The world of work and economy is a dynamic one. Labor has had a very long and interesting in the United States and the rest of the world. The history of labor describes the history of organized labor, and more generally the history of the working group. Pressures that have defined the nature as well as power of organized labor include evolution and power of the employers, efforts by the workers, the private organizations to restrict or control unions and the labor law. As a result of the pressures, organized labor unions emerged to intervene on behalf of workers. Labor has evolved through different historical periods, each influencing the other. From the period that capitalism developed up-to-date, there have been various events and people who have influenced labor and the economy in the United States, as well as the rest of the world (Epping, 2009). This paper follows these events and individuals that have influenced the world of work and economy in the 21st century, since the development of capitalism.
This is an economic system which in its contemporary form can be traced to the 16th to 18th centuries. This is the period that is generally referred to as mercantilism. This period is also known as the age of discovery and was marked by exploitation by overseas traders mostly from Europe. This system was based on trade for profit. Some of the scholars believe that this was the genesis of capitalism, while others argue that capitalism developed later. For instance, Karl Polanyi, claimed that “mercantilism, with its entire tendency toward commercialization, never attacked the safeguards which protected [the] two basic elements of production—labor and land—from becoming the elements of commerce”; thus mercantilist attitudes towards economic regulation were closer to feudalist attitudes, “they disagreed only on the methods of regulation” (Polanyi, 1944: 87). Additionally, he stated that the hallmark of this economic system of the development of generalized markets for “fictitious commodities”, as he refers to land, labor and money. It is generally argued that capitalism, as a purposeful economic system, came up incrementally in Europe from the 19th century. This is regardless the argument that proto-capitalist movements were present in the ancient world as well as in the initial elements of merchant capitalism that developed ay the time of Late Middle Ages. Capitalism came to be dominant in the West after the demise of feudalism. This system of economy with time spread all through Europe. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the system main means of industrialization. This took place almost throughout the world (Polanyi, 1944).
This system is characterized by privately owned means of production and operations that are aimed at profits. This is normally evidence in the competitive markets, which characterizes the economy today. Though there is no consensus as to whether capitalism should be termed as a historical category, it is an historical event that influenced the present-day labor and economy. There is an agreement that privately owned means of production, development of products and services for trade at a profit in a market, and prices and wages are the characteristics of this kind of economy. Differentia specifica for capitalism was given by Karl Marx: “People sell their labouring-power to a buyer, not to satisfy the personal needs of the buyer, but to augment the buyer's capital” (Marx, 1954: 678). There are scholars who define it as an economic system where all the factors of production are in private ownership. Others define it as a system where most of the means of production are privately owned. Private ownership in this economic system entails the right of the owner to control the property. This is in terms of how the property is used, whether to rent or sell it and the right to the income that is gotten from the property. A mixed economy is a kind of economic system that depends on private property ownership and market relations but with a considerable level of government intervention (Berg and Hudson, 1992).
Different perspectives that have been taken in the analysis of capitalism are what have had a great influence in the current labor and economy. Economists normally argue that in a capitalist economy, the government does not have any control over market as well as on property rights. This is the kind that is referred to as laissez faire. Majority of the political economists argue that private property, wage labor, power relations and class are what make capitalism a distinct historical formation. This is the basis of the general argument that capitalism supports economic development. The degree to which various markets are free and the rules that define private property are on the basis of the policy and politics of an individual state or nation. Many nations are referred to as mixed economies. It is evident that in the 21st century economy, capitalism is the dominant economic model (Epping, 2009).
The industrial revolution
In the 19th century, there was the industrial revolution that generated a rapid development in industries and manufacturing abilities. The industrial revolution started in the US then it spread in the other parts of the world. The industrial revolution is the major turning point in the history of labor. It did not only influence labor, but almost every other aspect of human life in some way. The development in technology made workers to migrate from agricultural work to work in factories, mines as well as other hard labor (Beck and Roger, 1999). Majority in the working class who moved to work in factories and other industries faced poor working conditions. Such conditions are still experienced by some people in the working class even in the 21st century. Some of the poor working conditions that are experienced by these people are long hours, low pay and unhealthy working conditions among others. There were many men and children who had to find employment, and were generally paid lower than men. As there were limited opportunities for learning, many children were required to work. Even where the productivity of the children and adults were comparable, the employers would always pay the children less than the adults (Berg and Hudson, 1992).
The industrial revolution saw the development of a middle class that was occupied by the industrialists and business men. This class triumphed over the landed class of gentry and nobility. The working class found increased job opportunities in the factories and new mills. Development of factories also led to the development of the cities. This is because the working class would migrate into these cities as they searched for employment. This is best illustrated by the mills and the related industries that developed in Manchester that were given then nickname, “Cottonopolis.” This is believed to be the first industrial city in the world. Housing conditions for the middle class were better than those for the working class. Poor people, who comprised the majority for the working class, occupied very small houses that were in the cramped streets. Living in these kinds of facilities was hard. Not all of the workers lived in these kinds of conditions. The industrial revolution led to the development of a class of professionals such as doctors and lawyers (Greenhouse, 2008).
Some of the industrialists such as Robert Owen tried to better the living conditions for his workers. He is known as one of the pioneer reformers and is well known for his efforts in enhancing the working and living conditions for the workers at the New Lenark Mills. Robert Owen is also considered as one of the major supporters of early socialist movement. Josiah Wedgwood and Matthew Boulton also used in the industrial system and are known among the earliest industrialists. Though there were some of the industrialists who provided better living conditions for their workers, majority did not. They continued to overwork them while paying them very low wages. This aspect has persisted even in the 21st century labor and economy. There is still the class of the wealth and business owners who are exploiting the workers. This is especially common with multinationals that are developed and grow as a result of exploitation of labor in the developing nations. There are very many companies that are developed in the poorer nations where they thrive on cheap labor and sweatshops. In such cases, the poor remain poor and living in terrible conditions. This kind of system emanates from the industrial revolution and persists even today (Greenhouse, 2008).
It was as a result of the injustices that were faced by the working class that labor movements were developed. Introduction of labor unions is another notable event that has influenced the world of work and the economy of the 21st century. They are legally identified representatives of workers in various industries. Labor unions started developing in the 1870s and 1880s. The industrial revolution has concentrated labor into factories, mills and mines. This facilitated the amalgamation or labor unions to lobby for the interests of the workers. Labor unions were developed at the time as a means of lobbying for better rights and working conditions for the workers. With the industrial revolution, the employment bargaining power was totally in the hands of the employers. This is what resulted in underpayment and mistreat of majority of the workers. For instance, in the united states labor unions started with the large-scale integration, with the Knights of Labor developing into a huge force in the world of labor and work. A notable figure behind this development was Samuel Gompers who led the American Federation of Labor up to 1924. The Railroad Brotherhoods was another labor union in the country separate from the American Federation of Labor. This labor union developed national networks towards the end of the 19th century. The Wagner Act of 1935 caused a rejuvenation of the labor movement. An amalgamation into the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) became possible following the purging of communists in the CIO in 1946–1948 (Dollars and Sense, Ness, Offner and Sturr, 2009).
One way that the unions push for better conditions for their members is by organizing strikes, common in employee relations in many countries even today. This was and is still used as a bargaining tool for better working conditions. It was also a tool that was used by the unions in negotiations between management and labor. Though there is a difference in today’s strikes and those that took place back then, they continue to be used as a tool for negotiations. Back then, the strikes were chaotic and violent. In the present-day labor strikes are normally peaceful protests. Majority of the strikes were painful situations for both the workers and the employers. As a result of the strong bargaining power of the workers through the unions, they were fought by the employers as well as their supporters in the government, a trend that is common even today. For instance, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 was passed as a deliberate and conservative measure to weaken the unions (Dollars and Sense, Ness, Offner and Sturr, 2009). Highly publicized accounts of fraud in the Teamstars as well as other unions in the country also affected the image of the union movement in the 1950s. Labor unions became the strength of the New Deal Coalition as well as Modern Liberalism in the US. Power and membership of the unions peaked again around 1970. However, membership in the private sector unions declined, while membership of the unions in the public sector continued to grow steadily into the 2010s. Richard Trumka is one of the most famous union leaders in the United States (Epping, 2009).
Currently labor unions in the country belong to one of the larger umbrella bodies AFL-CIO or the Change to Win Federation. The Change to Win Federation split from the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations in 2005-2006. Nevertheless, the role of these unions still remains as were when the idea of unions was developed back in the 19th century. They advocate policies and laws that are favorable to workers in the US and Canada. They also have an active role in politics supporting the Democratic Party, though not exclusively the case. The American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations is particularly concerned with international business and economic issues (Greenhouse, 2008).
Modern Liberalism in the US
Modern American liberalism in the United States is a kind of liberalism that emanated from the progressive ideologies like “Theodore Roosevelt's New Nationalism, Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom, Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, John F. Kennedy's New Frontier, and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society” (Alterman, 2008:14). Modern Liberalism unites social liberalism and progressivism. It supports a welfare state as well as a mixed economy. Some of the liberal causes in the country include “voting rights for African Americans, abortion rights for women, gay rights and government entitlements such as education and health care.” A major role has been played by the Keynesian economic theory in the economic ideology of the United States liberals. This is based on the argument that the government has a role in the management of macro-economy, to deal with the problem of unemployment, to keep inflation in check and ensure the growth of the economy. According to John F. Kennedy a liberal is a person: “… who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a 'Liberal', then I’m proud to say I’m a 'Liberal'” (Alterman, 2008: 32).
Modern liberals in the country support relative equality advocated for by organizations that fight against economic inequality. They are also strong supporters of democracy, the rule of law and civil rights. They refer to the widespread development that was achieved under a mixed economy in the period since the Second World War. They are convinced that liberty is possible when there is access to basics such as education, healthcare, and opportunities that are accessible to every person. They also advocate for environmental protection. Majority of the Americans support liberal ideologies (Dollars and Sense, Ness, Offner and Sturr, 2009).
Capitalism is an economic system that is characterized by privately owned means of production and operations that are aimed at profits. In this kind of system there is free market and competition. This is because of the profit element of the economic system. This is a kind of system that supports class. The owners of the means of production belong to a different class from the working class. The latter are the providers of labor for the owners of the means of production. They earn wages in exchange for their labor. This is what characterizes work and economy in the current century. Scholars have argued that capitalism is economic system that encouraged industrialization. It contributed to and advanced the industrial revolution. In the 19th century, there was the industrial revolution that generated a rapid development in industries and manufacturing abilities. The development in factories largely depended on labor from the working class and trading in the products to generate profits. The working class was exploited by the owners of the means of production, that is, the property owners and was given meager wages in return. This is also evident in the current economic system, especially in the global market where the owners of the means of production are free to manufacture and sell their products in any part of the world. The injustices showed by these owners of the means of production during the industrial revolution led to the development of labor or trade unions. The trade unions were developed to advocate for the rights of the working class and one of the negotiating tools that were used was strike. Such means are still used in the current economic system to lobby for the rights of the workers. Labor unions were the backbone in Modern Liberalism in the US. All these are events in labor history that have influence the world of work and economy in the 21st century.
Alterman, E. (2008). Why we're liberals: a political handbook for post-Bush America, New
York: Viking Adult p. 32.
Beck B. & Roger (1999). World History: Patterns of Interaction. Evanston, Illinois: McDougal
Berg, M. & Hudson, P. (1992). Rehabilitating the Industrial Revolution. The Economic History
Review (The Economic History Review, 45 (1): 24–50.
Dollars and Sense, Ness, I., Offner, A. & Sturr, C. (2009). Real World Labor: A Reader in
Economics, Politics, and Social Policy, Economic Affairs Bureau Inc. / Dollars and Sense.
Epping, B. C. (2009). The 21st Century Economy--A Beginner's Guide. Rothbury NSW: Vintage
Greenhouse, S. (2008). The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, New York:
Marx, K. (1954). Capital, Moscow: Progress Publishers p580.
Polanyi, K. (1944). The Great Transformation. Boston: Beacon Press. p87
Randy Charles Epping (Author)
Find all the books, read about the author, and more.
See search results for this author
Are you an author? Learn about Author Central
Steven Greenhouse (Author)
Find all the books, read about the author, and more.
See search results for this author
Are you an author? Learn about Author Central