The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Help Wanted’ signs indicate lack of decent job offers, not people unwilling to work

The 19th-century antecedent to today’s complaints of labor shortage

A Burger Boy restaurant in Louisville. (Amira Karaoud/Reuters)

Complaints of a labor shortage have echoed among employers and their advocates since a disappointing jobs report in April. Suzanne Clark, the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, warned that “the worker shortage is real — and it’s getting worse by the day.” Lawrence Summers, treasury secretary during the Clinton administration, called labor shortage “the pervasive phenomenon” of the contemporary American labor market. Meanwhile, scores of politicians, GOP leaders and commentators have blamed pandemic-era unemployment benefits for employers’ inability to fill open job positions, even as unemployment remains high.

Claims of a labor shortage amid an abundance of laborers may seem paradoxical, but they are nothing new. The ending of slavery 156 years ago provoked similar fearmongering over a mythic labor shortage that supposedly debilitated the Southern economy after the Civil War. The history of that earlier “labor shortage” bears important lessons for the economy today.

For decades before the Civil War, the Southern economy flourished as enslavers grew rich off the unpaid labor of enslaved people. By 1860, Southern planters were supplying nearly two-thirds of the global supply of cotton, amounting to over half the value of the nation’s exports. Meanwhile, according to one estimate, capital in enslaved people in 1860 exceeded all other forms of capital, other than land, and nearly exceeded the combined national value of livestock, investment in manufacturing and investment in railroads — enslaved people were valued at $3 billion compared with the value of all American livestock, manufacturing and railroads at some $3.3 billion.

The end of the Civil War and the emancipation of nearly 4 million enslaved people therefore occasioned tectonic shifts for Southern planters and the Southern economy. As Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman tore through Georgia in late 1864 from Atlanta to Savannah, then up to South Carolina, he left in his wake burned fields, leveled cities and twisted train tracks. His scorched-earth campaign helped achieve a decisive Union victory and forced the Confederacy into unconditional surrender. For the enslaved people who flocked to join Sherman’s soldiers blazing through the Confederate heartland, it was a march of emancipation and salvation — a march toward long-awaited freedom. For Southern planters, however, Sherman’s march was one of “destruction and desolation.” Everywhere the Union army went, Southern infrastructure fell, enslaved people went free and the South’s once-robust economic foundations crumbled under the weight of war and emancipation.

As Southern planters struggled to recover their prewar prosperity without slavery, they resisted the notion of bargaining with or paying formerly enslaved people. Instead, they blamed freedpeople and the Reconstruction government for idle fields and other economic woes, complaining of a labor shortage. “Among the numerous obstacles in the way of the revival of business and prosperity in the South,” announced the desperate organizers of an 1869 labor convention in Memphis, “no other is more keenly felt by the whole community than the want of efficient and reliable labor.” The labor shortage was, to many, “the great problem to be solved in connection to the restoration of the South to anything like its former prosperity.”

As their fields lay bare, Southern planters and Southern newspapers traced the labor shortage to the supposed indolence of Black people. This was clearly false, given that Black people’s labor had for so long underwritten Southern prosperity. But Southern planters had nonetheless long warned of Black people’s supposedly innate laziness, which they saw as a racial trait. They had argued that only a firm but fair “master” and the threat of the whip could make Black people work. Outlaw the whip and dissolve the bonds between the enslaver and the enslaved, however, and the freedmen would give in to their basest instincts of indolence and indifference.

Such racist thinking was not unique to the South. The threat of an idle Black population had long inflected debates over emancipation in the Northern states as well. Thus, when bringing news of the January 1863 Emancipation Proclamation to Galveston, Tex., on June 19, 1865 (Juneteenth), the New York-born Union army general Gordon Granger took care to add: “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed … that they will not be supported in idleness either [at military posts] or elsewhere.” Assumptions about Black people’s laziness were deeply rooted in a racist tradition that was at least as much at home in the North as in the South. Claims of labor shortage played on these racist assumptions to gain sympathy for Southern planters beyond the South and to undercut Reconstruction policies designed to enhance the bargaining power of freedpeople.

At the same time, prominent Southern newspapers such as the New Orleans Daily Picayune blamed the Republican Party for encouraging the freedmen to reject unfair contracts offered by their former masters. “Could [the freedmen] be removed from the mischievous influence of political demagogues,” the Picayune wrote, they “would be cheerful and contented in their new estate, satisfied with the substance of freedom, without desiring to join in that hopeless chase after the ignus fatuus of equality.” For the Picayune and its readers, it was Black workers’ pursuit of equality and the Republican Party’s encouragement of that pursuit that had caused the labor shortage — not the unfair terms of the contracts that the planters offered.

In truth, the number of fieldhands had decreased because Black women were free to tend to their own households and Black children free to go to school rather than work in the fields. Production, meanwhile, decreased only relative to the brutal regime of slavery. In other words, “labor shortages” arose from freedpeople’s reasonable exercise of newly acquired freedom, not an innate predisposition to laziness, indulged or exacerbated by Republican politicians.

The falsity of cries of a labor shortage was hammered home by the reality facing planters and laborers, White and Black alike. They were starving, cash poor and barely surviving. External circumstances were partly to blame: the global cotton economy was no longer as profitable as it once was, and foreign producers had broken the Southern monopoly on the crop. But equally to blame was the planters’ refusal, or inability, to offer fair contracts — which meant that, as long as they could, freedmen would withhold their labor in the hope of winning something fairer and more equitable.

As the historian Eric Foner explained, the South’s labor problems “arose from the clash between [planters’] determination to preserve the old forms of domination and the freedmen’s desire to carve out the greatest possible independence for themselves and their families.” The problem, in other words, was not a shortage of labor, but a shortage of freedom, equality and fairness.

Then as now, employers’ difficulties in securing workers did not stem from government policies, lazy workers or a shortage of people to work. Accusations against rival political parties, claims of labor shortage and indictments of an indolent working class diverted blame away from employers’ unwillingness to offer appealing terms to the workers they hoped to attract. The fault was not the government’s for protecting laborers from being forced into undesirable contracts, nor the laborers for refusing to accept them. Rather, the burden and responsibility of the supposed shortage fell, as it falls today, on employers who failed to put sufficiently appealing offers on the table.