Lawrence B. Glickman. A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997.
This week, I turn to an older book than I usually discuss because I want to provide some background on the current debate over just wages. The struggle for higher wages goes back a long way, of course. Labor leaders started talking about the “living wage” in the 1870s, and the concept was widely discussed during the Progressive Era. The country’s first minimum wage law was passed in Massachusetts in 1912.
Lawrence Glickman links the concept of the living wage to the great economic transformation of the United States, involving both the ascendancy of industrial wage labor and the acceptance of mass consumption as an economic counterpart of industrial production. Both of these developments forced Americans to confront the question of the adequacy of wages.
Before the Civil War, the very idea of wage labor was a contested notion. Children worked for wages, and so did young adults unless and until they acquired enough property to have their own trade, shop or farm. But the ideal American was generally thought to be an independent producer of some kind. Even as wage labor was becoming more common by the mid-1800s, “nineteenth-century workers deemed it acceptable only as a temporary step on the way to self-employment.”
The popular concepts of liberty and self-government were commonly applied to individuals as well as the nation as a whole, and they included the idea of being in control of one’s own labor. Selling one’s labor to an employer meant losing one’s liberty and being reduced to a mere commodity. “Some workers considered wage slavery more dehumanizing than chattel slavery because employers, unlike slaveholders, did not have to provide even basic subsistence.”
Critics of “wage slavery” often compared it to prostitution, blurring the distinction between the “wages of sin” and the “sin of wages.” On one level this was a powerful metaphor, comparing two activities that involved selling one’s body. But it could also be a powerful narrative, the story of how low wages drove women into the most immoral of economic transactions. The living wage could refer to either of two solutions: a female wage high enough to remove any need for prostitution, or a male wage high enough to support an entire family and so eliminate any need for a women to make money.
These two views of prostitution–as a metaphor for all wage labor or a narrative about low wages–correspond to two different views of the wage labor problem. The more radical critique was that wage labor by its very nature robs the workers of their freedom as well as of some portion of the value of their labor. The more moderate critique was that wage labor was acceptable if wages were high enough to support families. As industrialization proceeded and the US became predominantly a nation of wage-earners, the second view came to prevail. The term “wage slave” faded into the background, and the term “living wage” came to the forefront. A newer conception of liberty, the freedom to live well through consumption, superseded the older notion of freedom through independent production.
Conceptions of the living wage
In 1898, American Federation of Labor president Samuel Gompers defined the living wage as “sufficient to maintain an average-sized family in a manner consistent with whatever the contemporary local civilization recognizes as indispensable to physical and mental health, or as required by the rational self-respect of human beings.”
From the beginning, the living wage was a vague and controversial idea. Many economists maintained that wages were determined by impersonal economic forces in accordance with scientific laws. They regarded assertions that wages should be higher than they already were as at best irrelevant and at worst a threat to the natural order of things. Others acknowledged that wages had a moral dimension, but supported only a “fair wage” based exclusively on the value of what workers produced, not on what they needed to consume.
Even advocates of living wages had trouble agreeing on what standard of consumption to apply. Was it enough to meet the subsistence needs of the worker, or should it allow for support of a family? Was it a fixed standard based on unchanging needs, or should it expand along with the nation’s productive capacity?
Most labor leaders came to define the living wage rather broadly to include family needs and gradually rising living standards. “Fundamental to the concept of the living wage for most proponents was the belief that needs were ever expanding, that wages should grow correspondingly, and that the limitless capacity of production made continual growth possible.” Labor theorist Ira Steward developed a concept of “productive consumption” that linked rising consumption with the general well-being of society. He opposed the old producerist morality that saw frugality as a virtue and spending as a vice, regarding it as an excuse to underpay workers. While he condemned spending on certain “human follies and vices” like drinking and gambling, he regarded more “civilized” forms of spending as good for families, good for the economy, and good for society.
The idea of the living wage became closely associated with an “American standard” of consumption. As one advocate put it, “The American laborer should not be expected to live like the Irish tenant farmer or the Russian serf. His earning ought to be sufficient to enable him to live as a respectable American citizen.” By insisting on good wages, American workers could claim their fair share of rising productivity, support families, and sustain the growing economy through their buying power.
The living wage and the “American standard” became entangled with issues of race, nationality and gender. To put it simply, it was often seen as the proper wage for a white man. Such a good wage might be wasted on Chinese or African-American workers, whose lower standards were said to make them both more accepting of lower wages and unable to use more money constructively. Instead of making common cause with the most disadvantaged classes of workers, white workers tried to set themselves above and apart from them. “The ‘caucasions’, Samuel Gompers bluntly wrote in 1905, ‘are not going to let their standard of living be destroyed by negroes, Chinamen, Japs, or any others.'”
The living wage was also entangled with a patriarchal conception of family in which the man was the sole breadwinner. His wage was the one that needed to be high enough to support a spouse and children. Should a woman need to support herself, she only needed the bare minimum to survive and avoid prostitution. That meant that the modern conception of freedom and independence based on well-paid labor was primarily for male breadwinners. Only the most radical elements of the labor movement questioned women’s continued dependence on men.
Glickman summarizes, “In adjusting to the wage labor economy, organized workers used the idea of the American standard of living not only to reclaim economic and political rights that they feared they were losing in the new economy but also to exclude other groups from its benefits.”
After emerging in the labor movement of the nineteenth century, the idea of the living wage gained much broader support in the twentieth, although not without continued opposition as well. That will be the subject of my next post.