Slavery is gone, but wage theft is still alive in America

By John Burbank

This week we celebrated our nation’s 235th birthday. That birth was announced in the Declaration of Independence, which asserted that “… all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

But how about the United States Constitution? It accepted slavery as part of the very fabric of our society. The Constitution allowed “importation” of slaves until 1808, prohibited assisting runaway slaves and required their return to their “owners,” and defined slaves as “three-fifths” of a person. The compromises of the founders reinforced the status of slaves as private property, no more and no less.

Slavery was the building block for plantation economies, in which owners hired overseers to manage, punish and whip slaves in picking cotton, planting tobacco and harvesting rice. It enabled poor whites to see themselves as “better” than black slaves, while creating a feudal economy heavily dependent on credit and the impoverishment of both slaves and white workers.

Absent slavery, the North industrialized, built a network of railroads, and enjoyed great economic growth. It wasn’t all peaches and cream up north. Racism was strong. Blacks were second-class persons. Every day they were punished and discriminated against because of their race. But they were not slaves.

Leading up to the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln returned to the Declaration of Independence in denouncing slavery. The right to life needs no explanation, except that slavery violated this right regularly, with slaves killed by their masters. The right to liberty was the opposite of slavery. But what was the right to the pursuit of happiness? Lincoln explained that meant enjoying the fruit of your own labor. He referred to a black woman in stating that “in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of anyone else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others.”

The Civil War was the consequence of having denied life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to millions of slaves. Lincoln denounced those who siphoned off “a large proportion of the fruits (of labor).” He saw slaves as workers denied the fruits of their labor. Slavery was theft.

Slavery is gone, but how about wage theft? In 1978, average wages were $17.74 an hour. In 2009 they were $18.63. That’s an 89-cent increase in 31 years. Is this because workers are less productive? No, productivity has increased by 10 percent just since the start of this great recession. Has the country’s national income contracted? No, in the past three decades it has increased by more than two-thirds per person. So what happened to wages? In just 30 years, we have allowed income to stampede from the middle class to the very top, so now the top 1 percent grab one quarter of all income. Have they earned this money “with their own hands?” Or is this money “the fruits of someone else’s labor?” A big and growing chunk of this money is unearned income — dividends, capital gains and interest. That is not labor. That is taking away from labor. That is wage theft.

We are the world’s leading jailer. We incarcerate more than 2 million people. In the past 40 years, prison populations in our country have more than quadrupled. This magnitude approaches that of the Soviet Gulag. Most of this increase is for non-violent offenders, especially those caught up in the war on drugs. If you are a black male, your chances of ending up in jail at any one point in time are one in five. The object of prison is not rehabilitation. It is retribution. Your rights as a citizen are taken away. After serving time, regaining your voting rights is impossible in some states, and difficult in others. The old slave states of Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Virginia permanently prohibit voting rights for felons and ex-felons. One out of every seven black males is deprived of the vote.

In considering life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we can celebrate the Civil War’s resounding triumph over slavery. But as President Lincoln said, the Declaration of Independence was “meant to set up a … maxim for free society. … Constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence.”

That is our work, too, as Americans in the second decade of the 21st century.


John Burbank is the executive director and founder of the Economic Opportunity Institute in Seattle. He can be reached at john@eoionline.org.

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