Opinion | Why We Need to Abolish Hourly Work Part 1

The history of hourly labor is not often discussed, and that is largely because its origin is something of a taboo. At its core, the hourly wage was popularized by former slave owners who were addicted to the profits of their cruelty. In its absolute earliest form the hourly wage existed as a way of temporarily hiring out a slave; in ancient Greece, many slaves were partially owned and could purchase their freedom. In these situations, slaves could gradually buy back some of themselves, and would then sell certain portions of their time in order to save up and finally earn their freedom.

Most people throughout history would be employed on a salary and it was generally accepted that their employers were responsible for their well-being in terms of food and housing (that is by paying them a living wage), so long as workers produced they were left alone, generally with little or no management or oversight. This was also the reality even in the feudal system, where beyond the occasional demands for taxes to be paid, peasants were left mostly to themselves and had relatively mild work schedules compared to today. 

These norms, however, began to collapse with the end of slavery. Often referred to as “wage slavery” hourly work was readily adopted by southern plantation owners and American industrialists as a means to continue to exploit the highly vulnerable black workforce who had finally gained their freedom after the civil war.  Wage labor was used as an excuse to claim that these workers were not in fact salves, but rather free men earning their keep. This, however, misses the reality that plantation owners would work with real estate owners, and keep wages low to ensure that black Americans would never be able to truly be economically independent. Instead, they would be held down by unmanageable debt in perpetuity, all while their employers would claim no responsibility for the well-being of their workers. This proved to be such a profitable system, that it rapidly grew into nearly every sector, despite the efforts of American labor movements and the organizing work of labor unions. 

The point of this brief look at the history, is to bring to light the reality that wage labor is not only outside of the norm, but it was crafted specifically to be an inhumane system where employers would evade responsibility for the well-being of their workers. Knowing this, it seems that the entire system of wage labor is worth reconsideration, particularly when the looming threat of automation is already dismantling employment in the US. 

We will take a further look into the impact of automation in part 2.

Brief History of wage labor and slavery by Anthropologist David Graeber: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0t50D4lQrs