A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society

A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society

A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society

A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society

Synopsis

"A Living Wage", the rallying cry of activists, has a revealing history, here documented by Lawrence B. Glickman. The labor movement's response to wages shows how American workers negotiated the transition from artisan to consumer, opening up new political possibilities for organized workers and creating contradictions that continue to haunt the labor movement today.

Nineteenth-century workers hoped to become self-employed artisans, rather than permanent "wage slaves". After the Civil War, however, unions redefined working-class identity in consumerist terms, and demanded a wage that would reward workers commensurate with their needs as consumers. This consumerist turn in labor ideology also led workers to struggle for shorter hours and union labels.

First articulated in the 1870s, the demand for a living wage was voiced increasingly by labor leaders and reformers at the turn of the century. Glickman explores the racial, ethnic, and gender implications, as white male workers defined themselves in contrast to African Americans, women, Asians, and recent European immigrants. He shows how a historical perspective on the concept of a living wage can inform our understanding of current controversies.

Excerpt

Living wage. The phrase is familiar, even totemic. Many commentators associate it with a world we have lost, a symbol of the wage level and social structure characteristic of the "good old days" when one breadwinner could support a family. The "notion of the 'living wage' has a quaint ring to it today, as more people labor longer hours for less pay and fewer benefits," observes Jacqueline Jones. In the midst of America's postindustrial economic woes, calls for a living wage have resurfaced in political rhetoric and on picket signs. President Bill Clinton, playing off the disparity between the legal minimum wage and the ability to live decently, asked Congress in his 1995 State of the Union address "to make the minimum wage a living wage." He is not the only politician to invoke the phrase. Colin Powell called for the restoration of a "decent living wage" in his address to the 1996 Republican National Convention; at the 1996 Democratic National Convention, Jesse Jackson called it a "moral imperative to provide a job with a living wage to every man and woman in America. That was Roosevelt's dream, and Dr. King's."

Demands for a living wage have become a staple not only of national political speeches but of grass-roots movements as well. Several states and municipalities, prodded by the campaigns of organized labor and activist groups, have passed "living wage" laws, which usually set a wage floor half again that of the current minimum wage. North Dakota's pioneering "Living Wage Amendment," passed in 1992, requires businesses that accept government subsidies to pay their full-time workers enough money to keep a family of four out of poverty. In 1992 it was $6.71 per hour, far exceeding the national minimum wage of $4.25. Baltimore en-

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