The Black Death, immigration and Labor Day

Portraits of the Haymarket Martyrs
Portraits of the Haymarket Martyrs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After one year in a job, the average American is entitled to eight days of holiday. In Europe the absolute legal minimum is 20 days (in the UK it is 28 days – the 20 day European minimum plus 8 additional statutory public holidays or days off in lieu of those holidays).

Of course, America is the richest country in the world – but I am tempted to ask what’s the point of being rich if you never get the chance to spend it? People are social democrats for a reason!

Today is of course the US’s Labor Day – while the rest of the world celebrates this on 1 May – partly in memory of the decision of the US authorities to judicially kill four people who had supported a May Day strike after a notorious unfair trial (see the Haymarket Affair for more on that) – and so it has presented Reuters an opportunity to consider the lot of the average American worker compared to her or his mediaeval predecessor.

We learn several things – first of all that the “protestant work ethic” was, at least to some extent, a reaction to the liberality of the Catholic Church when it came to festivals and holidays. I am sure more than a few budding capitalists noticed that the reformers’ detestation of festivals of wine, women and song coincided with their economic interest in increasing the amount of labour their employees undertook.

We also can see that in 14th Century England peasant power was at its height – wages were high and many worked as few as a 150 days (just 30 5 day weeks) a year.

What’s not said is that was partly because half the population had died off in the Black Death – labour was in very short supply and the labourers knew it – so much so that they even turned to revolution – the Peasant’s Revolt – when the oligarchy tried to fight back.

All the same – seems like an argument for restricting immigration. Let’s tighten the supply of labour and we’ll get a better paid and happier work force.

Except that the economics of the 14th century are not the same. There was global trade, of course, but not for much. There was certainly little complexity in the systems that supported everyday life. Technical progress since the Roman Empire had been pitiful. What’s more the law actually mandated the immobility of labour (though this was crumbling) and banking and free movement of capital was little more than a gleam in the Medicis’ eyes.