The erosion of labor protections for workers seen as “unskilled” but working outside of unionized manual jobs moved like water through cracks, exploiting and capitalizing on society’s assumptions about whose work needed protection and who was worth protecting.
Buried within the exemptions of the FLSA and the Taft-Hartley Act are clues about mid-20th-century assumptions about which workforces needed protection from unemployment and what — or who — seemed safe from automation.
For example, the FLSA excluded volunteering, what we might think of today as the ubiquitous unpaid college internship. Volunteering was considered apprenticing, core to building one’s professional identity.
Since medieval times, divinity, medicine, and law, the so-called “learned professions,” were seen as the exclusive paths of the educated classes. These skilled vocations needed no workplace protections. Their advanced degrees insulated them from economic insecurity. That is how a college education came to be seen as a gateway to the middle class for anyone who wanted to leave behind the mines or factories.