Railways owned by the mega-rich racked up huge penalties for mistreatment of workers in the years leading up to the current labor dispute.
Whether industrial or service, jobs become “good” only because of coordinated pressure from workers.
Current campaigns across the United States to unionize service workers reflect a decades-long transformation, as service-sector employment outpaces that of manufacturing. But these efforts also occur amid a common mindset that too easily associates rates of pay, benefits, and job security with the nature of a particular job. Consequently, the prevalence of low wages, a lack of benefits, and sporadic and unpredictable schedules, so characteristic of the service economy, especially as compared to factory work, are regularly explained as inherent to this kind of labor. But such a view promotes a nostalgia about manufacturing jobs devoid of historical context. Poor working conditions are not intrinsic to service work itself, just as the decent pay of mid-twentieth century factory jobs was not intrinsic to that work. Rather, it resulted from coordinated pressure to make these jobs “good.”
Stagnant, or even declining, real wages for many over the last three decades, along with the expansion of temporary employment as normal, has prompted an understandable tendency to lament the loss of industrial jobs that offered long-term financial security and that allowed parents to reasonably expect a better economic future for their children. (This wistfulness, however, routinely fails to recall the nature of manufacturing work — usually dangerous, monotonous, and physically demanding.) Yet for many years those aspects of industrial work so yearned for today did not exist. Indeed, they followed from long-fought battles on the part of workers and their progressive allies.
As the United States became an increasingly industrial nation in the years after the Civil War, and prior to the establishment of any national social safety net in the form of unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, Social Security, or Medicare, factory work, much of it performed by newly arrived immigrants, was typically low-paying, subject to few, if any, safety regulations, often seasonal, offered little promise of advancement, and meant 10-12 hour workdays, six days a week. Laborers also experienced diminished workplace autonomy and were frequently viewed as mere appendages of a machine.
In response to these conditions, workers began to organize. Owners, of course, resisted. Nineteenth-century opponents of labor reform argued, variously, that wages were set by the free market; that proposed regulation in regard to pay and hours constituted an inappropriate, and potentially dangerous, intrusion into the natural workings of the business cycle; that government regulation of employer-employee relations undermined the liberty embodied in a contract freely entered into by two independent entities; and that meeting demands for higher pay and reduced hours, such as the 8-hour day, for example, would cripple economic progress.
Successful efforts to remake poor and dangerous factory jobs into “good” jobs involved the formation of national labor unions, worker actions in the form of strikes and boycotts, violence between laborers and police, lobbying legislators, and galvanizing public support, which regularly entailed drawing attention to the vast disparities of income so characteristic of the American economic system. Ultimately, these goals were realized (particularly for white males) following enactment of the Wagner Act in 1935, which allowed for collective bargaining; passage of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which standardized the 40-hour work week and overtime pay, and established a minimum wage; and through a post-World War II accord among organized labor, business, and government to more broadly distribute wealth as beneficial to all. The current reminiscing about “good” factory jobs is, really, a nostalgia for the working conditions and pay made possible by decades of union struggle.
Certainly the policy choices that followed the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and continued through the first part of the 2000s — tax breaks for the wealthy, industry deregulation, the weakening of labor protections, and new obstacles to forming workplace unions — undid much of these gains for workers, widened the gap in wealth to levels not seen since the first Gilded Age, and saw the greatest job growth in sectors epitomized by low pay and little-or-no job security. But this part of history need not be an inevitable part of the present transition from manufacturing to service-sector employment. Just as factory jobs were made into “good” jobs in the 20th century, so too service sector jobs can be made “good” in the early years of the 21st century.
Claire Goldstene has taught United States history at the University of Maryland, the University of North Florida, and American University. The author of The Struggle for America’s Promise: Equal Opportunity at the Dawn of Corporate Capital (2014), she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.