"To be free, the workers must have choice. To have choice they must retain in their own hands the right to determine under what conditions they will work." -Samuel Gompers
From the late 1700s onward, factory work gradually replaced the system of home-based production known as the cottage industry. Rural, water-powered mills, were replaced by urban, steam-driven factories, filled to the roof with chugging, hissing, clunking machines. A task once accomplished by a group of skilled artisans became a thoughtless chore completed by, and depending on, faceless, nameless cogs in an assembly line.
Employers soon realized that if factories were built in cities, there would be a larger supply of workers available. With more people willing to do the work, employers felt that they could cut wages, and put more money into their own pockets. Naturally, employers wanted to maximize their profits. That meant that men, women and children were hired for very low wages, usually worked in dangerous or unhealthy conditions, and often worked for twelve or more hours.
Industry in America developed far more rapidly than it had in Europe. Factories and mills spread quickly throughout New England prior to the Civil War due to good supplies of natural resources such as iron and coal, and the ease of transporting finished goods along the many navigable rivers. This in turn lead to the building of more railroads and canals to handle the increased traffic
In addition, immigrants from Europe were swelling the labor pool, allowing employers to drive wages lower and lower. The combination of unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, extremely long work days, and the growing number of people (especially children) injured or killed working at mills, led to the organization of concerned groups of labor unions in the United States. Most unions wanted to lower the total hours worked per day, raise wages, and outlaw child labor. Some were more successful than others.