The last few years have marked an uptick in aggressive labour protests and labour organising, reminding me in many ways of the turn of the last century, when people were taking to the streets to fight for better working conditions, more reasonable wages, and increased protections from abusive employers. A slew of laws were passed then and throughout the 20th century, but how much has really changed in labour rights in the US since then? On one end of the scale, we don’t have massive cotton mills with children operating the machines, or women crammed into cramped multistory factories working for a pittance…or do we?
Some of the most contested issues in turn of the century labour rights had to do with child labour, wages, sweatshop labour, compensation for piecework, dangerous workplace conditions, unionbusting, and the use of coerced labour. I thought I’d take a look at the state of these issues in the US today by way of illustration: Though things have improved since 1914, all is not as rosy as many people seem to want to make it.
Child Labour: Think child labour is a thing of the past? Don’t look too hard at the agriculture industry, where children labour in the fields, inside silos, and more — and their work is every bit and dangerous and deadly as that meted out to adults. Many child labourers are also undocumented immigrants. They are four times more likely to die as other working youth, and highly likely to drop out of school to take on responsibilities on the farm. Why the huge loopholes permitting the use of children on farms? You can thank racist labour policy, and efforts to ensure that Black children could continue working on farms even after child labour in factories and certain other settings was banned.
Wages: Does ‘Can’t survive on $7.25’ sound familiar? It should, because it’s the rallying cry of a growing movement to push for a living wage in the United States. The current minimum wage doesn’t just mean that workers would fall below the poverty rate if they worked 40 hours a week at minimum wage: It’s also woefully inadequate for survival, and it’s used widely across the retail and food service industries. The minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation in the United States, squeezing unskilled labourers across the board. In these conditions, it’s very difficult for workers to build a future for themselves, because they’re too busy living month to month.
Sweatshop Labour: Are sweatshops only a problem overseas? No, they’re not, as raids in major cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles demonstrate. Workers, most of whom are immigrants, toil in harsh working conditions under the watchful eye of exploitative supervisors. It’s common for supervisors to lure workers in on false pretenses and then seize their identification documents, making it difficult for them to escape and find better work, let alone report their abuse to government officials.
Compensation for Piecework: Piecework, where workers are paid by the piece completed rather than by the hour, is still common in the US, especially in the same sweatshops mentioned above. But where it’s really thrived is in the new digital economy, where people make a living by hustling, piece by piece. It may take a different form today, with people writing opinion pieces or hiring themselves out as virtual assistants rather than sewing collars on shirts or making matches, but it’s a very similar system, and it preys on women just as piecework labour did historically, with large numbers of women performing this poorly-paid work.
Dangerous Workplace Conditions: Workplaces in the US are indisputably safer than they were 100 years ago, but the nation still has significant strides to make when it comes to workplace safety, particularly in environments where workers are low-paid immigrants. Slaughterhouses and meat processing lines, for example, are notoriously dangerous, with the line not stopping for anything. Likewise, workers are often not provided with basic protection from hazardous chemicals used in agriculture and other settings. For US workers, protection from workplace hazards is very much predicated on skill level, immigration status, and pay grade — and it shouldn’t be.
Unionbusting: Unionbusting in the US is far from over. Numerous major companies and chains actively work to discourage labour organising at their facilities, and have been known to retaliate against, punish, and intimidate workers to break up attempts at organising. This has been particularly notable when such organising is spearheaded by women, particularly women of colour — domestic workers like housekeepers, for example, have struggled to assert their rights in the labour landscape. The United States government has also passed anti-union legislation, and many individual states have been even more aggressive about suppressing union activity.
Coerced Labour: Slavery, in various forms, still exists in the US, as does coerced labour. In most cases, it involves undocumented immigrants who were either brought to the US under false pretenses, or exploited once they were already here. Cases of forced labour and human trafficking routinely show up in the news, and often involve domestic workers like nurses, housekeepers, and nannies. Typically, their identification documents are taken and they’re threatened with deportation to intimidate them into remaining silent, not asking for assistance from government officials, and remaining on the job. Workers are sometimes locked up when not on the job, and provided with no opportunities to contact friends and family members, lest they report what’s happening to them.
This is the state of labour in the US. It’s not pretty, and this is only the tip of the iceberg. When people ask whether labour organising is still necessary, whether it’s really all that bad, these are the realities that they need to be confronted with: There are people in the US right now who are slaves, who have been coerced into work, who are underpaid and abused and unable to advocate for themselves. Until all workers enjoy equal protections, safety, and comfort, labour organisers aren’t going to stop raising hell.
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Image: Children’s Bureau Centennial, Flickr.