Lawrence B. Glickman. A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society. Cornell University Press, 1999.

Glickman argues that the development of the “notion of the living wage” allowed working people to intellectually resolve the contradiction between wage labor and such components of republicn ideology as independence and freedom. This consumerist turn in working-class thought was not a product of bourgeois hegemony as workers played an active role in the construction of American consumer society.  He intervenes in the notion that “ an abandonment of labor’s oppositional tradition” was antithetical to working-class consumerism. Working people recognized the market as a human construction which they could shape for their own benefit and the struggle to receive a living wage expresses the transformation of nineteenth-century into the consumerist common ground of the New Deal order. In his eyes, consumerism’s triumph is really a democratic triumph as consumerism wins because the people want it.


During the nineteenth-century workers aspired to become independent producers. They believed that a lifetime spent working for wages was nothing more than wage slavery since wages never returned all value to producers and thus could only represent systemic injustice. This belief was gendered and was inscribed in “prostitution narratives” that drew explicit connections between the “wages of sin and the sing of wages.” Because male wage slaves were too poorly paid to provide adequate sustenance for women, women were driven into more poorly paid work that in turn left them vulnerable to the temptation of prostitution. There was also a racial component as well. Wage labor itself was degrading as it was inconsistent with their conceptions of themselves as white, as productive artisans.

However, a subtitle shift was underway in workers’ thinking by the late nineteenth century: the rise of the consumerist living wage discourse. A wide range of working-class thinkers, led by Ira Steward, brought about a “Copernican Revolution” in labor ideology. With that revolution slavery became a synonym not for wage earning itself as it had in the past, but for low or inadequate wages. Rather than view the end of resistance to wage labor as a defeat at the hands of capitalists, Glickman tries to show that in the emerging movement for a living wage a significant proportion of organized working-class men worked to transform the meaning of wage labor in ways that were consistent with their conceptions of themselves as free white workers living in a republic. By the 1870s, the American Federation of Labor members came to demand what they called a “living wage” as essential to their own salvation and the preservation of the republic.


What the “living wage” meant was increasingly in flux. AFL leader Samuel Gompers demanded “more” when asked what “workers wanted to live by” and John Mitchell, the leader of the United Mine Workers, thought the American standard of living in 1898 should include a six-room house with indoor plumbing, a separate parlor, a dining room, multiple bedrooms, and a library.

This class-conscious consumerist vision from the working-class was ultimately coopted by the middle-class in the twentieth century. By then, the activism that had fueled workers’ demands for a living wage had been replaced by social policy initiatives that focused only on the much less visionary notion of the minimum wage.