A Century of Wage Statistics: The BLS Contribution

Article excerpt

Wage and salary rates of pay remain at the heart of the labor bargain, although a new dimension has been created in recent decades by the rise of various forms of supplements to employee compensation. Information on the general movement of wage rates, and on the structure of rates by such characteristics as occupation, industry, region, union status, and sex, provides crucial insight on the status and well-being of the working population. In a complex industrial society, the development with limited resources of useful statistics in these areas, and more recently in the area of supplementary compensation, has been a formidable undertaking.

This article traces the work of the Bureau of Labor Statistics over the past century in the field of wage statistics, including the attention that has been given since World War II to the growth of wage supplements. An effort has been made to place this work in broad historical perspective. This account does not cover related Bureau programs, including the extensive work on consumer prices and the important series of average hourly and weekly earnings by industry developed from employment statistics. 19th century beginnings

The years 1875 to 1900 were in many ways a period of extraordinary economic growth and change in the United States. It was marked by the closing of the geographic frontier. An impressive expansion of the transportation network facilitated the settlement of the West, and contributed to a large increase in farm output. At the same time, manufacturing expanded at a rapid pace, accompanied in many industries by larger scale operations, consolidations of firms, and the growth of monopoly practices.

The last quarter of the century also saw substantial changes in the size and industrial composition of the labor force. Between 1880 and 1900, the number of "gainful workers" increased by almost 12 million. In 1880, the gainfully employed work force was about equally divided between agricultural and nonagricultural employments, but by 1900 the agricultural share, while still rising in absolute terms, had declined to approximately 37 percent of the total. The proportion of employment in manufacturing, transportation, and construction had increased significantly over the same period.

There changes were accompanied by economic fluctuations of considerable magnitude, including an unusually sever depression beginning in 1893. As a result, there arose new currents of thought with respect to wage determination, trade unionism, and the role of government in relation to labor, and various comprehensive movements for social reform emerged. In particular, the impulse toward collective action to defend or improve labor standards began to acquire momentum among the growing wage-earning population. Of major although short-lived significance was the meteoric rise of the Knights of Labor, the membership of which reached about 700,000 in 1886 but declined precipitously thereafter. Of much greater long-run importance was the formation of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1881 as a permanent trade union center. The Federation survived the long depression of the 1890's, and union membership began to climb sharply toward the end of the decade--rising from 447,000 in 1897 to 868,500 in 1900, mainly in unions affiliated with the AFL. (These figures include Canadian members of labor unions with headquarters in the United States.)

It was during this period that the Bureau of Labor Statistics was created, with a broad mandate to ". . . collect information upon the subject of labor, its relation to capital, the hours of labor, and the earnings of laboring men and women. . . ." The creation of the new agency in 1884 reflected a growing demand for information on labor conditions to provide a basis for improved labor standards. With respect to earnings or wages, there were few guides for the work of the new Bureau. Some experience with wage surveys had been accumulated by a few State agencies, notably in Massachusetts. …