by Karyn Pomerantz
The Unity of “Free” and Enslaved Workers during the Civil War Period
(From Labor, free and slave by Bernard Mandel, 2nd ed, Chicago: U of Illinois Press, 2007
Labor, Free and Slave by Bernard Mandel explores the effects of slavery on white workers. It describes how white workers (“free labor”) responded to slavery and the abolition movement. It holds many lessons we can apply to today’s movements against police brutality and xenophobia.
Slavery destroyed the freedom and lives of black workers, and enriched the pockets of Southern landowners and Northern industrialists in the textile and shipbuilding businesses.
It also had debilitating effects on white workers in the North and South. It depressed their wages and standard of living as employers kept wages down for white “free” workers by threatening to replace them with enslaved people. As long as there was such a large pool of unpaid workers, businessmen did not have to increase wages, shorten working hours, and eliminate child labor that unions demanded.
White workers in the South organized labor struggles to improve working conditions and pay. A major campaign focused on a 10 hour work day. When white bricklayers organized in Louisville, their bosses just replaced them with black enslaved workers who were skilled bricklayers. When there were no trained black workers, the bosses were more likely to grant some concessions. The stonecutters won the shorter work day since there were no black workers who filled these positions.
Wages were also tied to the cost of using enslaved people, similar to the situation when bosses employ cheap laborers in the prisons or overseas factories today. If the slave owners could use unpaid workers, then they didn’t need to pay whites more. Many industries trained enslaved men to work in the trades, like construction, so they didn’t have to pay others for the work. The state of Louisiana saved $80,000 using slave labor to build levees, canals, and roads. A cotton mill administrator calculated that slave labor was 30 percent cheaper than “free” labor.
In 1847, the iron industry paid white workers $300 a year but southern bosses could use enslaved labor at $120 per year. Thousands of factory and mill workers in 1858 lost jobs while enslaved labor in Tennessee produced goods to sell in northern markets.
Slave labor also had other benefits. While white workers could organize unions and strikes, slavery outlawed and punished any labor organizing or resistance from black workers. The bosses had much more control and stability over their labor force as well as a consistent supply of workers who didn’t require as much money to employ.
The bosses also scammed many white workers with notions of superiority. Yet they treated them as disposable labor by breaking their strikes, maintaining low wages, and keeping them unemployed.
White workers could blame slavery and the capitalists for their unemployment and poverty. Or they could turn their rage and frustrations against enslaved people, just as many workers in the US blame immigrants for “stealing” their jobs.
How did unions and white workers respond? Did they recognize a common enemy and act in their own self-interests against slavery or did they turn against black workers? How did the abolition movement treat the working class in the North? Mandel’s Labor, Free and Slave describes these conflicts and opportunities for unity.
White workers before the Civil War responded in various ways. Many recognized how slavery robbed them of their economic security. As the US expanded into the Western territories, the conflicts over slavery intensified. Would Texas, Kansas, Missouri and other areas allow slave labor? White workers rallied against slavery, knowing it would replace their opportunities for work. Even without slavery in some of these states, black and white “free” workers competed for jobs. Immigration rates increased during this time as well with Irish and German workers filling northern cities, creating more competition for jobs.
Violence against black workers intensified as white mobs destroyed black homes and killed residents. Business backed vigilante squads also attacked abolitionists and white labor leaders who called for emancipation. Progressive labor leaders called on workers to support freedom and economic security for all workers, black and white.
The “factory girls” of New England mobilized for abolition. Whittier’s poem, “The Yankee Girl,” expresses their solidarity when the slave owner demanded their acceptance of slavery:
… Full low at thy bidding the Negroes may kneel,
With the iron of bondage on spirit and heel,
Yet know that the Yankee girl sooner would be,
In fetters with them than in freedom with thee.”
As policies like the Dred Scott Decision and the Fugitive Slave Act ensured the continuation of slavery outside of the southern states, more white workers in the north organized against slavery and expressed solidarity with black labor as a way to secure justice for all workers. German immigrants, often socialists, helped lead this movement. Progressive labor publishers wrote pamphlets for workers calling for multi-racial unity:
“Let us free their slaves… Nothing short of this can make this Nation a Union. Let this be done and the downtrodden white people of the south will soon feel deliverance and shout for joy. The welfare of the nation demands the abolition of the slaveholding power … unite.
After the Civil War, the struggle for unity continued. Black workers created the Negro Labor Union that led struggles for jobs, wages, working conditions. They organized a series of strikes of longshoremen in the South. In 1869, they formed the National Colored Labor Union that demanded economic improvements, equal legal treatment, education, and homesteads.
The National Labor Union, established in 1866, invited black unionists to join and send representatives to its convention. Its leadership affirmed the equality of all workers but decades of prejudice and competition between white and black labor still necessitated separate black labor organizations to fight against the super exploitation of black workers.
This effort continues today.