Part II, Chapter XIX
MAY ANY ADVANTAGE BE ACQUIRED BY THE WAGES CLASS THROUGH STRIKES OR TRADES-UNIONS?
IT was seen in our analysis of the operation of competition (Chapter X.) that the members of the wages class on their side, and the members of the employing class on theirs, act singly, each for himself, with individual spontaneity; and that out of this complete mobility of the individual, in subjection only to his own sense of his own interest, issue the highest conceivable industrial order and an absolutely right division of burdens and diffusion of benefits.
The question in the present chapter is, whether, there being an acknowledged failure of competition, greater or less, on the side of the wages class, from ignorance, inertia, poverty, or the undue anxiety of individuals to snatch, each for himself, at the first employment offered, any thing can be added to the real power of this class in competition, through restraints voluntarily adopted. The perfect reasonableness of supposing that some advantage might be derived by the wages class from such arrangements, will be seen if we compare their situation with that of an audience seeking to escape from a crowded theatre which has taken fire. There may be time enough to allow the safe discharge of every soul, and in that case the individual interest of each person clearly coincides with the interest of the audience taken collectively—namely, that he should fall-in precisely according to his present situation relative to the common place of exit. Yet we know that, human nature being what it is, panic is likely to arise and a crazy rush ensue, each trying to get before his neighbor, with the certain result that the discharge of the whole mass will be impeded, and the strong probability that not a few will be trampled to death. If now, upon men in such a situation, discipline can be imposed, and the procedure which is for the interest alike of each and of all can be allowed to go forward steadily, swiftly, and surely under authoritative direction, a great deal of misery may be prevented. Discipline, restraint, create no force, but they may save much waste.
In just such a situation, say those who are the professed advocates of the "cause of labor," is the wages class in many if not in most communities. Grant that the true interest of each member consists with the interest of the whole, no one will assert that each man's interest, as he may understand it and be prepared to act on it, necessarily consists with the good of all. When industry slackens and employment becomes scarce, there is the same danger to the mass, from the headlong haste and greed of individuals, as in the case of the theatre just referred to. A mistaken sense of self-interest may even pervert competition from its true ends, and make its force destructive. If, then, it is urged, bodies of labor can be put under discipline so that they shall proceed in order and with temper, great injury may be averted: injury which once wrought may become permanent.
There is, surely, nothing unreasonable in this claim. Let us, therefore, without prejudice proceed to consider the agencies by which, under this plan, it is proposed to meet the infirmities of the laboring classes.
The issue is not whether joint action is superior to the individual action of persons enlightened as to their industrial interests, but whether joint action may not be better than the tumultuous action of a mass, each pursuing his individual interest with more or less of ignorance, fear, and passion.
The question of strikes has generally been disposed of by economists with a summary reference to the doctrine of the wage-fund. Strikes could not increase the wage-fund, therefore they could not enhance wages. If they should appear to raise the rate in any trade, this must be due either to a corresponding loss in the regularity of employment or to an equivalent loss, in regularity or in rate, by some other trade or trades occupying a position of economical disadvantage. Hence, strikes could not benefit the wages class. But we have rid ourselves of the incubus of the wage-fund; and the question of strikes is, therefore, with us an open question as yet. We have seen that the amount of wages received by the laborer may be insufficient to furnish the food necessary to his maximum efficiency, and that an increase of wages might, by increasing his laboring power, increase the product not only proportionally, but even more than proportionally, under-feeding, whether of men or cattle, being admittedly false economy. If a strike should enable a body of laborers to secure such an advance against the reluctance of their employers, it might easily turn out that the masters would not only not be injured, but would be benefited in the result. The same would be true of an advance of wages which allowed the workmen to obtain more light and warmth and better air in more commodious dwellings. The same might prove to be the case with an advance of wages which merely stimulated the social ambition of the workmen, the wages of labor being, in the language of Adam Smith, "the encouragement of industry, which, like every other human quality, improves in proportion to the encouragement it receives." The same would probably be the result, though after some delay, of an advance of wages which enabled workmen to send their children to school, thus bringing them into the mill or shop, a few years later, far more intelligent and physically more capable than if they had been put at work at seven or eight years of age. It might easily prove, according to the principles which have been laid down respecting the efficiency of labor, that such expenditures would be found to be the best investment which the employer ever made of the same amount of money, giving him industrial recruits of a much higher order.
I might multiply illustrations showing how an advance of wages which masters were unwilling to concede, and which workmen through their isolated and mutually jealous and suspicious action would be unable to command, if effected through united action might prove to be for the interest of both masters and men.
By others, again, the question of strikes is dismissed with the assertion that they generally fail of their objects. "Never, in any case," says Mr. R. W. Hopper, "has an extensive strike resulted in an advance of wages." To a request to act in a mediation between masters and men, Lord Cranworth replied, "In the game, so to say, of combination the workmen eventually fail." M. Théodore Fix, in his work Les Classes Ouvrières, writes: "After making vast sacrifices, the workmen almost invariably succumb."
Granting that this is so in the sense in which the terms are used—that is, that in the great majority of cases workmen making a demand and seeking to enforce it by a strike, are beaten, and, after the exhaustion of their resources, have to go to work again on their master's terms—is this quite conclusive of the whole question? The argument used against strikes is, it will be observed, much the same as that which was formerly employed by reactionary essayists, and even admitted with reluctance by many liberal writers, in proof of the failure of the French Revolution. The States-General had been succeeded by the Assembly; the Assembly by the Convention; the Convention by the Directory; the Directory had been turned out by the First Consul; the First Consul had been made Consul for life; the Consul had become Emperor; the Emperor had been driven from France; and after an interval of insolent foreign domination, a legitimate prince, unrestrained by a single constitutional check, untrammelled by a single pledge, led back priest and noble, unforgiving and unforgetting, to resume their interrupted license. There had been revolution after revolution; constitution after constitution; there had been proscriptions, confiscations, and massacres; there had been untold loss of blood and treasure; and in the end a king had returned who did not accept a constitution, but conferred a charter.
It is not an inspiring thought that arguments like these were for a whole human generation held sufficient to prove that the French Revolution was a mistake and a failure; for we know now that the Bourbons were restored only in seeming; that the restoration of the old régime was forever impossible. The king and the princes had indeed returned, the same race besotted with the vain conceit of divine right; they led back, indeed, the same train of priests and nobles, untaught and incapable of learning; but they came back, not to the same, but to another France. Is it not conceivable that those who look on the submission of a body of laborers after a strike as a proof that their entire effort has been fruitless, may commit the same mistake as those who looked on the return of Louis XVIII. as the restoration of the Bourbons? But perhaps another insurrection, political in form but industrial in origin, may even better illustrate this point. I refer to the rising of the peasantry of England in the reign of Richard II. "The rebellion," says Prof. Rogers,"was put down, but the demands of the villains were silently and effectually accorded; as they were masters for a week of the position, the dread of another servile war promoted the liberty of the serf."
Strikes are the insurrections of labor. Like insurrections in the political body, they are a purely destructive agency. There is no creative or healing virtue in them. Yet, as an insurrection may destroy political institutions which have outlived their usefulness, and have become first senseless and then pernicious, thus clearing the way for an after-work of harmonious construction, so a strike may have the effect to break up a crust of custom which has formed over the remuneration of a class of laborers, or to break through a combination of employers to withstand an advance of wages, where the isolated efforts of the individuals of the wages class, acting with imperfect knowledge and under a fear of personal proscription, would be wholly inadequate to accomplish those objects. But a strike can only justify itself by its results. Unless it is to make way for a better order, it is waste, and waste of the worse sort, since not only is a great loss of production incurred, but bad habits are likely to be formed in a period of enforced idleness, and bad blood certain to be generated by the contest.
Insurrections mark the first stages of the movement towards political freedom. Happy are the people who have got past insurrections, and can make their further progress "with even step and slow." Strikes are only of unquestionable utility in the first stages of the elevation of masses of labor long abused and deeply abased. Happy is the wages class when it has acquired that individual and mutual intelligence and that activity of industrial movement which put them beyond the necessity of such a brutal resort! Yet I can not conceive how one can look at the condition of the manufacturing operatives as they were left at the repeal of the iniquitous Combinations acts in 1824, and question that the early strikes in England were essential to the breaking up of the power of custom and of fear over the minds of the working classes, habituated to submission under the terror of laws now universally recognized as oppressive, unaccustomed to concerted action, illiterate, jealous, suspicious, tax-ridden, and poverty-stricken. What but some great struggle could have taught them the self-confidence and readiness for self-assertion which should overcome that fearful inertia? What else would have impressed the employing classes with a due respect for their laborers, or inspired that lively sense of the possible consequences of withstanding a just demand which is essential to competition in any true sense? "Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform, combination not to raise the wages of labor above their actual rate." It is well enough for the peace of industrial society and the mutual understanding of all parties, that masters should be made to know that two can play at that game. There is nothing to quicken the sense of justice and equity like the consciousness that unjust and inequitable demands or acts are likely to be promptly and fearlessly resisted or resented.
LEGISLATION AGAINST STRIKES AND COMBINATIONS.
We have seen that by the Statute of Laborers in England, workmen were not allowed to ask or receive wages above a fixed amount, not even, on pain of imprisonment, to accept "meat, drink, or other courtesy" (25th Edward III.) in addition to the stipulated sum. It will readily be believed that combinations of workmen for increase of wages were not favored of the law. By statute of 2d and 3d Henry VI., it was premised that "artificers, handicraftsmen, and laborers have made confederacies and promises, and have sworn mutual oaths not only that they should not meddle one with another's work, and perform and finish that another hath begun, but also to constitute and appoint how much work they shall do in a day, and what hours and times they shall work;" and therefore it was enacted that "if any artificers, workmen, or laborers do conspire, covenant, or promise together, or make oaths that they shall not make or do their works but at a certain price and rate, or shall not enterprise or take upon them to finish that another had begun, or shall do but a certain work in a day, or shall not work but at certain hours and times," every person so offending should be visited in severe penalties, the punishment for the third offence being loss of ears and infamy. This statute was followed thick by others, so that the act of 1824 which exempts from criminal responsibility meetings and combinations for fixing wages and altering the hours of work, provided no violence, threats, intimidation, molestation, or obstruction be done or offered towards masters or other workmen, repeals, if I have rightly counted them, twenty-eight acts, representing the wisdom of Parliaments in the reigns of ten different kings or queens.
While the law of England thus, by direct inhibition, sought to reduce to the minimum competition for labor, no statute, so far as I have observed, made even the decent pretence of restraining masters from combinations, until the beginning of the present century. "We have no acts of Parliament against combining to lower the price of work," said Adam Smith, "but many against combining to raise it." By statute of 40th George III. (c. 106), however, "all contracts, covenants, and agreements whatever, in writing or not in writing, made or to be made, by or between any masters or other persons, for reducing the wages of workmen, or adding to or altering the usual hours or time of working, or for increasing the quantity of work," were declared unlawful, under a penalty of £20.
This act is also specially noticeable for two provisions: one, that no master should act as justice of the peace for executing any of its provisions (sec. xvi.), a concession not yet made in respect to disputes between agricultural laborers and their employers; the other, that "whereas it will be a great convenience and advantage to masters and workmen engaged in manufactures that a cheap and summary mode be established for settling all disputes that may arise between them respecting wages and work," arbitrators should be appointed, under legal sanction, for determining the respective rights of the two parties in case of controversy. This last well-intentioned provision was, however, admitted by an act of four years later (44th George III., c. 87) to have failed of its purpose.
But in 1824 (5th George IV., c. 95) Parliament repealed all the statutes which prohibited combinations of workmen. In 1825 this measure was perfected (6th George IV., c. 129) under the lead of Huskisson, who announced the broad principle that "every man is entitled to carry that talent which nature has given him, and those acquirements which his diligence has obtained, to any market in which he is likely to obtain the highest remuneration."
In France, combinations of workmen for the purpose of influencing wages were prohibited with great severity by the Penal Code of 1810, which also punished, though with less severity, combinations of employers for the purpose of unjustly depressing wages. By the law of 1849 the penalties decreed against combinations of masters and of workmen were equalized. By the law of May 25th, 1864, combinations free from violence or show of violence were sanctioned. "Le point de depart de la loi," said M. Ollivier, who reported the bill, "est celui-ci: Liberté absolue des coalitions, repression rigoureuse de la violence et de la fraude." The act of 1864 did not fail of its purpose through being neglected by the working classes, who seemed to accept the permission to strike as a sort of legislative recommendation.
"There is scarcely a trade in France," said Mr. Ward, writing in 1868, "of which, during the last three years, the members have not combined for the purpose of increasing the rate of wages and diminishing the hours of labor, and their efforts to this end have usually met with success."
In Belgium, strikes are freely resorted to, especially in Brussels, yet perhaps nowhere is the workman's industrial responsibility for the abuse of this power more direct and certain than in this kingdom, owing to its geographical position and its peculiar commercial relations.
From the Netherlands M. Locock reports: "Such a thing as a strike is here almost unknown. Once or twice, indeed, it has been attempted, but it met with little sympathy, and was speedily suppressed." The reason for the non-appearance of the strike movement in this kingdom is found in the fact that the provisions of the Penal Code of 1810 prohibitory of combinations (arts. 415 and 416), which we have seen were repealed in France by the law of 25th May, 1864, are still in force here.
Throughout North Germany liberty to combine was granted by articles 152 and 153 of the Industrial Code (Gewerbe-Ordnung) of June 21st, 1869, and the same provisions have since been extended throughout the Empire: a vast change, whether we consider the extent of territory and of population affected, or the severity of the régime abolished by the Code of 1869.
In Austria strikes are prohibited, and rarely occur. Ringleaders may, by the Code (art. 481), be punished with imprisonment, or expelled from the empire.
From Norway, H.B.M. Consul-General Crowe reports: "No instance is on record of any combination having occurred to coerce masters with the view to obtain higher wages."
In Denmark, Mr. Strachey reports that strikes seldom occur. "In 1848 the printers struck and received an advance in wages; in 1865 the bricklayers and carpenters struck for ten days; in 1867 the carpenters again struck, with the result of an additional twopence per week for their trouble."
In Italy, the Penal Code is stringently prohibitive of combinations and strikes, the penalty being three months' imprisonment to all participants, and six months' to ring-leaders. Strikes, however, occur in spite of the law. Mr. Ward gives a short list of them, some successful, some unsuccessful, some resulting in compromise. The more recent statements of Mr. Herries show no tendency to an increase in their number or severity.
In Russia, though there is no general organization of the laboring classes, Mr. Egerton reports: "Strikes are by no means unusual."
The expediency of trades-unions is usually discussed as if connected with the expediency of strikes so directly and intimately that a decision upon one would be conclusive in respect to the other. Thus, many persons, having proved to their own satisfaction that strikes have had a great agency in advancing wages, have assumed that the existence of trades-unions is thereby justified. Others, having demonstrated, as they think, the mischievous tendency of trades-unions, have carried their conclusions out against strikes as if there were a vital connection between the two systems. No such relation in principle exists. Strikes are, as has been said, of the nature of insurrection. Trades-unions are associations for facilitating insurrection, like secret political clubs, and the desirability of these may well be regarded as a different question. The virtue of an insurrection is that it comes because it must come—comes because evils have grown intolerable, and to destroy is better than to conserve. We may recognize the office of violence in breaking up an utterly outworn order and clearing the ground for a reorganization of society and industry, yet fail to recognize an advantage in making systematic provision, in advance, for the easy resort to violence. Doubtless we might say, not only that, of all successful insurrections, those have been most beneficent in their results which have broken forth unprepared, out of the indignant sense of wrongs suffered and of burdens borne past patience, but also that, as a rule, insurrections are more likely to be successful when in the main spontaneous. It is not meant that any popular rising was ever unpreceded by more or less of conference among the natural leaders of the injured classes. But I apprehend that those risings which have been most elaborately devised, and in which the machinery of insurrection has been most extensively employed, are generally those which have most signally and often ignominiously failed. There is a double reason for this: on the one hand, there is a concert in the common sense of injury which gives a wonderful instantaneousness to the action of outraged masses; on the other hand, there is often a singular impotence in conspiracy. But this is by the way. The comparison has been introduced only to enforce the thought that the proved expediency of strikes would not carry with it the expediency of the permanent organization of labor for the initiation and conduct of strikes. Being a destructive agency, these should never be resorted to except in a real and serious exigency which would, among any generous and manly class under a free government, furnish an organization for the occasion more vital and apt than any derived from a state of industrial peace.
But this assumes that the body of the working classes are at least tolerably intelligent, understanding their own interests and the conditions of their industry, having among them men of natural leadership, capable of uniting for a common cause, and of remaining firm and true to each other in enforcing their demands. It assumes, moreover, that a considerable proportion, at least, of these classes have something in the way of accumulations from past industry, and, as a consequence of this, have also a certain degree of credit with the trading class. But if, as is the melancholy fact in many countries of Europe, the body of laborers are found in a condition, no matter how induced, of dense ignorance, unaccustomed to the communication of thought, and to association for political or other purposes, with only here and there a laborer so fortunate or so wise as to have saved any thing from the avails of past labor: then doubtless they must be long drilled to subordination and concert of action in associations permanently maintained, and the funds requisite for the initiation and conduct of strikes must be accumulated in advance by the painful exactions of "the society" out of scant weekly earnings.
And it will be among the infelicities of such a situation, that these organizations will be dragged into strikes founded on demands which can not be maintained, which ignorance or passion on the part of the members—it may be of a bare majority only—or meddlesomeness and arrogance on the part of officers and managers, have caused to be put forward without due consideration of the state of the market or the equities of distribution: demands which, by reason of their offensiveness or their extravagance, masters would not, without terrible punishment, concede if they could, and perchance could not if they would concede without ultimately checking production and diminishing employment. Such demands workmen would be much less likely to make if they had to combine especially for the purpose. The reason of the case would have to be shown very clearly to overcome the doubts of the cautious or the more experienced. There would be deliberation, the weighing of the cause, and the counting of the cost. But where a discipline approaching military perfection has already been established, where authority has been erected, and men have come, more or less voluntarily, but most explicitly, under obligation to obey the decrees of that authority, action upon claims of doubtful legality or expediency is likely to be prompt and peremptory.
I have thus far spoken of trades-unions as if they were maintained only for the purpose of initiating and conducting strikes, for increase of wages or reduction in the hours of labor. Trades-unions do, however, perform three other offices: first, as friendly societies; secondly, as sequestering trades and limiting their membership; thirdly, in legislating upon the methods of industry.
Of trades-unions as friendly societies insuring their members against the contingencies of sickness, loss of tools, involuntary loss of employment, or providing the rites of burial and a pension to the widow or to dependent children, it is not needful to speak here at any length. A controversial advantage might be taken, by one inimically disposed, of the fact, brought so startlingly to light by recent actuarial inquiry, that nearly all the friendly societies of Great Britain have been conducting their business on an unsound basis, and that, in consequence, they have involved themselves in obligations which their realized and anticipated funds will be inadequate to meet;1 but it ought, in fairness, to be remembered, in extenuation, that the British Government was in 1819 discovered, by Mr. Finlaison, to have been for twelve years doing quite as foolish a thing in the sale of its annuities. The friendly societies have, so far as appears, shown every disposition to correct an error which it has taken the actuaries of England some time to discover.
Of the advantages of making the trade the unit of life and health insurance, much could be said. Only two points need be mentioned: first, it affords the very perfection of advertisement and agency. This is the weak point of life insurance as it exists outside of natural associations, like trades and professions. The report of the Insurance Commissioners of Massachusetts for 1870 shows that, of the companies doing business in that State, seventeen per cent of the gross receipts went to expenses; and of this, ten and a half per cent went in commissions to agents. But this is not all. Even agencies sustained at such an expense fail to give the system of life insurance any thing like the extension which its economical advantages deserve, while among the working classes who especially need insurance, since calamities with them cut so deep into the quick and work such lasting injury, the ordinary sort of life insurance performs scarcely an appreciable office. But a friendly society, confined to a particular trade, having a natural constituency more or less bound together by personal acquaintance and common interests, and actually managed by its contributors, furnishes, as has been said, the very perfection of advertisement and agency. Secondly, to make the trade the unit of life and health insurance, affords the most equitable rule of contribution. Wide differences exist as to the healthfulness and longevity of occupations, as has been shown by some instances previously cited. In the friendly society men who belong to long-lived and healthy trades, and whose money wages are perhaps considerably reduced in consequence thereof, are not obliged to pay for the sickness and the premature mortality of members of other trades, who are perhaps paid much higher rates, in compensation for the dangers and hardships of their work.
But of trades-unions as friendly societies it is enough here to say that these humane and useful provisions can be better accomplished by associations which do not assume or attempt to legislate on the methods of industry, or to dictate terms to employers, than by societies which are liaable at any time to be dragged into protracted and exhausting contests, and compelled to expend in industrial warfare the funds long and painfully gathered against the providential necessities of labor. The trade-clubs of Denmark and the Netherlands and the "artels" of Russia are examples of friendly societies which avoid this dangerous confusion of functions. The distinction between trade-societies and benefit-societies is also very strongly marked in Prussia. In 1860 the relief-societies amounted to 3644, with an aggregate membership of 427,190 and an annual income of nearly one million dollars.
In France these societies are, under the decree of 1852, classified as "approved" or "authorized." The total number in 1867 was 5829, of which 4127 were approved and 1702 authorized. Those which are approved conform to the requirements of the statutes, and enjoy certain privileges in consequence. The funds of the societies at the close of 1867 amounted to forty-six millions of francs, the annual receipts rising to fourteen millions. Members had received sick-allowances during that year to the extent of 3,998,216 days. The total membership of both classes of societies reached 750,590, of whom 120,387 were women.
In Denmark, Mr. Strachey reports not more than one workman in fifteen, or at the outside one in ten, as subscribing to sick-clubs. In Italy, Mr. Herries reports about 600 friendly societies, with a membership not ascertained. In Russia the only species of friendly societies existing is the "artel," a small club rarely of more than thirty or forty members, more often of but ten to twenty.
It is in Great Britain that we find friendly societies most widely spread and taking deepest root among the working classes. The Commissioners in their Fourth Report (1874) estimate that in England and Wales there are 32,000 such societies, with an aggregate of four million members and an accumulation of funds in hand in excess of fifty-five millions of dollars. They add an estimate that these societies save to the poor-rates ten million dollars a year.
But, secondly, besides the offices already indicated, trades-unions effect the object, whether desirable or not, of sequestering their respective trades, reducing the accessions by apprenticeship to the minimum, and practically prohibiting all accessions to their number, after the first general muster, except through the door of apprenticeship, thereby strictly limiting the number of workmen in each occupation and keeping the price of their services artificially high.
By what means the constant warfare upon non-society men is carried on; by what arguments and appliances able workmen are convinced that it would be for their interest to enter these close labor-corporations; to what shifts the excluded are put for employment in the presence of powerful societies, proscribing them and all who shall employ them, or on what terms of humiliation they are at times tolerated, it is not my purpose to speak in detail here. To the objection that, by the organization of such close industrial corporations, the great body of laborers are, in a degree, shut out from the benefits of employment, while the enhanced prices of labor, thus protected from competition, are in a great measure paid by the unprotected wage-laborers, whose condition is rendered only the more miserable, the advocates of trades-unions make in substance these answers:
First, that without such restrictions the increase of uninstructed and un-provided labor would cause every trade to be overrun in turn, the wages in each being slowly but surely brought down, and the whole body of workmen degraded to the lowest level of mere animal subsistence; that nearly all the trades in England were in that condition when the unions undertook the work of restriction; that for those trades which are now happily rescued from such a condition and lifted to a position of industrial independence, to remove their barriers out of sympathy with the general mass of labor and admit all freely into competition, would afford but the briefest relief, inasmuch as the improvidence of the ignorant, weak, and vicious would soon fill the space thus opened with just as hungry and wretched a crowd as now surges outside the barriers, and the sole effect would thus be to ruin the privileged trades without helping their less fortunate brethren, as a drowning man catches and drags down one who might swim and save himself.
Secondly, that instead of the associated trades throwing themselves thus away in a delusive Quixotism, they do in effect accomplish a much better result for the less skilled laborers by maintaining a high standard of work and wages, and by acting, in their strong estate, as a bulwark against the invasions of "capital," affording example and opportunity to all inferior bodies of labor to associate and govern themselves by similar methods.
Thirdly (what has been intimated above), that there is really no limit to the principle of association among wage-laborers, and no reason, in the nature of the case, why every branch of industry, even to the day-laboring class, should not be protected by similar organizations and regulations. The recent extension of agricultural unions among the scattered farm-laborers of England is pointed to with not a little force as proving the adaptation of the system of industrial federation to conditions the least favorable. When, then, it is said all industries are thus organized and established, none will be at advantage or disadvantage relatively to another, but all will be at an advantage with respect to the employing class. Meanwhile the result of universal federation would not be hastened but retarded by our relaxing our restrictions and abandoning the good principle. It is wholesome rigor which we exercise; our measures seem selfish, and indeed they are taken with consideration only of our own interests, but the results are sure to favor the whole cause of labor.
In each and all these claims there is enough of truth to entitle them to somewhat more respectful treatment than has been accorded them. The student of history recognizes that the ancient guilds of which the trades-unions are the indirect successors performed a high office in their time. Selfish as were the aims and proscriptive as were the methods of the guild, it had yet its part to play in the strife of the people against king and priest and noble; and it played that part, on the whole, well. Selfish and proscriptive as the modern trade-union has been, it has curbed the authority of the employing class which sought to domineer not in their own proper strength, but through a cruel advantage given them by class legislation, by sanitary maladministration, and by laws debarring the people in effect from access to the soil. My difference with such defenders of trades-unions as Mr. Thornton is merely as to the time when these should be put away as an outgrown thing. I find no ground for expecting any benefit to the wages class as a whole, from restricting the access to professions and trades in any country where education is general, where trade is free, where there is a popular tenure of the soil, and where full civil rights, with some measure of political franchises, are accorded to workingmen.
But it is as associations for legislating respecting the methods and courses of industry, that trades-unions acquire their highest importance.
Strong as the passion of meddling is in all political communities, it appears nowhere so strong as in organizations of workingmen; mischievous as have been the restrictions upon trade and industry, imposed in the past by governments, it would be difficult to match some of the latest trades-union edicts out of the statutes of Edward III. and Richard II.
The Reports of the British Commissioners (Sir William Erle, chairman) of 1867 show that there were in force among trades-unions rules like the following, to be enforced, wherever the unions should find themselves strong enough, by fines levied on the masters, or by strikes:
Prohibiting a man from employing his own brother or son, or even from laboring with his own hands at his own work, unless duly admitted to membership of the proper trade society.
Prohibiting a workman to work out of his trade, so that a mason may not, for the shortest time, do the least part of the work of a bricklayer, or a bricklayer undertake the smallest casual patch of plastering or of stone-laying, or a carpenter finish a remnant of bricklayer's or mason's work, and if called in to fit a door or set a post, he may not, if he find the space accidentally left too small, remove so much as one loose brick, but must wait for the appropriate artisan to be summoned.
Prohibiting a workman, where an assistant is usually required, to be his own assistant, for never so small a job or short a time, so that a plasterer, called to a piece of work where an assistant would not be actively employed for one eighth of the time, must still come attended by his "homo," who, if he can not be kept usefully busy, will, for the good of the craft, remain dignifiedly lazy during the whole operation.
Prohibiting any one to be known as an exceptionally good workman in his trade; against walking fast to the place of work when in the employer's time; against carrying more than a certain load, as eight brick at a time in Leeds, ten brick in London, or twelve brick in Liverpool.
Prohibiting use to be made or advantage taken of natural agents, of improved machinery, or of special local facilities. Thus we have regulations against brick being wheeled in a barrow instead of being carried in a hod, for no other reason alleged than that brick can be wheeled more easily than carried; against brick being made by machinery or stone dressed by machinery, so that inventions of vast capability remain almost unused in England; against stone being dressed, even by hand, at the quarry where it is soft and can be easily worked.
Prohibiting with more than Chinese intolerance the use within small districts, arbitrarily circumscribed, of material produced outside, so that brick can not be carried into Manchester from brickyards distant only four miles without the certainty of a strike; prohibiting an employer from taking a job outside the place of his own residence, unless he shall take with him at least one half the workmen to be employed; prohibiting members to "work for any gentleman, at any job whatever, who finds his own materials or does not employ a regular master in the trade to find the same;" and, finally, making war at every stage upon "piece-work."
It is not to be understood that any one society has adopted all these rules, or that all societies have adopted any one of them; but, to a very great extent, rules like those recited, and many others quite as minutely restrictive, are enforced by the whole striking-power of the trade.
All such regulations and restrictions must clearly be judged by the principle which has been applied to State legislation on similar subjects. If they can be shown, beyond any reasonable doubt, to be correspondent to human infirmities in such a way that labor, on the whole and in the long run, has actually a freer resort to its best market by reason of them, then they stand justified on economical grounds. But if they are not thus required to correct liabilities which threaten the mobility of labor, they must be pronounced as mischievous as they are irritating and insulting. And this liability and strong proclivity of associations of workingmen to intermeddle and dictate concerning the methods and courses of industry must be accepted as a valid, practical argument from human nature against trades-unions.