Prior to the 19th century, agriculture dominated the economy of the United States. Workers made up a small part of the laboring popula­tion, most of them artisans working in a household. With the mecha­nization and industrialization of production in the 1830s and 40s, workers left their employers' household and became wage laborers.

WorkersLongshoremen “shape-up” for a day’s work on the docks, painting by James Grosso, 1955.
Industrial workers lacked control over the workplace and often worked 12 hours or more a day. A laissez-faire economy meant that the market controlled working conditions and wages, a sys­tem that contributed to more than 3,000 deaths in the coal mines in 1907. Outrage at these conditions led Progressive era reforms to regulate conditions in the workplace, while workers struggled to organize unions to fight for better wages, safety and working conditions.

Still, health and safety problems remain common. Although deaths in coal mining accidents have dropped to double digits in the 21st century, the recent disaster and deaths at the Upper Big Branch Mine and Massey Energy's falsification of safety records show the dangers that still exist.

The assembly line popularized in Ford's auto factories was dehumanizing. In the 1930s and 1940s, workers at Ford and the other automobile corporations successfully organized the United Auto Workers. Wages, benefits and safety improved greatly, but the union did not eliminate the numbing effect of the assembly line. Phil Staller, a Ford spot-welder, told Studs Terkel in "Working" that he "didn't understand how come more guys don't flip. Because you're nothing more than a machine when you hit this type of thing." As a member of the United Auto Workers in the 1970s, he earned "real good money," but his work created great stress and he found little joy in it.

One of the fastest growing sectors of the economy today is retail, but it mostly offers low wages and few benefits. The social critic Barbara Ehrenreich in her book "Nickel and Dimed" described the stress of her work in Wal-Mart, folding and hanging clothes tried on by customers in the women's department. Paid only $7 an hour, she found the work frustrating and demoralizing, quitting when her wages were too low to pay her rent in a run-down motel. While the U.S. economy creates enormous amounts of wealth, too often the benefits do not accrue to those who do the work.

WorkersWomen march in the May Day Parade, New York City, 1910. WorkersWomen welders on the way to work at the Todd Shipyards dry dock in Brooklyn, c. 1943.