Police Work: The Centrality of Labor Repression in American Political History

Police Work: The Centrality of Labor Repression in American Political History

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The great promise of our capitalist society is that it is organized on the basis of consent, not coercion. When all persons are free to pursue their own interests, they discover that it is to their own benefit to become very good at making something that others need. Each doing what he or she does best, and freely exchanging the results, leads not just to the greatest amount of overall wealth but to a coordination of individual interests without force. As Adam Smith famously said, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” 1 But what happens when, out of “regard for his self-interest,” the butcher goes on strike? What happens, in fact, when there are no more butchers in the first place? What kind of economic order is it when Smith’s division of labor means that the independent butcher is replaced by “schacklers,” “hositers,” “gullet-raisers,” “foot-skinners,” “leg-breakers,” “breast-sawyers,” and “fellbeaters,” all under the command of an employer who no longer does any actual butchering himself? As the founding father of American labor history, John R. Commons, observed in 1904, industrial meatpacking is a different beast than Smith’s artisanal butchering:

It would be difficult to find another industry where division of labor has been so ingeniously and microscopically worked out. The animal has been surveyed and laid off like a map; and the men have been classified in over thirty specialties and twenty rates of pay, from 16 cents to 50 cents an hour. … In working on the hide alone there are nine positions, at eight different rates of pay.2 The primary effect of the division of labor in butchering was to drive down the wages of the unskilled while increasing their exhaustion and injuries. The increased division of labor in the factory was, after all, a way of redistributing the control over work from the worker to the capitalist. As Commons observed, between 1894 and 1904, a period of intense industrialization of meatpacking, the speed on production lines had increased “nearly 100 percent,” as had the danger. Unsurprisingly, in 1904, the meatpackers responded to these changes with a strike, demanding higher wages and safer working conditions.

Police Work: The Centrality of Labor Repression in American Political History, by Alex Gourevitch, Perspectives on Politics / Volume 13 / Issue 03 / September 2015, pp 762-773