Labor History Seminar: Robert Steinfeld, University of Buffalo

Labor History Seminar
Friday, September 24, 2010

3:00 pm to 5:00 pm

“The Problem of Waged Labor
Robert J. Steinfeld, University of Buffalo

Waged labor in history has often been depicted as standing at one pole in a world of labor relations arranged according to the binary opposition free/coerced. Among other things, this paper argues that that binary opposition does not begin adequately to describe the variety of forms of labor relations, including forms of waged labor, that were extant during the 19th century. In so far as this evidence undermines the binary description of labor forms, it also undermines one important theory upon which that binary rests. The paper argues that the economic logic of unfettered capitalism leads employers to pursue profit maximization ruthlessly, in the process employing a wide variety of types of labor discipline, including bodily compulsion, even in waged labor. The absence of bodily compulsion in modern waged labor is not a result of the natural play of markets, but of state intervention that imposed legal constraints on employers.

Commentators: Felice Batlan, Kent College of Law and James Schmidt, Northern Illinois University