Have Conditions in the Laboring Class Improved from
Henry George's Time to our Own?
[Reprinted from GroundSwell, March-April
Henry George defined Labor as simply all mental and physical effort
used in production. And, in George's political economy, production is
defined as all the processes involved in making wealth and bringing it
from its place of origin to the consumer. It should go without saying
that the only production that counts is that which satisfies the
consumer. As a counter-example, I may expend hours of labor whittling
away a wooden toy car, but if there is no consumer willing to pay me
for it, my labor is said to have no economic value.
So, let us confine ourselves to labor that has clear economic value
when comparing conditions of Labor in Henry George's time to our own.
Labor conditions were indeed often appalling in the nineteenth
century, but are they any better now? Let's start with a specific
example and broaden our findings from there.
In "Social Problems," George talks about tailors in New
York City who are able to find employment only part of the year and
have to "beg, steal or starve" the rest, or rely on a "charitable
society." Certainly, the tailors of today, unless they out and
out fail in business, and probably not even then, do not alternate
between being profitably employed and begging, stealing or starving,
so this is progress, right? But, wait a minute. In addition to mending
my clothes, my neighborhood tailor also dry cleans them - in fact, dry
cleaning is now such a large part of their business that they are
known chiefly by that title: Dry Cleaner, and tailoring is only a
secondary line of work for them. In our modern society, we outsource
our clothes-cleaning (now both more frequent and more complicated than
in George's day of simpler garments), and occasional mending. This at
least provides consistent employment for tailors, and a wider range of
skill development (I don't know how to use Dry Cleaning chemicals to
clean my clothes, do you?). So, onward and upward! As his customers
benefit, so does the tailor
or does he?
There is something the tailor is definitely not doing much of these
days, unless he is very skilled and his customer very rich, and
choosy, and that is making clothes out of whole cloth. Here is a list
of Tailor-related jobs from the 1891 London Census:
- Tailor: Someone who made or repaired clothes
- Tailor & Clothier: Someone who made or repaired clothes
- Tailor Coat Hand: A tailor's assistant
- Tailor Hand: A tailor's assistant
- Tailoress: A female tailor
- Tailor's Apprentice: Someone learning the tailor's trade
- Tailor's Assistant: A tailor's assistant
- Tailor's Cutter: A tailor's assistant - cuts cloth
- Tailor's Labourer: A tailor's assistant
- Tailor's Machiner: A tailor's assistant - machines cloth
- Tailor's Presser: A tailor's assistant - presses cloth
There were fully a dozen jobs just in the lowly Tailor's shop in the
nineteenth century. Today's tailors exist mostly with one or two
assistants and delivery people, or work for a large clothing store
where there is enough volume.
So, one must be careful to compare apples to apples and tailors of
old to persons - sometimes split across multiple professions - who
perform the same function today, whatever their titles. One thing that
is clear is that we still need the products of those who labor
to make clothing - indeed, our closets bulge with a quantity of
garments that most people in George's day would not own in a lifetime.
Whether we need so many items is for discussion outside this
paper, though George did warn us that human desire is basically
Perhaps our labor has become so efficient that machines do all the
drudgery for us?
Many years ago - three decades, actually - I tagged along with a
group of fashion students on a tour of the Jantzen Sportswear Company
in Portland, Oregon (as a young man, I was curious about everything.
Today, I try to limit myself to more practical curiosities - not
always successfully). There were machines to do all kinds of things,
from spinning the cloth - in so many vibrant colors! - to cutting the
cloth - so efficiently! - to producing the final garments in seemingly
unlimited quantities, cheaply and powerfully. This indeed seemed to be
the future of modern clothes-making. Yet, we are told in the late
Today, Jantzen is the leading brand of swimwear in over
100 countries, although a tough business climate forced the
company to lay off workers, move some production operations to Latin
America and the Caribbean, and discontinue its sportswear lines
The business decisions of a particular manufacturer are beyond the
scope of this paper, but anyone who is even slightly aware of what's
been going on since George's time, will understand that manufacturing
as a whole has moved to the lowest margin of production - that
is, to the place where it is cheapest to produce the goods that will
satisfy human desire. So, it is not accurate to say today's American
tailor is better off than yesterday's - he simply has a different job
description. But what about that jettisoned function - making clothes?
What was life really like for people who actually made clothes, in
large amounts, in George's day? I'll use an example from the turn of
the twentieth century, slightly after George's time, for reasons that
will become clear later - the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory took up the eighth,
ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch Building. Under the ownership of
Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the factory produced women's blouses
(known at the time as "shirtwaists"). The factory normally
employed about 500 workers, mostly young immigrant women, who
normally worked nine hours a day on weekdays plus seven hours a day
Says Pauline Newman, who actually worked at the factory:
In the first place, it was probably the largest
shirtwaist factory in the city of New York. My own wages when I got
to the Triangle Shirtwaist Company was a dollar and a half a week.
And by the time I left during the shirtwaist workers strike in 1909
I had worked myself up to six dollars. But you see hours didn't
change. The hours remained, no matter how much you got. The
operators, their average wage, as I recall
averaged around six,
seven dollars a week. If you were very fast - because they worked
and nothing happened to your machine, no breakage or
anything, you could make around ten dollars a week.
They were the kind of employers who didn't recognize anyone working
for them as a human being. You were not allowed to sing. Operators
would like to have sung, because they, too, had the same thing to
do, and weren't allowed to sing. You were not allowed to talk to
each other. Oh, no! They would sneak up behind you, and if you were
found talking to your next colleague you were admonished. If you'd
keep on, you'd be fired. If you went to the toilet, and you were
there more than the forelady or foreman thought you should be, you
were threatened to be laid off for a half a day, and sent home, and
that meant, of course, no pay, you know?
Unfortunately, as most New Yorkers with a smattering of history
know, the worst was yet to come. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory
Fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, was one of the largest
industrial disasters in the history of the city of New York, causing
the death of 146 garment workers, almost all of them women, who
either died from the fire or jumped from the fatal height. It was
the worst workplace disaster in New York City until September 11,
2001. Most women could not escape the burning building because the
managers would lock the doors to the stairwells and exits to keep
the workers from taking cigarette breaks outdoors during their
shifts. Women jumped from the ninth and tenth stories as the ladders
on the fire trucks could not reach these. The fire led to
legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped
spur the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union,
which fought for better and safer working conditions for sweatshop
workers in that industry.
So, this tragedy - national in significance - led to improved worker
conditions and unions to ensure workers' rights. If that was the end
of the story of where clothing comes from, and if it was merely a
dramatic example of a general trend towards better labor conditions
overall in all industries over time, than the "iron law of wages
determines wages to the minimum on which laborers will consent to live
and reproduce" would seem to be wrong. But, of course, as George
points out, the true cause of the global minimum wage is "an
inevitable result of making the land from which all must live the
exclusive property of some." Since this arrangement has not
changed since George's time, neither has the result. Here is how
things work in today's globalized market:
In a recent examination of "Patriotic clothing,"
WCCO-TV went to Minnesota's Mall of America (and found) every item
with an American flag on it was made in China. At other stores with
patriotic apparel, labels read made in China, El Salvador,
Guatemala, Honduras and Russia.
At Target, WCCO-TV found more than 80 pieces of patriotic clothing.
Of all the items, only one T-shirt was made in the United States. At
Old Navy, WCCO-TV could not find any American-made patriotic
apparel. At Wal-Mart, more than 40 patriotic items were checked.
Most were made in America, which is no accident. Wal-Mart has a
policy where any item with an American flag on it must be made in
Ninety-seven percent of all clothing sold in the United States is
no longer made in the U.S. Yet, Minnesota is home to two
long-standing textile manufacturers.
We'll look to the ultimate source of that 97% of clothing no longer
made in the United States in a moment, but first let's look at a
modern-day shirt factory right here in Manhattan. In the year 2000,
reporter Henry Blodget found:
behind grimy windows, Chinese women slaved for 11
hours a day, stitching garments for a subcontractor hired by Donna
Karan International. The women received no bathroom breaks, no
overtime pay, no sick days, no paid vacation, and no maternity
leave. They were screamed at to "work faster" and paid "per
piece"-earning wages that could only be called "living"
if "living" means boiled water and rice
miserable workers weren't migrant Chinese peasants but immigrant
Chinese and Latina women.
Blodget tells us that this factory, so reminiscent of the Triangle
Shirtwaist Factory a hundred years before it, has now been supplanted
by travel bureaus and financial companies, but surely this cannot be
the last one, either in New York City, or in the more invisible nether
regions of America.
In fact, our own U.S. Department of Labor tells us that:
50% of garment factories in the U.S. violate two or more
basic labor laws, establishing them as sweatshops. Sweatshops exist
wherever there is an opportunity to exploit workers who lack the
knowledge and resources to stand up for themselves. Typical
sweatshop employees, ninety percent of whom are women, are young and
uneducated. Many of them are recent or undocumented immigrants who
are unaware of their legal rights. Young women throughout the world
are subject to horrible working conditions and innumerable
injustices because corporations, many of are U.S.-owned, can get
away with it."
One thing is clear, as George told us long ago:
And so, whatever be the character of the improvement (of
machinery), its benefit, land being monopolized, must ultimately go
to the owners of land.
New Yorkers, of course, long ago mostly stopped working on actual
land, so the owners are those who own the land where their factories
reside, and pay so little for the privilege, that they can exploit
garment workers at subsistence wages, or less, even here, in one of
the most expensive cities in the world.
When even these owners finally cannot make a profit having
factories in New York, they, or their competitors, find new land
abroad, displace the peasants from that, and send them to work in new
factories in distant lands - where the sight of suffering workers, or
workers leaping to their deaths from fires, will not upset squeamish
Women, in particular, are subject to grueling labor conditions, often
enticed with false promises to leave their home countries, only to
have their passports and money confiscated when they arrive in
Southeast Asian or Middle Eastern countries. They are subject to
sexual and physical abuse, being bought and sold like slaves, and
incarceration. Often, their wages are under a dollar a day.
It gets still worse.
In Myanmar - formerly known as Burma - villagers can be rounded up at
any time, forced to work on roads, pipelines, or whatever else the
military Junta deems necessary to satisfy its customers - including
China, where it is not presenting a humanistic face for the West.
People who refuse are beaten, often to death, imprisoned, and
tortured. In this country, we do not call this Labor, we call it
Slavery, for that is what it is. George, who saw American chattel
slavery ended in his lifetime, would have recognized this form of
slavery instantly. It is also beyond the scope of this paper to prove
this, but it is my feeling that conditions of enforced labor have
reached a level of depravity and abuse even worse than in George's
time. The ferocious hunger for the world's diminishing resources,
combined with the ready supply of people - considered disposable by
dictatorships in favor of resources throughout history - has made
vicious brutality a business practice in parts of the world Americans
would prefer not to imagine, even if they could.
One cannot consider the condition of labor without considering the
value of the Land they labor upon, as George stressed relentlessly
from Progress and Poverty forwards. In fact, he makes the point that a
laborer cut off from the fruits of Land is actually worse off
than a slave:
So long as a plump, well-kept, hearty negro was worth
$1000, no slave-owner, selfish or cold-blooded as he might be, would
keep his negroes as great classes of "free-born Englishmen"
must live. But these white slaves have no money value. It is not
the labor, it is the land that commands value" (emphasis
It is worth noting in this regard that it is the resource-rich
regions, not the resource-poor ones, where labor conditions are the
most appalling. In fact, we can narrow George's strong implication
into an axiom: Wherever the relationship between Land and the human
labor to develop that Land is the least, the degree of human suffering
will be the greatest.
Myanmar, for example, has the following resource wealth:
Copper, gypsum, barite, and cement. Steel and iron make up 6% of the
country's exports. Myanmar is second in opium production only to
another bastion of horrid labor conditions, Afghanistan. Despite an
import ban, one can regularly find Burmese Teak in the United States.
Myanmar also has rubies, jade, pearls and fish - which it exports to
the Middle East and Asia, while a third of its own children are
malnourished. Natural Gas accounts for 40% of Myanmar's exports,
flowing to China
and to Chevron. Myanmar is resource-wealthy, but
its people are impoverished. In fact, when one reads of the atrocious
working conditions in Myanmar, one longs for the relative comfort of
resource-poor nations that only have sweatshops! At least there, the
middlemen sweatshop managers, and factory-owners, act as buffers
between the rapacious landowners and laborers.
What has happened to the dream of ever-increasing prosperity for all
since George's time? Didn't the neoclassical Chicago School economists
and the Free Market economists tell us that as bad as things may seem,
that wealth would trickle-down - eventually - from the top income
earners to the bottom, as they developed new businesses? Wasn't it
supposed to be that, as Julian Simon famously said in 1997:
The material conditions of life will continue to get
better for most people, in most countries, most of the time,
indefinitely. Within a century or two, all nations and most of
humanity will be at or above today's Western living standards.
Indeed, Business Week warned us in a 2006 article on Chinese
Factory Workers, that:
companies across the board are feeling
the squeeze. Last year turnover at multinationals in China averaged
14%, up from 11.3% in 2004 and 8.3% in 2001. Salaries jumped by
8.4%, according to human resources consultant Hewitt Associates LLC.
So, maybe it is onward and upward for everyone after all
All we have to do is run out of dark corners where people can be
creatively exploited and then, finally, conditions will
improve for those who labor so that, so we are told, we can live in
relative splendor, here in the developed countries.
China may indeed, be coming around to recognizing Workers' Rights,
although Venture Outsource - which bills itself as "an
Authoritative Source for Decision-Makers" (Read: CEOs of
multinational companies) - tells us Chinese labor rates for
manufacturing are still below a dollar an hour - this in a country
that ranks fifth in the number of millionaires, as of 2007. China's
Labor Bureau, optimistically, recommends setting the "minimum
wage at about 40 to 60 percent of average monthly wages" but this
recommendation is regularly flouted, and perhaps most rigorously
enforced only where high-profile factories producing goods for
American manufacturers are concerned. In the more remote provinces,
just as in the more remote regions of the U.S., people, often
children, regularly work at or well below the minimum wage. In the
countries that China itself outsources to - the fourth world -
conditions are even worse, as previously described. Instead of free
markets providing better lives for "most people, in most
countries, most of the time," an increasing number of regions,
and even countries, has instead provided more ways to exploit the
people within them.
Even where our better-known American brands are concerned, like
Apple, conditions in China can easily fall behind the standards of the
In its (own) report, Apple revealed the sweatshop
conditions inside the factories it uses. Apple admitted that at
least 55 of the 102 factories that produce its goods were ignoring
Apple's rule that staff cannot work more than 60 hours a week
guidelines are already in breach of China's widely-ignored labour
law, which sets out a maximum 49-hour week for workers.
Apple also said that one of its factories had repeatedly falsified
its records in order to conceal the fact that it was using child
labour and working its staff endlessly.
Before we leave this depressing litany of abuse and human
degradation, let us be clear, it is not a given that resource-rich
countries must always exploit the people within them. Near war-torn
Congo's southern border,
Botswana has used its mines, which are partially owned by
the state, to fund infrastructure, education, and health care, as
well as set aside a rainy-day fund of nearly $7 billion
Botswana has something essential Congo does not: a government known
for being both functional and honest.
One might add that Botswana has another thing that Congo and almost
every other country doesn't have: a recognition that the value of the
Land belongs to all of its people equally.
There is still something else that doesn't seem quite right about
Simon's promise, aside from the fact it has become awfully stale in
the hundred years or so since value-free economics pushed aside
Georgism and the other classical economists.
Consider that the average American CEO's pay rose nearly 300% from
1990-2005, while the average American production worker's pay rose
only 4.3%, both figures adjusted for inflation (though inflation has
been considerably higher for the lower and middle classes than for the
tax and land-advantaged upper classes). It seems those in the highest
balloon rise the fastest. Yet, people are generally more in debt, the
middle class feels more vulnerable, and, so we are repeatedly told, we
cannot afford our profligate ways any longer! Finally, household debt
has risen from under 25% of GDP in 1954 to 99% in 2008. Does this seem
"onward and upward" to you?
We come full circle to George again. Without justice in the
distribution of Land, unskilled labor will be forced to a subsistence
level, or, in the case of the middle class, be forced to borrow ever
more to support a debt-ridden lifestyle for themselves, while
enhancing an ever-more opulent one for the rich and grasping. If the
middle class ever gets to the point where they finally cannot afford
the shirts on their backs, where their ability to purchase becomes
more closely aligned with third world labor's ability to earn, it will
be the middle class that sees its lifestyle go down, not the
Land-owning elite. Improvements, or "mechanization" will not
change that. Efficiency measures won't even dent it - American workers
are already among the most efficient workers in the world. Without
redistribution of the value of Land to all, who are both equally
entitled and equally responsible for its rise in value, those without
Land will always be forced to compete near the bottom just to survive,
while "improvements" will only guarantee an even more
obscene level of living for those who own the resources and charge
others rent upon it.
Man without Land cannot survive, no matter how vigorously he labors.
This was true in George's day. It is true today.