labor, term used both for the effort of performing a task and for the workers engaged in the activity. In ancient times much of the work was done by slaves (see slavery). In the feudal period agricultural labor was in the main performed by the serf. In medieval towns, however, the skilled artisans of the craft guilds became influential citizens. Many manual labor jobs were eliminated with the introduction of machinery (mid-18th cent.), thus creating a labor surplus (see Industrial Revolution). With increased competition for jobs and consequent decreasing wages, a form of labor contract came into use in Great Britain and its colonies, called indenture, by which people could hire themselves out for a certain number of years either for a lump sum of money or to pay off a debt. This practice disappeared by the end of the 19th cent. From the last quarter of the 19th cent. the condition of most manual labor has improved slowly in industrial countries through organization (see union, labor), permitting collective bargaining with employers and successful pressure on governments for protective legislation. In fact, the term labor is today most frequently used to signify organized labor. For labor disputes, see strike. See also child labor; migrant labor; peonage.

See J. R. Commons et al., History of Labour in the United States (4 vol., 1918–35, repr. 1966); G. D. H. Cole, A Short History of the British Working-Class Movement (new ed. 1960); N. J. Ware, Labor in Modern Industrial Society (1935, repr. 1968); A. Kuhn, Labor: Institutions and Economics (rev. ed. 1967); A. A. Paradis, The Labor Reference Book (1972); R. Fantasia, Cultures of Solidarity: Consciousness, Action, and Contemporary American Workers (1989); T. Roof, American Labor, Congress and the Welfare State, 1935–2010 (2011).

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