David Henderson offers some excerpts from Stanley Lebergott’s article, “Wages and Working Conditions,” for The Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics, now the 1st edition ofThe Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. They seem especially relevant for Labor Day:
Surely the single most fundamental working condition is the chance of death on the job. In every society workers are killed or injured in the process of production. While occupational deaths are comparatively rare overall in the United States today, they still occur with some regularity in ocean fishing, the construction of giant bridges and skyscrapers, and a few other activities.
For all United States workers the number of fatalities per dollar of real (inflation‐adjusted) GNP dropped by 96 percent between 1900 and 1979. Back in 1900 half of all worker deaths occurred in two industries–coal mining and railroading. But between 1900 and 1979 fatality rates per ton of coal mined and per ton‐mile of freight carried fell by 97 percent.
This spectacular change in worker safety resulted from a combination of forces that include safer production technologies, union demands, improved medical procedures and antibiotics, workmen’s compensation laws, and litigation. Ranking the individual importance of these factors is difficult and probably would mean little. Together, they reflected a growing conviction on the part of the American people that the economy was productive enough to afford such change. What’s more, the United States made far more progress in the workplace than it did in the hospital. Even though inflation‐adjusted medical expenditures tripled from 1950 to 1970 and increased by 74 percent from 1975 to 1988, the nation’s death rate declined in neither period. But industry succeeded in lowering its death rate, both by spending to improve health on the job and by discovering, developing, and adopting ways to save lives.
And how about women?
By 1981 (the latest date available), women’s kitchen work had been cut about twenty hours a week, according to national time‐budget studies from Michigan’s Institute of Survey Research. That reduction came about because families bought more restaurant meals, more canned, frozen, and prepared foods, and acquired an arsenal of electric appliances. Women also spent fewer hours washing and ironing clothes and cleaning house. Fewer hours of work in the home had little impact on women’s labor force participation rate until the great increase after 1950.
And, on real wages:
By 1980 real earnings of American nonfarm workers were about four times as great as in 1900. Government taxes took away an increasing share of the worker’s paycheck. What remained, however, helped transform the American standard of living. In 1900 only a handful earned enough to enjoy such expensive luxuries as piped water, hot water, indoor toilets, electricity, and separate rooms for each child. But by 1990 workers’ earnings had made such items commonplace. Moreover, most Americans now have radios, TVs, automobiles, and medical care that no millionaire in 1900 could possibly have obtained.
And why was there so much progress in real wages and working conditions?
The fundamental cause of this increase in the standard of living was the increase in productivity. What caused that increase? The tremendous changes in Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore since World War II demonstrate how tenuous is the connection between productivity and such factors as sitting in classrooms, natural resources, previous history, or racial origins. Increased productivity depends more on national attitudes and on free markets, in the United States as in Hong Kong and Singapore.
Output per hour worked in the United States, which already led the world in 1900, tripled from 1900 to 1990. Companies competed away much of that cost savings via lower prices, thus benefiting consumers. (Nearly all of these consumers, of course, were in workers’ families.) Workers also benefited directly from higher wages on the job.