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Free Laborers, Unions and Convict Labor

By the end of the nineteenth century, industrialization had fundamentally and permanently shifted the economics and politics of labor. New machines and faster methods eliminated some of the most labor-intensive agricultural and industrial jobs, while creating new semi- to highly skilled jobs in dense, often urban workplaces. These efficiencies brought in more profits that allowed company owners to re-invest in more machines, more factories, or more people, or to use for their own wealth.

When larger panics or small seasonal fluctuations in demand occurred, owners (unable to decrease the sunk costs of machinery) often tried to decrease wages. But densely packed factories or mines full of workers were not easily persuaded to take less money for the same work. When workers began to organize to protest wage decreases, long hours, or unsafe working conditions, these industrialists could either meet worker’s demands or hire new workers, called scabs by the strikers.

In the South, industrialists had a third choice: hire convict laborers. Unable to quit or strike, and not paid for their work, convict laborers were forced to accept whatever the working conditions were in the places where they were leased. In some companies, free and convict laborers worked side-by-side. Convict labor was always reliable, and that made it attractive to employers. As the competition for convict laborers increased, the wages for convict and free labor nearly equalized. In convict-leasing areas, unions were less powerful as convict labor strikebreakers were always available and cheap.

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