The Menace of Privilege Chapter Ten first part
|January 9, 2007||Posted by Staff under Archive, Progress Report, The Progress Report|
The Menace of Privilege, by Henry George Jr.
We are pleased to present, in installments, a very rare yet significant book written by former Congressman Henry George Jr. in 1905.
Earlier installments are available at the Progress Report Archive.
start of CHAPTER 10, ORGANIZATION OF LABORERS
Defending Against Special Privilege
Defend me, therefore, …
… from the toil
Of dropping buckets into empty wells,
And growing old in drawing nothing up.
— Cowper: Task.
WHEN men find themselves subject to a common danger, they unite for common defense. Hence it was that when the monopolization of natural opportunities in the United States cut off laborers in the primary occupations from free access to land and forced them to compete for employment with laborers in the cities, combative trade unions began to appear.
This did not have its real beginning until the commencement of the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Before that, trade organizations were almost solely benevolent. Later they began to be militant. Yet as late as 1833 they still retained a more or less clear perception of the law of wages. The Central Trade Union of New York, composed of delegates from various trade organizations, formulated political demands, but said nothing about such collateral questions as the length of working day and immigration. They boldly attacked the primary question of the monopoly of natural agencies.
For when working on free land — on land that had no price, that yielded no rent — all the produce could be retained by labor as wages, save the part that went to capital as interest; capital being matter fitted by labor to be used by labor in the production of wealth. But as free land became scarce or difficult to reach, all other land came to have a higher and higher value. That is to say, labor and capital had to pay more and more for the use of land, which left less and less of the produce for division between them as wages and interest. And while the introduction of labor-saving methods and inventions greatly increased the volume of production, land values, forced up by growing population and speculation, tended not only to absorb the whole increase, but it tended to press labor and capital to take lower wages and interest as the price of using land.
Thus, as free land became scarcer and all other land dearer, laborers began to congregate in cities and compete there for employment under others. They lost hope and even thought of obtaining land for themselves and becoming their own employers. They lost sight of the relation of wages to free land. The law of wages became, to their changed view, not one of natural relations, but one of human relations; not one that based wages upon what the laborer could earn for himself at the margin of cultivation, that is, upon land for which he had to pay no rent, but one that fixed wages by the ratio of applicants to the number of places employers had to offer.
Reaching that point, it was but a step further to the notion that the way to keep wages up was artificially to make “more work,” which meant, to make more opportunities for employment in manufacturing lines.
Self-interest is ever on the alert for occasion. Here was the occasion for the manufacturing interests which had up to 1850 been nurtured more or less strongly by a tariff. But the old idea of levying a tariff upon imports for the sake of building up home manufacturing plants had lost favor. During the decade following 1850, the tariff had been reduced so low as to cause the period to be called the “free trade era.” It was marked by much commercial and manufacturing activity, and the policy of a low tariff would probably have continued had not the Civil War intervened.
The war, making heavy demands for revenue, brought a return of heavy customs duties. Manufacturing concentrated, and at the close of the war powerful lobbies went to Washington to influence Congress to continue the high tariff taxes. They gave out for public consumption the old argument of protecting “our infant industries,” although many of the latter had grown to be giants. To that argument they added a new one — one in behalf of the American workingman’s wages. The argument ran thus: “European manufactures can undersell American manufactures because of the lower rate of wages paid in Europe. The United States must therefore impose a tariff on imports of European manufactures at least equal to the difference between wages here and abroad. If we do not do this, the foreigner will undersell us. We shall be deluged with the pauper-made goods of Europe. Our manufacturing plants will close down and fail. American workmen in tens and scores of thousands will be thrown out of employment.”
Foolish, transparently foolish, as this plea was, it sounded rational to the body of workmen in the cities. They did not stop to reason that trade is merely the exchange of commodities for commodities, and that if under freedom of trade foreigners should try to “deluge” us with their goods, they would do so only because we in turn would agree to “deluge” them with our products. To make products for the exchange would give our workmen here natural, and therefore, more stable and better employment than that obtainable through tariff discouragement to foreign trade and the substitution of domestic hothouse culture. But like the dog in the fable, our workmen, as a mass, dropped the bone for the shadow. They cast their votes as years went by for greater and greater taxes against foreign imports, under the delusion that they were protecting their own wages and even employment.
The high tariff enabled domestic manufacturers to put up prices without putting up or even keeping up wages.
Indeed, while protesting that their chief desire for a tariff was to protect the wages of American workmen, our great tariff-fostered manufacturers imported armies of workmen from Europe, under contracts for lower wages than prevailed here. This practice was checked only when an overmastering sentiment among American workmen in the middle eighties compelled Congress to prohibit admission of contract laborers.
Even to-day workmen still pursue the “protection” phantom. They vote to protect the steel and other monopoly combinations from foreign competition, while at the hands of those very monopolies they suffer not only merciless lockouts, blacklisting, wage-cutting and early dismissal, but incessant warring against their unions. After the sanguinary Homestead strike, induced by the determination of the Carnegie Company to reduce wages, that tariff-nurtured corporation refused to have a union recognized within its plant. This policy it pursues to this day. And the still greater Steel Trust (United States Steel’ Corporation), which includes the Carnegie Company, is even now doing its utmost to destroy the union among its workmen, the Amalgamated Association of Steel Workers.
Countless times it has been explained that if larger wages are paid in this country than in Europe, they cannot result in a commensurate disadvantage to our manufacturers and other employers, because, taking one reason out of several, American workmen, considered as a whole, are the most intelligent and alert workmen in the world, and use the most machinery, which they are the quickest to improve.
Countless times has it been pointed out that such advantage as American workmen have in wages over European workmen is due primarily to the natural resources here, which, though now inclosed, may nevertheless be purchased on terms that will yield a better net result than may be obtained in Europe; and secondarily, to the organized resistance to reduction by workmen in the skilled trades.
Countless times has it been shown, moreover, that much. of the advantage of the higher wages paid in America is lost in the greater cost of living here, where speculation in land has forced rents to exorbitant figures in and about the cities; where the tariff-protected manufacturing monopolies have given extortionate prices to all the common commodities; where the privately controlled public-service franchise monopolies rob at every turn; and where the continuance of early habits makes obligatory a more generous style of living.
Mr. Judson Grenell, a careful and experienced sociological writer, made comparisons while traveling in Europe last year, writing -
- A day’s service brings much greater reward to the worker in America than to the worker in Europe. Otherwise nearly a million people would not yearly flee the Old World for America’s shores in the happy and certain expectation of bettering their condition. In figures, a dollar-a-day man in the United States rcceives not over fifty cents a day in Europe, yet the purchasing power of the fifty cents earned in Europe is, in some directions, as great as the dollar earned in America. For instance, rents; again, keeping warm is cheaper. Clothing costs very much less; also linen, which, being more durable than cotton cloth, is really in the long run cheaper. Transportation is less, and also the cost of amusements. Bread, milk and vegetables are about the same, but meat is dearer in Europe. Still this latter item does not count for much, as Europe’s wage workers do without it most of the time.
In a rough way, it may be said that $10 in Europe goes as far as $15 in the United States. It may also be said that the range of those things we call necessities in the United States is narrower in Europe. Therefore $10 a week to the Englishman, Swiss or German seems as good pay as does $18 a week to the artisan in the United States. On the whole, work is steadier in Europe than in the United States. But it is impossible to make comparisons that are absolutely correct, for wages vary between London and Manchester and English provincial towns, just as they do between New York and Boston and some New Hampshire hamlet.
American workmen give small heed to these facts, but their attention is being painfully arrested by another phase of the employment and wages question. They realize the growth of a prejudice against workmen gone past their early prime. Many of the great railroad systems, the great steel works, and other large manufacturing concerns, have in recent years announced, or, without announcing, have quietly adopted a policy of engaging few workmen, skilled or unskilled, above thirty-five or forty years of age. Out of the great numbers of laborers asking for employment, these huge employing concerns can pick men in their early vigor and enthusiasm, dropping them for new ones when they have reached the age deadline, or earlier if they get worked out. Thirty-five or forty is getting to be the age of superannuation.
Is there anything analogous to this in Europe? No; most assuredly not. Mr. F. Sydney Walker, connected in a director’s capacity with manufacturing and banking institutions in Birmingham and elsewhere in England, freely talked to me of industrial conditions he found in this country, while on a tour of inspection not long since. He said substantially: -”I have been amazed at the great number of young men I have found employed in your manufacturing plants. The number of old men everywhere seems entirely out of proportion to that which exists on our side of the ocean. Indeed, one might judge that there were no more old men in some of the lines of manufacturing in this country. One of the large concerns I visited — established in New England – seems to employ only young men; that is, no men older than thirty-five. They are all at their highest productive power. I came over here to look about, and especially to study the conditions of industrial competition, for I wanted to see in what respects we have advantage over you, and where the advantage is against us. Hence this matter of the age of workmen was something that I took note of from the beginning.
“In one of the places where I noticed this preponderance of young men I turned to the gentleman who was conductmg me and said: ‘How is it that I see so many young men? Are there no old men, or do not workmen here grow old?’
“The gentleman said: ‘Oh, yes; men grow old here; but we keep only the younger men employed. We drop a workman after he passes his prime and put a young one in his place. In that way we get the maximum of efficiency out of our labor.’
“‘But,’ I asked, ‘have you no sentiment about the thing? How can you turn a man off just because he gets old ?’
“My conductor answered: ‘There is no sentiment about it. It is purely a matter of business. We have to buy labor. We buy the best we can get, irrespective of individuals. Young men are more efficient than older ones; so we select young ones out of the great number that offer their services. Sentiment is good in its place, but it has no place in business. It is to our interest to get the most alert, most vigorous, most agile and most adaptive labor possible. There is strong competition among workmen for employment, so that we have no difficulty in following the line of our highest interest and choosing young men.’
“‘Well,’ I remarked, ‘that is hard on the man who passes his prime, isn’t it?’
“His reply was that it was hard.”
To all who are familiar with the state of industrialism in the United States this must be accepted as a true picture. Yet what significance does it have for the body of our workmen? Merely a superficial one, and false at that. They have no thought of the real basis of wages – the relation of the laborer to free natural opportunities. They see enly restricted opportunities. They are conscious – painfully conscious only of a contest among workmen to sell their services and a refusal of employers to give in payment more than they must. They see in this nothing more than two clearly defined opposing classes: those who sell labor and those who buy labor.
In this way all capitalists are thought to be against all laborers. And this seeming antagonism appears to be confirmed when monopoly privileges are, in common speech and even in much that passes for the teaching of political economy in our higher institutions of learning, classified as capital.
Next week — the truth about Capital and Labor!
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