The Menace of Privilege Chapter Ten second part
|January 9, 2007||Posted by Staff under 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.
end of CHAPTER 10, ORGANIZATION OF LABORERS
Labor’s Response to Special Privilege
The workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little, as possible. The former are disposed to combine in order to raise, the latter in order to lower, the wages of labor. . . . We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. 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.
- — Adam Smith: Wealth of Nations.
…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.
Now, as Abraharn Lincoln has so plainly said, “capital is only the fruit of labor, and could not have existed if labor had not first existed.” (First annual message, Dec. 3, 1861. See “Messages of the Presidents,” Vol. VI, p.57.) Capital is labor impressed on matter. It is used by labor in the production of wealth.
Monopoly is not capital. It is not an agency for promoting the production of wealth, but a power for checking or diverting it. Monopoly adds nothing to the power of production. It deals with distribution. It merely enables its possessor to appropriate what has been or may hereafter be produced. It really robs capital as it robs labor. This may be seen where monopoly power is in hands separate from those possessing capital. But it rarely is so separated. Usually the monopolist is also a capitalist. Monopoly privileges are in this way confused with and classed as capital, and the antagonism of spurious capital to labor is ascribed also to true capital. “Capital,” we are told, “is against labor.”
And we are also told that this opposition is in the natural order of things. The owners of privilege might preach this with complacency, since it justifies them in their attitude of superiority and their assumption that the “work-people” are created expressly to work for them. But why should laboring men shelter such a thought? Obvious to common sense is Lincoln’s remark that if God Almighty had intended certain human beings to do all the work he would have given them all the hands, and that if he had intended certain other human beings to do all the eating he would have given them all the mouths.
Yet laborers for the most part accept as natural the present order of things, where they do most of the work and least of the eating. They regard monopoly powers as capital. They conclude that because monopoly privileges rob them, “capital” is against them. They see no hope of redress save in organized resistance to capital. Their means of resistance are the strike and the boycott. Their alternative to these are truces or treaties, called wage agreements.
Now strike or boycott wars are no better than fights in the dark. Because certain men want a larger or object to a lessened share of the wealth they are engaged in producing, they strike work in concert and try to stop others from working in their stead. By this passive means they hope to compel the employers to surrender to their terms. Or they carry the strike principle further, and by the boycott try to isolate the employer and so force him to yield.
But this is not a natural order of things. It is unnatural. It is not enjoying the wages that are decreed by natural law. It is attempting to fix wages by fiat. It is not a policy ruled by natural justice. It is dictated by a belief that the wages of laborers can be only such as can be exacted from capital. No heed is given to the fact that there is a law of wages among the ordinances of Nature just as real, just as certain, just as immutable as are the laws of light, heat, generation, growth, chemical affinities and gravitation. All attention is given to the campaigns of a militant trade unionism, upon the success of which is thought solely to depend stable or higher wages, stationary or reduced hours. Yet any who will may see that strikes and boycotts and trade agreements do not go to bedrock, which can be nothing else than natural justice. They are mere emergency expedients, resorted to when natural justice is ignored or violated. They fix nothing justly or permanently. They match force against injustice, which sows dragon’s teeth that spring up armed men.
For every strike or boycott that is successful, many fail. One reason lies in the difficulty of inducing all available laborers or other persons to become strikers or boycotters, or their supporters. Another reason is the generally superior reserve power of the defense. The great strikes are really not against capitalists, but against monopolists – against the railroad and other franchiseholding corporations, the coal combines, or the great tariff-fostered companies. Butressed behind government-made or government-fostered privileges, such monopolists can and do use the black-list and lockout, and meet strikers with the deadliest of weapons of which we will speak later.
Against such powers most strikers are foredoomed to defeat. Organized workmen generally do not realize this; yet even if they did their only policy at present would be to fight on.
The plea for the formation of a warlike trade union under these circumstances may be set forth in this way: it is a banding together of workers who find difficulty in obtaining employment. Under a natural order of things, where Nature’s opportunities were not monopolized, there would be no such difficulty. But we are not following the natural order. Instead of a great and lasting demand for labor of every kind arising from freedom of natural agencies, there is a limited demand caused by the monopolization of those agencies. Laborers have to enter upon an intense competition among themselves for the thus restricted opportunities for employment. In order to control the supply of labor as nearly as possible, laborers join together and agree upon a scale of wages, hours of toil and other working conditions. This sets up the principle of “all or none.” The employer finds himself confronted, not by a confused mass of laborers, each beseeching him for employment, and each ready to underbid the others until wages be forced down to a point of bare subsistence, but rather by an orderly body who say in effect : –
“We offer you our scale, at which any or all of us must be employed. None shall be employed save on these terms. Our motto is, ‘Each for all, and all for each.’ We must have these terms, or else we are agreed that none will work for you. While we do not embrace within our union all the workmen of our craft, yet we do count a sufficient number to make a great scarcity of the kind of labor you desire should we refrain from labor for a time. We do not want to strike, for that would mean a loss of wages. We want employment and steady wages. But we want better wages, too. We have resolved that rather than engage in cut-throat competition, we will make a uniform demand for more wages. That being refused, we will in a body strike.
“These demands are based upon the average of abilities of our whole number. They are relatively below some men’s abilities, relatively above others. The strong make concessions for the sake of including in their ranks the weak. Otherwise, being left out of the organization, the weak would be forced to seek employment for themselves. They would underbid the union rate, and, to that extent, lessen the effectiveness of the union demand. Therefore we embrace these weak ones, and reduce our scale accordingly.
“This might appear to work a great hardship upon the ablest men in the organization. It does in a sense. If they were to refrain from joining the union, and were free to sell their labor when the remainder of the laborers, banded in a union, were striking, they could get scarcity prices. Such prices would be at the expense of the striking union.
“But suppose there were no union at all. What, then, could the best workmen get? Not a scarcity price, but a competitive price – a price fixed by general strife among laborers for opportunities of employment.
“In other words, under present social conditions the average wages without a trade union must of necessity be lower than the average with one. While the superior workmen in going into a union lessens in point of compensation that distance between himself and the inferior union workmen that might possibly exist, if conditions of employment were free and there was an abundant demand for labor, yet it seems clear that this superior workman actually gets more with a union under the present circumstances of monopolized natural opportunities and limited demand for labor than he would were there no union and Nature still monopolized. Certain it is that if there has been any advance in wages and shortening in hours, it has been due to unions. Without unions competition in the present limited state of employment would have reduced the mass of laborers to a far lower status than they have to-day.”
Accepting the premises of limited employment, what. other conclusion can be reached? But are the premises sound? Is there difficulty in getting employment? How often do we hear it said, “Any man who wants work can get it.” Yet can he? I pick up the New York State Labor Bulletin for the quarter ending December, 1904, and find that of 385,770 wage-earners reporting to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 9175, or 2.4 per cent. idle throughout the third quarter of the year, and that the average working days were 69.8. These figures relate to picked industries, and during a “prosperity” period.
The “want” columns in our city newspapers furnish more reliable evidence of the general out-of-work story. By chance the following news item presents itself as I pause in my writing: –
The superintendent of the municipal lodging house of New York told the reporter that on the previous Saturday night, which had followed a snow-shoveling day, there had been but 207 applicants for lodging, whereas the number on ordinary nights ranges from 400 to 500. Little jobs at shoveling snow had put many men in condition to pay for lodgings. Having an opportunity to work, they sought no charity. Here is what the superintendent says of those who come to the lodging house when a snowstorm has visited the city: “We make it a point to see that they are aroused earlier than the others-about five o’clock – so that they may apply for a job at snow-shoveling. In spite of the remarks which are made by men who do not know, you ought to see how many of them jump at the chance to work, and hustle their clothes on in the morning. Most of them are not warmly enough clad to take a street-cleaning job. Yet many of them try it. They come back in the evening with their feet tied up in newspapers, their toes frozen.”
After that read the utterance of a city magistrate in Brooklyn – and in what city will not be found magistrates to speak in the same way?
- “I know of many men who are honest, sober and industrious, willing to work at anything – and for any wages – who cannot find employment. As a last resort, many of these men, who are home-less, without shelter or food, apply to the courts and are committed, at their own request, to the county jail and even to the penitentiary.
Of course there are bad years and good years, years of more and years of less employment. But at all times, a considerable number of men who are willing and anxious to work have difficulty in finding it; and, when found, it proves in a great proportion of instances only temporary, or, at any rate, not continuous.
In face of such facts there cannot be a universal organization of laborers into unions. Only those can be organized who are more or less skilled, and whose cessation of exertion would make a breach that could not at once be filled or could only be partially filled. And hence it is that, notwithstanding the vast multitudes of laborers in this country, and notwithstanding all the need they have to protect if not to better their working conditions, there are at the highest estimate not above two and a half millions enlisted in unions. Even in the skilled trades there are “open shops” and “closed shops,” meaning places where employment is open or closed to non-union men.
This leads to coercion and other practices among the unions that are subversive of the public weal.
Next week — The Risks Undergone by Desperate Unions
What’s your reaction to this material? Tell it to The Progress Report!