Freedom of contract, the essence of freedom as applied to the economic realm, was a cardinal ideological value of 19th-century classical liberalism, and it was consistently articulated in labor-capital struggles.
Maine workers quickly discovered what such freedom meant. It meant they were free to work in multistory buildings that lacked fire escapes, buildings in which doors were locked, or provided no places to sit or change clothing. It meant workers were free to work in mills, shops and factories where the ventilation was so poor that the cry for fresh air could be heard with monotonous regularity. (Some employers prohibited workers from opening the windows.) Their freedom extended to the use of unsanitary toilet facilities, if available, that failed to segregate the sexes.
Yes, they were free. They were free to work for employers who required them to sign “iron-clad” contracts in which, as a condition of employment, they agreed not to join in collective action. They were free to work for employers who fined them for accidental damage to materials and products, experiencing a fainting spell at work, failing to immediately return to work following a family funeral, being late or absent from work, for “misconduct” or “whatever cause.” And yes, they could be fined for going out on strike or if they read a labor newspaper.
They also were free to trade at the “company store,” a ubiquitous institution, and attend church as conditions of employment. They were free to work on condition that they paid foremen for the privilege of doing so or paid for their own working materials such as tacks, pegs or needles. This boundless freedom extended to competition with prison labor and observing their children — “tiny hostages” of “rapacious capitalism” — at labor and sometimes whipped into obedience.
Maine workers were blessed with the freedom to labor in workplaces where they were ensnared by belting, torn by circular saws, scalded by escaping steam, dismembered by premature explosions of dynamite, fell to their death from staging or into elevator shafts or quarries, and otherwise suffered from wounds inflicted upon them by a modern industrial climate. They were free to sign contracts that exempted their employers from any liability for injuries sustained by workers in an increasingly dangerous workplace. Clearly, this species of economic freedom meant that profit was made at the expense of worker health and safety.
It appeared that this freedom knew no limit. Workers were free to work for employers who might dictate how they should vote. (Maine had no secret ballot until 1891.) Workers were always free, of course, to work for employers who arbitrarily dismissed them from work or evicted them from company housing because they expressed a grievance. They also were free to work for employers who might not smile upon them if they attended a legislative session to offer testimony against working conditions or who were compelled to sign legislative petitions in round robin so that protest leaders could not be identified. Their freedom permitted them to work for employers for whom the civil right of freedom of association did not apply to the association of workers into unions and for employers who supported conspiracy laws that hobbled their efforts to do so.
Yes, workers were free. They were free to work for employers who arbitrarily demanded compliance to work rules, for the failure to do so meant the loss of one’s livelihood. Increasingly, workers and a mosaic of reformers viewed the arbitrary and capricious actions of employers to be as much a threat to meaningful freedom as any unrestrained government. They noted that all the rules of life were not made by governments and that an unbridled and exaggerated view of freedom of contract served as a euphemism to veil exploitation of workers, provided a justification for a limited government, the uneven distribution of wealth and the hegemony of private power.
Understandably, the Labor Day celebrants of 1891 would not recognize a world of information and communication revolutions, artificial intelligence and robotics, global corporations, global markets, and global “hiring halls.” Labor Day, however, still signifies the dignity and value of labor and serves as a reminder that workers are more than units of energy or impersonal costs of production or simply necessary appendages to business and governmental operations.
Perhaps Labor Day needs to be reconnected to its spiritual moorings.
Charles Scontras is a historian and research associate at the Bureau of Labor Education at the University of Maine in Orono. He lives in Cape Elizabeth.