Well it probably wasn't that bad, but there were serious problems with child labor, working hours, safety and fair compensation. Most of these issues were the result of the transition from an agrarian to a manufacturing-based economy. Also at issue were monopolies that limited employment opportunities within industries. Finally much labor was unskilled, often lacking even the ability to read, let alone write to keep records.
Two major events occurred that began changing all of this: government expansion and unionization. Now usually I am very critical of government growth. There are a few exceptions where sometimes we need a "push" from Congress. I believe the Fair Labor Standards Act was one such example. The eight hour day and forty hour work week for the working person became a national standard and for the first time large employers had to meet an expectation. (Local merchants and specialty shops were much more prevalent before the industrial revolution, with smiths, wainwrights, carpenters and candle-makers all have small family-oriented businesses who might take on apprentices on occasion).
At the same time unions came along. The main union benefit was to give labor a voice and clout against the wealthy employer who might otherwise take advantage of those who would otherwise get taken advantage of. This was mostly fine, as the new dynamic of big employers and large groups of non-specialist employees and candidates. With the advent of corporations it became even more important for the employees to have a collective voice, as a group of owners and manager would almost never consider the employee stakeholder in those early days of industrialization.
But somewhere things went wacko. You see there is a downside to unions.
For one, it become someone's job to advocate and as long as everyone voluntarily donated out of their own wages, freely elected that advocate and that advocate was limited in tenure things were okay. But then came closed shops and large nationally organized unions with expensive lobbies and ties to organized crime.
Another issue with unions is that they often work against management, creating an adversarial relationship where there should be a cooperative one. Rules about layoffs, seniority and callbacks while not arbitrary, made life more difficult for management and increased liability beyond already complex resource management questions.
So unions where once a good, arguably necessary counterbalance to corporatism and collusion on employment; now they are a burden to profitability, bringing a sense of entitlement to the well-connected and well-established few.
And any good they once (or still) brought is restricted to private, for-profit enterprise. It is simply unnecessary for government employees to unionize; things true for steelworkers or mineworkers today are not applicable to government clerks and service agents. Firstly, there is no for-profit over-utilization incentive to counter-balance. Second, the "owners" of the enterprise are ultimately the citizenry! Most are prohibited by law from striking of course
The practical upshot of this is that local jurisdictions and states are going broke! The people cannot reign in government spending because of overly generously compensation beyond wages for these so-called public servants. A few well-connected people can take a generous retirement stipend from one job at say age 50 then get yet another job from a different jurisdiction, earning even more retirement after a few years. These people can make six figures after retirement!
End the SEIU! It is time to return sanity to our public service sector.
End public employee unions