Workers in Hard Times: A Long View of Economic Crises


Seeking to historicize today's "Great Recession," this volume of essays uses examples from North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia to situate the current economic crisis and its impact on workers in the context of previous abrupt shifts in the modern-day capitalist marketplace. Contributors argue that factors such as race, sex, and state intervention have mediated both the effect of economic depressions on workers' lives and workers' responses to those depressions. Further, the direction of ...

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Seeking to historicize today's "Great Recession," this volume of essays uses examples from North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia to situate the current economic crisis and its impact on workers in the context of previous abrupt shifts in the modern-day capitalist marketplace. Contributors argue that factors such as race, sex, and state intervention have mediated both the effect of economic depressions on workers' lives and workers' responses to those depressions. Further, the direction of influence between politics and economic upheaval, as well as between workers and the welfare state, has often shifted with time, location, and circumstance. These principles inform a concluding examination of today's "Great Recession": its historical distinctiveness, its connection to neoliberalism, and its attendant expressions of worker status and agency around the world. Ultimately, the essays in this volume push us toward a rethinking of the relationship between capital and labor, the waged and unwaged, and the employed and jobless.

Contributors are Sven Beckert, Sean Cadigan, Leon Fink, Alvin Finkel, Wendy Goldman, Gaetan Heroux, Joseph A. McCartin, David Montgomery, Edward Montgomery, Melanie Nolan, Bryan D. Palmer, Scott Reynolds Nelson, Joan Sangster, Judith Stein, Hilary Wainright, and Lu Zhang.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Workers in Hard Times: A Long View of Economic Crises examines the history of economic depressions, recessions, and crises in North America, New Zealand, Australia, parts of Europe and Asia, and worker responses to them. At its core lie the issues of agency and structure, culture and conditioning. The well-written essays will appeal to those interested in past and present responses to economic troubles and ways out of the current global recession."

--Neville Kirk, author of Labour and the Politics of Empire: Britain and Australia 1900 to the Present

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252038174
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 2/15/2014
  • Series: Working Class in American History Series
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Pages: 312
  • Sales rank: 938,361
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Leon Fink is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of Sweatshops at Sea: Merchant Seamen in the World's First Globalized Industry, from 1812 to 2000. Joseph McCartin is a professor of history at Georgetown University and the author of Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America. Joan Sangster is a professor of gender and women's studies at Trent University and the author of Transforming Labour: Women and Work in Postwar Canada.

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Workers in Hard Times

A Long View of Economic Crises

By Leon Fink, Joseph A. McCartin, Joan Sangster


Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-03817-4


Marching under Flags Black and Red

Toronto's Dispossessed in the Age of Industry


Introduction: Capitalism as Crisis

When capitalism is understood not merely as a political economy of development, advance, and progress but also as a social order of destruction, how we view workers necessarily changes. For capitalism is not merely a regime of accumulation giving rise to a complex amalgam of contradictory impulses and episodic clashes of antagonistic interests. It has historically also been fundamentally about crisis, as is abundantly evident in the history of the present. This insight framed Marx's oeuvre, the 1873 afterword to the second German edition of Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production declaring: "The contradictions inherent in the movement of capitalist society impress themselves upon the practical bourgeois most strikingly in the changes of the periodic cycle, through which modern industry runs, and whose crowning point is the universal crisis. That crisis is once again approaching, although as yet but in its preliminary stage; and by the universality of its theatre and the intensity of its action it will drum dialectics even into the heads of the mushroom upstarts" More clearly than any other thinker of his time, Marx understood that capitalism's logic and dynamic was premised on an internal reciprocity in which profit's preservation built on destructiveness. "The growing incompatibility between the productive development of society and its hitherto existing relations of production expresses itself in bitter contradictions, crises, spasms," Marx wrote in the Grundrisse, concluding, "The violent destruction of capital not by relations external to it, but rather as a condition of its self-preservation, is the most striking form in which advice is given it to be gone and to give room to a higher state of social production." Harnessing capitalism's far-reaching capacities to develop production and advance civilization was socialism's purpose, the intention being to tame its equally far-reaching tendencies to destroy output and generate and exacerbate debilitating conflicts.

Appreciating capitalism as crisis and accumulation as destruction entails looking at labor differently, more dialectically. Michael Denning has recently advocated reconceptualizing life under capitalism in ways that "decentre wage labour" and replace a "fetishism of the wage" and the "employment contract" with attention to "dispossession and expropriation." Marx, after all, did not invent the term "proletarian" but adapted it from its common usage in antiquity, when, within the Roman Empire, the word designated the uncertain social stratum, divorced from property and without regular access to wages, reproducing recklessly. J. C. L. Simonde de Sismondi drew on this understanding in an 1819 work of political economy that chronicled the "threat to public order" posed by a "miserable and suffering population," dependant as it was on public charity. "[T]hose who had no property," Sismondi wrote, "were called to have children: ad prolem generandum." Max Weber commented similarly: "As early as the sixteenth century the proletarianizing of the rural population created such an army of unemployed that England had to deal with the problem of poor relief." Three centuries later, across the Atlantic, transient common laborers were being described in a discourse seemingly impervious to change: "a dangerous class, inadequately fed, clothed, and housed, they threaten the health of the community" As Denning concludes, "Unemployment precedes employment, and the informal economy precedes the formal, both historically and conceptually. We must insist that 'proletarian' is not a synonym for 'wage labourer' but for dispossession, expropriation, and radical dependence on the market."

Although Denning captures the fundamental importance of wagelessness, all the more so within a context of capitalism as crisis, his dichotomization of wageless life and waged labor is myopic. It nearsightedly clarifies the importance of dispossession while obscuring the extent to which this fundamental feature of proletarianization is meaningless outside of the existence of the (often distant) wage as both an enduring if universally unpleasant end and a decisive means of survival within modern capitalist relations. David Montgomery captures the connectedness of being waged and unwaged in his rich discussion of common laborers: "Whether they were working flat out, sleeping behind a furnace or inside a boxcar, getting 'quitting mad,' enjoying the conviviality of the saloon, or being thrown back into the ranks of the unemployed ... one thing was clear: For common laborers, work was the biblical curse. It was unavoidable, undependable, and unrewarding. But they had urgent need for money." Wagelessness and waged employment are not oppositions, then, but gradations on a spectrum traversing desire and necessity that encompasses many possibilities for the proletarianized masses.

Unemployed Protests under the Black Flag, 1873-96

By the time Toronto had embarked on its Age of Industry in the 1870s and 1880s, major enterprises employed almost thirteen thousand workers in a population of roughly eighty-five thousand. Decades of socioeconomic differentiation and dislocation had served as the primitive accumulation that fueled the Queen City's material development. Economic crises, devastating in their human toll, punctuated the 1830s, the 1850s, and the 1870s, and would close the century in the 1890s. Pauper immigration, health epidemics, and the emergence of class conflict all struck daggers of fear in the bosom of emerging bourgeois society. Beginning in the 1830s, a set of carceral institutions, the most prominent of which was the House of Industry, were established, criminalizing the poor and marking them with the stigma of dependency. As much as the boundaries separating the "rough" and the "respectable" within working-class Toronto were often fluid, with individuals passing through highly porous separations, these distinctions were nonetheless socially constructed in the ideology of the times and often reinforced materially. "Unemployment" emerged as a derogatory designation.

Toronto's nineteenth-century industrial-capitalist revolution spawned the unmistakable growth of workers' organizations, political mobilizations, and protests, including strikes, fully 122 of a national total of 425 fought over the course of the 1880s being waged in Toronto. Labor newspapers like the Ontario Workman and the Palladium of Labor anchored themselves in Toronto, just as the Nine-Hour League and the Canadian Labor Union in the 1870s and the Knights of Labor and the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada played significant roles in the now bustling capital of Canadian manufacturing, which boasted a population approaching two hundred thousand by the end of the nineteenth century. This was the unmistakable expression of a working-class presence that, however much it was accommodated to the logic of capitalist class relations and the disciplines of the wage, did indeed challenge the hegemony of employers and their often servile state.

Entrenched ideologies of British Poor Law discourse proved remarkably resilient in nineteenth-century Canada. The "undeserving poor" were to be subject to the laws of "less eligibility," stipulating that relief would only be made available to those among the wageless who would work for their aid, which could only be dispensed in ways that made it even less attractive than what could be secured by the worst-paid unskilled labor. Toronto's Globe made all of this abundantly clear in an 1877 manifesto-like declaration on the wageless: "[W]e do not advocate a system which could leave them to starve, but we do say that if they are ever to be taught economical and saving habits, they must understand that the public have no idea of making them entirely comfortable in the midst of their improvidence and dissipation. If they wish to secure that they must work for it and save and plan. Such comfort is not to be had by loafing around the tavern door, or fleeing to charity at every pinch."

A floating mass of workless males generated intensified panic as the depression of 1873 deepened into 1877-78. Masses of migrant laborers, ostensibly traveling to secure elusive waged employment, became the scourge of small towns and large cities alike. Welcomed with the lockup and public derision in the press, tramps were criminalized and vilified, socially constructed as thieves and denigrated as "pests," "voracious monsters," and "outrageously impertinent," an "irrepressible stampede" deserving of "a well-aimed dose of buckshot rubbed in well with salt-petre." In Lindsay, Ontario, roughly ninety miles from Toronto, the local Canadian Post carried over one hundred news items relating to tramps in the 1874-78 years. Tramps were depicted as an outcast stratum rarely interested in finding employment, poor because they were "work-shy and degenerate." Many, riding the rails, were en route to Toronto, where police stations in 1877 and 1878 reported sheltering over 1,200 "waifs" annually.

If the 1880s saw the economy struggle out of its 1870s doldrums, the recovery was anything but robust, and the migratory wageless continued to unsettle respectable society. Toronto's newspapers competed against one another, pushing the denunciations of the "loafing aristocracy" to new extremes, calling for the expulsion of tramps from the city, judicious use of the lash against those for whom work was an aversion, and vigilant police monitoring of peripatetic vagrants given to "murders, burglaries, incendiaries, and highway robberies." A little "hard labour," suggested the Globe, would do this "dissipated" and "shiftless" element good, since the House of Industry had supposedly become increasingly lax in enforcing earlier expectations than those seeking accommodations for the night or outdoor relief of established, but faltering, households would chop wood for their food and lodging or charitable reliance on coal, food, or other necessities. Some called for a more rigorous "labour test," suggesting that stone-breaking establish a new standard for deservedness. The House of Industry concentrated instead on establishing an expanded wayfarer's lodge in 1884-85, where large numbers of indigent men could be put up for the night in a "casual" ward, their bodies soaked in a hot bath, their heads doused in vermin-killing liquid solution, and their clothes fumigated, "cleansed and classified" in the vernacular of poor-relief officialdom. But the growing number of habitual tramps furnished with temporary board and lodging by the de facto Poor House in the mid-1880s necessitated adoption of a modified labor test, if only to deter the ostensibly shiftless and physically weak from staying in the expanded casual ward of the refuge too long. Making inmates saw a quarter-cord of wood, a job that took the able-bodied and reasonably dexterous approximately three hours, before they were allowed to lunch on a watery bowl of soup and a hunk of stale bread had its effect. Those checking into the wayfarer's lodge declined from totals of 730 in 1886 to 548 in 1889.

The worsening economic climate of the depressed 1890s saw an expanded need for the House of Industry's relief, however, and the casual ward was opened for the summer as well as winter months. The number of "casuals" staying at the enlarged lodge thus soared, climbing to highs of 1,700 in 1891 and 1,500 in 1895 and 1897, rarely falling below 1,200. The average contingent sleeping at the House per night never dipped below sixty between 1890 and 1897, when a high of one hundred was reached (a comparable figure for the 1880-85 years had been roughly twenty-six). In 1891, 832 casuals stayed in the wayfarer's lodge of Toronto's House of Industry for two or three nights, while 415 put up in the poor house for more than three days; twenty-four hardcore recidivists spent more than one hundred nights in the refuge. Increased use of the House of Industry's relief facilities and provisions drew a backlash. Rev. Arthur H. Baldwin, rector of Toronto's All Saints church and one of the House of Industry's most outspoken trustees, provided advance notice that Toronto's premier institution of poor relief was not interested in coddling itinerant idlers. "It seems a great pity," he pontificated, "that these people should be allowed to go in and dwell [in the casual ward] and do nothing but cut a little wood, as we insist upon their doing." A new labor regime was clearly in the offing.

"Until the vagrant is offered some alternative that even he will recognize as more unpleasant and disagreeable than work," claimed the Board of the House of Industry in 1891-92, "the tramp trouble will never be cured." Cutting wood wasn't cutting it: relatively few refused this labor test. Between 1891 and 1895, according to James Pitsula's calculations from the Annual Reports of the House of Industry, 29,652 requests of the indigent to cut wood were complied with, while a bare 432 refusals were registered. In 1896, the House of Industry abandoned wood-cutting, replacing it with the more onerous discipline of stone-breaking. Almost immediately the new regime met with resistance: only 792 completed the required task of stone-breaking, compared to 1,202 who balked at undertaking the new labor test. As indicated by the vagrancy convictions of John Curry and Thomas Wilson in January 1896, those who refused stone-breaking assignments at the House of Industry were soon subject to confinement. Magistrate Denison sentenced this duo, who said that they preferred jail to the new labor test, to a three month-term in the refuge of their choice. One month later, upping the ante, City Alderman Jolliffe introduced a motion making it mandatory for all able-bodied applicants for relief in Toronto applying for outdoor assistance to break a yard of stone in return for their coal subsidy, doubling the amount of work required to receive winter fuel. "The stonepile," as Pitsula concludes, had become "an emblem for the work ethic."

An offensive against the tramps was clearly being waged in the name of morality and the disciplining power of relief. This class war was not waged one-sidedly. Not only was stone-breaking unpopular, but it occasioned organized protests by the poor. The rush of refusals in 1896 could not have happened without discussions and deliberations on the part of the wageless. Consequences of their recalcitrance were quite severe. For the single unemployed men, the tramps, of whom 65 to 75 percent came from outside Toronto, refusal to break stone left them homeless, without viable means of support and sustenance, possibly confined to a cell. Family men seeking outdoor relief in the form of food and fuel put themselves and their wives and children at risk with their oppositional stands. And yet not only did casuals and those domestic providers in need bolt from stone-breaking, some of the indigent gathered outside of City Hall to protest against Jollifies motion. An unidentified spokesman, described as "a strong hulk fellow," spoke for his wageless counterparts: "And they calls that charity, do they? Got to crack a heap o' stones for what yer get. Ain't no charity in that es' I can see."

The rebellion of stone-breaking refusal in the 1890s was, to be sure, a minor event, but it signaled a shift in the activities of the workless, which had taken a more organized and collective turn in the depression of 1873-77 and its immediate aftermath. With industrialists acknowledging that "fifty percent of the manufacturing population of the country are out of work," and fledgling newspapers of the organized working class addressing unemployment and its evils, it was but a short step to deputations of the jobless marching in demand of some kind of redress. Ottawa became a center of this 1870s agitation, a natural enough development given Parliament's proximity and the possibility of federal politicians voting funds for expanded public works. Over the course of the winter of 1879-80, Ottawa newspapers bristled with accounts of petitions, marches, torchlit processions, and other gatherings of hundreds of "unemployed workingmen." Editorials chastened those who were described as looking "needy and seemed determined to get work or fight," claiming that the government could not be expected to provide for them. Canada was not a land of "State Socialism."


Excerpted from Workers in Hard Times by Leon Fink, Joseph A. McCartin, Joan Sangster. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction 1,
Part I. Depressions and Working-Class Lives,
1. Marching under Flags Black and Red: Toronto's Dispossessed in the Age of Industry Gaetan Heroux and Bryan D. Palmer, 19,
2. Working People's Responses to Past Depressions David Montgomery, 45,
3. Soviet Workers and Stalinist Terror: The Crisis of Industrialization Wendy Goldman, 60,
Part II. Economic Dislocation as Political Crisis,
4. The Labor of Capitalism: Industrial Revolution and the Transformation of the Global Cotton-Growing Countryside Sven Beckert, 83,
5. The Ordeal of Eugene Debs: The Panic of 1893, the Pullman Strike, and the Origins of the Progressive Movement Scott Reynolds Nelson, 99,
Part III. Social-Welfare Struggles from the Liberal to the neoliberal State,
6. Workers' Social-Wage Struggles during the Great Depression and the Era of Neoliberalism: International Comparisons Alvin Finkel, 113,
7. Politics and Policies in the 1970s and Early Twenty-first Century: The Linked Recessions Judith Stein, 141,
8. Neoliberalism at Work in the Antipodean Welfare State in the Late Twentieth Century: Collusion, Collaboration, and Resistance Melanie Nolan, 161,
Part IV. Workers and the Shakeup of the new World order,
9. Want amidst Plenty: The Oil Boom and the Working Class in Newfoundland and Labrador, 1992–2010 Sean Cadigan, 187,
10. Whose Hard Times? Explaining Autoworkers Strike Waves in Recent-Day China Lu Zhang, 213,
11. Transformative Power: Lessons from the Greek Crisis and Beyond Hilary Wainwright, 243,
12. How Workers and the Government Have Dealt with Economic Crisis and Industrial Decline: 1929 and 2007 Edward Montgomery, 263,
Contributors, 289,
Index, 293,

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