TO THE BUILDERS, GASMEN, AND OTHERS ON STRIKE. 1859 —
I Am an old friend of yours, and have employed many compositors in my day, and never wrote or said one word tending to degrade you. But as your friend I shall use a friend’s privilege to speak plain.
You call yourselves “working men,” as though there were no other working men in the world. This is a piece of arrogant assumption on your part, which, if it occurred amongst people better off than yourselves, you would call aristocratic insolence.
There are many harder workers than you — men who work with their brains, and brain work honestly done is far harder work than that of the hands. Writers in Once A Week keep each employed a larger number of hands than any working builder or gasman amongst you, helping them to a living as well as themselves, so these brain-workmen are some hundred times more valuable than any individual hand-worker.
All the false logic that ever was coined in any rebellion of the “members against the belly” cannot overset that truth. So, my good friends, take to yourselves a little wholesome modesty, and don’t arrogate to yourselves the exclusive title of working men. For there are amongst you men who don’t work, men who shirk work, and men so useless that they can’t get work to do.
And so the men who shirk work, and the men who can’t get work, take in vain the name of working men, and proclaim that henceforth wages shall be a fixed quantity, and that all men, good, bad, and indifferent, shall be paid alike; and, moreover, that as there is only work for nine out of ten, the whole ten shall be employed at nine hours each, instead of ten hours, and shall have ten hours’ wages for it.
This is Jack Cade legislation, such as our grand old poet writes about, and as is practised across the Channel — socialism without sociology.
“I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers (fraternity et egalite), and worship me their lord.”
It won’t do. There is a thing called individuality — the right of every man to do all things not infringing on the rights of his fellows, and if this principle be lost sight of, there is an end of progress. Therefore every man has a right to determine at what price he will sell his labour, and every master what he will pay for it. And any number of men have a right to join together to keep their own labour out of the market, and to raise its value if they can.
But they have no right to dictate to other men what they shall do. If a skilled workman chooses to work for any price that suits him — any number of hours that suit him — to interfere with him is to exercise tyranny, and this all English-minded men will denounce and put down.
In this strike the question is one of day wages, and not of the amount of work and pay. There has been invented a phrase, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” but this defines nothing. As the Americans say, it is about as big as a piece of chalk. If it be digging a field, it may amount to a specific number of yards, or it might be on a question of making so many doors and windows, or so many square feet of flooring laid down.
Now, it is quite clear that one man may dig faster than another, or make more doors or windows than another, in a given time. Is he, then, to do more work, or is he to stop short when he has done his task? In the latter case, he will work less hours; in the former case, he would be paid lower wages than his neighbour, by doing more work for a given sum. In this mode, the less work a man does, the higher will be the cost of his labour; and the constant tendency would be to do as little as possible, unless the work be of that kind which can be exactly appreciated.
It comes, then, to the fact, that justice between master and man is best attained by the practice of piece-work; and the best paid labourers in England — the navvies — have arrived at precisely this condition, and would look with contempt at day-work and lazy wages.
Day-work is really only the condition of “odd men,” who can do a number of indefinite things not to be tested by an exact value. They are not skilled workmen who are willing to become “odd men.” The skilled men get work easily, and are mostly employed at good wages, for they are never too numerous, and have no need to strike.
The strike, then, is made by the inferior workmen, who compel the superior workmen to join them under threats. If the workmen out of work be one-tenth of the whole, the reduction of the hours from ten to nine would put all in employment. If the wages paid were the same, the process would be very simple. But the claim for wages would be increased, while, as a rule, all the wages that can be paid are paid, for the competition of business is so strong that as long as any profit can be made, masters will go on increasing their business and increasing also the number of the men they employ.
While competition lasts, business men keep down their profits to the lowest pitch. They have no unlimited fund allowing them to pay any wages the workmen may desire. They are not rich beyond measure. If the whole of the master’s profit were poured into the wages fund, each man would receive as much as though the colonel’s dinner were divided amongst the regiment, or the churchwardens and overseers threw their dinners into the workhouse cauldron.
If two masters be competing far one man, rivalry will extract the largest amount of wages they can afford to pay. If two men be competing for one master, they must work for any price he chooses to give. The inferior man will infallibly offer for the lowest wage, but the master will be a fool if he does not employ the best man, and pay him sufficient wages to keep him in a comfortable condition.
The higher wages a master can afford to pay, the greater will be the result to himself, if the man’s work be in proportion to his wages. If a master pays £100 a-week to twenty men, he will need a less amount of tools and workshops, and other matters, than if he paid £100 per week to one hundred men, and will conduct his business with less trouble.
If, therefore, workmen want to improve their condition, they should subscribe to send their surplus number to the colonies by means of benefit societies, or in other modes.
Probably the strike will do this indirectly. It will set inventive and intelligent men to make machinery do more than it has ever yet done, and possibly it may be a working out of providential ends to prevent the degradation of manhood to unworthy employments. In truth, a strike is the inarticulate grumbling of men who have not yet learned to talk; it is akin to the dumb sighs of men who, feeling miserable, burn down hay-ricks to draw attention to their misery.
You, gasman, who are broiled alive, and made to inhale a semi-poison, in order that streets and workshops may be well-lighted, you are, doubtless, miserably off, and not compensated by thirty shillings a-week. Do you think that thirty-five shillings will make a difference in your sensations? No 1 It is a cruelty to broil you, and the only remedy is to teach machines to do your work, if indeed it be not within the province of art to produce other lights without a killing process. Better that we should go to bed with the birds, than go on with a race of helots, worse slaves than ever toiled in the mill in elder Greece.
It is not a necessary condition of humanity to use a pipe issuing vapour for lights instead of the hydrocarbon oils now dawning upon the public faculty of perception, oils produced almost perfect by nature in all the regions of the world.
And you, brickmaker, all day moulding wet clay without straw, as in Egypt of old, know you not that your toil will in good time be ended? That, even now, the steam engine takes clay powder without wetting, stamps it into a solid mass, and carries brick after brick direct into the kiln without loss of time?
And ye, too, masons and stone-carvers, ye who cut those endless repetitions on the Houses of Parliament, and deemed them works of art, and turned out on strikes as though mankind depended on you, know ye not that the chemist is now making better stone than Nature’s self, and moulding it to any shape without the chisel? Verily your present strike will make this stone universal!
And joiners, pattern-makers, carpenters, whom I once saw in a long procession defiling down to Whitehall to convince Lord Melbourne and others how strong ye were — and of a truth your forms and faces put the other trades to the blush, for ye were of the aristocracy of workmen — speak, I pray (and speak the truth!), does not steam make mouldings and plane flooring-boards and cut tenons and mortices as deftly as ye can do?
Well do I remember you, while thinking that those eyes that could look straight along a board-edge were the very eyes to take sights along a rifle barrel. But ye were not the men to do this in any but “a good cause, and with the law on your side.” Well, well! steam has taken away your drudgery, but it leaves to you still the true artist’s work — the pattern-making, the originating.
But what is to become of the great mass? will be asked. Have they nothing to complain of? They have. No strikes could have arisen had they been fairly dealt by. The employing class, as a body, has been guilty of a heavy sin of omission. Too much have men been looked on as living machines, not so good as cattle, inasmuch as cattle are cared for when work ceases.
But in our great contracting processes and engineering calculations we speak of men and fractions of men and fractions of boys, as if they were merely figures in arithmetic and not living souls. A great work and contract is on hand, and dependent humanity rushes towards it for wages: the work is ended, and dependent humanity slinks away to starve.
The great contractor knows no more of his men than by the numbers on their tickets. How this is to end we cannot clearly see, but assuredly it is not a condition of things to last. The contracting system does produce things at the lowest cost, but it is not yet proven that it produces the really cheapest things.
The poor men who put their money in savings’ banks ought to have better investments for it, and now that everything is tending towards joint-stock companies, and securities are increasing for their good management, it does seem a possible conclusion that the time will come when working men will be on a par with American whaling crews and Cornish miners — sharing in profits produced by individual skill and general watchfulness.
A better feeling between classes is gradually gaining ground, but trade is still hard-hearted. It cannot yet see that the welfare of the man is the welfare of the master. It leaves the man to his own devices “deserted at his utmost need,” and so men of slavish notions try to bind the master down to take them as daily slaves.
Out of such men did France get her universal suffrage and its sale to the promiser of daily bread. It behoves us all — masters and men, to guard against this — to increase, so far as possible, the number of the haves and to decrease the number of the have-nots.
A great nation is not great by mere numbers; or, if so, China would be the greatest nation in the world. It is by the absence of poverty rather than by the excess of riches, that the strength of a nation must be reckoned, so that every individual may feel convinced he has something to lose, so that the faculties of every individual may find their proper sphere of action, in which work ceases to be a drudgery and becomes a pleasure.
Then a strike is a sin against the law of common sense, though its authors have themselves been sinned against by neglect; inasmuch as it will be found that the really discontented are men below the standard of the civilised processes the nation is now growing up to and demanding, and that their habits are those of a ruder state of society.
It would therefore be mild and just to provide them from time to time with the means of emigrating to the colonies, where, their faculties finding employment, their condition might become that of enjoyment instead of constant discontent.
At all events, we may look forward to the time when many deteriorating employments and their followers will have disappeared from amongst us, just as the pretended needle-women are disappearing with the advent of the stitching machine.
It is a blessed thought that the time may come when ignorance and poverty and disease shall almost disappear; and although it is true that the “poor shall never cease from out of the land,” that they may only be the few, whom it will be a pleasure to help and who will keep our charities living.