. Whatever may be the cause of this aversion of older employees to working by the side of the newer arrivals, the existence of the feeling has become one of the most potent causes of racial substitution in manufacturing and mining occupations.


It is obvious that the advent within recent years of the southern and eastern European into American industrial life has been a matter of most serious consequence to the American workman, and the present-day competition of the same racial elements is of the greatest significance to the native-born and older immigrant wage-earners. The labor unions of the original employees, which should have been among the greatest factors in assimilating industrially the recent immigrant, and in educating him to American standards, in some industries — as for example bituminous coal mining in western Pennsylvania, or the cotton mills of New England — have been completely inundated, and wholly or partially destroyed by the sudden and overwhelming influx of southern and eastern Europeans. In other industries, where the competition of the immigrant of recent years has not been so directly felt, as in the glass industry, where skilled workmen were formerly necessary, the labor organizations are being weakened and undermined indirectly in other ways.

Everywhere improved machinery and mechanical processes are eliminating the element of skill formerly required of employees, and are making it possible for the unskilled foreignborn workman to enter occupations which have hitherto been beyond his qualifications, because they required previous training or an extended apprenticeship. Formerly, in order to be a pickor hand-miner a number of years of training was necessary. Now a machine does the work and unskilled workmen attend it. By means of the automatic loom and ring-spinningframe an unskilled immigrant from the south or east of Europe may now become a proficient weaver or spinner within a few months. The former highly skilled work of blowing glass bottles, as well as window and plate glass, may now be done by machinery manned by foreign-born employees who have been in the United States less than three months and who, before their employment, had never seen a glass factory.

In all industries, the immigrant wage-earner, through the elimination of the requirements of skill and experience, is being brought directly into contact and working competition with the native American and older British or northern European wage-earner. Unless the latter can do something to elevate the standards of the recent immigrants, their competition in the higher occupations will be followed by as serious results as have already attended their invasion of the lower grades of the industrial scale.

Much has been written in the past decade relative to the social and political effects of recent immigration. The recent exhaustive investigation of the Federal Commission, however, has revealed the fact that these phases of the problem are comparatively of little import. The actual problem is found in the industrial effects of the recent alien influx. Existing legislation cannot settle this problem. Its solution is dependent upon a change in our present immigration policy.

  1. A people of south-western Hungary, related to the Croatians as the Slovaks are to the Bohemians. In the rate of immigration the Slovaks lead; next come the Hebrews, while the Slovenians rank third. — THE EDITORS.