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Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century
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Book description

This book presents a fundamental reassessment of the nature of wage labor in the nineteenth century, focusing on the common use of penal sanctions in England to enforce wage labor agreements. Professor Steinfeld argues that wage workers were not employees at will but were often bound to their employment by enforceable labor agreements, which employers used whenever available to manage their labor costs and supply. In the northern United States, where employers normally could not use penal sanctions, the common law made other contract remedies available, also placing employers in a position to enforce labor agreements. Modern free wage labor only came into being late in the nineteenth century, as a result of reform legislation that restricted the contract remedies employers could legally use.

Reviews

‘With his comprehensive histories of ‘free’ labour, Professor Robert J. Steinfeld … unsettles the economistic equation of the market economy as a self-regulating system with individual autonomy of its citizens.’

Source: Scandinavian Economic History Review

‘Much of this book is about English legal history, in the sense that it discusses the shifting views of courts about the contractual powers of employers and workers, and the arguments by which legislation was introduced and chanted … A fascinating account is given of the shift that occurred during the mid-nineteenth century from long term contracts enforced by criminal penalties to open-ended ‘minute’ contracts with agreed periods of notice … The important message today of this persuasive study is that the weakening of trade unions, and the revival of the myths of labour flexibility, may lead to the erosion of the freedom of employment contracts.’

Source: Labour History Review

‘A fascinating account is given of the shift that occurred during the mid- nineteenth century from long-term contracts enforced by criminal penalties to open-ended minute’ contracts with agreed periods of notice … The important message today of this persuasive study is that the weakening of trade unions, and the revival of the myths of labour flexibility, may lead to the erosion of the freedom of employment contracts.’

Source: Labour History Review

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