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Laboring for Freedom: A New Look at the History of Labor in America

Author(s):Jacoby, Daniel
Reviewer(s):Friedman, Gerald

Published by EH.NET (November 1998)

Daniel Jacoby, Laboring for Freedom: A New Look at the History of Labor in

America. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1998. 224 pp.

$61.95 (hardcover); $22.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0765602512 (hardcover);

0765602520 (paperback).

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gerald Friedman, Department of Economics,

University of

Massachusetts at Amherst.

Not so long ago, Labor History was a simple field chronicling the growth of

labor unions and labor-oriented political parties on the assumption that the

organized working class was to be the cutting

edge of social change. Upholding the banner of the organized working class,

labor historians from John R. Commons through Philip Foner and David Montgomery

shaped our conception of American industrial history from the 1920s through the


In recent

years this simple vision of labor history has collapsed along with its Marxist

social theory. Critical of white,

male-dominated unions advancing a narrow, anti-Communist, and sometimes

politically conservative agenda, radicals rejected the old institutional

history. They sought to substitute a new labor history celebrating the

rank-and-file and focused on the radical opponents of the established union

leadership. Some rejected unions altogether to chronicle the history of groups

traditionally outside the unions, including household workers and racial

minorities. Speaking a new language of culture, gender, and race, some have

replaced the labor union with the community and transposed the locus of

struggle from the state and the workplace

to the social

group and the family.

Instead of strikes and elections, social struggles have become more abstract

and universal, contests over the definitions of words and the social

constructions of our realities.

From a different perspective, many neoclassical economists have joined

historians and anthropologists in rejecting the old labor history’s focus on

working-class institutions. Past labor historians,

they charge, have underestimated the ability of individual workers to better

their circumstances by using competitive markets. They have shown how free

workers have improved their circumstances, forcing up wages at undesirable jobs

by leaving them for alternative employment. Unions and cultural constructs,

they argue, are epiphenomena. The underlying reality

is the economic circumstances of society shaped by relative factor supplies

and technological change.

No longer is there a shared consensus about what labor history is or how to

place new works in a clear, ongoing chronicle.

Into this confusion comes Daniel Jacoby with a new vision of labor history as

the history of freedom. An economic historian at the University of Washington

at Bothell, Jacoby has written on public education and labor relations in the

Progressive Era. Here, he interprets American labor history as a struggle by

individual workers to gain ‘freedom,’ to win more power and more opportunity to

act without constraint. Jacoby interprets the struggle historically. It

changes over time because technology, social constructions, and institutions

shape the possible scope for opportunity and freedom in each period.

Behind this historical circumstance lies a still-greater contradiction, that

between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ freedom,

between ‘freedom from’ constraint and ‘freedom to’ act. Jacoby makes this

traditional dichotomy a useful tool by showing how in the United States the

distinction between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’

freedom has been manifested as a struggle over “independence or contract.” The

American Revolution, Jacoby argues, made

“republican independence” the nation’s creed, linking freedom to the ownership

of productive property. In 1776 this left little for blacks or women, largely

excluded from property ownership. But the American Revolution provided the

language with which Americans pragmatically dismantled “remaining bastions of

traditional authority” (page 33) including slavery and gender inequality.

Republicanism, Jacoby shows, was an expansive doctrine; its logic demanded that

America push freedom forward to encompass others,

to free the slave and to make blacks and women the legal equals of white men.

But at the same time that American society was conducting this republican

struggle for freedom from caste privilege,

it experienced growing division between capitalists and a growing class of

proletarian wage earners. For women and for ex-slaves,

extending the right to sell their wage labor power and to make contracts in the

wage-labor market was an extraordinary burst of freedom. (This was true as

well, although Jacoby says little about them, for the former European and

Asian serfs and small peasants who came to America and comprised much of our

wage labor force.) But the situation was very different for white male

laborers who became proletarian wage laborers instead of independent

producers. For them, the right to contract marked a loss of control over their

work, a loss of freedom, compared to some earlier, or anticipated, status as

free producers, managing their work independently. As proletarians, they

discovered, as Jacoby notes,

that in the traditional creed of republican independence “only property, not

merely the freedom to contract it, yielded an adequate basis for real

independence” (page 55). No longer able to achieve autonomy on their own,

these workers were forced to look towards social institutions and collective

action to gain freedom.

Having established the parameters of the controversy over freedom and contract,

Jacoby proceeds to interpret American history as the struggle between


contracts’ and ‘freedom-as-opportunity-to-regulate-work-

collectively.’ In the late-nineteenth century, Supreme Court Justice Stephen

J. Field extended the Fourteenth Amendment prohibition of legislation denying

individuals of any fundamental rights to an absolute protection of the right

of individuals and corporations to make contracts. Under the legal doctrine of

“Substantive Due Process,” courts between the 1880s and 1930s disallowed a

broad range of collective legislation and worker action regulating wages,

hours of work, and the conditions of employment. Substantive due process

protected individuals’ freedom from social and political constraints, by

assuring them their opportunity to make contracts.

But it ignored the basic inequality in opportunity between wealthy employers

and their workers. Jacoby shows how Progressive-era reformers sought to

reconcile contractual equality with capitalist property relations by extending

public education. Education was to assure equality of opportunity, to be “the

last countervailing force”

to economic tendencies undermining “labor freedom in the United States” (page

99). But an effective balance to powerful employers came only in the 1930s

when state support for labor unions allowed effective collective bargaining and

New-Deal era legislation and court decisions restricted the right to contact.

Expanding positive freedom came at the expense of negative freedom from


The old labor history often ended with the New Deal,

vie wing it as the final achievement of the American labor movement.

Jacoby goes further. Although gender disappears from America’s struggle for

freedom in his later chapters, he carries his discussion of freedom into the

1990s, writing about Civil Rights and union struggles in the post-World War II

era. In the concluding chapters, Jacoby warns against the impact of free

markets on worker standards in the era of the “global piano.” He fears a

“race to the bottom” driving working

conditions and wages in advanced economies down to the level of the poorest.

Jacoby notes how Germany, Japan, and some other advanced countries have avoided

this threat from globalization through regulatory policy and advanced education

and suggests that the United States might learn from their experience. Thus

his work ends on a salutary note, recognizing past progress and warning

against future threats.

Laboring for Freedom provides a survey of American history that might be

useful for students in courses in economic history and history generally as

well in courses in labor history as such. The book provides little new

research. Instead, its merit is in the reinterpretation of older material,

placing an existing literature into a provocative new framework. Jacoby’s book

is deceptively thin. It has fewer than 170 pages of text but Jacoby packs into

this limited text a new synthesis of American history built around labor. This

is a significant achievement in a work that should be read widely by historians

and all social


Gerald Friedman Department of Economics University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Gerald Friedman is the author of State-Making and Labor Movements:

France and the United States, 1876-1914 (Cornell University Press,

1998) as well as numerous

articles on the history of organized labor in the United States and Europe.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII