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Atlantic Monthly, vol. 65 (1890), PP. 800-10

This essay was delivered as a lecture before the Boston Young Men's Christian Union, March 1, 1890.


THE agitation of the question of the hours of labor, which has long been going on, and has of late become very active, now seems to be fast proceeding to a crisis. Apparently, a severe struggle is upon us for the establishment of a rule limiting labor to eight hours a day. This result is to be sought either through the agency of law or by means of organized and widespread strikes. Formal notice has been served upon the industrial world that the contest in the United States is to be opened this year, to be continued unceasingly thereafter, not to close until the full "demands of labor" shall have been conceded, east and west, north and south, in the Old World as in the New.

Of course, those who are directing this movement would much prefer to bring about their end by law rather than through strikes, not only because the former means of accomplishing their object would be less costly than a hand-to-hand struggle with a powerful and resolute master class, but also because it would be more effectual and conclusive, more comprehensive and permanent. Laws may, indeed, be repealed after they have been enacted; or they may remain upon the statute-book, uncancelled but inoperative. Of this, however, the labor champions are willing to take their chance, having confidence in their ability to prevent the repeal of such a law, should it once be enacted, and to secure at least a tolerable degree of efficiency in its execution through their own political influence. But they fully appreciate that whatever is gained by a strike may at any moment be lost by a lockout, whenever, in the changes of the market, the balance inclines to the side of the employing class; and they will not be satisfied until they see their demands incorporated in the law of the land.

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The strikes which, unless all signs fail, will soon be precipitated upon this community are to differ from the strikes of the past largely in this: that they will result from quarrels picked" for the purpose, with reference to general effect; and will be carried on with not the less, but the greater, zeal, because those who order the men out care little for the object immediately contested, except either to win a victory which shall help the cause elsewhere, or, if a defeat be inevitable, to arouse a deeper and wider feeling throughout the laboring population. For the purposes of the American Federation of Labor, a strike which shall fail in its direct object, but shall stimulate the members of a trade to a more resolute purpose to demand and to obtain a law general to all trades, will be better than would be a strike which, effecting its immediate purpose, should leave those who had taken part in it satisfied with the result in their own case, and indifferent to the further progress of the cause. The industrial contests of the coming season are to be, unlike most of those recorded in industrial history, directed straight toward the end of securing legislation. Freed from the pretentious and cumbrous organization of the Knights of Labor, the men who now deem themselves charged with promoting the interests of the working classes will wield powers, greater than the Knights ever possessed, to initiate and conduct a series of strikes which shall essentially be nothing but a mighty agitation of the question of eight-hour legislation. It is, therefore, not of the strikes themselves, but of the proposed legislation, that I shall speak.

And, in the first place, let it be said that there is no fatal objection to the intervention of the state in the contract for labor. The traditional position of the economists in antagonism to such legislation, upon principle, is one which ought never to have been taken, and which cannot be maintained. The factory acts of England, which have become a model to the world, are in themselves a monument of prudent, farseeing, truly wise statesmanship, which employs the powers of the state to defend its citizenship against deep and irreparable injuries, and truly helps the people to help themselves. Beginning at a time when the condition of the masses was

wretched and deplorable beyond the power of language to describe, the factory legislation of England, judiciously combined with laws directed towards fostering the instincts of frugality, towards promoting the spread of intelligence, towards adjusting the burden of taxation to the strength and the weakness of the public body, has done a marvellous work in elevating the masses of the Kingdom.

The objection of the economists to factory legislation was, I have said, not well taken. That objection was based on the theory that whatever interferes in any way with the freedom of contract and of action must, in the end and in the long run, injure the working classes. But what is freedom, so far as practical men are concerned with it? Is it an empty right to do something which you cannot possibly do? Or is it a real power to do that one, out of many things, which you shall choose? If one course gives a man a legal right to do anything, but results in his being so helpless, and brings him into such miserable straits that he can, in fact, do but one thing, and that a thing which is most distressing; while another course, although it may keep a man somewhat within bounds, actually conducts him to a position where he has a real choice among many and good things, which course affords the larger liberty?

In the case of a poor, ignorant, and debased population, the absence of factory acts, while it nominally leaves the operative free to go anywhere and do whatever he likes, really results in his staying hopelessly where he finds himself, and doing that which he particularly dislikes. He becomes the slave of the mill, bound fast to the great wheel which turns and turns below. Theoretically, he will not work in any factory where he is not well treated, where the sanitary arrangements are not at least tolerable, where machinery is not fenced to prevent death and mutilation, and where the hours of labor are not kept within the limits of health and strength. Certainly he will not do this if he be really free. Practically, however, in the absence of factory legislation, the operative will have no choice but to work as long as the great wheel turns, be that ten hours, as so generally now, or twelve, or fourteen, or sixteen, as in the days

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