Labor History in 2:00

January 6 - Remembering Ida Tarbell

January 6, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1944. 

That was the day that Progressive-Era journalist Ida Tarbell died. 

Often referred to as a leading ‘muckraker,’ she is considered to have pioneered investigative journalism. 

She is best known for her expose on “The History of the Standard Oil Company,” which was serialized in McClure’s magazine starting in 1902. 

The nineteen-part series detailed John D. Rockefeller’s rise to power, the oil empire he created, his business practices, secret alliances with railroads and refiners, and ruthless dealings. 

Tarbell had a personal stake in unveiling Rockefeller and Standard Oil.

Her father was a small oil producer and refiner in Pennsylvania who was virtually ruined, as was much of the region, by Rockefeller’s machinations in 1872.

She noted, “Rockefeller and his associates did not build the Standard Oil Co. in the board rooms of Wall Street banks and investment houses, water their stock and rig the market. They fought their way to control by rebate and drawback, bribe and blackmail, espionage and price-cutting, by ruthless, never slothful, efficiency of organization and production.”

Tarbell combed through hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and interviewed company executives and employees, competitors, regulators and academics.

In 1999, New York University ranked her history of Standard Oil fifth out of the top one hundred investigative journalist pieces of the century.

The expose eventually led to the break up of the Standard Oil monopoly by the Supreme Court under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1911.

Though her views on unions were more complicated, her history of Rockefeller and Standard Oil revealed to the public, to labor unions and to workers everywhere the levels tycoons will go to, to secure power and profits.



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