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From Wage Slaves to Wage Workers: Cultural Opportunity Structures and the Evolution of the Wage Demands of the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor, 1880-1900

Helga Kristin Hallgrimsdottir and Cecilia Benoit
Social Forces
Vol. 85, No. 3 (Mar., 2007), pp. 1393-1411
Published by: Oxford University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4494978
Page Count: 19
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From Wage Slaves to Wage Workers: Cultural Opportunity Structures and the Evolution of the Wage Demands of the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor, 1880-1900
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Abstract

This paper examines the reasons behind a historic shift in the language couching the wage demands of two North American labor movements during the last twenty years of the 19th century - the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor. We trace how the once dominant imagery of "wage slavery" lost its connection to producerist labor ideology and eventually was replaced by the more pragmatic symbolism of "wage work." This linguistic shift is of particular scholarly importance because it occurred during a time when producerist labor politics, with its emphasis on a radical reorganization of work and private property, lost significant ground to a more consumerist/economistic version of labor politics. We show that this pivotal rhetorical shift was linked to changes in the cultural opportunity structure. These were, in turn, shaped through movement sector dynamics and through changes in the empirical referents which add meaning and resonance to social movement claims.

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