The problem of labor has always been a guiding force in American history.
When Europeans first arrived in the Western Hemisphere, the first problem they encountered once they learned how to keep from dying was how to get workers.
First, the turned to the “Indians”– remember the Spanish and encomienda?– but the Indians were decimated by disease and warfare. There were a few Indians who were traded as slaves, but there was no quick profits there. The first Africans were brought to our shores in 1620, and apparently were originally used as indentured servants, although not for long….
Then, indentured servants were the next solution. Originally, these people were immigrants whose passage to the Western Hemisphere was paid for by selling their labor for several years. The problem was, they got their freedom after a few years’ work and then started demanding equality and land and so on. Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 finally emphasized the instability of the system of indenture, and so in the South in particular, indenture was eventually replaced by….
The increased dependence in the South of Black chattel slavery. The system was permanent, the slaves couldn’t blend in to the population the way runaway indentures could, and they would never be in a position to demand equality with the landowning class. Harsh slave codes imported from Barbados governed the acceptable behavior of the slaves in the Carolinas and then spread throughout the South.
In the North, as manufacturing grew, especially after Samuel Slater constructed the first textile mill in 1793, some worked for wages, although they were often referred to as “wage slaves,” since a wage-earner was dependent upon an employer instead of being self-sufficient. Young people, such as Benjamin Franklin, were also apprenticed to learn trades. Work began to shift from the home to the factory, and young women, usually unmarried, began to be drawn into this work, especially in the mills of Lowell, Massachusetts.
There was a backlash against manufacturing in the early years of our country’s existence, especially reflected in the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer, self-sufficient and independent (and also white, of course.). The presence of women in the workforce was also resisted by many people, and the cult of domesticity reflected this backleash– the idea that a woman’s place was in the home and that her roles as a mother and homemaker were divinely ordained and the source of virtue. This idea would reappear periodically from the 1820s to the present, with the latest outbreak of this idea being particularly prominent in the 1950s.
During the Civil War, the first American millionaires were created, and in the years immediately afterward you have an era in which laissez-faire and big business interests dominated. This was the Gilded Age, the era of Rockefeller and Carnegie and Morgan and other robber barons. The pro-business Republican party ruled with the help of the Grand Army of the Republic, who “voted as they shot” and ensured Republican dominance from 1868 to 1912, with the exception of Grover Cleveland’s two terms. This was the era of the Gibson girl, who worked as a secretary or telephone operator until her knight in shining armor came along to sweep her into domestic bliss.
Labor unions, such as the Knights of Labor, founded in 1869 and led by Terence Powderly, sought to end child labor to increase wages for working adults and accepted women and African Americans as members. Other early labor unions included the National Labor Union and the American Federation of Labor– the “umbrella union” led by Samuel Gompers. One female labor leader was Mary Harris Jones, nicknamed “Mother” Jones or “the miner’s angel” by her mining “boys.” Unions sought the creation of an eight hour workday, since it was common at that time to work 12 or even 14 hour days six days a week; safer working conditions; and of course higher wages. Unions used the methods of boycotts, the closed shop, and especially strikes, such as the Pullman strike of 1894 and the Homestead strike of 1892. These labor protests sometimes turned violent, as happened at the Haymarket riot of 1889, in which eight policemen were killed by a bomb and four men were eventually executed for their part in the explosion and riot. The Sherman Antitrust Act, which had been passed to limit unscrupulous business practices in 1890, was ironically used against labor unions by the pro-business Supreme Court of that era. No matter what, the task of unionizing the workforce was made much more difficult by the steady flow of immigrants who came into the United States during this time period. As long as immigrants (the “New” Immigrants”) were willing to work for less and kept the supply of workers high, unions would be limited in their effectiveness. It did not help that some labor organizations such as the Molly Maguires and Industrial Workers of the World (alias the “Wobblies”) attained a reputation for anarchy, socialism, and/or violence, fairly or unfairly.
In the South, once the Civil War ended, the economy was devastated. The lack of entry level jobs in the ante-bellum period for free labor had suppressed the impulse for immigrants to settle there, leading to a more than 4 to 1 advantage in population for the Union over the Confederacy. After the war, Black Codes were passed to try to limit the movement and independence of the freedmen, and in particular, freedmen were required to place themselves under yearly labor contracts or risk being arrested for vagrancy and be forced to work off their debt, often to former slaveowners. Black children could be appropriated and “apprenticed” in white households in the name of teaching them a trade. The system of sharecropping also controlled the labor population and attempted to keep them in a state of perpetual peonage.
In the West, workers were needed on the developing factory farms, on the railroads, and in the mining and cattle industries. These industries were often subject to the vagaries of climate, seasonal demands, and the cycle of boom and bust that went hand in hand with constantly seeking out and exhausting veins of ore.
The Greenback Labor Party and the Populist movements in the late 19th century sought to unify farmers and working people to gain economic benefits such as a graduated income tax, an eight hour day, and limitations upon the railroad juggernaut. The restriction of the flow of immigrants into this country that began with the Immigration Quota Act of 1924 enabled unions to become more influential.
One of the major goals of the Progressive era was economic opportunity for all. This period saw the implementation of the Workingmen’s Compensation Act, which gave federal employees injured on the job compensation; the Adamson Act, which gained railroad workers and eight-hour day; and various state laws limiting child labor and fought for court decisions such as Muller v. Oregon to protect women in the workplace. The Clayton Antitrust Act also exempted unions from antitrust legislation. Former labor leader turned Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs garnered almost a million votes in the presidential election of 1912. The tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911 drew attention to the dangerous conditions many workers faced in the workplace.
During the World Wars, workers were often asked to sacrifice demands for pay in the interest of the war effort, and the movement of white males into the military opened the doors for women and minorities to make progress in entering the workplace, at least during wartime. The postwar recessions, however, were often very difficult on workers. In 1935 John L. Lewis announced the formation of the CIO, or Committee for Industrial Organization, from the AF or L, but of course its effectiveness during the Great Depression was limited. These two organizations would not be reunited until 1955 as the AFL-CIO, a collection of many separate unions.
Union membership in the United States has dropped steadily in the last forty years. Competition from the global marketplace and the end of protective tariffs as government policy has led to the loss of jobs from foreign competition, and the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994 has encouraged the movement of jobs to Mexico in some fields. Manufacturing jobs have steadily moved overseas into areas where labor costs are much lower, especially in the developing Asian world. China has particularly increased its manufacturing capacity as it has instituted limited free-market reforms. The major issue of immigration reform also impacts workers, as illegal immigrants are often paid at or below the minimum wage and also increase the supply of workers (and therefore the competition) for low-skilled positions. The future of the American workplace obviously will move away from manufacturing toward service and other skilled sectors of the economy, necessitating ever greater amounts of education and training for curretn and future workers in order to maintain accustomed standards of living.
And you know what that means…..