Recently a zealot for the status quo assured me that American history is saturated with the exploitation of labor. This puzzles me. How exactly can one "exploit" an employee? - and will there be any such thing after government, allegedly the great protector of the poor and oppressed, has evaporated? In any case, is the assertion true?
Clearly, slavery was an immoral institution, and if that's what "exploitation of labor" is about, then the zealot had a point. But she had in mind a somewhat later period too.
So I checked what "exploit" means, and was surprised. The definition of the word is "to use selfishly for one's own ends" but that seems feeble to me. Does anyone "use" anything or anyone for any purpose other than his own ends? - I don't think so. And in that case, to "exploit" means the same as to "use." It's a rather surplus word, and has no special moral content. To assert that a company exploits its workers is to say it uses them, to achieve its business purposes. So what? Why else would it hire anyone?
In fact, the employees of such a company are using the company for their own selfish ends - namely, to earn a living; so they are "exploiting" the firm. And again, nothing is wrong about it.
The first finding, therefore, is that the word is often being used to convey a meaning it does not have. Exploiting people is implied to be shocking, but it's not, it's a neutral thing. To assert that historically, American big business has exploited labor is perfectly true but also perfectly amoral; it means that each party made use of the other, for mutual gain. The assertion is a truism; it cannot be other than true, but no indignation should be aroused.
Indignation should, however, be aroused by the example of slavery, so now we need to ask why, exactly. That, too, was a case of use or exploitation of labor, so what's different? - the difference is that the worker (the slave) was not using or exploiting his boss. Why not? - because his power of choice, integral to the nature of rational human beings, was explicitly denied. He was not making an arms-length, voluntary contract with an employer. If he did not like the terms of the offer, he was forcibly prevented from walking away from the deal; there was no "deal". That's the essence of slavery: a denial of choice.
Now take the case of Henry Ford, often considered an egregious example of worker exploitation in US history. He was notorious for refusing to allow his staff to unionize, almost all of his life; there were strikes around his auto plants, and violence in which the police declined to intervene. What was unfair or immoral about Ford's use of his laborers?
From his entry in Wikipedia, I can't see much. He's best known for exploiting (using!) the assembly line technique for producing automobiles, so making them affordable to millions of Americans and improving the quality of life for all. He depended of course on having large numbers of employees to work on those lines, and such work is far from congenial and staff turnover was very high. His fix was to double the normal wage rate! In one extraordinary stroke this slashed that costly turnover rate, drew the best workers to Ford from all his nearby competitors, de-fused the discontent that was making Ford ripe for unionization, and put more money into the hands of potential customers for his cars. He was one smart cookie.
Is it immoral or unfair to double wages? - hardly.
Subsequent to that 1914 change, trade unions continued to try to invade Ford plants, but the high wages denied them most of their advantage. It took thirty years of strife, violence and government backing before they succeeded, and only then because Henry's health and vigor were declining - and today, Detroit is a ghost town because they won, and drove wages so high as to make US cars uncompetitive on the world market. The unfair or immoral use of workers there was not by Henry Ford, but by the UAW and the force of government laws exempting them from suits for breach of contract, on which it relied.
So much for history. What of the future, after government has evaporated?
That will happen only after everyone has been sufficiently re-educated to resign any and all government jobs held, so everyone will understand that responsibility for earning their own living rests entirely upon them. There will be no third party to any job negotiations, no force majeur to over-rule the wishes of either hirer or helper.
Companies big and small will compete for help (labor) with whatever attracts the qualities sought, perhaps by offering benefits in kind rather than cash, but not I think very often; for all those bennies became important because they are currently tax-free. When there is no tax, that factor will vanish. A pleasant working environment will remain a "draw", but medical and retirement plans will not be common, for the employee will prefer cash and the freedom it gives to make his or her own arrangements. The simplicity that alone will bring, to replace the labyrinthine current mess about how many hours per week oblige employers to incur the huge cost of providing medical benefits for example, will be a breath of fresh air that will greatly boost the enjoyment of work environments.
What about the ladies? - will they be as prevalent in the workplace as they are now? It's not easy to tell, but I doubt it. Reasons: home schooling will be the normal way to raise kids (renewed, after a government interrupt of 170 years!) and I anticipate mothers will take on that task more often than fathers. Then, the need for two parents to work so as to pay the income tax will vanish; recall that before about 1960 (by when the i-tax was biting hard) the husband was normally the breadwinner and his earnings bought a very satisfactory standard of life. And finally, Nature has equipped women to nurture children and everyone enjoys most what he or she does best. The current alternative which puts kids in day care while both parents are tiring themselves out at work is, I think, regrettable and has adverse consequences we may not yet have counted. That perception will, I think and hope, become more widely accepted in the coming zero government society.