Labor Day is always a good time to reflect on labor conditions in the Empire. Between 1913 and 1915 the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations, composed of representatives of capital and labor, held hearings on labor conditions in the U.S. Their final report, written by the labor commissioners on the panel and widely regarded as the Commission’s official statement, provides a succinct overview of the savage class warfare carried out by the private owners of the economy and their servants in government in the late 19th and early 20th century. Particularly striking is the call for national health insurance, which the U.S. still lacks nearly a century later. [Note: In a separate statement the employers on the Commission decried the evils of labor, including the secondary boycott ("unjust, inequitable, and vicious"), the closed shop, contract abrogation, restriction of output, and "irresponsible" labor union politics.]
Why Workers Rebel
The Commission attributed widespread labor rebellion to "numberless thousands of workers . . . who feel bitterly that they and their fellows are being denied justice, economically, politically, and legally." A major grievance was labor's conviction that "income should be received for service (i.e. work) and for service only, whereas in fact, it bears no such relation, and he who serves least, or not at all, may receive most." John H. Walker, president of the Illinois State Federation of Labor, observed that major investors had a different philosophy: "People accept it as all right if they do not do any work at all, and accept it as all right that they get as much money as they can; in fact they are given credit for getting the greatest amount of money with the least amount of work . . . ” The Commission concluded that, morally speaking, "reward can be claimed as a right only by those who have performed service, not by those who through relationship or mere parasitism chance to be designated as heirs."
Distribution of Wealth
The Commissioners determined that whereas the wealth of the country between 1890 and 1912 had increased 188 per cent, the aggregate income of wage earners in manufacturing, mining, and transportation had only risen 95 per cent, and thus workers had been denied the full value of their toil, not to mention any voice in how the "surplus" was to be used.
Meanwhile, "at the other end of the social scale, are fortunes of a size never before dreamed of, whose very owners do not know the extent nor . . . even the sources, of their incomes." The Commission found that in the United States there were "forty-four families with incomes of $1,000,000 or more, whose members perform little or no useful service" but whose total income of at least $50 million a year was "equivalent to the earnings of 100,000 wage earners at the average rate of $500." Citing "a statistician of conservative views" the Commission noted a decidedly lopsided distribution of ownership: (1) "The 'Rich,' 2 percent of the people, own 60 percent of the wealth." (2) "The 'Middle Class,' 33 per cent of the people, own 35 per cent of the wealth." (3)"The 'Poor,' 65 per cent of the people, own 5 per cent of the wealth."
Furthermore, the unequal pattern was self-perpetuating in that "the great fortunes . . . have already passed, or will pass in a few years, by right of inheritance to the control of heirs or to trustees." These fortunate few "occupy within our Republic a position almost exactly analogous to that of feudal lords," as they "control the livelihood and have the power to dictate the happiness of more human beings than populated England in the Middle Ages." The Commission called on Congress "to check the growth of an hereditary aristocracy, which is . . . menacing to the welfare of the people and the existence of the Nation as a democracy." It also recommended reducing the incomes of the rich and raising wages "to a level of decent and comfortable living," further proposing "the enactment of an inheritance tax, so graded that . . . . it shall leave no large accumulation of wealth to pass into hands which had no share in its production."
Turning to unemployment, the Commissioners attributed its existence to lopsided distribution of purchasing power and underutilization of land and natural resources. The first left the workers "unable to purchase the products of industry which they create," while the second, a consequence of producing for profit rather than use, put "a large proportion of the public land . . . into the hands of speculators" who kept them out of cultivation hoping for a higher resale value later, while small farmers were pushed into bankruptcy and workers went hungry for lack of work.
Since work was offered solely at the convenience of the employer, workers were idled "on the average from one-fifth to one-fourth of the working time during the normal year." But unemployment negatively affected ALL workers, idled or not, because there were "few who do not suffer bitterly many times in their career because they are unable to get work." Furthermore, whereas "capital can offset the fat years against the lean," unemployed workers "must starve or suffer a rapid physical and moral deterioration" when the market regularly renders them "useless and worthless."
The Partisan Courts
The Commission found that theoretically neutral courts in fact consistently favored the owners of capital by "restrict[ing] the activities of labor organizations" and "depriv[ing] them of their most effective weapons, namely, the boycott and the power of picketing"; upholding the employers' "power of arbitrary discharge, of blacklisting, and of bringing in strikebreakers"; and striking down "legislative attempts to restrict the employers’ powers."
The Origin of Violence
Responsibility for violence, said the report, "can usually be traced to the conditions prevailing in the particular industry," which were characterized as "oppressive conditions." The most incendiary tactic in the employers' arsenal was "almost without exception the attempt to introduce strikebreakers to take the place of the workers who have struck or who are locked out. The entire problem of policing industrial disputes grows out of the problem of the strikebreaker and the attitude of the state toward him." (emphasis in original)
After observing that the courts were entirely supportive of their use, the Commissioners pointed out that "the strikebreaker is not a genuine workingman but is a professional who merely fills the place of the worker and is unable or unwilling to do steady work." In the rare case he was a real worker, "he [was] ignorant of conditions or compelled to work under duress."
Commenting that exploitative conditions for labor could be found "throughout history" the Commissioners observed that, "Violence is a natural form of protest against injustice."
Unions they judged to be not only legitimate but essential, for "without organization of the workers their collective claims can not be considered"; furthermore, "without the right to appoint such representatives as they choose, workers are at the mercy of the employer’s power of discharge," while "the [employer’s] refusal to consider grievances leaves only the alternative of the strike."
Rights, Privilege, and Exploitation
The Commissioners found that whereas the conduct of business is "permitted only so far as its exercise is in the public interest," striking workers "have a right to the jobs which they have left until their grievances are in some way adjusted." In fact, they deemed it a mark of social responsibility to protest unjust conditions, on the grounds that a worker striking in pursuit of better conditions "has a keener interest in [the job] than when quietly submitting to distasteful conditions."
Furthermore, "working conditions can be improved only by strikes" and "no strike can be won if the employer can operate his plant without difficulty." The "private guards, detectives, and vigilantes" hired by employers "are openly partisan and can have no other purpose in connection with a strike than to break it." Meanwhile, "corrupt and subservient" courts "have time and again permitted the militia, under color of so-called 'martial law,' to usurp their functions," with members of said militia being "in the employment and pay of corporations." If not stopped, "the encroachment upon fundamental rights" by these companies could produce a situation where "the liberties of all citizens are hanging in the balance."
After investigating the employers' use of the state constabulary, the Commission judged that during strikes "it appears to assume . . . that the strikers are its enemies," with the result that "violence seems to increase" every time it is used, leading to "citizens not in any way connected with the dispute" being "brutally treated," while the constabulary "escape[s] punishment for their acts."
Employers routinely suppressed labor's right to free speech, a policy "carried out with a degree of brutality which would be incredible if it were not vouched for by reliable witnesses," often precipitating "bloody riots" and wholesale arrests of the innocent.
The toll of all this on individual character was devastatingly negative, as young workers "full of ambition and high hopes for the future" were inevitably demoralized by their "failure in establishing themselves in some trade or calling," becoming income nomads willing to suffer any conditions, with the result that they "begin to lose self-respect." The appalling living conditions casual workers endured were "generally sufficient to weaken the physique and destroy the moral fiber of even the strongest man "in a single season," not the least due to the constant "spread of dangerous diseases by migratory workers."
Absent formal organization of the labor force, "improvised labor markets" were set up in "pool rooms, cafes, grocery stores, lodging houses, even [on] street corners and public parks," leading to "groundless rumors send[ing] people scurrying over the city and the country on a wild-goose chase." Foremen sold real and imaginary jobs merely to generate fees, in a business that "reek[ed] with fraud, extortion, and flagrant abuses of every kind." Workers were "charged out of all proportion to the service rendered," were "sent a long distance" and "made to pay fees and transportation," only to discover that no jobs existed. Foremen liked to "discharge men constantly" to generate more fees, which led to the "three gang" method of fee extraction: "one gang working, another coming to work from the employment agent, and a third going back to the city." Workers were lied to about their actual wages, the length of the job, living conditions at the job site, and were not told when they were being used to break strikes.
Employers' insistence on "low wages, excessive hours, methods causing nervous strain, and general insanitary conditions" caused poverty and attendant high rates of illness among workers, as evidenced by "insufficient diet, bad housing, inadequate clothing, and generally unfavorable surroundings in the home."
The Commissioners recommended that government establish a system of guaranteed sickness insurance for all, which would make benefits a right rather than a demeaning charity. This practice, they noted, was already the norm in Europe, where "experience has proved the superiority of Government systems to private insurance."
Scientific Management ("Taylorism")
The dismemberment of tasks celebrated in "scientific management" of the work force came in for lengthy critique. This form of production was found to lead to monotonous concentration on "one or two tasks" precluding "discovery and development of special aptitudes" and "tend[ed] to divide the workers into two unequal classes," a few who occupy "managerial positions" and many "bound to remain task workers within a narrow field." The practice tended to "weaken the power of the individual worker as against the employer" and "transfer[red] to the management the traditional craft knowledge," leaving the worker an ancillary tool of production who was "therefore easier of displacement." Furthermore, scientific management tended to "weaken the solidarity" of workers and "prevent the formation of groups" that could advance their interests. In fact, "almost everything points to the strengthening of the individualistic motive," since "each worker is bent on the attainment of his individual task" and "can not combine with his fellows to determine how much that task shall be." Slowing the pace of work "merely lessens his wages and prejudices his standing without helping his neighbor." Commendation was meted out individually and "personal rivalry is stimulated by the posting of individual records or classification of the workers by name into Excellent, Good, Poor, etc." The "gospel of scientific management" instructed the worker how he "can cut loose from the mass" and advance over it. Without unions there was no democratic possibility in scientific management, since "the individual is manifestly in no position to cope with the employer on a basis of equality." To wit:
"The claim to democracy based on the close association of the management and the men and the opportunities allowed for the voicing of complaints is not borne out by the facts, and in the general run of scientific management shops, barring the presence of unionism and collective bargaining, the unionists are justified in the charge that the workers have no real voice in hiring and discharging, the setting of the task, the determination of the wage rates, or the general conditions of employment. This charge is true even where the employers have no special autocratic tendencies, much more so therefore where, as in many cases, they are thoroughly imbued with the autocratic spirit. With rare exceptions, then, democracy under scientific management can not and does not exist apart from unionism and collective bargaining."
In short, scientific management was objectionable because it (1) "weaken[ed] the competitive power of the individual worker" (2) "thwart[ed]the formation of shop groups and weaken[ed] group solidarity"; (3) "[was] lacking in the arrangements and machinery necessary for the actual voicing of the workers' ideas and complaints, and for the democratic consideration and adjustment of grievances." (4) tolerated collective bargaining "only when it [was] not understood." (5) treated unionism "with abhorrence."
Therefore, "scientific management must . . . be declared autocratic in tendency, a reversion to industrial autocracy." It rendered impossible the "establishment of stable conditions of work and pay" and "inevitably tend[ed] to the constant breakdown of the established crafts and craftmanship and the constant elimination of skill." Under a scientific management utopia "any man who walks the street would be a practical competitor for almost any workman's job." This "would . . . render collective bargaining impossible," as intended.
In a supplemental statement Chairman Frank P. Walsh found "the basic cause of industrial dissatisfaction to be low wages," which were maintained "through compulsory and oppressive methods" designed to deny workers "the full product of their toil." Millions of Americans were "denied . . . that degree of economic well-being necessary for the enjoyment of those material and spiritual satisfactions which alone make life worth living." Furthermore, "bitterness, bred of unfilled need for sufficient, food, clothing and shelter" was "nourished . . . by resentment against the arbitrary power [of] the employer." Walsh's bill of indictment against employers pulled no punches:
"Employers from coast to coast have created and maintained small private armies of armed men and have used these forces to intimidate and suppress their striking employees by deporting, imprisoning, assaulting or killing their leaders. Elaborate spy systems are maintained to discover and forestall the movements of the enemy. The use of State troops in policing strikes has bred a bitter hostility to the militia system among members of labor organizations, and States have been unable to enlist wage earners for this second line of the Nation’s defense. Courts, legislatures and governors have been rightfully accused of serving employers to the defeat of justice, and, while counter charges come from employers and their agents, with almost negligible exceptions it is the wage earners who believe, assert and prove that the very institutions of their country have been perverted by the power of the employer. Prison records for labor leaders have become badges of honor in the eyes of many of their people, and great mass meetings, throughout the Nation, cheer denunciations of courts and court decisions."
Speaking for the Commission, Walsh found "the unrest here described to be but the latest manifestation of the age-long struggle of the race for freedom of opportunity for every individual to live his life to its highest ends." Mechanized production posed a considerable obstacle to this, for it allowed "unskilled workers [to be] substituted for the skilled" and produced "great corporations possessing enormous economic power." This, in turn, meant that "work formerly done at home or in small neighborhood shops, [had] been transferred to great factories" in which the worker was reduced to an "impersonal element under the control of impersonal corporations," voiceless and without human connection to the enterprise and its products. Entire families had been swallowed up by the factory system, Walsh noted.
Returning to the theme of parasitism, Walsh pointed out that "while vast inherited fortunes, representing zero in social service to the credit of their possessors, automatically treble and multiply in volume, two-thirds of those who toil from eight to twelve hours a day receive less than enough to support themselves and their families in decency and comfort." Economic insecurity ran rampant, with workers liable to economic disaster from "accident, illness, the caprice of a foreman, or the fortunes of industry." Life off the job was equally oppressive, for "the lives of their babies were snuffed out by bad air in cheap lodgings, and the lack of nourishment and care which they can not buy." Meanwhile, breadwinners killed or "maimed in accidents" visited ruin on their families, who "receive[d] a pittance" in compensation - or nothing at all. Walsh found the Bill of Rights inoperative where private corporate power reigned supreme:
"We find that many entire communities exist under the arbitrary economic control of corporation officials charged with the management of an industry or group of industries, and we find that in such communities political liberty does not exist, and its forms are hollow mockeries. Give to the employer power to discharge without cause, to grant to or withhold from thousands the opportunity to earn bread, and the liberties of such a community lie in the hollow of the employer’s hand. Free speech, free assembly, and a free press may be denied, as they have been denied time and again, and the employer’s agents may be placed in public office to do his bidding."
Contrary to capitalist dogma, a worker was a dependent employee, not a free agent, "For the house he lives in, the food he eats, the clothing he wears, the environment of his wife and children, and his own health and safety, are in the hands of the employer, through the arbitrary power which he exercises in fixing his wages and working conditions."
Nevertheless, employers were not responsible for such conditions, as they were merely following "the natural bent of men involved in the struggle of competitive industry." Walsh placed primary responsibility for injustice "upon the workers, who, blind to their collective strength and oftentimes deaf to the cries of their fellows, have suffered exploitation and the invasion of their most sacred rights without resistance." Other responsible parties include "the great mass of citizens who . . . have failed to realize that their own prosperity is dependent upon the welfare of all classes of the community and that their rights are bound up with the rights of every other individual." Walsh warned that the situation was irremediable without class consciousness from below, for "until the workers themselves realize their responsibility and utilize to the full their collective power, no action, whether Governmental or altruistic, can work any genuine and lasting improvement."