The "dignity of labor" is really a new thing. In his recent book Against the Grain, Yale anthropologist James Scott details how dependent were the earliest city-states on slaves. Before then, hunter-gatherers in small groups could sustain themselves on less than 20 hours of work a week. https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2017/07/20/living-off-the-land. But to sustain a city-and especially its ruling class who did no work-workers needed to toil full-time. Only coercion could make them do so. The American ante-bellum South's plantation society was, in that regard, nothing new.
Neither were the North's robber barons. Eric Foner's history of the pre-Civil War Republican Party, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, recounts how southern thinkers rightly called the North out for harboring a working class that were slaves in all but name. The North's working classes were "poor hardworking people, who support everybody, and starve themselves." That was truer than we now like to admit. By the 1830s factory workers (including children as young as 4) regularly put in 12-hour days, seven days a week for barely subsistence wages.
So, labor was always looked down on, and that's what made the early GOP's program radical. Under the banner of "free labor," the Republicans sought to make labor, for the first time ever, honorable. Abraham Lincoln himself declared in 1859 that "Labor is prior to, and independent of capital . . . in fact, capital is the fruit of labor." But the early Republicans never suggested that it was great to be a laborer. Rather, they argued for economic mobility so that the lowly wage-earner could become an independent-and respected-middle-class tradesman or businessman. Foner writes, "the object of social mobility was not great wealth, but the middle-class goal of economic independence."
You can see why the Republican Party opposed slavery. Slaves had no social mobility by law, and slavery also choked off work (and advancement) opportunities for free laborers. Teddy Roosevelt's later efforts to level the economic playing field likewise stemmed from his party's founding goal of ensuring that laborers could lift themselves out of the working class and into the entrepreneurial middle-class. The early Republicans knew all too well that without restraints, those that had would simply take from those that didn't. All this goes to show how far modern-day Republicans have strayed from their roots!
The Civil War ended legal slavery, but it didn't bring about the ideal of free labor. By 1860, more than 60% of workers earned a wage, and the avenues to self-employment had become few and narrow. By the time of the Pullman strike, the over-supply of labor from freedman, convict laborers and European immigrants led to depressed wages and harsher working conditions. These led to such reactions as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the equally racist Immigration Act of 1917, and even the modern KKK.
If all this gives you a sense of deja vu all over again, it should. As Harry Truman observed, the only thing new in the world is the history you don't know.
When personal entrepreneurship ceased to be an option, a new type of social mobility had to be invented. As Foner puts it, "the mobility of the age of the independent producer, whose aspiration was economic self-sufficiency, was superseded by the mobility of industrial society, in which workers could look forward to a rising standard of living, but not self-employment." A rising standard of living meant higher pay and shorter hours. In time, businesses realized that they also needed workers to have more money and more time-because they needed workers to become consumers. A truce of several decades formed between labor and capital, assuring generations of workers both steady employment and a middle-class life built on consumerism-the Mad Men era.
That truce has now broken. There are many reasons, and this is not the place to rehash them. But one, without doubt, is technology's role making workers both more productive and less essential. We now generally need fewer work hours to produce the same output. Not even mentioning factory robots, a recent survey quantified that even office workers spend less than three hours a day doing any real work. https://www.vouchercloud.com/resources/office-worker-productivity.
The reduced need for work hours could either be used for good or for ill.
For example, a New Zealand company reduced its work week to 32 hours for the same pay. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/australasia/working-week-four-day-trial-new-zealand-successful-perpetual-guardian-a8454901.html. Some of the employees' increased productivity was given back to them in the form of more personal time. It worked-productivity went up even more. Everyone gained. A good thing.
Or, as is more common, the diminished workhours are exported to laborers in the Far East, who toil under sweatshop conditions for less than $3 an hour. https://www.dw.com/en/tech-supplier-foxconn-under-fire-again-over-labor-conditions/a-44156666. Under that model, the owners snatch all the productivity gains for themselves, and local workers get laid off. The rich get richer. A bad thing.
Wall Street tends towards the second model. NYU sociologist Richard Sennett, in his book Together, researched back-office employees of Wall Street firms in the wake of the 2008 subprime mortgage collapse. Sennett recounts the industry's long decline, as short-term profits displaced loyalty and culture as business objectives. Mid-level and lower officers soon began thinking that the executives to whom they reported in revolving-door fashion were incompetent hustlers rather than financial professionals. With lack of respect all around, employees with decades of experience were thrown out on the Street with barely a fare-thee-well as firms scrambled to regain quarterly profitability. There will be more of this to come, as blockchain and other technologies threaten to eliminate hundreds of traditional Wall Street positions.
But here's a silver lining. Many of those finance workers became independent consultants. They now populate what has come to be known as the "gig economy." Others set up their own investment advisory firms or practices, finding they didn't need a big firm after all. The gig economy and the migration from broker to RIA are just two examples of displaced employees-well, setting up shop. The same technology that has made many workers expendable has also made business infrastructures unnecessary to many workers.
And so, today technology puts independent self-employment within the reach of more people than Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt could ever dream. Maybe large-scale free labor was overly idealistic when the founding Republicans first espoused it in the 19th Century. Or maybe they were just too early, and its time has finally come.