Laboring for Freedom: A New Look at the History of Labor in America

By Daniel Jacoby | Go to book overview

Chapter 4
A Skillful Control
Managing the Labor Process

'Day labor,' explained an Eight Hour League handbill issued in Philadelphia, 'is the only important article of commerce which has no fixed standard, its length being determined by the necessities of the seller, or the generosity of the purchaser.' But if the commodity offered for sale by the worker (his strength and knowledge) had no fixed limit, and if he could deliver that commodity to his purchaser (the employer) only by placing himself at the latter's disposal, the worker, had in effect, delivered himself into a day's bondage for a day's wages. Here lay the very essence of the concept of "wage-slaver." The remedy proposed by labor reformers was to draw a clear delineation between that part of the workman's day which might be purchased for wages and that which remained inalienably his own.

-- David Montgomery, Beyond Equality

In the late nineteenth century the courts defended the idea that individuals should have a nearly absolute liberty of contract. In arguing that legislatures could not transgress the rights citizens held to their life, liberty, and property, the Supreme Court defined labor as an individual's most precious property, a property over which the owner exercised the liberty of control. In the process, the Court enabled workers to alienate other liberties that were, arguably, intended to remain inalienable. Simply put, when workers contracted away their labor they entered personal servitudes; employers gained rights over their persons as well as their labor because the two were inseparable. Employers exercised their rights to the workers' labor over long stretches of the day, sometimes for long periods of time, and generally encountered few precise legal limits. 1 In seeking to consolidate their legal rights to their workers' labor, management sought new methods to more fully control the labor process. Many workers naturally resisted management's increasingly exacting governance of their labor. 2

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Laboring for Freedom: A New Look at the History of Labor in America
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Prologue 3
  • Part I - Independence or Contract 11
  • Chapter 1 - Republican Soil 13
  • Chapter 2 - Contracting Liberties 33
  • Part II - Illusory Freedoms 53
  • Chapter 3 - The Properties of Labor 55
  • Chapter 4 - A Skillful Control Managing the Labor Process 68
  • Chapter 5 - Incorporating Paternalism 84
  • Chapter 6 - Free Education 98
  • Part III - New Deals and Old Ideals 115
  • Chapter 7 - Union Compromise 117
  • Chapter 8 - Rights of Passage 130
  • Chapter 9 - Playing the Global Piano 149
  • Epilogue - Memories and Challenges 166
  • Notes 169
  • Bibliography 185
  • Index 195
  • About the Author 211
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