In the story, a family of twelve has come to Chicago from Lithuania. A series of swiftly made poor choices places them in debt almost immediately, as swindlers take advantage of their limited ability to speak English. Even the “down payment” on the house they buy in the worst slums of Chicago drains their savings and sets them up for a payment plan that they cannot possibly meet, making foreclosure a certainty. This means that Jurgis Rudkus, the head of the household, is not the only one in the house who has to work – instead, everyone (including the kids and Jurgis’ ill father) has to go out and find a job. The naïve Rudkus family, led by Jurgis, is gradually worn down by the greed around them – graft is everywhere, and you have to pay bribes to everyone. When his wife dies in childbirth, because the family cannot afford a doctor, and his little boy drowns in the filth on their street, Jurgis flees to the countryside. Even there, though, he cannot find steady, honest work, as farmers send the help away after the crops are in. He returns to the city, joins a socialist group (one of whom gives him a job) and supports the remnant of his wife’s family. At the end of the book, Jurgis is back at another socialist rally, which ends with the cry that “Chicago will be ours!”
I knew that the reason behind the growth of Socialism in the United States as a movement was the horrible conditions that workers faced in those days. There were no laws protecting children from having to work, no minimum wage laws, no workplace safety regulations, and no protections from swindlers. The formation of labor unions was an attempt to make management treat its employees with some measure of dignity and human concern. The United States was not the only country with these conditions, though – the writings of Charles Dickens were among the first to highlight the injustices that plagued workers during the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution; by the time the 1900s rolled around, the sophistication of the factories had increased even further (without similar advances in safety or in concern for employees) and managers were bringing in new workers whenever the old ones wore out. When I was in Colorado this past summer, I went and visited a mine, and the tour guide talked about the fact that the drilling machines that company miners used to find gold and silver would fill the workers’ lungs with dust and kill them within a few years. Once the labor pool started to dwindle, the companies added water to the drilling process, which reduced the dust dramatically, letting miners live longer. The most graphic proof of this change was the pictures you would see of miners; originally, no photographs showed miners that were out of their thirties, because the work ground them down so quickly. The lack of concern by management for employees was terrible – one wonders, though, how different things would be today without the creation of unions back then.
I also knew that immigrants had had a difficult time when they first came to the United States, as the language barrier often kept them from thriving. Even now, that sometimes happens, as sweatshop owners bring workers over from other countries, put them in quarantined living spaces, and make them work off their “debt,” which is structured so that they will never escape. I did not know that these scams were so much more widespread back at the turn of the twentieth century. It is also execrable that more seasoned immigrants would swindle the newcomers instead of helping them, but when survival is such a difficult task, morals and ethics tend to fly out the window for many people. It is the truth, but a terrible one. This truth, coupled with the need for human compassion in our dealings with others, is (in my opinion) one of the reasons you assigned this book to us. If we learn more about the injustices with which we treated one another in the past, this will hopefully help us treat each other more humanely in the future. After all, the lessons that come to us from history are there for a reason – if we choose to repeat them, though, then the tragedies of the past have no redeeming value at all.