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