The History Of Slavery Is Embedded In The Modern-Day American Workforce
Here's a timely reminder for Black folks to enjoy their day off this Labor Day.
September 02, 2022 at 5:40 pm
Labor Day was designed to honor the American Labor Movement which pushed for better labor laws and outcomes for American workers. It started as a state holiday in Oregon in 1887 and became federally recognized on June 28, 1894. As some history books will teach you, the ancestors weren’t exactly a part of this movement per se, since the Civil Rights Movement that gave way for some equality laws to take shape didn’t happen until eight decades later.
Turns out, that some of the harsh labor conditions American workers endured were likely a direct result of slavery. Unfortunately, correlations between the workforce and American slavery remain today.
As millions of Americans prepare to enjoy a much-needed day off, Blavity sat down with historian Jason Perkins, Ph.D., to explore the similarities between America’s modern-day workforce and its racist past.
Parallels between slaveholders and modern capitalists
American slavery was rooted in capitalism as are current industry trends.
“Making these connections also allows us to continually understand contemporary systems, whether it be economic, social or cultural systems and structures that continue to impact and devalue Black life,” Perkins told Blavity.
The goal of most businesses is to make money by spending the least amount of money, so while the workforce may not have enslaved people or indentured servitude in the modern era, the principles of early American capitalism remain present, Perkins said.
The systems of employee operations may have been inspired by slavery
To understand how some employee operations came into play, Perkins points to communication between southern plantation owners and northern factory leaders.
“If we’re looking at slavery in the South versus manufacturing and industrialists in the North, you have two similar yet different types of systems of control,” Perkins said. “What you did have pretty frequently is southern enslavers and northern industrial manufacturers in frequent conversation, so there’s a lot of cross-pollination taking place between the two.”
Perkins said things like record books, ledgers and things of that nature have a heavy slavery influence.
“Southern enslavers kept diligent, extensive, exhaustive records,” Perkins said. “And, in fact, if you compare many of those plantations to a lot of the factories and manufacturing centers outside of the South, that record keeping, what would become known as scientific management in the 1880s and the late 19th century, was much more advanced comparatively speaking in the South than it was in the North.”
Perkins said things like rewards and punishments, similar to today’s raises and performance improvement plans, were also developed during this time.
“Both groups of people shared different notes in terms of, ‘OK, how do I set up these contingencies, first of all, how do I observe what’s going on, gather data, put in a particular structure or process, maybe establish or implement certain contingencies rewards, punishments and the like, so I could maximize labor and maximize profit,’ both groups shared play notes from each other.”
Asset management is a remnant of American slavery
Depreciation and appreciation of assets are yet other remnants of American slavery.
“There are all these different kinds of similarities from even the way we think about something like appreciation or depreciation,” Perkins said. “There was this elaborate system of preformatted standardized ledgers, so you can list everything that you needed as a cotton planter or sugar enslaver.”
Perkins said these plantation owners would list every single variable of an enslaved person — their age, height, weight, skills, talents, history of illness, temperaments, physical scars, reproductive abilities and more.
“This is how an enslaved person’s value would be appreciated,” Perkins said. “Or conversely, if you had a history of resistance, flight, if you had a particular illness, tuberculosis, or whatever the case may be, that could lead to you being ascribed depreciating value. And it really kind of gets at one of the cores of the institution of slavery, just in terms of this idea of commodifying Black bodies.”
While this type of value system, which included high levels of physical violence, seems more extreme than what we see in today’s workforce, similar contingencies unfortunately still affect American laborers.
“Sometimes the threat of violence is as effective, if not even more effective than the actual use of violence,” Perkins said pointing to today’s mental tactics used by modern-day capitalists, such as threats of termination or demerit systems.
Manager training was a big idea of plantation owners
While Perkins noted that it’s difficult to trace the origin points of modern management practices, he said that plantation owners practiced a similar style of management training that is seen today.
“It’s kind of complex, but if we’re talking about more modern management tactics, modern contemporary business practices, we can trace back to plantations and note that these particular business practices, these managerial techniques, you can trace them back to slavery,” he said. “And, they’re eerily similar to what we see today.”
He pointed to Caitlin Rosenthal’s book, Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management, in which she detailed how plantations held complex structures of hierarchy in terms of management.
“She notes the similarity between the hierarchy of those plantations and the complex hierarchies that you would see today in a multi-divisional U.S. company,” Perkins said.
Perkins said the way managers are trained can be traced back to slavery.
“You can trace this back to plantations where the idea of sending people to different places to learn business practices, more specifically to learn managerial techniques,” he said. “So you would have these absentee land, these absentee plantation owners in England, who would send their sons to the Caribbean to learn how to run a plantation, to learn how to manage a plantation.”
Enjoy your day off
Labor Day came after two major events in the labor movement; one a celebration and the other a fiery tragedy. All while primary workers were going on strike and demanding protections, Black laborers were often faced with the unfortunate choice of becoming strike breakers in an effort to earn money at a time when wages remained incredibly low for Black Americans. In a sense, Perkins said, Black laborers did not benefit much from the labor movement, but they were still a huge part of the history of how things all came about.
The fight for more just employment laws continues today.
“I think Labor Day is an opportunity to commemorate that long history but also learn from that history and take lessons from the past and be able to apply it to what we are facing today in terms of worker’ rights, workers’ protections and just kind of general labor struggles,” Perkins said. “Look at what’s transpiring now and you see people of different races, but particularly working-class folk, Black, brown and others, really ratcheting up their activities around labor, around working conditions, better pay and all of these different things.”
Perkins likened Black people’s celebration of Labor Day to Juneteenth.
“I think Labor Day, in this respect, similar to Juneteenth where the purpose of the holiday is kind of some of the earliest iterations of it, African Americans got together and they were able to learn of the past, particularly the history of slavery, and then take those stories and use them as a lesson but also as an inspiration for the future,” he said. “I think African Americans can do the same thing with Labor Day.”