The Labor Question

By Joshua Freeman

In a Labor Day op-ed article in the NY Daily News, I argued that even as unions have suffered a series of setbacks and continue to slip in the percentage of workers they represent, labor issues are more prominent now than at any time in the recent past. What we are seeing might be called the re-emergence of “the labor question.” (New York is somewhat exceptional because, as the Murphy Institute’s Ruth Milkman and Stephanie Luce show in a forthcoming study reported in The New York Times, union membership in the city has been rising significantly of late.)

“The labor question” was once a common term, widely used in the early 20th century. On the simplest level, it asked how orderly relations could be maintained between employers and employees, preventing the outbursts of labor strife that had become common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But for many Americans — including labor activists, reformers, politicians and even some business leaders — the labor question implied much more than that. For them the question was: What place should workers have in American society? What say should they have in the workplace and in politics? How could social peace be maintained in a class society? And, most broadly — was democracy possible in an industrialized society with great inequalities of economic power and wealth? And, if so, what did it mean?

In a 1919 message to Congress, President Woodrow Wilson declared, “The question which stands at the front of all others . . .is the question of labor. . . how are the men and women who do the daily labor of the world to obtain progressive improvement in the conditions of their labor, to be made happier, and to be served better by the communities and the industries which their labor sustains and advances?”

In a classic article in the book The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, which influenced a generation of labor historians (including myself), New Labor Forum editor Steve Fraser traced the history of the labor question and its seeming disappearance — at least in its broad construction — from the political landscape by the post-World War II years. But today, with our high levels of unemployment, high levels of poverty, stagnant wages, autocratic labor practices, and grotesque inequalities of wealth and power, “the labor question” again haunts our society. As I argued in the Daily News, this year Labor Day should be an occasion to think broadly about work and workers, the ever-deepening divide between a small elite and everyone else, and how we might address the question of labor Wilson eloquently raised so long ago.

Dr. Joshua Freeman is a Professor of History at the Murphy Institute, Queens College, and the CUNY Graduate Center.

Photo “Women workers in ordnance shops, Pennsylvania, 1918” via Wikipedia, Public Domain