Does Returning to Work Force Us to Rethink the Meaning of Free Labor?
The concept of free labor has had many meanings in our nation’s history. Generally it meant that workers who worked for a living would be independent, especially at a time when wage labor was regarded as no different from either prostitution and/or slave labor. But as the workforce is returning to work following long periods of lockdown, the question is arising again as to what is meant by it.
In an old feudalistic and agrarian economy, workers didn’t necessarily receive wages in exchange for their work, but their subsistence. Workers had no rights, and they certainly did not have the luxury of choosing what they wanted to do. Rather in exchange for their labor, they would receive in-kind wages in the form of barter. Although workers didn’t have rights that they could in any way claim against their master, i.e. the lords of the manner, their masters nonetheless had obligations to them. They were required to provide basic subsistence and security needs.
Labor in the feudal system was essentially a slave labor system, although not quite the chattel slavery found in the American South. Still, the labor power of workers was owned by their masters, i.e. their employers. Consequently, when the idea of the labor contract emerged only in last couple hundred years, it was not only revolutionary but controversial as well. It was controversial because it had to be freely entered into. Workers were exchanging their freedom for payment, and workers who violated their contracts were punishable by imprisonment.
Under the early labor contracts, workers were not free, or certainly not in the way we commonly use that term. Rather they labored under the full control of their employers, and whether they were indentured servants or not, were nonetheless subject to penal sanctions for failure to fulfill their obligations. The idea of free labor would eventually emerge from these early labor agreements and develop specifically to meet the needs of an industrial system requiring cheap labor.
The more traditional feudalistic arrangement was simply too expensive. The new free labor would be defined by contract and would involve the worker selling his or her labor to the employer for a specified period of time in exchange for wages. The worker was considered to be free because s/he could freely enter into the contract. Other than wages for work performed, employers owed their workers nothing more. In theory, the worker was now considered to be independent.
Still, wage labor was not quite the same as free labor as envisioned by Jefferson who thought that if all workers could own their own plots of land and farm them, they could be independent yeomen farmers. Because they would be working for themselves, they would be truly free. Wage labor in the new industrial economy, however, meant that workers were no longer independent, but were dependent on the subsistence wages of their employers. Wage labor was viewed as a debilitating departure from traditional modes of financial reward.
The concept of wage labor was particularly problematic because of new conceptions of liberty, freedom and independence. In the political arena, workers only believed equality to be possible if each member of the polity was economically independent. In the guise of a voluntary contract, workers perceived a compulsion that would make it impossible for them to exercise their citizenship. Those receiving wages could not possibly participate in civic life as the equals of their employers. A wage system was seen as promoting a system of aristocracy.
Free labor was an ideal to be achieved whereas wage labor was the reality. Ironically, prior to the Civil War, free labor ideology united northern workers and their employers, because it promoted both a hatred of slavery and an equally strong force for mobilizing wage labor. Most workers who earned wages felt as though they lost ownership of themselves to someone else who had a great amount of power over them. Those forced to work for wages no longer viewed themselves as independent citizens, but in effect became children, or even “wage slaves.”
The whole union movement was predicated on the idea that if wages could be raised through organizing workers, dignity could be given to otherwise menial work. If workers could achieve a measure of dignity in their labor, they would come to see themselves as independent because through work they wouldn’t need to be dependent on the charity of others.
Certainly during the post-World War II years, we have come to associate free labor with employment. Those who are employed are free because they are independent in that they aren’t dependent on the largess of the state. We would categorize anybody working for a living and earning reasonable wages as free labor.
COVID-19, and the various states’ response to it, however, may have changed the nature of work. Where possible much of the workforce worked remotely. For some, free labor might mean the ability to continue to work remotely. To not be under the constant supervision of an employer in a traditional work environment might be considered the essence of free labor. Much of the workforce prefers working remotely and does not want to go back.
If employers are requiring workers to “return to work,” because the worst of COVID is believed to be over due to vaccines and new vaccine mandates, can we really talk about free labor? Workers would be returning to work for the same reason they have always taken a job: they feel compelled to do so in order to receive a paycheck. If so, the ideal of free labor has still not been achieved.
Free labor requires that workers control their labor power while also controlling their destiny. It requires that they work because they choose to; not because they feel compelled to. But it would also require that they have dignity in their work and as such that they would be better able to participate in civic affairs as citizens.
It may be the case that nothing has changed. Most of the working world works because it really has no choice. All workers need to eat. Many workers will no doubt feel that they can be more free if they can have the option to continue to work remotely or in some type of hybrid arrangement. At the very least, COVID, as it has on so many issues, forces us to be more attuned to our new realities and to give some more thought to just what it means to talk about free labor.