Have Conditions In The Laboring Class Improved
From Henry George's Time To Our Own?
GroundSwell, March-April 2010]
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
So, let us confine ourselves to labor that has clear economic
value when comparing conditions of Labor in Henry George's time to
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
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.
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
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
1990s that: 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 on Saturdays.
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 piece work
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
which 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 the USA.
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
the 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 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
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 added).
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
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 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
Even where our better-known American brands are concerned, like
Apple, conditions in China can easily fall behind the standards of
the client company:
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
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
. But, 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.
(Editor's note: GroundSwell does not have room to publish
footnotes. They are available from the author. He is a writer and
the senior editor for OpEdNews.
He blogs at NewThinking.