#Antiwork Isn’t New – Exploring its 19th Century Roots

By Rachel Puryear

You may have noticed a popular subreddit trending lately, #antiwork. It seems fairly self-explanatory – their motto is “Unemployment for all, not just the rich!”

It should be noted, however, that many #antiwork subredditors do actually work (out of necessity, at the very least). However, they do call for better pay, better working conditions, and better work-life balance.

The group – as well as those sympathetic to its general sentiments – has grown considerably since the pandemic. In the age of mass resignations, workers have gained considerably more leverage compared with employers.

Many look at this phenomenon and scoff, muttering something about “entitled millennials” and “no one wants to work anymore”.

However, #antiwork is nothing new. Rather, it’s a contemporary incarnation of something that goes back much further – back to at least the 19th century. So, let’s explore the long and fascinating history preceding the modern #antiwork movement.

#Antiwork subreddit logo.

Labor organizers of the 19th century didn’t have Reddit at their disposal, but if they had, #Antiwork would have likely been popular amongst them.

The Right to Rest and Leisure

Going back almost two hundred years, workers in the industrializing/ed world have fought hard for a shorter workday. Early laws limiting work hours referred to such as the right to rest and leisure. Today, we refer to such as “work-life balance”, but the concept is similar.

During the 19th century, it was quite common for working class laborers to log workdays upwards of twelve hours, and workweeks in excess of eighty or even one hundred hours. And this was doing hard physical labor! Such long working hours cannot allow much time at all to sleep and run a household; let alone to enjoy time with loved ones, or pursue hobbies.

The late 19th and early 20th century #antiwork fight was in the form of a reduced workday – of no more than eight hours per day. The idea behind this was eight hours for working, eight hours for recreation, and eight hours for rest. This way, the working class had some rest and leisure time, too; rather than rest and leisure remaining a privilege reserved for the wealthier classes.

In the U.S., the fight for shorter workdays began to pay off shortly after the American Civil War; when Illinois became the first state in the U.S. to adopt the eight-hour workday as standard, in 1867. Congress extended the eight-hour workday protection to federal workers in 1868, and then-President Ulysses Grant issued the National Eight Hour Law Proclamation in 1869. During the 1870s, workers in New York City won an eight-hour day by striking. In 1912, soon-to-be-President Teddy Roosevelt’s platform included an eight-hour workday, considered progressive at that time. In 1914, Ford Motor Company increased worker pay and cut shifts from nine hours to eight – and saw a large increase in productivity and profit margins in the years following this move, prompting rival companies to also follow suit. It would not be until the WW2 era, however, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act into law in 1938 – thereby requiring (most) employers to pay overtime for hours worked in excess of forty hours in one week.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – accepted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 – stated that, “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.” The UDHR put an obligation on states and nations to ensure all rights within the UDHR, which included the right to rest and leisure.

How states carry out this mandate is left to a wide degree of interpretation. However, they have a general duty to protect citizens from overwork, and to protect their right to enjoy their rest and leisure during periods of non-work (such as, for possible examples, requiring breaks to be free of duties, guaranteeing paid leave, or restricting situations where workers are on call outside normal working hours).

The Argument Over the Term “Wage Slavery”

The notion of “wage slavery” goes back to ancient times, having been espoused by various influencers of different ages. It refers to the economic necessity for the laborer classes of working (often with little bargaining power) in exchange for income to live on. The idea is that because working is required for people of laborer classes in order to obtain life necessities, that the worker in such a situation is inherently unfree.

In the U.S., during abolitionist movements, defenders of slavery claimed that slaves were better off than wage workers; and that if freed, slaves would therefore become worse off, as they would need to become wage workers and accept the insecurity of such.

Abolitionists denounced such claims, and noted how self-serving they were, given that they usually came from people who wanted to keep the slaves they had.

Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist as well as a former slave, was initially among those who denounced the term “wage slavery”; making the notable distinction that a worker taking a job was their own master, whereas a slave unwillingly had a master forced upon them.

Interestingly, though, Douglass would eventually recant his position on this matter, at least to some in extent – later in his life saying, “experience demonstrates that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other.”

Of course, it’s important to note that the context in which Douglass made these later remarks was a 19th century working class job market; where many freed slaves and others of the laborer classes, and generations of their descendants; ended up in sharecropping, and other labor scenarios subject to frequent exploitation where the workers remained impoverished without reasonable opportunities to move up. They had little to no bargaining power, and no social safety nets to turn to if work life became intolerable. That same scenario does not normally apply to many U.S. workers today.

Nevertheless, even though we have indeed come a long way from the beginnings of the industrial labor movement; that does not mean that there is not still important work to be done in modern times. The relatively poor and oppressive conditions that people in earlier ages endured is not a reason for workers today to simply suck it up because previous generations had it worse – rather, it’s a warning to people today to never let us go back to that dreadful past.

It is incumbent upon anyone who today values fair labor, and reasonable opportunities for social and economic mobility, however; to continue the work of our earlier forebears, and build upon it.

Labor Unions, and Social Mobility Nowadays

By the mid-twentieth century, labor unions were enabling regular workers to have a life where they could provide well for their families, afford homes, and have a chance at upward mobility.

Decades later, however, such progress is eroding at an alarming rate – wages have stagnated, student debt soars, homes are unaffordable to either buy or to rent for a great many, and many employees are expected to constantly remain on call due to current technology.

For black families, the racial wealth gap has increased drastically following the 2008 foreclosure crisis in which black homeowners were disproportionately affected – and the wealth gap places black families at a big disadvantage in giving their children upward mobility, in addition to having fewer resources in the present.

Labor unions are also much less common nowadays than they used to be. Far fewer workers belong to labor unions, and they are declining significantly in their power and influence. Labor unions did, for a long time, help balance the power scales between the capital-owning upper classes profiting from labor, and the laborers who had little bargaining power or influence individually.

It’s no coincidence that the state of labor in this country has gone down significantly along with the influence of labor unions. Bringing back labor unions could be a great step in the right direction, though that will take time and resources and collective efforts; in an age where unions are much less favored politically than they used to be, and politics generally is quite antagonistic and gridlocked at this time.

In the meantime, however, there is still the problem of unequal bargaining power between workers and job seekers who need income on the one hand, and employers – particularly larger companies whose owners are of the class which owns most of the income-producing capital in this country – who need to hire workers, on the other hand.

This unequal bargaining power is essential to keeping wages down and stagnant, eroding worker rights and protections, and enabling manager stinginess about offering flexible working arrangements even where flexibility is feasible – such as flexibility in working hours, working remotely, and so forth.

This inequality in bargaining power is where the #antiwork movement comes in. Workers quitting en masse over pay that’s too low, working hours that are needlessly long, abusive managers and harassment that goes unchecked and other poor and toxic working conditions, an unnecessary lack of flexibility around working hours and/or remote work; helps to level the playing field.

Most workers aren’t quitting their jobs, but most don’t need to, either. If enough workers quit because of deep dissatisfaction with their work situations, that changes the market for employers more broadly, too.

It should also be noted, as an important condition precedent; that between getting unusually generous employment benefits due to the pandemic, stimulus checks, and sometimes other assistance as well; many people are in a much stronger position to quit a job they hate than they were before the pandemic. Again, this is not an argument against such benefits – in fact, it attests to how much more empowered people are to demand better things in life, when they aren’t constantly on the margins.

Is There More To It Than Job Dissatisfaction?

Actually, I think there is. For many, #antiwork is about the above-referenced points. But for many, it’s not necessarily about hating their jobs, or feeling mistreated by their employer – in fact, there are many great managers and employers, and great opportunities to be had out there, as well; they’re just far from universal, unfortunately.

In any event, though, for some people; they simply want a different way of life entirely. They don’t want to do hustle culture anymore. They are tired of their life constantly revolving around their work, and to the exclusion of much else. To be very clear, I’m not talking about not wanting to work at all – but rather, to make work a means to an end for earning a living, while also allowing more room in life for rest and leisure.

Our time on this planet is limited and finite. Life is unpredictable. If we don’t take time for our families, friends, hobbies, interests, goals, dreams, taking care of ourselves, and more; life can easily pass us by. There’s much more to life than toiling away day after day in the same, dreary, few square feet of office space.

(Ok – the above doesn’t apply to every job, but it does to a lot of the ones people are quitting.)

The pandemic probably made people realize again just how short and fleeting life really is. They saw people pass away who had never had a chance to realize their dreams, but thought they would. Of course, that’s always happened to a lot of people, regardless, sadly – but the death toll from the pandemic meant that so many more people than usual were seeing such tragedy at the same time.

In any event, #antiwork and its long history do show us that fair labor, along with other human rights, is a subject to be addressed by each generation. This generation’s answer to that call is largely encapsulated in #antiwork.

Thank you, dear readers, for reading, following, and sharing. Here’s to work-life balance, flexibility, fair pay and working conditions, and fair opportunities.

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