Part 5 (1/2)

We have seen that the unrestricted use of cheap labour is the essence of ”sweating.” If the wholesome restrictions of our Factory Legislation were in fact extended so as to cover all forms of employment, they would so increase the expenses of the sweating houses, that they would fall before the compet.i.tion of the large factory system. Karl Marx writing a generation ago saw this most clearly. ”But as regards labour in the so- called domestic industries, and the intermediate forms between this and manufacture, so soon as limits are put to the working day and to the employment of children, these industries go to the wall. Unlimited exploitation of cheap labour power is the sole foundation of their power to compete.”[28]

The effectiveness of the existing Factory Act, so far as relates to small workshops, is impaired by the following considerations--

1. The difficulty in finding small workshops. There is no effectual registration of workshops, and the number of inspectors is inadequate to the elaborate and tedious method of search imposed by the present system.

2. The limitation as to right of entry. The power of inspectors to ”enter, inspect, and examine at all reasonable times by day or night, a factory or a workshop, and every part thereof, when he has reason to believe that any person is employed therein, and to enter by day any place he has reasonable cause to believe to be a factory or workshop,”

is in fact not applicable in the case of dwelling-rooms used for workshops. In a large number of cases of the worst form of ”sweating,”

the inspector has no right of entrance but by consent of the occupant, and the time which elapses before such consent is given suffices to enable the ”sweater” to adjust matters so as to remove all evidence of infringements of the law.

3. The restricted power in reference to sanitation. A factory inspector has no sanitary powers; he cannot act save through the sanitary officer.

The machinery of sanitary reform thus loses effectiveness.

Compulsory registration of workshops, adequate inspection, and reform of machinery of sanitary reform, would be of material value in dealing with some of the evils of the small workshop. But it would by no means put an end to ”sweating.” So far as it admitted the continuance of the small workshop, it would neither directly nor indirectly abate the evil of low wages. It is even possible that any rapid extension of the Factory Act might, by limiting the amount of employment in small workshops, increase for a time the misery of those low-skilled workers, who might be incapable of undertaking regular work in the larger factory. It is, at any rate, not evident that such legislative reform would a.s.sist low- cla.s.s workers to obtain decent wages and regular employment, though it would improve the other conditions under which they worked.

Again, existing factory legislation by no means covers even theoretically the whole field of ”sweating.” Public-houses, restaurants, all shops and places of amus.e.m.e.nt, laundries, and certain other important forms of employment, which escape the present factory legislation, are in their lower branches liable to the evils of ”sweating,” and should be included under such factory legislation as seeks to remedy these evils.

-- 2. Co-operative Production.--The organization of labour is the second form of remedy. It is urged that wherever effective organization exists in any trade, there is no danger of sweating. We have therefore, it is maintained, only to organize the lower grades of labour, and ”sweating”

will cease to exist. There are two forms of organization commonly advocated, Co-operation and Trade Unionism.

The suggestion that the poorer grades of workers should by co-operative production seek to relieve themselves from the stress of poverty and the tyranny of the ”sweating system,” is a counsel of perfection far removed from the possibility of present attainment. No one who has closely studied the growth of productive co-operation in England will regard it as a practicable remedy for poverty. Productive co-operation is successful at present only in rare cases among skilled workmen of exceptional morale and education. It is impossible that it should be practised by low-skilled, low-waged workers, under industrial conditions like those of to-day. It is surprising to find that the Lords' Committee in its final report should have given prominence to schemes of co- operation as a cure for the disease. The following paragraph correctly sums up experience upon the subject--

”Productive societies have been from time to time started in East London, but their career has been neither long nor brilliant. They have often had a semi-philanthropic basis, and have been well-meant but hopeless attempts to supersede 'sweating' by co-operation. None now working are of sufficient importance to be mentioned.”[29]

The place which productive and distributive co-operation is destined to occupy in the history of the industrial freedom and elevation of the doubtless will be of the first importance. To look forward to a time when the workers of the community may be grouped in co-operative bodies, either competing with one another, or related by some bond which shall minimize the friction of compet.i.tion, while not impairing the freedom and integrity of each several group, is not perhaps a wild utopian vision. To students of English industrial history the transition to such a state will not appear more marked than the transition through which industry pa.s.sed under the Industrial Revolution to the present capitalist system. But the recognition of this possible future does not justify us in suggesting productive co-operation as a present remedy for the poverty of low-skilled city workers. These latter must rise several steps on the industrial and moral ladder before they are brought within the reach of the co-operative remedy. It is with the cost and labour of these early steps that the students of the problem of present poverty must concern themselves.

-- 3. Trade Unionism. Ability of Workers to combine. Trade Unionism is a more hopeful remedy. Large bodies of workers have by this means helped to raise themselves from a condition of industrial weakness to one of industrial strength. Why should not close combination among workers in low-paid and sweating industries be attended with like results? Why should not the men and women working in ”sweating” trades combine, and insist upon higher wages, shorter hours, more regular employment, and better sanitary conditions? Well, it may be regarded as an axiom in practical economies, that any concerted action, however weak and desultory, has its value. Union is always strength. An employer who can easily resist any number of individual claims for higher wages by his power to replace each worker by an outsider, can less easily resist the united pressure of a large body of his workmen, because the inconvenience of replacing them all at once by a body of outsiders, is far greater than the added difficulty of replacing each of them at separate intervals of time. This is the basis of the power of concerted action among workers. But the measure of this power depends in the main upon two considerations.

First comes the degree of effectiveness in combination. The prime requisites for effective combination are a spirit of comrades.h.i.+p and mutual trust, knowledge and self-restraint in the disposition of united force. Education and free and frequent intercourse can alone establish these elements of effective combination. And here the first difficulty for workers in ”sweating” trades appears. Low-skilled work implies a low degree of intelligence and education. The sweating industries, as we have seen, are as a rule those which escape the centralizing influence of the factory System, and where the employes work, either singly or in small groups, unknown to one another, and with few opportunities of forming a close mutual understanding. In some employments this local severance belongs to the essence of the work, as, for example, in the case of cab-drivers, omnibus-drivers, and generally in shop-work, where, in spite of the growth of large stores, small masters still predominate; in other employments the disunion of workers forms a distinct commercial advantage which enables such low-cla.s.s industries to survive, as in the small workshop and the home-labour, which form the central crux of our sweating problem. The very lack of leisure, and the incessant strain upon the physique which belong to ”sweating,” contribute to r.e.t.a.r.d education, and to render mutual acquaintances.h.i.+p and the formation of a distinct trade interest extremely difficult. How to overcome these grave difficulties which stand in the way of effective combination among unskilled workers is a consideration of the first importance. The rapid and momentarily successful action of organized dock labourers must not be taken as conclusive evidence that combination in all other branches of low-cla.s.s labour can proceed at the same pace. The public and localized character of the compet.i.tion for casual dock labour rendered effective combination here possible, in spite of the low intellectual and moral calibre of the average labourer. It is the absence of such public and localized compet.i.tion which is the kernel of the difficulty in most ”sweating” trades. It may be safely said that the measure of progress in organization of low cla.s.s labour will be the comparative size and localization of the industrial unit. Where ”sweating” exists in large factories or large shops, effective combination even among workers of low education may be tolerably rapid; among workers engaged by some large firm whose work brings them only into occasional contact, the progress will be not so fast; among workers in small unrelated workshops who have no opportunities of direct intercourse with one another, the progress will be extremely slow. The most urgent need of organization is precisely in those industries where it is most difficult to organize. It is, on the whole, not reasonable to expect that this remedy, unless aided by other forces working against the small workshops, will enable the ”hands” in the small sweater's den to materially improve their condition.

-- 4. Trade Union Methods of limiting Compet.i.tion.--So far we have regarded the value of combination as dependent on the ability of workers to combine. There is another side which cannot be neglected. Two societies of workmen equally strong in the moral qualities of successful union may differ widely in the influence they can exert to secure and improve their position. We saw that the real value of organization to a body of workmen lay in the power it gave them to make it inconvenient for an employer to dispense with their services in favour of outsiders.

Now the degree of this inconvenience will obviously depend in great measure upon the number of outsiders qualified by strength and skill to take their place without delay. The whole force of Unionism hangs on ”the unemployed.” The strongest and most effective Unions are in trades where there are the smallest number of unemployed compet.i.tors; the weakest Unions are in trades which are beset by crowds of outsiders able and willing to undertake the work, and if necessary to underbid those who are employed.

Close attention to the composition and working of our Trade Unions discloses the fact that their chief object is to limit the compet.i.tion for work in their respective trades. Since their methods are sometimes indirect, this is sometimes denied, but the following statement of Trade Union methods makes it clear. The minimum or standard rate of wages plays a prominent part in Unionism. It is arbitrarily fixed by the Union, which in its estimate takes into account, [Greek: a]. prices paid for articles produced; [Greek: b]. a reasonable standard of comfort; [Greek: g]. and remuneration for time spent in acquiring necessary skill.[30] This is an estimate, it must be remembered, of a ”fair wage,”

based upon calculations as to what is just and reasonable, and does not necessarily correspond to the economic wage obtainable in a neighbourhood by the free compet.i.tion of labour and capital. Now this standard wage, which may or may not be the wage actually paid, plays a very prominent part in Unionism. The point of importance here is its bearing on the admission of new members. The candidate for members.h.i.+p has, as his qualification, to show that he is capable of earning the standard rate of wages. It is evident, however, that the effect of any large new accession to the ranks of any trade must, unless there is a corresponding growth of employment, bring down the rate of wages, whether these be fixed by a Trade Union standard or not. Hence it is evident that any Trade Union would be bound to refuse admission to new applicants who, though they might be in other respects competent workmen, could not find work without under-bidding those who were at present occupied. This they would do by reason of their standard wage qualification, for they would be able to show that the new applicants would not be competent to earn standard wages under the circ.u.mstances.

How far Trade Unions actually have conscious recourse to this method of limiting their numbers, may be doubted; but no one acquainted with the spirit of Trades Unions would believe that if a sudden growth of technical schools enabled large numbers of duly qualified youths to apply for admission into the various Unions so as to compete for the same quant.i.ty of work with the body of existing members, the Unions of the latter would freely and cheerfully admit them. To do so would be suicidal, for no standard rate of wages could stand against the pressure of an increased supply of labour upon a fixed demand. But it is not necessary to suppose that any considerable number of actually qualified workmen are refused admission to Trade Unions of skilled workers. For the possession of the requisite skill, implying as it does a certain natural capacity, and an expenditure of time and money not within the power of the poorest, forms a practical limit to the number of applicants. Moreover, in many trades, though by no means in all, restrictions are placed by the Unions upon the number of apprentices, with the object of limiting the number of those who should from year to year be qualified to compete for work. In other trades where no rigid rule to this effect exists, there is an understanding which is equally effective. Certain trades, such as the engineers, boiler-makers, and other branches of iron trade, place no restrictions, and in certain other trades the restrictions are not closely applied. But most of the strong Trades Unions protect themselves in another way against the compet.i.tion of unemployed. By a System of ”out of work” pay, they bribe those of their body, who from time to time are thrown out of work, not to underbid those in work, so as to bring down the rate of wages.

Several of the most important Unions pay large sums every year to ”out of work” members. By these three means, the ”minimum wage” qualification for members.h.i.+p, the limitation of the number of apprentices, and the ”out of work” fund, the Trade Unions strengthen the power of organized labour in skilled industries by restricting the compet.i.tion of unemployed outsiders.

It is true that some of the leading exponents of Trade Unionism deny that the chief object of the Unions is to limit compet.i.tion. Mr. Howell considers that the ”standard wage” qualification for members.h.i.+p is designed in order to ensure a high standard of workmans.h.i.+p, and regards the ”out of work” fund merely as belonging to the insurance or prudential side of Trade Unionism. But though it may readily be admitted that one effect of these measures may be to maintain good workmans.h.i.+p and to relieve distress, it is reasonable to regard the most important result actually attained as being the object chiefly sought. It is fair to suppose, therefore, that while Unionists may not be indifferent to the honour of their craft, their object is to strengthen their economic position. At any rate, whatever the intention of Trade Unions may be, the effect of their regulations is to limit the effective supply of competing labour in their respective branches of industry.

-- 5. Can Low-skilled Workers successfully combine?--Now the question which concerns our inquiry may be stated thus. Supposing that the workers in ”sweating” industries were able to combine, would they be able to secure themselves against outside compet.i.tion as the skilled worker does? Will their combination practically increase the difficulty in replacing them by outsiders? Now it will be evident that the unskilled or low-skilled workers cannot depend upon the methods which are adopted by Unions of skilled workers, to limit the number of compet.i.tors for work. A test of physical fitness, such as was recently proposed as a qualification for admission to the Dock-labourers Union, will not, unless raised far above the average fitness of present members, limit the number of applicants to anything like the same extent as the test of workmans.h.i.+p in skilled industries. Neither could rules of apprentices.h.i.+p act where the special skill required was very small. Nor again is it easy to see how funds raised by the contribution of the poorest of workers, could suffice to support unemployed members when temporarily ”out of work,” or to buy off the active compet.i.tion of outsiders, or ”black-legs,” to use the term in vogue. The constant influx of unskilled labour from the rural districts and from abroad, swollen by the numbers of skilled workmen whose skill has been robbed of its value by machinery, keeps a large continual margin of unemployed, able and willing to undertake any kind of unskilled or low-skilled labour, which will provide a minimum subsistence wage. The very success which attends the efforts of skilled workers to limit the effective supply of their labour by making it more difficult for unskilled workers to enter their ranks, increases the compet.i.tion for low-skilled work, and makes effective combination among low-skilled workers more difficult. Though we may not be inclined to agree with Prof. Jevons, that ”it is quite impossible for Trade Unions in general to effect any permanent increase of wages,” there is much force in his conclusion, that ”every rise of wages which one body secures by mere exclusive combination, represents a certain extent, sometimes a large extent, of injury to the other bodies of workmen.”[31] In so far as Unions of skilled workers limit their numbers, they increase the number of compet.i.tors for unskilled work; and since wages cannot rise when the supply of labour obtainable at the present rate exceeds the demand, their action helps to maintain that ”bare subsistence wage,” which forms a leading feature in ”sweating.”

Are we then to regard Unions of low-skilled workers as quite impotent so long as they are beset by the compet.i.tion of innumerable outsiders? Can combination contribute nothing to a solution of the sweating problem?

There are two ways in which close combination might seem to avail low- skilled workers in their endeavours to secure better industrial conditions.

In the first place, close united action of a large body of men engaged in any employment gives them, as we saw, a certain power dependent on the inconvenience and expense they can cause to their employers by a sudden withdrawal. This power is, of course, in part measured by the number of unemployed easily procurable to take their place. But granted the largest possible margin of unemployed, there will always be a certain difficulty and loss in replacing a united body of employes by a body of outsiders, though the working capacity of each new-comer may be equal to that of each member of the former gang. This power belonging inherently to those in possession, and largely dependent for its practical utility on close unity of action, may always be worked by a trade organization to push the interests of its members independently of the supply of free outside labour, and used by slow degrees may be made a means of gaining piece by piece a considerable industrial gain. Care must, however, be taken, never to press for a larger gain than is covered by the difficulty of replacing the body of present employes by outside labour. Miscalculations of the amount of this inherent power of Union are the chief causes of ”lock-outs” and failures in strikes.

Another weapon in the hands of unskilled combination, less calculable in its effectiveness, is the force of public opinion aided by ”picketing,”