|American Labor in Comparative Perspective
|Digital History ID 3186
In 1905, Werner Sombart, a German social democrat who became
a Nazi party supporter in the 1930s, asked why the American working
class--unlike the workers in every other industrialized country--never
produced a genuinely mass-based political party of its own. In
Europe, the working class created Labor, Social Democratic, and
Socialist parties with massive popular support; in sharp contrast,
American workers threw their support to the Democratic and Republican
Parties, which were broad-based coalitions that included business,
middle-class, and labor interests.
Sombart's explanation was that the political and economic
position of the American working class made it much more conservative
than its European counterpart. In contrast to Europe, where the
working class had to struggle to win the vote, universal manhood
suffrage was the practice in the United States. Further, American
workers, Sombart insisted, enjoyed a much higher standard of
living than their European counterpart and had a much greater
chance to rise into the middle class.
Sombart overestimated the economic well being of the American
working class. While the average income of industrial workers
in the United States were indeed higher than in Europe, between
1860 and 1913, working-class wages, adjusted for inflation, rose
more slowly than in Britain, France, Germany, or Sweden. In addition,
the American economy between the Civil War and World War I was
even more subject to boom and bust cycles than the economies
of other industrial countries.
During the late 19th century,
the average American worker was jobless for three or four months
a year due to illness, inclement weather, or seasonal unemployment.
In the late 19th century, the average income of an urban
worker was only about $400 or $500 a year, a sum insufficient
to support a family. The remainder was made up by wives and especially
by older children. Children under the age of 16 contributed about
20 percent of the income. These children worked not because their
parents were heartless, but because their earnings were absolutely
essential for their family's well-being.
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