In my studies over the last two years, I have learned a lot about American politics and the attitude towards labor in these United States. It is a very interesting dynamic and one that helps to make Foucault’s concept of Genealogy quite relevant. The role of genealogy allows an examination of the history of labor in the United States and elsewhere. The concept of work and the employee as known in 2013 is significantly different from that in 1963 and even more from 1863. However, this does not suggest, nor should it, an evolutionary transition based on modern progress, but a running debate between competing discourses rooted in the concept of Republicanism on the one hand and aristocratic control and domination on the other (see Roy Jacques’s Manfuacturing the Employee).
In the earliest days of the US labor movement, the call for national unions coincided with calls for worker owned factories. The idea of the “wage” system was seen exactly for the trick that it has become. The wage creates a schism between the output of a worker and their ability to do the job. It led to the scientific management motto of Fred Taylor “an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay”. Of course, it is management, not the worker, who decides what each value becomes. The focus on wages then led to a small confined box for labor unions to negotiate: wages and benefits. This hampers the workers ability to negotiate conditions of labor and those conditions tend to be, with some minor exceptions, wrapped up into the rights of Management.
Now, however, after thirty years of destroying the power of labor union’s ability to provided living wages and benefits, we come back to the 1860’s and a greater call for worker ownership. However, there generally isn’t, except for the IWW, a call for abolishing the wage system. If we are going to create a better working environment for workers through ownership, can we do that by simply imitating the capitalist system?
The debate over worker ownership and the value of the worker has been occurring almost as long as the debate over the role of the federal government and the right of property owners. As we debate the sort of sustainable economy that we want, we should also debate the means of compensating workers for their labor. We should simply accept the wage and benefit system as the predetermined perfect way as it has barely existed for 120 years. If we are going to work in a different economic paradigm for the marketplace (cooperation), we need to consider holistic changes to our industrial relations.