Strikers from the Ladies Tailors Union, 1910 (Library of Congress).

Fair Wages

A History of Getting Paid

In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama called on Congress to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10, and then signed an executive order putting it into effect for federal contract workers. With legislation on the table in Congress and increases being debated in many states, this episode looks to the origins of the minimum wage, and explores how we’ve thought about fair pay over time.

Along with their guests, Ed, Brian, and Peter discuss how slaves in the antebellum period could sometimes be brought into the wage economy, and how convict labor played havoc with wages in the wake of the Civil War. They discover why early 20th century feminists cheered the demise of state minimum wage legislation in the 1920s, and find out how the federal minimum wage came to be, a decade later.

This episode and related resources are funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this {article, book, exhibition, film, program, database, report, Web resource}, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh. Proposals to raise minimum wages are in the news yet again. But the struggle over fairness is nothing new even if the contours of that struggle have looked different at different times. Some labor unions didn’t even want the federal minimum wage when it was first proposed.

RISA GOLUBOFF: They were worried that a minimum wage would be taken to be a maximum wage, that the floor would become a ceiling.

BRIAN: In the 19th century iron workers went on strike, not for better wages, but because they refused to train slaves to do highly skilled jobs.

GREGG KIMBALL: The workers basically saw it as their right, and was there right everywhere else in the world, to pick their apprentices. So doing this was an affront to that basic premise of labor.

BRIAN: This week on BackStory– fair wages.

PETER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, The University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

BRIAN: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory. We’re the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh and I’m here with Peter Onuf.

PETER: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN: And Ed Ayers is with us.

ED: Hello.

BRIAN: In the State of the Union Address this year, President Obama made the case for raising the minimum wage. If you are as devoted a fan of the bad pun as I am, you probably remember the set up.


PRESIDENT OBAMA: Nick Chute is here today with his boss John Serrano. John is an owner of Punch Pizza in Minneapolis. And Nick helps make the dough, only now he makes more of it!



BRIAN: Obama explained that Serrano had raised his employees wages to $10 an hour. And the President urged other business owners to do the same. Two weeks later, the President signed an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour.

ED: Since then President Obama has called for a minimum wage hike for all workers. And while that’s unlikely to succeed in a face of Republican opposition, minimum wage increases are already happening at the state and local level. This week Connecticut became the latest state to raise its wage floor, and more than a dozen other states are expected to consider similar moves this year.

PETER: Proponents of these measures point to a recent analysis by the Congressional Budget Office suggesting that raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would lift nearly a million people out of poverty. Opponents argue that raising the minimum wage would kill jobs, about 500,000 of them according to the same CBO analysis. And there are broader questions at stake too. What counts as a fair wage, and whose job is it to make sure that American workers get one?


ED: Today on the show we’re going to try to shed some light on the current debate by exploring how past generations have wrestled with this issue of fair compensation. We’ll look at the origins of minimum wage laws, and why it took so long for most Americans to be covered by them. We will also hear how seven factory owners took advantage of slave labor in the years before the Civil War, and what happened when mine owners turned to convict labor three decades later.


BRIAN: But first, let’s return to today’s debate about the minimum wage. Obviously, this is an economic debate and you’re going to see all kinds of numbers thrown around. But it seems to me that underlying that economic issue is a basic conflict over values, really. On one side of that values debate people are saying, it’s obvious, everybody should be entitled to a minimum wage, a wage that they can live on. But on the other side people say, there’s a fundamental value that has to do with the rights of individuals to decide for themselves. People are smart enough to know whether they want to take a job or whether they don’t want to take a job because it pays too little. And they certainly don’t need any nanny state telling them what the job should pay.

Ed, Peter, my sense is there’s a very long history to that latter position, the right to contract with your employer. Why don’t we take a few minutes and explore that history.

PETER: Hey, Brian! It’s American history, OK.

BRIAN: Oh, darn.

PETER: You know, the Declaration of Independence– consent, the social contract, that basic idea that a republic is based on contracting, consenting, individuals who are fully independent and capable of expressing their will. And that notion is so fundamental and it happens to coincide and map neatly on to conceptions of market behavior in a truly free market– now that’s all problematic, concept or construct. But I think that reinforcement of the political character of the regime, based on consent and contract. And the way we make deals and marketplaces, well it seems fundamental.

And let me add just one thing, and that is overthrowing the British state was supposedly overthrowing monopoly, aristocracy, guilds, all kinds of privileged interference in political and economic life. So I think we start with that original– I’ll call it a fundamental distortion, because we’re not looking at the thing itself. We are not looking at the terms of work, what we’re looking at is this big relationship we have with government, with a capital G, with the state. And that interferes with all of our thinking about wealth distribution and wages.

ED: Yeah, Peter, you call it, sort of a distortion, or whatever. But I’d like to suggest that it actually seemed to be a very organic outgrowth of the American experience, right. So after you guys throw off the British yoke, for which we are very grateful there in the 18th century. In the 19th century we go, all right, now if it’s great to have contract and freedom, let’s try to extend it to every facet of life.

And basically, that’s the story of the first several decades of the new American nation for economics and politics, is that at the same time the government has helped us is expand to the west and removing Indians. Back in the developed economies of the East, we’re saying, great get the government out of this, no special provisions for any particular business.

PETER: And the significant thing is that the language of anti-aristocracy, anti-monopoly, survives from before the American Revolution. And so you are carrying on that same notion. Maybe I shouldn’t have said distortion. I’ll say, an enduring idea about the nature of the state and a fear for the loss of liberty that’s so deeply embedded in the American psyche.

BRIAN: OK, I get the anti-monopoly, knocking down privilege, but what about the privilege of owning slaves and paying them no wages whatsoever, Ed?

ED: And I say this, not to adroitly dodge your question, it actually is key to this entire question. It is the very prevalence of slavery over a large part of the American nation that makes everyone who’s not in slavery–

PETER: They’re free.


ED: They’re free. And what are they free to do, Brian? They are free to contract, to sell their labor.

BRIAN: That’s very interesting.

ED: And so the entire Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln is built around this idea of we are free labor. We are either free to work for ourselves because we own our own land, or we are free to enter into contracts and withdraw from them as we wish. We are the opposite of slaves. And matter of fact, that is probably the one vocabulary that working people and employers in the North can agree upon that would bind the North together. It’s not slavery. And it goes in to the Civil War precisely because the South and it’s slavery is a violation of that. Not only for the enslaved people, they say, but for the white people in the South who are prevented from living in a land that’s ruled by contract.

PETER: And that’s what I meant by distorting. And that is a powerful effect of this kind of black and white binary of slavery and freedom. No nuance in this analysis, and the nuance that’s lost is the possibility that the state could intervene for benign purposes.

ED: Well if you want a nuance, I’ve got a bunch of it for you. This is what happens when the Civil War ends, and slavery ends, and suddenly the white North gets its dream of an entire nation ruled by contract. But what do you do when there are workers who own nothing but the shirt’s on their backs? And you have landowners, the former masters, who own everything else. Can you have anything that looks like freedom of contract–

PETER: And so the Civil War should have been a great victory for the forces of freedom, or free labor. But this is also, of course, a great period of capital formation and industrialization. And the terms of work are no longer as favorable as they used to be.

ED: Yeah as these corporations just get bigger and bigger, and they can draw on an infinite pool of labor and all these immigrants coming in. And they could run shifts and all these kinds of things, it just seems to play havoc with the principles for which the North went to war only 30 years earlier.

BRIAN: Yet, at that very moment it seems that’s when the courts intervene and pronounce this theory of liberty of contract. And it’s as late as 1905 in the Lochner decision, that the court says, hey New York State can’t limit the number of hours that men in bakeries work. Because that violates their ability to contract for their own labor– 1905. So, [LAUGHS] be careful what you wish for. Because those ideas were really powerful, and they didn’t get imbibed by the court. But just as the reality on the ground was changing, the courts came and said, no people have to be able to make their own deals even though it was becoming increasingly absurd notion the individual could make a deal with Andrew Carnegie or with Rockefeller.

ED: And Brian, I think that goes right back to the question that you began this segment with. Why are skeptics today so skeptical [LAUGHS] of this idea about minimum wage? It’s because they’re drawing on a very deep well of indigenous American thinking, that for awhile described the reality of American life. And ever since has still been a cherished dream even as the material conditions change.

PETER: I think it still defines the aspirations for many Americans when you talk about freedom and liberty. You don’t want to think that you’re enabled to pursue your happiness or that the happiness is going to be provided by the state. You want to think it comes from you.

BRIAN: And you want to believe that you’re dealing with an individual, not with some multinational corporation.

ED: And that is the very reason that the language that you use at the beginning, Brian, is the language that critics of this use– ‘The Nanny State’. Because what it is suggesting is that, you are not enough of an individual to stand up for yourself, and that if you want a higher wage just go somewhere else and get it. You don’t need the government handing you something. So it strikes me we’re likely to have this debate with us for quite awhile.

PETER: It’s what America’s all about.


BRIAN: We’re going to take a short break, but don’t go away. When we get back, we’ll hear why some early feminists thought minimum wage laws were not such a good idea.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.


ED: We’re back with BackStory, I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. We’re talking today about how past generations of Americans have struggled to define what is and isn’t fair when it comes to compensating people for the work they do. So far we’ve talked about the deep strain of thinking that informs today’s opposition to a minimum wage hike. Now we’re going to turn to the story of how the minimum wage took shape in the first place.

BRIAN: The nation’s first minimum wage law was passed by the state of Massachusetts just over 100 years ago in 1912. Over the next decade or so 15 other states and the District of Columbia would follow suit. But there was a big difference between these laws and the minimum wage laws on the books today. Those early laws only applied to women and children.

PETER: Right around the turn of the century, the Supreme Court had struck down the right of legislators to interfere in workplace contracts. But a few years later, the court modified that decision by creating an exception for women. Women were a special class, they were vulnerable, they were mothers, they performed important functions outside of the workplace. They needed to be protected.

BRIAN: At first, many women embraced the idea of the so-called protective wage. But after the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, some women began wondering, why should equality be limited to voting?

ALICE PAUL: Women Voters are demanding that the suffrage victory be carried to its logical fulfillment in the granting to women of complete political, legal, and civil equality with men.

PETER: This is the famous suffragist, Alice Paul, as quoted in the New York Times in 1922.

ALICE PAUL: This is an issue based on justice, and political expediency.

PETER: Alice Paul and her National Women’s Party were pushing for an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. They wanted women to enjoy full legal equality with men. And that would require dropping protective wage legislation.

BRIAN: But the National Women’s Party met with strong resistance from another faction in the movement. Longtime activist, Florence Kelly, was among those who basically said, get real!

FLORENCE KELLY: This insanity expresses itself in eager demands for identical treatment without according to men. It is idle to explain to them that if these ideas prevail the statutory working day and the legal wage will all be swept away.

BRIAN: I sat down with historian Dorothy Sue Cobble who has written a lot about these early reformers. Cobble refers to Kelly and her allies as social feminists. And explain that they were just as concerned about equality as Paul’s supporters were.

DOROTHY SUE COBBLE: But in some cases, they thought differential treatment was necessary and important and it benefited women. And the social feminists who supported these laws hoped that in fact they could be extended to men. And by the ’20s they were making arguments based much more on need. And the fact that women were the low wage sweated workers, and much less based on difference.

BRIAN: Yes, but it sounds to me like lurking under this difference in approaches might be some kind of class difference. Were these women coming from different places in terms of socioeconomic status?

DOROTHY SUE COBBLE: I think that’s definitely part of it. Most of the women in the National Women’s Party were professional women. They were concerned about opening up opportunities for professional women. Alice Paul had multiple degrees. Most of these women were highly educated. The social feminists were much more mixed in terms of class. But there was also a substantial number of working class women who were involved and pushed for protective laws.

BRIAN: This emerging difference of perspective, let’s call it, within the women’s movement, in some ways is a moot point because the Supreme Court weighs in again in 1923, as I recall.

DOROTHY SUE COBBLE: Yes, the Supreme Court rules in the Adkins v. Children’s Hospital case. And that’s where in Washington DC there had been minimum wage for women established. They say, no, much has changed, there’s much less difference between men and women. Actually they are now politically equal.

BRIAN: Is that because of the 19th Amendment?

DOROTHY SUE COBBLE: In part because of the 19th Amendment, but also in part, a shifting norms in a sense of women moving into employment, the first and second generation of women having gone to higher education. There’s just these much larger changes going on as well.

BRIAN: And as an historian, would you agree that women in fact had made advances? Is that an accurate reading of social change?

DOROTHY SUE COBBLE: Yes absolutely, there was progress, particularly politically in terms of civil rights. The problem was that there were longstanding economic inequalities between men and women that had not changed. And the effort to establish wage floors was an effort to move women toward greater economic equality.

BRIAN: In the end, the Equal Rights feminists certainly triumph on the theory of equality. But was it a Pyrrhic victory, given that in this case equality meant that nobody got a minimum wage?

DOROTHY SUE COBBLE: Right. I think we see that same issue going through the 20th century. It’s important that women have some of the same rights as men. But if, in fact, we have a society in which men aren’t being treated the way they should be, what kind of advance is it for women to have the same poor rights or no rights as men.


BRIAN: Dorothy Sue Cobble is a historian at Rutgers. She is the co-author of the forthcoming book, Feminism Unfinished, a short, surprising, history of American women’s movements.


PETER: In the 15 years following Adkins versus Children’s Hospital, a number of states experimented with versions of minimum wage legislation. Almost all of them were struck down in the courts.

BRIAN: In 1938 as the Great Depression lingered, the federal government stepped in with a minimum wage law that would apply throughout the country. It was known as the Fair Labor Standards Act. The year prior, the Supreme Court had upheld a federal law securing collective bargaining rights for labor unions. And it was this case, says legal historian Risa Goluboff, that really paved the way for a national minimum wage.

RISA GOLUBOFF: Prior to the late 1930s, the Supreme Court had a lot of restrictions on the kind of economic regulation that the federal government could impose. And the restrictions came from two different places. One came from a sense of individual rights, that people had a right to contract, and a right to their property that shouldn’t be interfered with by the government. And the idea was that a minimum wage would interfere with a given employee and employers rights.

BRIAN: They could sign up for whatever wage they wanted to.

RISA GOLUBOFF: Exactly, if they want to work for $0.10 an hour, it’s up to them. And the second set of limitations came from constitutional limitations on federal power. The Constitution enumerates what the federal government, the national government can do. And one of the things that it can do is regulate interstate commerce. But it’s not supposed to regulate the internal commerce of the state’s regular, old, manufacturing production, retail, things like that. And the court had really kept the Congress to that distinction for a number of years. And it wasn’t until 1937 that it began to allow Congress more space in which to regulate commerce that wasn’t necessarily interstate commerce. And so there was more room for the Fair Labor stuff–

BRIAN: So if one was getting wages producing something that might be considered interstate commerce then those wages might be allowed under the more capacious understanding of interstate commerce.

RISA GOLUBOFF: Precisely. Exactly.

BRIAN: So legally speaking, based on that recent court decision, who was safely covered constitutionally?

RISA GOLUBOFF: Safely covered constitutionally were people working in interstate transportation, obviously, and in anything that crossed state lines. But then the idea that a Fair Labor Standards Act took seriously was that people who were producing for interstate commerce, working in manufacturing. And in the past, the court had rejected that kind of justification.

BRIAN: And in practice, were most of the people covered union employees?

RISA GOLUBOFF: Most, yes, absolutely were. So one of the distinctions in terms of coverage and not covered employees was manufacturing versus retail. And when you think about the lifespan of a product, manufacturing usually happens before something enters into interstate commerce, retail happens after it’s come to rest after the interstate commerce. And yet manufacturing was covered and retail was not covered.

The big categories of workers who were exempted go more to the political compromises and less to the constitutional ones.

BRIAN: So how did those political compromises determine who was not covered?

RISA GOLUBOFF: The political compromises were really those within the Democratic party between those in the north and white southern Democrats who really were worried about the effects on race relations in the South. And so, the two big groups of workers who were not covered were domestic workers and agricultural workers. And those two groups accounted for more than half of all African American workers in the South. They also accounted for the majority of many other minority groups across the country.

BRIAN: And how did that play out in terms of gender? Were a disproportionate number of women not covered?

RISA GOLUBOFF: Yes, precisely. So in agriculture, it was both men and women. But domestic workers were overwhelmingly women, as well as other kinds of industries like the retail industry, hospitality. Other kinds of service industries were also not covered and those were overwhelmingly women. Clerical industries, as well, were overwhelming women.

BRIAN: Yeah, Fair Labor Standards Act sounds so universal. But when you start adding up the numbers, what do they come to? Is it a majority of workers who are not covered?

RISA GOLUBOFF: In 1938, it was 33% of the workforce were covered, and 66% were not. As it turned out, it was about even in terms of men and women. But the real difference there then, was among those exempt workers, most of the men who were exempt were actually already earning more than the minimum wage. Agricultural workers were not, but many–

BRIAN: So these would be salaried workers who were disproportionately men.

RISA GOLUBOFF: Exactly. Whereas, the women who were exempt were disproportionately earning below the poverty line, earning below the baseline established in the Fair Labor Standards Act which would have been $800 a year. So for example, a woman in domestic service around that time earned $359 a year. The Fair Labor Standards Act numbers would have gotten you to $800 a year. Which is still incredibly low, but would have doubled that person’s salary.

BRIAN: OK. I have always been taught, and I have taught, that the Fair Labor Standards Act was a very big deal in the New Deal. But after talking to you, I’m beginning to wonder. I mean, if in fact, such a small percentage of workers were actually covered, why do we remember this as such a big deal?

RISA GOLUBOFF: I think we remember it as a big deal for two reasons. The first reason is that over time more and more workers did get covered. It took awhile, but you had the statutory infrastructure, and the administrative infrastructure. And it’s easier to amend something then to get in the first place. And so the political mobilization in the constitutional opportunity that existed during the New Deal era, I think, created the possibility for later mobilization by Cesar Chavez and others. To get the inclusion of agricultural–

BRIAN: To expand the number of people covered.

RISA GOLUBOFF: Exactly. So that’s one thing I would say. The other thing I would say is less concrete than that. Which is that a lot of what the New Deal legislation did was create these new apparatuses and create new expectations and new aspirations and new sense of rights that didn’t necessarily get implemented all at once. But what they did was change the nature of the relationship between the individual and the federal government in terms of expectations of what the federal government was required to provide.

In his 1944 State of Union address, FDR sets forth an economic bill of rights. And he talks about how at the founding of the country in the 18th century, the idea of rights was a negative idea of rights, that people had rights against the government for the government not to interfere with their freedom. And what FDR says when he talks about this new economic bill of rights is, government is so powerful now, and private industry is so powerful now, that we actually need for government to affirmatively protect people’s rights, and to make it possible for people to participate in American society by making sure that they have an adequate income, that they have a job, that they have old age insurance, that they have health care– this is an articulation of health care that doesn’t come to pass for some 70 years, but they have housing, and education.

And during the 1940s, people start to talk about the right economic security and the economic security of the person. And that’s all about changing the economic relationship between the citizen and the federal government. And the Fair Labor Standards Act is part of that story.


FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: America’s own rightful place in the world, depends in large part, upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for all of our citizens. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.

BRIAN: That’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his 1944 State of the Union Address. Risa Goluboff is a professor at The University of Virginia School of Law.


ED: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory and we’re talking about the historical debate over fair wages for American workers. A number of listeners have already weighed in a And we have invited one of them to join us on the phone.

PETER: We’ve got Ben on a line from Richmond, Virginia. Ben what do you got for us?

BEN: Well actually my question is I’m a college student and I’m going to my second summer now. I’m looking for an internships. And most internships, I assume you’ve heard are unpaid, and so I’m wondering how this system of unpaid internships become so prevalent in America? I know apprenticeship was a big part of American education in early America, but that’s not really a big factor nowadays. And even then apprentices were expected to be fed, and clothed, and provided for by their masters, which doesn’t really happen with interns nowadays. So I was wondering if you could enlighten me about this.

PETER: hosts, what do you think?

BRIAN: Well I’m interested in hearing about what apprenticeships were really about, Peter.

PETER: Right, well apprenticeships have to do with acquiring skills, as Ben suggested, and upkeep and becoming a member of a guild. To achieve the level of craftsman–

BRIAN: And didn’t people actually pay a bounty of sorts in order to apprentice with a master?

PETER: Think of as the price of admission. I think the constant over time is that you become embedded in a social situation. You have a social capital, as we now say, that’s nothing like the kind of skill that an apprentice would get it in a craft. But it does give you the kind of social experience and skills that might pay off. You know people.

BRIAN: When I think about apprenticeship in Peter’s day, I think of artisans, craftsmen. When I think of apprenticeship, or the beginning of internships, I begin to think about the professions. I think about people apprenticing in law firms. I think about doctors having internships. And you said socially embedded. We associate the modern 20th and 21st century internship with white collar, middle to upper middle class employment instead of those artisans and those workers.

ED: Here’s the thing Brian. I think that what you actually described was more of the model in the earlier period. I think that it actually fades away after the Civil War. And that what replaces it are professional schools. That before, Abraham Lincoln learns law just by hanging out with other lawyers. In the model that Peter is talking about. But doctors and lawyers, in the decades after the Civil War, are no longer permitted to do that. They have to be sanctioned, licensed.

BRIAN: But Ed, think about it. When that doctor gets her M.D., she then goes and does a residency somewhere. And they’re doing it to learn their specialty.

ED: Yeah but they’re doing after, and Peter talking about, the entry into the world. They have already earned entry into the world through the meritocracy of the educational process. Right, so, I think that what we’re seeing, and I think this is what Ben is experiencing, is that there has been a speed-up on the line. It’s both. We require, now, the formal education and the in-formal education of internship if you’re going to get a job.

PETER: Well I think you’re right, Ed. And it’s because for the first time in American history, well educated people like Ben are a glut in the market.

BEN: Thank you so much for having me on. I appreciate it.

PETER: Thank you very much.


BRIAN: If you’d like to be a caller on the show visit back to see some of the topics that we’re working on. While you’re there, you can listen to interview about how Americans in the 20th century called giving your waiter tip evil and un-American.


ED: You are listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.


PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today on the show, we’re looking at how the struggle for fair wages for American workers has changed over time.

PETER: We’ve got another call, this time from April in Chicago. Hey April, what do you got for us?

APRIL: So my question is about wage gap. And it seems like discussing our salaries with our coworkers is a huge taboo in this country. But it’s also a large reason why there is a wage gape and why it’s so common. We have both federal and state laws which allow for legal action to be taken, but no way of knowing when these laws are being broken. So really, my question is, when did we as a culture, that’s known for our brashness and over-sharing, find that it’s inappropriate for us to share this information?

PETER: Yeah when did we start keeping it secret when we’re such braggarts? Hertz

ED: I think this is sort of a byproduct of the number of people who are on salaries rather than hourly wage. Because I think as long as there has been a salary, the idea was, that’s sort of privileged information, right. If you’re showing up to work as a day laborer, here’s what we’re paying. We know what it is, right. But as people start not being paid on a regular basis, and not being paid in cash, they get these checks. I don’t know, Brian, the salary really becomes dominant the 20th century. But it seems that this is a kind of carry over to answer April’s question, from more decorous time when people just didn’t talk about money.

BRIAN: So here’s a test. But I don’t have the data to answer the question. We know that the salaries of public employees is public information. So if the theory that transparency sheds light on covering up discrimination through wages, presumably there should be less disparity among public employees than in the private sector. Which you would you buy that theory at any rate, April?

APRIL: I would, except, I have a very good example for where that’s not true.

BRIAN: As I said, I don’t know the answer to the question. But it would seem to be a good test. So tell me about your example. Because we are historians and one example does make a historical trend.

APRIL: So I used to be an adjunct history professor at a community college. And at this college all of the wages were posted online. And I noticed that two different professors in my department, were paid– there was a disparity of about $10,000. And one was a male, and one was a female. They both were hired at the same time, both had PhDs. And this female, even though it was public knowledge was getting paid about $10,000 less.

BRIAN: Wow. Did you look into that?

APRIL: I told her very clandestinely that this website existed and maybe she should look at it. I didn’t want to tell her directly, hey you’re getting underpaid.

ED: Do you think it’s possible that women are less likely to want to talk about their wages or salaries in public than men?

APRIL: Yes, definitely. They’ve done a lot of studies that show that women are less likely to ask for a raise to begin with. So I think that leads to the assumption that we are less likely to want to discuss how much we are being paid.

ED: Would you have a theory for why that might be?

APRIL: I think it’s something that– perhaps maybe to the same line for why women don’t want to self identify as feminists. We don’t– we’re sort of socially conditioned to not to make any waves.

BRIAN: I’m curious. We live in an age where people put everything about themselves on the web. Do you have any sense that there is more transparency out there in the wonderful world of social media?

APRIL: I don’t think there is. I mean, we do have things like LinkedIn, which are basically for workplace Facebook. I don’t think people put their salary up there because you wouldn’t want to potentially give yourself a lower salaried for future job if they’re willing to pay more, right.

BRIAN: Don’t make the first offer.

APRIL: There are websites out there which will take anonymous surveys and then cull all that information together. And give you your particular job in this location is this range.

PETER: So, April, I hope we’ve at least kept the conversation going in your mind. And we have really enjoyed talking with you.

APRIL: Yeah, thank you, guys.

BRIAN: Thank you.

ED: Bye-bye.


ED: We’re going to finish out our show today with two stories from the American South, stories that bookend the Civil War. Today’s minimum wage debate is at least in part a result of a shift from an industrial to a service based economy. Well as it turns out, the shift to an industrial economy in the first place also raised fundamental questions about the best way to compensate workers.

PETER: Early on, and well before the Civil War, the question was, who would do this factory work and what would be the rules governing the new industrial workplace? In southern cities, like Richmond, Virginia, many forward thinking business owners turn to an ancient institution for answers. They hired enslaved men and women to do their factory work.

ED: Gregg Kimball is a historian who has written about this practice of slave hiring. He told me that in the 1850s thousands of slaves from rural plantations spent at least part of the year living on their own in Richmond. Other slaves lived in the city all the time and moved about independently. But in most cases, they remained somebody else’s property.

GREGG KIMBALL: It is a very strange concept. But what happened was, you have say, a tobacco factory owner. And he needs a certain number of hands and he goes to, sometimes a middle man, sometimes directly to the master and says, let’s do a contract. And I’ll higher your slave for a year. And the master gets that money. The slave is hired to the factory for that period of time.

ED: Would the slave get anything out of this?

GREGG KIMBALL: Well typically they did not get any of the direct payment, that went to the master. But the demands of labor, you be in the season you’re working a lot of hours. And it could be that the slave is only supposed to work for X hours a day, and you need them to work what we would call overtime. Well sometimes the slave would be remunerated, paid, for that time directly. And that was that little crack in the system where some industrial slaves actually had cash in their pockets.

ED: Why didn’t they just make them work harder? Why didn’t they just say, no you’re staying here Saturday afternoon and I want you to come in on Sunday too and make more of these barrels.

GREGG KIMBALL: Well obviously the master would have something to say about that. And masters, while they themselves worked their slaves very hard, they were probably even more careful about how somebody else worked their slaves. So I’ll give you an example. When the Blue Ridge tunnel was being built for the railroad through the mountains, they would not allow hired slaves to used to work in some of the more dangerous parts of that, particularly the blasting with black powder. That was done by Irish migrant workers. So that’s kind of telling. Masters had to be careful. They had a huge investment.

ED: So all that sounds like an advantage, that you would have this chance for overpayment. If you’re a slave who’s hired out to somebody, it’s hard work, but you’re going to be working really hard no matter what you’re doing. But would people prefer not to be hired out?

GREGG KIMBALL: I think it was very specific to your situation. One of the advantages to coming to Richmond would be to be part of a much larger black community. Going to First African Baptist Church, which had almost 3,000 members in 1860, provided a level community and interaction that you probably wouldn’t get in a plantation setting. But if you were say, woman hired into a domestic situation in the city, it could be just as abusive and just as much surveillance as you might encounter on a plantation. So I think we have to be real careful with that notion of advantage. But for some industrial workers, I think it did offer a little crack where they could have a social life that was a little richer perhaps in a plantation.

ED: At this time, the defenders of slavery, including of this system, would have pointed to what they call wage slavery in the North. And would have said, what you’re doing there, is just as bad here. We take care of the slaves, we pay them for overtime, they can earn enough money to buy their own freedom or that or that of their family. How can you say that this is less fair then the brutal wage slavery of the North? What would have been a good rejoinder to that?

GREGG KIMBALL: I know this will sound perverse. But they did have a point to a certain degree. You know the expression nothing but freedom. You certainly had the freedom as a working man in the north to change your employer if you wanted to do that. That wasn’t always necessarily a really practical thing for somebody to do. And in the north you have an evolution away from these craft traditions where people did control their labor to a certain degree towards something that was much more exploitative. So wasn’t necessarily that they were right about slavery and wrong about the north. Clearly they had a very rose colored view of what they were doing. But they weren’t totally wrong about quote, unquote free labor either.

ED: So was slave hiring a sign of the fundamental incapacity of slavery to adapt to modern industrial world, or was slave hiring an example of exactly the opposite, that slavery could adapt even to the most advanced technologies? You get one choice there, Gregg.

GREGG KIMBALL: I think it’s that it could adapt to different circumstances. And that the hiring practice is really just a reflection of its ability to adapt.

ED: Do you take it would have spread across the South into other kinds of environments or would this only work in an industrial city like Richmond?

GREGG KIMBALL: Well I think that some of the more recent work on this has shown that it was more prevalent, even in an agricultural areas, then we might imagine. And don’t forget, even though we think of agricultural industry– as this is, again, kind of a dichotomy of these two different things. Remember even in rural agriculture, particularly in some types of agriculture, like sugar for instance, there is a whole processing part that is virtually industrial. So again, I think, enslaved people certainly had the skill. Manufacturers had the impetus to use slaves in these industries and there’s no reason that those two things couldn’t go together.

ED: It’s a truly horrifying vision sometimes when I’m out talking about the Civil War and people say, well it would have faded away anyway. I said, no look at Richmond, and you would have just seen what the future would have looked like. And it would have been like South Africa. I pointed out that slaves would have been great for doing the main things that happened after emancipation– building railroads, digging coal mines, all those kinds of things. It’s scary to think about how adaptable slavery was.

GREGG KIMBALL: That’s absolutely right.

GREGG KIMBALL: Gregg, thanks so much for explaining this really kind of bizarre and complicated world to us.

GREGG KIMBALL: Well, my pleasure. I’ve been here 28 years in Richmond, and this is the most fascinating pieces of its story that I can imagine talking. So thanks.


ED: Gregg Kimball is the Director of Education and Outreach Services at the Library of Virginia, his history of Antebellum Richmond is American City, Southern Place.


ED: We’re going to move now to one final story about a struggle over wages, this one in the years after the Civil War. It takes place in the 1890s on my home turf of East Tennessee. Now wages for coal miners there had been declining for two decades. And when miners in the town of Briceville pushed for better working conditions and higher wages, they didn’t get very far. The local money company said, hey we’re feeling an economic crunch, too.

KARIN SHAPIRO: The coal company then actually just simply locked out the miners.

ED: This is Karen Shapiro, a historian at Duke.

KARIN SHAPIRO: And decided to bring in convict laborers to replace them as strike breakers.

PETER: Convict laborers were just what they sounded like, convicts from the Tennessee prison brought in to work the mines. The companies didn’t have to pay these workers so they were perfect strike breakers, which was why the miners in Briceville wanted them gone.

ED: So on the night of July 14, 1891, a group of armed miners and townspeople gathered in the nearby town of Coal Creek. Around midnight they marched to Briceville where 40 convicts were being held in the stockade. The miners asked the stockade guards to hand over the convicts. And they quickly did so.

KARIN SHAPIRO: They then took the convicts, took them back to Coal Creek, and put them on a train to Knoxville.

PETER: Before long, the governor had gotten involved. And the convicts were shipped back to Briceville. A few months later it happened again. The miners marched on the stockade and freed the convicts. These struggles became to be known as The Convict Wars.

ED: Historian Karen Shapiro has written about this rebellion. She says that to understand exactly why the miners were so upset you have to know a little bit more about the practice of convict leasing. In the decades after the Civil War, Tennessee’s prison population skyrocketed thanks to a justice system that harshly punished petty crimes by African Americans. The state would not build a prison space to confine all this new convicts, so it came up with an innovative solution. It would rent them out to private companies.

KARIN SHAPIRO: The coal companies leased all of these convicts. And they would pay the state in Tennessee, it so happened to be $100,000 per annum. But the coal companies themselves would become responsible for feeding, housing, and guarding the convicts and transporting them. And this saved the state an enormous amount of money. But it also dampened the ability of working men to negotiate with companies in a reasonable way. Because the convicts, the threat of convict labor, always hung over them, much like a sword of Damocles.

ED: So people imagine this era as being laissez faire, but what you really finding is that the state is intruding by supplying a labor force that undercuts the whole idea of people getting the fruits of their labor.

KARIN SHAPIRO: That’s correct.

ED: So Karen, as you know, the struggle continues for more than a year with a lot of the local people supporting the miners including the local militias. But that changes in August when violent conflict breaks out between the miners and the militia members. Can you take us through how that turns out?

KARIN SHAPIRO: Well a couple of militia men are killed, actually, probably four. At which point, public opinion turns competing against the miners from being conservative and reasonable men, they now become anarchists. They are called anarchists, a society anarchists. And this totally changes the whole framework in which the community, the broader Tennessee community, would view this rebellion. It would later be shown that, probably, some of the militia had killed their own men, and that the other two that had died was killed by their own arms. But nonetheless, the governor calls up the militia and imposes military order on east Tennessee. He can’t quite do that legally, but the man who comes in, he essentially does that. And he runs up hundreds of miners.

ED: So after the public and the governor turned against them, it would seem that the miners have lost. But the state doesn’t want all these headlines all the time about the despicable conditions. So what is the consequence of The Convict Wars?

KARIN SHAPIRO: The convict lease system comes to an end at the end of 1895. You are correct, the governor, the coal corporations, are all fed up with convict lease system. But they don’t want to just end it. And there would be endless bickering in the courts about who was responsible for what between the coal corporations and the governor, and the legislature. But when this contract ends in 1895. The governor and the state does not renew it. And instead they build– it’s on of the ironies of the rebellion, the state builds its own coal mine in Marion County in East Tennessee. It would become known as Brushy Mountain where they would put the convicts to work. They would mine coal, they would produced coke, and they would grow vegetables. And this Brushing Mountain would in fact operate until 1938.

ED: Karen, it really strikes me that, the theme of our show today is fairness, and everybody is claiming the issue of fairness as their own. It’s not so much that this is pure self interest, they’re saying this is a violation of the way that contract is supposed to work. This is a violation of the way that industry is supposed to work. This is a violation of the way that the state’s ownership of its own prisoners is supposed to work. And how do we explain that combination of the constant threat of violence? But they work through the courts and it seems quite decorous on one hand and quite threatening on the other? How do we put those pieces together?

KARIN SHAPIRO: Well I think there are two points to be made here, Ed. The first is that the miners and all of their associates were not looking to destroy the mining industry. They would not pining for a pre-industrial America. They embraced industrialization. And they thought that corporations had a legitimate role to play. But they also believed that the government should not grant any special privileges to monopolous. Because if they did, once convict labor entered into the equation, then the honest relationship between capital and labor would be destroyed.

And so, they root their demands in a conception of themselves as responsible citizens, as man of integrity, and his homeowners.

ED: So Karen, as a native of East Tennessee, I happen to notice that your accent is not exactly that of my native region. How did you happen to become interested in this conflict in the mountains of East Tennessee?

KARIN SHAPIRO: I’m from South Africa, was born and raised in South Africa. And I came to study American labor and the history of race relations in America because of what was happening in South Africa in the 1980s. I turn to history as a way of understanding contemporary South Africa. That was the big reason. I came across this story and I was immediately interested in the questions of industrialization. South Africa, like the American South, industrialized on underpaid, unskilled, labor that was very badly treated. South African in the gold mines, and American South in the coal mines.

I was interested in the questions of decent. In South Africa in the 1980s, many South Africans were trying to overturn the state. Where as here, there were group of men who were saying, we are part of the government, we are part of the state. We are not against the stars and stripes. And so I was trying to understand the limits of political decent in America.


ED: Karin Shapiro a historian at Duke University. You can read more about The Convict Wars in her book, A New South Rebellion: The Battle Against Convict Labor in the Tennessee Coalfields.


PETER: That’s going to do it for us today. But as it always does, the conversation continues online. You can leave a comment at or email us at We are also on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.


BRIAN: BackStory is produced by Tony Field, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Jesse Dukes, Emily Charnock, Jamal Millner, and Andrew Wyndham, and by Jess Engebretson, who we are very sad to say goodbye to this week. For the past two and 1/2 years, Jess has been responsible for many of this program’s finest moments. Her ability to grasp the story from every angle has pushed us to reconsider what we thought we knew. And her incredibly high standards have inspired us all.

ED: Jess, it’s been delightful. We wish you the best of luck and we will miss you dearly.


ED: Major support for BackStory is provided by anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, The National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Weinstein Properties and The History Channel, history made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is Professor of History emeritus at UVA and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


View Resources

Fair Wages Lesson Set

Note to teachers:

While examining tracts from Florence Kelley and Alice Henry, students will have the opportunity to practice historical empathy as they analyze the abhorrent working conditions working class women dealt with during the time period. In addition, they will explore how laws either kept those conditions in place, or how they failed to adequately address the needs of working class women in a complicated tangle of change and consequence. Students may use the political cartoon and images to investigate how race and class united and divided women on the issue of suffrage and protection laws. The Suffragist Movement was by no means a monolithic movement or one rooted in a singular cause. Though some of its results proved to help women, some unintended and unexpected consequences set women, and American workers overall, in a new direction. Together, these sources tie into the Backstory segment, “Equality or Fairness,” which is featured in the episode, “Fair Wages: A History of Getting Paid.”


American Slavery in the 19th Century

This lesson uses the “Slaves for Hire” segment. Submitted by Stephanie Kugler.