The Trade Union and the Superior Workman

THE opposition which threatened the infancy of trade unions has greatly abated or ceased, as the right of wage-earners to combine is to-day seldom questioned. But the old hostility has been followed by a new antagonism hardly less bitter. It is now frequently complained that the power of organization is employed tyrannically and ignorantly to pervert the activities of workmen, — to incite when they should not be aggressive (in contentiousness, strikes, breach of contract, and physical violence), and to paralyze their energy in its legitimate productive uses, by opposing devices for making labor effective, by preventing young men from learning the trades, and by stifling the ambition and blighting the energy of the efficient, since none is permitted to do more or to earn more than the less capable.

Of the offenses commonly alleged in this indictment, none seem more pernicious, if the accusation is true, than those practices which introduce a baneful equality by willfully suppressing superior strength and skill. In at least two ways, it is said, this disastrous effect is produced. First, a limit to the day’s work is prescribed, suited to the average man, and this relatively small amount of work even the best men are forbidden to exceed. Beyond this (the complaint runs), the intelligent and vigorous are compelled to endure a second sacrifice. The minimum rate of wages established by the union is so high that the employer withholds from the better men what he is compelled to pay to the inferior men in excess of their merit. The superior men are thus maimed and dwarfed in their character as workmen, and in their personal fortunes, by being compelled to pattern after the inefficient.

At both these points, perhaps, there has been occasion for complaint; but at neither is the accusation true in its full force. The limit of work is harmful but not entirely inexcusable ; the equality of wages (if all its effects be considered) is not evidently harmful.

The policy of trades unions in these matters is often frankly enough avowed. There is no doubt, for instance, that in a large part of the trade-union world it is considered desirable to restrain the productive energy of exceptionally capable men. By a rule of the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin-Plate Workers, “when it is found that any crew has violated the limit of output for tin and black-plate mills, the lodge shall collect the equivalent of the overweight from roller and doubler, and an additional fine of twenty-five cents shall be imposed on the roller and doubler for each offense. ” Also, if any mill is “known to be continually violating the limit of output, it shall be considered ‘ black, ’ and the charter immediately revoked.” In the WindowGlass Cutters’ League, “no cutter shall be allowed to cut more than two and one half pots or 480 boxes of single strength, or 360 boxes of double strength.” The lathers of Chicago limited the day’s work to twenty-five bundles per day. This maximum, by the way, was also a minimum; if a workman was unable to accomplish this prescribed task, his companions would help him. The journeymen plumbers forbade the use of a bicycle during working hours. The Boston bricklayers forbade any “rushing or driving that will injure or jeopardize the interests of a fellow member, such as spreading mortar on the wall before the line is up, repeatedly slacking the lime before it is laid out its entire course, or putting up the line more than one course at a time. ” Employees of a Massachusetts textile factory formed a union, and immediately attempted to regulate the amount of a fair week’s weaving; and employees of the National Glass Company are said to have engaged, without success, for the same purpose, in a conflict which lasted two or three years.

Where there is no rule limiting the amount of work, a sentiment no less effective frequently prevails. The “pacer ” and the offense of “rushing a brother ” are detested, and a too eager workman is frequently restrained by admonition from a shop committee-man or perhaps by the complaint of a slower neighbor. This aversion to extreme rapidity in work is actively manifest not only where there is no trade-union regulation to express it, but often where there is no union. The labor organization serves merely in some instances to assert it formally, or to enforce it with greater thoroughness.

Wages payment by the piece, in contrast with payment by the unit of time, stimulates the effort of the workman to the utmost, as he knows that his earnings increase with his effort. This method is correspondingly opposed by a large proportion of unionists. The United Garment Workers and the Watch Case Engravers declare in their constitutions a purpose of doing away with piece-work, and the printers’ constitution calls for its abolition in book printing offices wherever this is practicable. The machinists have waged war against it for years, excluding it wherever their strength permitted, expending their time and money for this object more freely than for any of their other interests, and preventing its introduction in one hundred shops within two years.

The actual loss of productive force through limitation of output cannot well be measured, even in a single industry or a single shop; but the increase in production from the piece-work system has apparently been demonstrated somewhat definitely by comparison of results where this method and payment by time have been applied consecutively among the same workmen. In one instance when payment by the piece was introduced in a car-shop, and the price of each piece of work fixed at its estimated cost under the time-payment system, wages were at once increased about ten per cent. Formerly sixty-six men had been employed seven days a week, working on some days overtime. The force was now reduced to forty-five, and they worked only five and one half days each week. The expense for the work diminished more than one fifth. A body of men engaged in digging clay for making brick were paid $1.80 per day. They refused to accept payment instead at the rate of twenty cents per ton and struck. Other men were brought in to take their places, and in a short time some of them earned $3.25 per day, working less than eight hours, while the least efficient earned $2.40. The brick company gained a substantial advantage, as the output of clay, for which need was urgent, increased by one half.

Experiments like these seem to most people to demonstrate the folly of discouraging effort; and even without experimental proof, any restraint upon energy is commonly regarded as self-evidently harmful. Yet the policy thus condemned is not pursued in a wanton spirit of mischief-making. In its defense are offered reasons not without weight, and it is a superficial study of the subject which will permit one to dismiss the arguments as absurd or to condemn the practice as altogether blameworthy.

These arguments are of unequal force; the weakest is an error shared with the most respectable, with great men of affairs, with kings and prime ministers; the stronger arguments, which must be treated with respect, have been evolved by the workmen as a product of their own feelings and reflections.

It seems possible to single out from the whole range of motives in the current economics of the senate, the street, and the market-place one proposition which is more widely accepted among all nations than any other. Though it is almost universally accepted, it becomes self-evidently absurd when it is plainly set forth; it is so absurd that while all believe it, all would disavow it when charged with it, though they show with the next breath that, in disguise, it controls them. Absurd and repudiated, it is yet perhaps the most influential belief in the whole range of economic speculation.

The power to labor abundantly, it seems, is superabundant, so that we must seek diligently for opportunities to employ it. Energy exists in superfluity; needs to be satisfied by its exercise are relatively scant. Workmen for this reason, in order to prevent a rapid diminution in the precious opportunity to toil, think it necessary to limit the productivity of labor, to hamper the satisfaction of needs, to cherish want. Plainly, there will not be work for all if all work with the utmost energy.

Within the last year, likewise, an American statesman has argued in favor of building many war vessels because the expenditure of time and money for that purpose would give employment to labor, would increase not the sum of capital that is available, but the sum of occasions for laborious effort, as though the sum of these occasions, which is merely the sum of poverty, were not already sufficient.

In the argument for protective tariffs and for shipping subsidies (mingled with other more rational considerations) there appears incessantly this same strange doctrine, veiled but unmistakable. Recently all Europe has been agitated by the fear that American farmers and American manufacturers will relieve Europeans of the primal curse by supplying their material needs (asking, it appears, no equivalent of goods or services in return), and metropolitan editors and great Continental ministers of state have even proposed an armed attack against the United States to ward off this embarrassment of unearned riches, to “limit the output” of their energetic Western neighbors.

The desire of some workingmen for a limit upon production seems at times to be inspired by this widespread delusion, and in entertaining it the wageearners are at any rate not peculiarly at fault. Restrictions upon exertion have, however, a defense or excuse in other considerations less certainly fallacious. In some kinds of work rapidity is attained by a proportionate increase of muscular force expended; in such cases the greatest possible rapidity may not be desirable. It is alleged that in certain trades, as in the building trades, a few unusually energetic men in each group are encouraged to set a pace which the others are expected to follow, but which they cannot follow without overexertion, injurious to health, and, in the long run, to the industry for whose services they become prematurely unfit. If such customs prevail, a limit to the day’s work cannot well be condemned, though there is of course extreme difficulty in determining what a fair day’s work is, and extreme danger that the maximum permitted will be less than good workmen ought to perform.

There is yet another reason for limiting output or opposing the piece-work system. Though the public interest doubtless requires that production should be energetic and products therefore abundant, it is not clear that an increase of productive energy is always of advantage to the workmen. The usual assumption that wages correspond to efficiency, taken in the sense in which that proposition is commonly offered, is not true. On the contrary, incentives to energy may actually result in reducing wages for the majority of workmen, and there is no certainty that even the more capable minority will gain in wages from their accelerated labor. Let us notice first how this effect may result when effort is stimulated by the piece-work system. When wages are paid by the piece, it is a matter of difficulty to determine the prices to be allowed for the several pieces of work. A schedule is fixed by an estimate, perhaps, of the amount previously earned for each task under the time-payment system. But this schedule is always provisional and subject to revision. On a certain railway system, for instance, the schedules for car-shops are revised every three months. Subordinate officials make changes when they find it necessary, and the schedules undergo a final revision by the head of the mechanical department. What is to serve for guidance in these modifications? Under what circumstances will an item of payment be augmented, under what circumstances decreased ?

It is difficult to find any calculable elements in the problem. There is no obvious equivalence between any specific piece of work and a specific sum of money — between boring or turning a piece of steel and any assignable number of cents. There is, however, one very indefinite quantitative relation between a particular task and its payment. The wages of a workman, it is presumed, will enable him to maintain himself according to a suitable standard of living. If by especial energy workmen increase the pieces of work completed and thereby swell their earnings under an established schedule to a total which seems extraordinarily high for that class of labor, there is a strong presumption that the piece rate will be reduced. It is a habit of the public to regard as abnormal, if not improper, exceptionally high earnings by manual laborers. Persons who declare most strongly that the capable man should have a proportionate reward will nevertheless protest, not literally, but by implication, when wages attain dimensions not unusual in salaries or profits.

During the Homestead strike in 1892, for example, it became known that certain steel mill employees earned high wages, and the fact seemed not merely irregular, but ridiculous, to that influential public sentiment which reflects itself in newspaper jokes. Employers or corporation officials are presumably not exempt from the conviction that wages should conform to a traditionally befitting standard, and they are actually subject to influences tending toward a reduction of any piece rates which have permitted large earnings. Under competition rival establishments are strongly impelled to accept a principle which economizes earnings and facilitates lower competitive prices. The honest zeal of subordinates adds to this tendency.

Exceptional workmen are the ones whose record most strongly affects the fixing of piece rates, but the rates fixed must determine the earnings of the less capable. Rates which suffice for the comfort of the exceptional may mean poverty for the workman of average speed. The rapid workman, therefore, threatens with grave injury his less capable associates. The first effect of piecework may be very probably an augmentation of wages, but the danger is ever present that a revision of price will reverse this temporary advantage. Employers have sometimes recognized the danger of injury to workmen from the piece-work system. Thus the president of the National Metal Trade Association (an important society of employers) announced during the great machinists’ strike in 1901 that the employers insisted on their right to introduce this system, but that the association would not permit any member to make improper use of piece-work. The recognition of a danger that the system might be abused is plain and significant.

There is thus a conflict of interests between the more capable and less capable workmen, between the public which requires abundant production and the mass of producing laborers who are positively injured by the speed of the exceptional men. This conflict of interest and this injury appear not only in the piece-work system, but also in a large part of the industrial field, where wages are apportioned to time, for time-wages are frequently piece-wages in disguise. In a shoe factory, for example, if the business is well managed, careful account is kept of the expense, at the actual rate of time-wages, for each portion of the work of making a pair of shoes. In some shoe factories there is formally a “stint,” — an amount of work which each person must perform in order to earn the amount established as a day’s wages. But in any case it is definitely known how much work each employee has performed each week, and there is necessarily a tendency, like that in the piece-work system, to adjust wages from the better men, or women, to the inferior, according to the comparative amounts of work completed by one and another, and in this gradation to take the task performed by the more capable as constituting a “fair day’s work ” which gives claim to a “ fair day’s pay, ” so that those who are unable to maintain the standard set by the more efficient appear incompetent and likely to be judged unworthy of good wages. If the number of rapid workmen is great, or if special incentives stimulate a large number to great energy, the presumption against those unable to keep pace is correspondingly stronger. The exceptionally capable will have no certainty of greatly augmenting their own earnings, because employers will not pay them more than “fair wages,” and their exceptional effort serves thus only to depress the wages of their inferiors. Both the employer and the union assume “fair wages ” as a standard, but the union attempts to establish this standard rate as a minimum; the employer is tempted to regard it almost as a maximum.

This is the state of facts assumed by many wage-earners in condemning the rapid workman as selfish, and in attempting to curb his energy. Evidently a restriction of output has this questionable excuse only when it restrains exceptional speed, which may tend to lower the wages of the average workman. There is evidence that in some trades, unions have forbidden men to exceed in a day an amount of work which a fairly able man should perform in half or two thirds of a day. For such a policy there is of course no justification.

It has frequently been said that the trade-union policy operates to the disadvantage of the superior men not only in purposely restraining their efforts, but also by establishing an equality of wages between the abler and inferior workmen, so that a man of special skill is denied the hope of reward for conspicuous service. The union, it is said, establishes for all its members a rate of wages higher than that which the employer would pay to inferior men if there were no union scale. The employer seeks to recoup himself for his loss in paying this rate to men whose services have little value by paying to the abler men less than the amount to which their comparative efficiency entitles them. Where there are no unions it is said men are paid in proportion to ability, as every employer desires to procure or to retain the services of the good men.

The influence of unions operates in some degree to the effect here described, but not in the degree commonly alleged. The usual opinion, which has just been quoted, seems at times to exaggerate the uniformity of wages, where strong unions exist; it certainly is inaccurate in assuming that wages where there are no unions vary in close correspondence with difference in ability. The influence of the unions in equalizing wages is limited in several ways. A very large part of the work done by members of unions is paid for by the system of piece rates, as in machine shops, printing offices, and shoe factories. This necessarily gives higher earnings to the more rapid workmen. Again some vigorous unions have no minimum rate. Even where a union is strong, and the minimum rate so high that it is almost the universal rate, there are often or usually workmen of marked excellence who receive higher wages. In a certain large newspaper printing office, for example, nearly one tenth of the printers working by the week were paid more than the union scale, some as much as one fourth beyond the agreed minimum, although the union scale in that city was conspicuously high. Uniformity is thus not complete even where unions exist.

On the other hand, even where there are no unions, wages in most employments correspond but roughly to variations in ability or energy. This is true especially of unskilled laborers. Usually in a farming neighborhood there is a customary rate of wages for field hands employed by the month, and variations from this rate are as infrequent as variations from the union rate in the “ well - organized ” trades. A rather feeble youth is often paid, during a whole season, the full amount of monthly wages. The same thing is true of railway track-hands. Among 1680 such laborers employed by one railway, not one received more than $1.15, or less than $1.05. On another railroad, 550 trackmen were paid a uniform rate of $1 per day, and yet another company paid 281 men $1.25 each per day. It is certain that the inequalities of these men in strength, energy, and intelligence were not at all represented by the inequalities in their earnings. Among workmen of this class, marked inequalities of wages are more often geographical than personal. Where miners are paid by the day, their wages have in some instances shown the same uniformity before the establishment of unions. Thirty laborers employed in assisting masons at work in a Michigan town,and having no union, received without exception $9 per week. In the same town eighteen plasterers, who were members of a union, received uniformly $18 per week, excepting one (perhaps a foreman) who received more. In a neighboring town, however, almost complete uniformity of wages prevailed among non-union plasterers. As a rule, it is true that the whole body of unskilled laborers receive wages fixed by local custom, with no very critical regard for individual efficiency. Even among skilled laborers, where wages are paid by the day or week, complete or approximate uniformity often appears. Railway engineers and firemen have frequently been paid by a uniform scale for a day’s or month’s service, and where their wages have taken the form of mileage payments there has been no attempt to vary the mileage rate to suit inequalities of skill or trustworthiness. It is probably true that for nearly all occupations, where there is a system of time payment, in distinction from piece-work, the advantage in wages to the specially capable is less than adequate to their superior ability.

A very large part of our whole laboring population is thus exempt from the theoretical conformity of wages to skill. The inferior laborer receives what is needed for his maintenance, according to a customary standard of living; the superior men contribute, without being distinctly conscious of it, to the support of their weaker fellows, while the employer makes his calculations according to an average rate of wages and the amount of service rendered by the average man. Only the socialists of a somewhat extreme type have ventured to suggest that income should depend not on ability, but on needs. Yet to a certain not inconsiderable extent we have always realized that principle, especially in the wages of unskilled laborers.

The influence of trade unions tends powerfully, beyond question, to extend that system of wage payment. Equality results by a sort of mechanical necessity from the regulation of wages by contract, as it is difficult through a contract to prescribe differences of wages commensurate with differences in ability, and so to maintain due intervals above the upward pressing minimum. But the policy of the unions in this matter is not merely forced upon them as an incident of the attempt to raise wages. The tendency toward equality is a matter of fixed choice. The tradeunion ideal of wages is a system of payment according to an accepted standard, in contrast with wages fixed by “demand and supply, ” and approaches somewhat remotely the communist position with its demand for income according to needs. In the strike on the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, fifteen years ago, the engineers demanded equal pay, without regard to length of service, and without regard to the unequal responsibility of work on a main line, or on an unimportant branch. In fact, this demand for equality appears to have been the chief provocation for that fiercely contested struggle. In the printing trades there is an effective tendency to equalize the wages of men engaged in related but dissimilar work (proof-readers, hand-compositors, and machine operators), in which wages unrestrained would doubtless be more or less unequal. In disputes affecting the wages of workmen unequal in skill and income, a greater percentage of increase has often been demanded for the poorly paid. Thus the anthracite coal-miners in 1900 asked for an increase of ten per cent in the wages of laborers receiving more than $1.75 per day, and twenty per cent for those whose daily wages were less than $1.50. This is a representative instance.

The essential tendency toward equal wages is, however, the one called forth accidentally by the operation of the minimum rate. The product of this chance, where the trade union gains a controlling influence, is a revolutionized wage system, not unlike that proposed in Unto This Last, by John Ruskin. The “natural and right system respecting labor,” Mr. Ruskin thought, was one in which all workmen of any one trade should receive equal wages (like soldiers, physicians, and public officials of equal rank), but the good workman should be employed and the bad workman (the inferior bricklayer and the scribbler) unemployed. “The false and unnatural and destructive system is where the bad workman is allowed to offer his work at half price, and either take the place of the good or force him to work at half price.” There should be equality for each gradation, but inequality between ranks. “ I never said, ” he replied to a critic, “that a colonel should have the same pay as a private, nor a bishop the same pay as a curate.” By such an arrangement he fancied the desire for gain might be replaced as a chief motive to labor by the spirit of service which is supposed to actuate the soldier or the clergyman. In like fashion the system which the trade unions tend to create includes an approximate equality of wages between men in the same class of work, not between different employments. It makes impossible the reward of exceptionally high earnings as a result of special efficiency, but its defenders assert that an incentive to effort will still remain in the desire to win, by a showing of superior efficiency, the esteem or admiration of one’s associates.

Competition of the old sort for higher wages is perhaps weakened by the minimum rate, but a fiercer competition replaces it. Many employers unite in testifying that the establishment of a minimum results in the dismissal of the inferior men, — Ruskin’s bad workmen who are left unemployed. The altered character of competition may thus seem to operate with harshness to the incompetent, and with an enervating effect upon the more capable, who are no longer stimulated by the prospect of high wages. The change to such a system will doubtless seem to many people an occasion for alarm, as few persons share Ruskin’s cheerful confidence in honor as a motive to doing hard work.

The danger that such a system will seriously diminish industrial efficiency is, however, much less than one might, at first thought, anticipate. The change would be less fundamental than it seems, because the old system is not so different from the new as we commonly take it to be. In the traditional system there is for many laborers no certainty that great efficiency will be commensurately repaid. The hope of the efficient man is in promotion to a totally different and higher kind of labor. This possibility is not diminished by the new system.

So far as the old arrangement has offered to an energetic man the hope of corresponding gains, one may well fear that few men have actively responded to this incentive. The attainment of ordinary comfort, by merely ordinary exertion, is for most men the limit of aspiration. There is some evidence that in shops where unions have not entered a man who finds that he is doing more than the usual amount of work indolently slackens his speed.

But if a degree of loss is after all supposed to attend the transition — if here and there men relax their efforts because the union rate means uniform wages — there are compensations so marked that it cannot, on the whole, be regarded as less fit than its predecessor to stimulate ambition. That industrial system is best in which each man most readily finds his proper place, and is influenced most actively by the hope of rising, or the dread of sinking lower. In the certainty with which the “unfit” are rejected and cast down to less responsible positions, the new arrangement evidently surpasses the old as it results in the dismissal of the inferior men. The minimum rate is in this respect far from being “socialistic ” in the sense of shielding the weak. It is, on the contrary, cruelly individualistic. On the other hand, in its tendency to impel the better men upward, it is at least not clearly less effective. The approximate equalizing of wages within a trade may at times somewhat weaken effort, yet the desirability of this motive is not beyond question. It may have an important purpose in the vanishing age of rigid social and industrial stratification, but since men now more readily win promotion to an industrial position distinctly higher, the ambition merely to increase earnings has, at least, lost its importance; it may possibly be thought even harmful if it withdraws attention from that other ambition, not merely to thrive at the old level, but to rise.

Thus since the new régime does not cease to stimulate the capable, but does more certainly eliminate the incompetent, it seems on the whole more favorable to the relative advancement of the better men. At the same time, the modern organization of the Great Industry, with its numerous gradations (in contrast with the earlier organization of widely distinct crafts), largely facilitates the process by which men pass upward or downward to their proper places.

Ambrose P. Winston.