Economics: Labor


Figure 1.--This photograph was taken in Chicago during the 1904 Stockyards Strike. Chicago was emerging as America's most important industrial city nd the The stockyards were at the center of the city's economy. The stockyards wer owned by the Union Stock Yard & Transit Company and were located in the New City community. As in many early strikes, the wives and children often joined with their striking fathers and husbands. Source: Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Digital ID: ichicdn n000940. Chicago Historical Society.

Labor in the ancient world had no real satus, in part because much of it was performed by slaves or peasants with few rights. With the fall of Rome in the west the Feudal system evolved where the peasantry became serfs tied to the land. Artisans in the cities organized guilds when helped to raise their status. The position of skilled labor, however, was udermined by the industrial revolution and the mechamization of industry. The labor movement developed differently in various countries. The general pattern was that industrialits refused to recognize unions and attempted to break unions that organized strikes, often with violence. Governments often intervened to support the industrialists. The labor movement itself was split. Some radical unions were organized like the International Workers of the world (IWW). The IWW was not concered with collective barganing, but rather with radical social change. There were also divisions between trade unions and industrial unions. And union leaders had a range of social attitudes. Some union leaders especially in America beliece in free enterprise, but just wanted a reaonable share of the earnings in wages. European labor unions had more politiocal orientations ranging from Socialist to Communist. Generally speaking the Communist political leaders were more radical and had a more radical politcal agenda. After the Communist Revolution in Russia, Communist labor leaders came under the control of the Soviet inteligence services. Gradually after World War I, labor unions in most Western European countries and America won collective bargaining rights. In America this was one of the achievements of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

Ancient World

Labor in the ancient world had no real satus, in part because much of it was performed by slaves or peasants with few rights. The history of the ancient world is a constant litany of numerically inferior bands of barbarian invaders, generally pastoral societies, overunning the richer agriculturally based societies with much larger populations. Part of the reason for this is the agricultural societies came to be dominated by a warrior elite normaly legitimized by the piestly cast. The warrior elite was dominated by the nobility which oppresed the peasantry tonvarying degrees with onerous taxes. Thus the elite of society did not dare to arm the peasantry to protect the society from barbarian invasion. Other agrarian societies relied heavily on slaves who also could not be armed. This essential social organization did not fundamentally change until the French Revolution and the mobilization of vast citizen armies.

Slavery

In our modern world there are few human practices that inspire such profound outrage as the practice of one human being enslaving another. This is, however, a very modern sentiment. The institution of slavery probably predates civilization itself. Slvery was an accepted institution and central to the economies of most major world civilization. The onset of Christianity meant and end to widespread slavery in Europe, although feudal serfs were only slightly more elevated than slaves. The European countries which conquered native American civilizations in the 16th century enslaved millions in Brazil and South America to work in mines and the tremendously profitable sugar plantations. The conditions were so brutal and European disesases so virlulent that native American populations were descimated. The Spanish and Portuguese turned Africans. Millions of Africans were transported across the Atlantic and sold into slavery in the Americas. Slavery in earlier epochs had no racial connotations. With the growth of the African slave trade, slavery in the Western mind became associated with race as with the collapse of Native American populations, it was Africans who were enslaved in huge numbers. European Christian who would not have tolerated the enslavement of other Europeans found little objecting to enslaving black Africans. Slavery is not just a historical subjdect. It persisted into the 20th century, primary in Islamic socities and in totalitarian nations (Communist, Fascist, and Japanese military occupation areas). And has not entirely disappeared in the 21st century.

Feudal Europe

With the fall of Rome in the west the Feudal system evolved where the peasantry became serfs tied to the land. Artisans in the cities organized guilds when helped to raise their status. These guilds became important in the medieval world. Merchant guilds orgianized the Hanseatic League which became a major force in Germany and northern Europe. Boys would be areticed to masters to learn a trade and then be afmitted to the guilds.

Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution had a fundamentl impact on Western Europe. It imensely increased productivity. This created great wealth for some. It lowered the price of manufactured goods bring many products within the purchasing power of workers. The new industrial processes both created jobs and made many traditional jobs obsolete. The Industrial Revolution impacted both the economy and culture as a whole in many unforseen ways. The position of skilled labor, however, was udermined by the industrial revolution and the mechanization of industry. Industrial processes were carried out by machinery, reducing the need for skilled craftmen. Industrialists began hiring children and women because they would work for low wages. The exploitation of child labor became a serious problem abd did not begin to be addressed until the mid-19th century.

Labor Movement

The new industrial workers of the 19th and 19th centuries worked long hours for very low wages. Before the industrial Revolution workers who often had valuable skills could bargain with their employers that they often knew personally. With the Industrial Revolution, machines dominated the work place. Employers could easily hire and train workers in plants who were generallu unskilled workers. The labor movement developed a workers began to join together in an effort to bargain collectively to improve working conditions. Wages of course were a key concern, but there were many others such as hours and compensation for injuries at work. Early attemps to orgnize faced many difficulties. Employers refused to accept the unions and considered them a violation of their property rights. Courts often declared unions illegal and the police and military used to suppress strikes. Companies hired often brutal security forces to control workers. The labor movement developed differently in various countries. The general pattern was that industrialits refused to recognize unions and attempted to break unions that organized strikes, often with violence. Governments often intervened to support the industrialists. The labor movement itself was split. Some radical unions were organized. Eugene V. Debs and others organized the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) (1905). The IWW was not concered with collective barganing, but rather with radical social change. There were also divisions between trade unions and industrial unions. And union leaders had a range of social attitudes. Some union leaders especially in America beliece in free enterprise, but just wanted a reaonable share of the earnings in wages. European labor unions had more politiocal orientations ranging from Socialist to Communist. Generally speaking the Communist political leaders were more radical and had a more radical politcal agenda. After the Communist Revolution in Russia, Communist labor leaders came under the control of the Soviet inteligence services. Gradually after World War I, labor unions in most Western European countries and America won collective bargaining rights. In America this was one of the achievements of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. The Depression put workers at great disadvantge because there were so many unemployed seeking jobs. One of the pillars of the New Deal was the The National Labor Relations Act (1935).








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Created: 2:52 AM 11/19/2005
Last updated: 12:57 AM 4/28/2014