Category Archives: Raleigh Report

Working in the 21st Century

by John Ager, District 115 North Carolina House of Representatives

Since Labor Day I have been thinking about labor in our modern world and about how government should address questions of labor policy. I began by reflecting upon that history through the lens of my own family. My own ancestors left a crowded Europe for a continent of vast expanses of cheap land in the New World. Small family farms, which Thomas Jefferson adoringly called “yeoman” farms, slowly covered the frontier. You can think of Little House on the Prairie. Much of the labor on these farms came from the large number of children typically being raised in these families. Life was hard work for everyone.

But what if there was a profitable cash crop that was labor intensive? Several such large-scale crops were grown in the South: tobacco, indigo, rice, and cotton come to mind. Finding seasonal local workers to harvest such a crop was an impossibility. At first, farmers “indentured” or “held under bond” unemployed workers who were recruited in England and transported across the Atlantic. Even young boys were sometimes rounded up and sent to the New World to work. And then, slowly but surely, Africans were captured and sold as slaves for the value of a lifetime of labor.

It was actually West African slaves who taught low-country planters how to grow rice, which became highly profitable. Labor in the plantation system was a commodity – a pure and simple economic input. But, as we all know, it really was not so simple, and the practice of slavery certainly raised basic ethical questions in this, the “Land of the Free.” It took a horrible war to resolve many of these questions.

Following the Civil War, great industrial enterprises arose in the US. The demand for labor to build railroads, forge steel, weave textiles and manufacture everything under the sun encouraged more immigration from Europe, and also from Asia. These immigrants were every bit as controversial as they are in our current politics. There was an entire anti-immigrant party called the Know Nothings!

The immigrants came and lived in squalid tenements in New York and Chicago, or in logging camps in our mountains, and many of us count them as ancestors. These workers too felt powerless and abused in the face of the Industrialists, and responded by organizing into labor unions. In many ways, the Civil War was followed by the Labor War, with brutal factory strikes replacing battles in the field. The unions were able to humanize work in America, and provide legal rules to prevent the exploitation of workers, and to ban child labor.

In the 21st century, our working lives are vastly different. Few Americans now work on family farms, where it was all hands in to grow enough food to survive the winter and generate enough income to pay the taxes. Nor do most of us work in large-scale factories with hundreds or even thousands of co-workers. Nor do we tend to work our whole lives for one company, as my father did for General Electric. Indeed, we take for granted that the jobs of the future do not even exist now, and that retraining will be necessary for employment. And on top of all this the forces of automation and technology continually find ways to replace humans in the work place. The few farms that remain are still dependent on migrant labor, although the supply is dwindling. For example, there are not enough pickers this year to pack our mountain apple crop.

In light of our history, it is not surprising that current political issues include minimum wage rates, family leave time for medical emergencies, and other issues involving medical care. Unions are having a hard time maintaining their membership levels and expanding into new sectors of enterprise.

Our North Carolina government recognizes the importance of providing opportunity to its citizens by offering education for all, rich and poor alike, from pre-K to the university and community college level. North Carolina maintains a Department of Labor to oversee employers who might disregard our state laws. The General Assembly is currently trying to make sure that employers do not abuse the “independent contractor” status to avoid providing worker benefits.

On a larger scale, government leaders must always recognize that their loyalty is towards people and their well-being, not towards special interests and corporate interests. An American value, set out in our founding documents, reflects the Biblical view that people are of eternal value, made in the image of God. It is a primary responsibility of elected officials to fight against the economic pressure to reduce American workers to a mere commodity. We can see this battle throughout our history.

In light of our history, there may well be continued political stress as our employment markets adjust to the knowledge economy and technological innovation. I believe much can be understood about the current election, and the frustrations in our country, from the fears of this change and from the yearning for a simpler past.

If we can continue to value our people and their families, and continue to provide an education that prepares them for future jobs, I am certain the future will be more about hope than fear. Every one of us is more than a mere laborer and consumer! Please help me and my legislative colleagues as we strive to grapple with our changing economy in North Carolina.

As always, I am proud to represent you in Raleigh and look forward to hearing from you.

John Ager’s Contact:

NC House of Representatives

16 West Jones St, Room 1004,

Raleigh NC 27601-1096 or

628-2616 / 713-6450 cell