The living wage, the labor of social reproduction, and the big railroad strike of 1922
Taking a nod from critical theorist Nancy Fraser, this paper considers living wage debates in the early twentieth century United States as part of a broader boundary struggle over social reproduction—the unwaged labor going into housework, childcare, the nurturing of waged workers—necessary to capitalist production and profit.
Focusing on the railroad industry as a key site of living wage debate and the 1922 shopmen’s strike as a turning point for living wage politics, it suggests that in demanding living wages, workers advanced not only a developing living standards-based and consumer-oriented conception of wages. They also implicitly raised questions as to where the labor of social reproduction should be located, who should perform it, and how it should be funded. The living wage issue reflected railroad workers’ efforts to define their place within the nation’s emerging consumer society. It also highlighted the potential—and the limits—of the living wage as railroad workers conceived it as the basis of a broader organisational and political program for the US labor movement.
Paul Taillon is senior lecturer in History at University of Auckland | Te Whare Wānanga o Tāmaki Makaurau. He specializies in United States history of the late ninetenth- and early twentieth centuries, focusing on workers, unions, and the state in the US railroad industry. He is author of Good, Reliable, White Men: Railroad Brotherhoods, 1877-1917 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009) and has published articles in Labor History, Social History, Journal of Social History, and Australasian Journal of American Studies. He is currently working on a study of industrial democracy, consumer politics, and the labor movement in the US railroad industry in the era of the First World War and the 1920s.
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