Economic History of the United States

By Chester W. Wright | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXXV
LABOR CONDITIONS SINCE 1860

Introduction. In spite of the growth in population and other factors tending to increase the supply of labor, the rapid economic development of the country created a demand that fairly kept pace with the growing supply. In consequence the relative scarcity of labor that had characterized the country from the start may be said to have continued throughout this period. Of course a shifting number of unemployed was always to be found and in times of business depression, as in the years following 1929, it mounted to an appalling figure. Even then, legislation and the various measures for public relief, by checking the desperate struggle for jobs by those facing starvation, provided an artificial support for the wage rate structure sufficient to keep the money wage rates at a level distinctly above that prevailing in other countries. However, labor could still be called relatively scarce, since its cost per unit of work done was generally higher than in most countries. This, as theretofore, helped to maintain relatively high real as well as money wages, and thus a relatively high standard of living among the mass of the people--at least among such as had full employment.

The decline in the importance of agriculture as compared with manufacturing, trade, and transportation caused a growing proportion of the working population employed in the latter groups of activities to be subject to the economic and social conditions that such employment entailed. These conditions, especially in manufacturing industries, were undergoing rapid changes during this period with the spread of the factory system and large-scale production, and greatly altered the conditions surrounding work--sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. In the latter case they created new problems that necessitated some form of action to lessen the resulting evils. In time extensive legislation was enacted to meet some of them. More important was the effort of the workers to improve their condition by united action, resulting in a great impetus to the organized labor movement. The issues thus created became so widespread and so vital as to make the labor problem one of the most serious of the social problems of the day. It will be one purpose of this chapter to try to indicate the general historical background of these developments.

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