The Civil War and Labor History

John Enyeart, an associate professor of history at Bucknell University, teaches his students a very different view of the Civil War and labor history. In his research and lectures, he discusses the Lost Cause Myth the idea that the war wasn't really about slavery, that it was about an honorable people who were trying to maintain their way of life. If poor, white non-slaveholders could no longer consider themselves better than slaves, what did that say about their manhood or honor? When you begin to understand the Lost Cause Myth as turning the war into a story of honor, you start to see why it has become so persistent and pervasive and why it helps those to see the connection between the war and the growth of labor unions fighting for workers rights.

The Civil War was a war over issues of labor and how to use land. Homesteading was a key demand of Northerners and freed slaves. Most Northerners wanted ownership of land. When you start to understand the competing labor systems behind the war, you see why slavery as an economic system was so pernicious and that a slave system undermines the notion of the dignity of work.

Dr. Enyeart explains, "Once you begin to understand the dignity of work, you learn how to examine other economic and political ideologies about labor and workers. Recently, the governors of Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin felt that cutting spending by cutting public employees' wages and dismantling collective bargaining is a good idea. The reality is that those public employees provide services. They provide education and defense. They are our teachers, our military, all of our public servants. By supporting them, we are making investments in protecting our own private property which is essential to the notion of capitalism. These politicians are looking only at spending and deficits. They are not doing cost-benefit analysis. They are just doing the cost analysis and thinking they can save."

The reason we get public services is that we need them. It usually is not out of ideology that they are created. Most of the time it is a reaction to a public crisis, and we try to solve that problem. After the Civil War, workers saw the first eight-hour day laws, the first workers compensation laws, and the first minimum wage laws. Workers were having great success getting these measures passed. Part of it had to do with women having the vote in the West. There were a number of women's unions. These unions had strong influence on workers voting to getting laws passed. Why did that matter for the nation? Because the workers were able to move this labor legislation forward and show that it was not detrimental to economic growth.

You can have economic development but still believe in regulating businesses. Most people accept eight hours as a day's work now. In the 1890s that was not true. Most people, until recently, accepted collective bargaining as a way to avoid strikes. Collective bargaining is considered a human right, as a way to avoid tension and promote peace and for people to have decent wages, work shorter hours and make a good living. Collective bargaining was actually included the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the notion of justice in the world, of being humane.

Reference - http://www.bucknell.edu/x71422.xml

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