By Claire Goldstene
In the ongoing struggle for worker justice, we may need a little 19th century wisdom.
Tired of waiting for Congress to act, campaigns to raise the minimum wage are enjoying success in states and municipalities across the country. From Seattle, San Francisco, and Oakland to South Dakota, Nebraska and Arkansas, these efforts seek to remedy the severe economic inequality that currently plagues the country.
Interestingly, echoes of the 19th century can be heard among today’s proponents of raising the minimum wage. For instance, Ira Steward, a prominent labor organizer who advocated the 8-hour workday, used many of the same arguments of today’s minimum wage campaigns. But Steward also reminds us about what’s really at stake in struggles to improve living standards for millions of workers.
Steward, in his capacity as Secretary of the Boston Labor Reform Association, published a paper in 1865, in which he proposed to shorten the standard workday from 10 hours to eight, with no reduction in pay. He presented this scenario as beneficial to workers, capitalists, and consumers by identifying their common interest in a more productive and robust economy. Greater leisure afforded by shorter hours, Steward maintained, would cultivate greater consumer desire among workers, and the higher wages would allow them to indulge these wants. This, in turn, would aid capitalists by spurring the demand for the products they produced. Thus, Steward contended, reduced hours with no loss of pay was sound economic policy.
This is not substantially different from the claim made today that increased income for low-wage workers, in the form of a higher minimum wage, will stimulate economic growth through greater consumer spending, particularly when that spending drives 70 percent of American economic activity. The current federal minimum wage, which prevails in over half of the states in the country, was set in 2009 and stands at $7.25 an hour ($15,000 annually for a full-time worker), while the federal minimum wage for tipped workers has languished at $2.13 per hour since 1991 (though in 19 states it is higher). Neither of these has kept pace with rising costs of living. Between 1979 and 2012, the lowest-income 20 percent of American families saw a decrease in real income of 12.1 percent, while income for the top 5 percent of American families rose 74.9 percent during that same period.
Steward, writing in the context of an economy dominated by industrial activity, expected that increased consumer demand would prompt technological innovations likely to reduce the costs of production, savings that could offset the higher wages paid to workers. Similarly, research today indicates that higher hourly wages can save employers money over time through improved worker productivity and reduced expenses related to the costs of employee turnover and training.
What is missing in today’s minimum wage campaigns is Steward’s broader vision of the value of leisure and his insistence that, collectively, workers held the power to achieve this vision. Steward argued that by participating more fully in the consumption of goods, workers would generate sufficient demand to justify the increased pay and shorter hours that made consumption possible. At a time when the realities of hourly work for many meant diminished independence through the regimentation and deskilling of labor by machines, this idea held particular appeal. So, as much as Steward’s argument for reduced hours and higher pay was centered on improving immediate material conditions for workers, he also sought to grant a measure of power to workers in their working and non-working lives.
Steward implicitly made a case for the value of leisure—not merely as more time to consume but, importantly, as time during which people had a greater opportunity to realize their own potential. For Steward, all workers should have time to think about matters unrelated to meeting their basic needs and to more fully enjoy their lives outside of work.
In fact, Steward’s primary concern was the capacity of the regime of industrial wage labor to dehumanize people and fundamentally narrow the scope of their life experience to a cycle of work, food, rest, and work again. The stress of constant financial worry and the physical exhaustion of industrial labor for meager wages inhibited people’s intellectual growth and their ability to participate in civic life. In this way, they were less than full members of society. Thus, Steward presented not only a progressive economic perspective, but a fundamentally progressive view of a more human existence for greater numbers of people.
Today, the richest .001 percent of Americans hold over 11 percent of the nation’s wealth; an increasing number of minimum wage workers are adults, not teenagers; and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the largest sector of job growth over the next decade will be in low-wage occupations such as food preparation and service, retail salesperson, office clerk, and home health aide (where the median age is 40).
The problem with these jobs is more than just low wages and poor working conditions. Just as in the 19th century, workers who spend their lives in these jobs are in a cycle of work, food, rest, and work again. In the ongoing struggle for worker justice, perhaps we ought to resurrect Steward’s 19th-century vision of a more civic-minded, pleasurable, and humane existence for all working people.
Claire Goldstene has taught United States history at the University of Maryland, the University of North Florida, and American University. She is the author of The Struggle for America’s Promise: Equal Opportunity at the Dawn of Corporate Capital (2014). –