The Industrial Dilemma





THE great social problems of the day, such as those that have arisen between capital and labor, the trusts and the people, the railroad employee and the railroad manager, are being treated and thought out by American public opinion with marked hesitation. But while this public opinion is drifting around in a sea of theories, corporations and labor unions know just what they want, and, for the most part, how to secure their desired concessions and privileges. In this way, all preconceived notions of the fitness of things, and of the social results to be expected from modern industrial methods, have been completely upset. Carried off their feet by well-directed and organized assaults, political economists and leaders of widely different schools of thought are now in danger of losing their bearings. In a word, the situation is fast resolving itself into a great social and industrial dilemma.

In a general way this dilemma may be defined as the difficulty that now confronts public opinion when it is called upon to choose, or in some way to draw the line, between the interests and demands of labor and the corporations, and the more important necessities and rights of society.

In this country, to a greater extent, perhaps, than in any other, public opinion should be termed popular opinion, consequently it is very human and natural in its characteristics. To-day it is radical, to-morrow conservative, but at all times it has its ear to the ground to catch lessons from history. While at times it may appear to be long-suffering and indifferent, it is, nevertheless, very slow to forgive an injury. This is the teaching of instinct, which is as noticeable in the behavior of a nation as in that of an individual. Just at present, for example, popular opinion cannot make up its mind to deal reasonably with corporations and managers. It has now to be educated to treat these people fairly. But the corporations cannot expect the public to arrive at the unassisted conclusion that their business, generally speaking, is now above board and legitimate. It thus becomes their duty to advertise and demonstrate these facts. Reconciliation is certain to follow frankness and publicity.

From the point of view of the student, the social improver, and the mere theorist, the industrial situation on railroads and elsewhere has, of late years, been thoroughly analyzed by competent specialists, and the literature in relation to it is practically endless. But just what the worker himself has to say about it, what his honest opinions and observations amount to as he works at his job, listens to the conversation of his fellows, and draws thoughtful conclusions from every-day practical data, is as yet an unwritten chapter in the history of industrial progress. For it must not be forgotten that the employees on the railroads are the most important factors in the situation from every point of view. Their opinions, their policies, their behavior, are the great topics to be considered, socially, financially, and industrially. Out of every dollar earned by the railroads, the employees, 1,700,000 of them, receive 42 cents in wages. Consequently, the habits of thought, the point of view of these men, their actual work at the present day, and their probable behavior and intentions for the future, are matters of great social importance. In many directions the opinions and conclusions of these men may be unscientific and contrary to the ideas of people who study generalities, but a careful consideration of them is likely to convince us that they constitute a very fair reflection of the actual state of affairs, viewed from a practical and common-sense standpoint. However this may be, there is certainly no field of industry on which the every-day relations that exist between labor, corporations and public opinion can be so profitably studied as on American railroads.

An engineman of my acquaintance leaves his home at six o’clock in the morning and completes his day’s work in six hours. For this service he receives from four to five dollars, according to circumstances. Some enginemen work longer hours and receive more money; but anyway you look at the labor or the wages, the conditions leave little to be desired. With hardly any exception the same satisfactory state of affairs is to be found in nearly every branch of the train service. By degrees, step by step, from a comparatively low plane, an almost ideal standard of wage and treatment has been arrived at. In my own sixty-lever signal-tower, for example, within the past few years the pay has been run up from thirteen to over eighteen dollars per week, and the working day has been run down from twelve to eight hours. Now, among the thousands of railroad men whose material condition I have been describing, there is but one opinion as to the means that have been employed in bringing about these satisfactory results; and I think this general opinion is voiced when I say that the motive power employed in securing these benefits was simply and actually business compulsion. It is useless to assail the motives or personality, either of corporations or of labor unions. The leaders of these bodies are fairly typical of twentieth-century civilization. In their business relations, one with another, they take what they can, and give what they are compelled to. Of course there is a vein of kindliness running throughout all negotiations between men and managers; but when it comes to a settlement of differences concerning dollars and cents, the proceedings are governed by the strictest code of current business principles. In a fair and honorable way, the machinery of management is pitted against the machinery of the labor organization, and the weaker, for the time being, yields to the pressure of superior tactics and resources.

But the point to be emphasized is that hard-drawn business compulsion is the sine qua non of progress as regards wages and similar conditions, and is the only form of advice, warning, or incentive to which corporations and labor unions pay any attention. For a number of years, it is true, railroad managers have been trying to break away from this thraldom of mechanical methods, but from lack of public support they have now practically abandoned the struggle, or relegated the human and sympathetic side of management to the editors of the railroad magazines. This is a very uncomfortable way of interpreting industrial conditions and relationships on railroads, but the evidence upon which the employee forms his impressions of the mechanical and compulsory nature of his wage-settlement is unmistakable. That power is privilege is nowhere so patent as on the railroads at the present day.

Within a short distance of my signaltower there is a crossing at grade. The man in charge receives one dollar and thirty-five cents for twelve hours’ work. As a matter of fact, the crossing man holds a very responsible position. Alertness, attention to duty, and presence of mind, are absolutely essential for the proper protection of travelers on trains and on foot. There are actually more people injured and lives lost at these crossings than on trains, or in any way connected with trains. Therefore, good men and good pay should be the rule at these crossings. Increased efficiency of service would probably make up for the additional expense. Up to date, however, it never has entered into the heads of well-paid enginemen, conductors, and others, to bestir themselves in the interest of these men. Beginning with the management, we all understand that they are down, to stay down until they are able to lift themselves. For years these men, and thousands in other departments, have been waiting for the conscience of somebody, or anybody, to attend to their cases; but unfortunately these gatemen are unorganized, and unable to organize, and there is nothing back of them to make trouble for anybody.

Such is only one of numerous object lessons which the employee has constantly before him, and consequently he may be pardoned for concluding that actual business compulsion is your only wageraiser. I am aware that, if the employee took time to look into the matter more carefully, he might be willing to modify this opinion; but his everyday life is more concerned with speaking facts than with the philosophy of the subject, and actually, at the present day, his leaders give him no time to take his bearings. In season and out of season they stand between the men and the management. They emphasize and extol the compulsory method, and point on all sides to its object lessons and the benefit to be derived from organized effort along these lines. But this simple theory of business compulsion, this cold-blooded material interpretation of the industrial situation on our railroads, has a still wider significance.

During the month of August, 1908, in the State of Massachusetts, two passenger trains at different points were handled faultlessly for thirty or forty miles past a succession of electric block-signals. Later, with the same crews, these trains were telescoped by other passenger trains on track where these safety devices were not in operation. The cause of these accidents was short-flagging and reckless running. On the roads in question the rules in regard to block-signals are now enforced; the men are actually compelled to live up to them; but the rules in regard to reckless running and short-flagging are not looked upon in the same light — the same attention is not paid to them, and the penalties for violation of the rules are by no means so impartially bestowed. The compulsory method then, is not only the most effectual factor in wage-progress, but the principle itself is found to affect in a marked degree the operating department. To secure efficiency and to secure satisfactory conditions of pay and treatment, the same compulsory methods must be employed. When this compulsory method proves to be insufficient or unworkable, the point to be noticed is that there is actually no force, principle, or sentiment to take its place and fulfill its duties in the situation as we find it to-day.

But in considering the condition of labor on the railroads, we find ourselves obliged to study the employee and his environment from a wider point of view, both socially and historically; for it must be evident to us all that there is something lacking in this hard-drawn theory of business compulsion in industrial life. At best it can be looked upon only as a temporary state of affairs. It must be utterly repugnant to the solid Christian sense of the community, for it is a severe reflection on our up-to-date civilizing methods, that the condition of the employees on railroads and the efficiency of the service, must wholly depend, in the future, upon hard-and-fast rules and agreements. It is surely unreasonable that to safeguard the interests of the public, the corporation, and the men, the minutest details and arrangements will have to be stipulated in the bond. Is this the final word that labor and the corporations have to say to twentieth-century public opinion ? I think not. Nevertheless, personally speaking, and looking backwards over nearly thirty years’ service on the railroads, I am conscious that my personal liberty and freedom of action, my actual ability to do the wrong thing and escape detection, has increased fiftyfold, while the ability of the management and the public to cope with and provide for the changed conditions has been decreasing in about the same ratio.

The evolution of this state of affairs forms a curious and instructive chapter in industrial history. This history embraces the methods and ideals of progress in all civilized countries, and perhaps the most curious feature in regard to industrial progress, both in this country and abroad, is that the social conscience, the very factor that is now being eliminated from our industrial schedules, is and has been responsible for the situation as we find it to-day. This is by no means a reflection on the splendid work of the social conscience in uplifting humanity. On the contrary, it is a reflection on those employees and corporations who are either ignorant of its history or have forgotten their social indebtedness. A glance at the great social movement in this country for the betterment of industrial and other conditions should make this clear to us.

Disregarding the earlier years of American history, we find ourselves, say from 1830 to 1870, in a period of great mental and industrial activity. In those days narrowness of mind was beginning to give way to conceptions of duty that embraced humanity at large. Man in relation to the Infinite still retained his central position, but man in relation to his fellows began to acquire considerable relative importance. For centuries, with utmost complacency, Christian people have contented themselves with simply reading and rereading the story of Cain and Abel, until it would almost seem as if the question, “ Am I my brother’s keeper? ” had become a too commonplace consideration for practical application in society. While in countless ways individuals have done noble work, the collective mind of the community seems to have been practically asleep to general questions of humanity until, comparatively speaking, a quite recent date.

In the period of American history to which I refer, the thinkers among us woke up and found themselves confronted with numerous social and moral enigmas. Man’s inhumanity to man was brought to light and discussed with merciless freedom ; an era of common sense set in; its logic was applied with cold and impartial severity to all sorts of inhuman customs and habits, and especially to atrocious labor conditions that had prevailed in society unnoticed and unchecked for centuries. It was a long-drawn-out battle, for the very instincts of people were more or less saturated with superstition — but the emancipation of the human mind went on apace. The horizon of men’s sympathies grew ever wider and brighter; common sense applied to religion gave us a new Heaven; common sense applied to our daily duties and responsibilities gave us a new Earth. This new-born social conscience introduced new conceptions and new standards into human affairs. The abolition of slavery, the humanizing of prison life, the considerate treatment of lunatics and paupers, the conscientious inspection of ships, factories, and tenement houses, are only a few of the reforms that remind us of the widespread influence of the social and spiritual conscience. In this way, by means of organized sympathy, labor in particular was indebted to the people for the social start and uplift, the magnificent growth and fruition of which we see around us to-day.

But of late years, in the industrial world, the fundamental forces at work in these great civilizing movements have undergone remarkable changes. The appeal for better conditions in the name of humanity has been displaced by the demand for rights in the name of justice. With the assertion of these principles and the appeal to justice as universal arbiter, the industrial dilemma begins to manifest itself in concrete form. How to limit, define, and harmonize the rights of society, of corporations, and of labor unions, is to-day the paramount industrial problem. It has divided the country into two camps — those whose duty it is, politically and otherwise, to protect the interests of the whole body, and those who are daily becoming more and more absorbed in multiplying the rights or privileges of sections. The press and the politicians at the present day are handling the whole subject with extreme caution, and, to save appearances, all concerned are now devoting themselves, with considerable energy, to the study of conditions. It is therefore particularly desirable, at the present day, that those who are in possession of the statistics and understand these conditions should be persuaded to speak out and explain their significance.

For example, railroad managers are well aware that within the past few years, in the midst of the body politic of the railroads there has been evolved an empire within an empire, whose consistent policy is and has been the accumulation of power for its own exclusive use. In plain English, this is the empire of labor. Under the circumstances, considering the history of railroad management in the past, this state of affairs need occasion but little surprise. Its principles are in line with the commonplace ethics of commercial life with which we are everywhere surrounded. When a man goes into business it is for the purpose of making money for himself, and not for his neighbors. Such, at any rate, is the first stage of his progress. It is exactly the same with corporations and labor unions. The selfish stage is the first stage, and consideration for others is almost wholly dependent upon the establishment of your own structure upon firm foundations. The empire of labor then, as I am describing it, has evolved in a very natural way; and society, by means of public opinion, is now called upon to influence, control, and guide the succeeding stages of its development.

Compared with this actual and constantly increasing force of labor, the theories and propositions of philosophers and social betterers have but little significance. Socialism may come and may go, but labor and its organization are marching on, not indifferent to, but nevertheless quite independent of, these ideas and associations that are constantly at work for the betterment of society in general. If socialism desires to assist labor, well and good. That is the beginning and the end of the matter so far as labor is concerned. Similarly, if municipal or public ownership in any form can be shown to benefit the worker without interfering with his organization and his schedules, its claims and theories will receive consideration. In other words, labor leaders, more especially on the railroads, are now preaching the gospel of separation. They avoid everything in the nature of an alliance, even in the interests of public safety, and day by day their ability and intentions to stand alone become more pronounced.

But it must not be taken for granted that the rank and file of railroad men have initiated, or unanimously acquiesce in, this line of thought or action. Such broad issues are not thought out or decided upon down below; matters of this nature work down and not up, and in this way the ordinary worker is frequently committed to the support of a policy of which, as an individual, he is somewhat ashamed. Only too frequently, however, the material benefits derived from a certain policy are allowed to outweigh our conscientious scruples. I repeat then : the principle of separation and isolation is not due to any expressed desire or agitation of the rank and file, but is due to the general policy of the leaders. Thus we find the labor situation on the railroads dominated by two or three of the highest officials of the labor unions. The managers of railroads, if so disposed, could easily corroborate this statement, but a single illustration will give us a good idea of the nature of the evidence.

During the spring of the year 1908, business fell to a very low ebb on the Boston and Maine Railroad: the side tracks were blocked with idle cars, and engines by the dozen were rusting at the roundhouses. Equipment of all sorts, that should have been sent to the shops for repairs, was put into storage tracks, and over all a general retrenchment and reduction of expenses was in order.

Among other methods resorted to, the salaries of the officials above the grade of one hundred dollars per month were subjected to a substantial cut-down. Short time was the order of the day in the shops and out on the road, crews were disbanded, trains were abolished, and everything in the nature of a superfluity was swept into the realm of the unemployed, in a desperate effort to shave the pay-rolls. But, as time passed, conditions instead of improving dropped from bad to worse, and July, the month when the Boston and Maine is called upon to give an account of itself in the shape of dividends and fixed charges, was almost in sight. Consequently, as a final resort, the management hit upon the plan of taking the employees in every department into its confidence. Not only the heads of the organizations, but the rank and file of the men, had the situation explained to them by competent officials. The proposition was very simple. The men were asked to consent to a five per cent cut-down for a period of three months. To an insider taking notes from day to day it soon became evident that the rank and file of the men, regardless of their occupations, thoroughly understood the situation. The argument that railroad labor should bear with railroad capital the burden imposed by the hard times was generally appreciated. So far as my observations extended, it seemed to me that the men were glad to be treated confidentially in the matter. As individuals speaking for themselves, they admitted that the prosperity and interests of the corporation could not possibly be separated or distinguished from their own. They were willing to be reminded that, when business was good and the road was in a flourishing condition, their wages had been increased over and over again, in a legitimate and recognized manner, through the efforts of their organizations, and therefore the contention of the management was unanswerable, that it was the duty of employees to lend a helping hand now that the tide had turned.

Supported by these ideas and principles, a sort of canvass of the matter was initiated all over the road. Meetings were held, committees were appointed, considerable expense was incurred, and the matter was finally put to the vote, on every division, by the various organizations. The result had been accurately anticipated. With, I think, one exception, the organizations, representing nearly every department of labor on the Boston and Maine Railroad, voted by heavy majorities to accept the five per cent reduction under the terms and conditions which had been explained to them by the president of the road. Up to this point no suspicion had been hinted at that the vote-taking was a conditional affair, subject to the consent of the National Organization, or its leaders. It was requested and taken in good faith as a matter of internal administration and adjustment of mutual interests; but the result of the vote was no sooner made known than the whole business was promptly vetoed and made void by the exercise of supreme authority. It is not necessary to pass an opinion on the necessity for this action in the political or other interests of railroad labor considered as a factor isolated from the public interests. The points for public opinion to note are that the management was humiliated, that the referendum was a farce, and, in particular, that the ideas of the men and their leaders in regard to the relations that should exist, and the coÖperation that should be permitted, between employees and managers, are fundamentally at variance.

But so far as the public interests are concerned, this referendum vote of the Boston and Maine Railroad employees has a still wider application and lesson. For the very first principles of sane and safe management are the issues at stake. In plain English, if the public interests are to receive any recognition whatever in the metallic constitution that is now being worked out between railroad corporations and labor leaders, it can only be accomplished by unrestricted communication and coöperation between the rank and file of the men and the employer. This is by no means a mere theoretical statement. Its practical possibility and absolute necessity are capable of easiest demonstration. A little plain-speaking on this subject will do no harm.

When the referendum already referred to on the Boston and Maine was in progress, the Towermen’s Brotherhood called a meeting of its members to consider the proposed reduction in wages. A committee was forthwith appointed to wait upon the president of the road in regard to one or two points on which additional information was desired. Very much to the gratification of the towermen, President Tuttle came over from his office and addressed the men in a very kindly and considerate manner. He pointed out that the proposed reduction was a matter in which men and management alike were vitally interested. It seemed to him the better way to place a slight burden on every employee, rather than absolutely to discharge a considerable number. He explained that railroads, like individuals, have debts that they are in honor bound to attend to, and, so far as the Boston and Maine Railroad was concerned, these obligations to stockholders and leased roads had to be met in honorable fashion. As the result of this amicable conference the towermen voted to accept the reduction in wages.

Now, the significance of President Tuttle’s ideas and action must be evident to employees and the public alike. In so many words he said to us, “The corporation needs money. I ask you to help us. I am quite aware that the proper way, in fact the only way, to secure your assistance and coöperation, is for the management to take you into its confidence and to explain to you our common business and interests. I appeal to you then as individuals, possessed of good common sense and sympathetic understandings.”

Nothing can be plainer or more reasonable than this argument. The president of the Boston and Maine Railroad acknowledges that in financial dealings with employees, when compulsion becomes impossible, education and coöperation must be brought into play and emphasized. But while in financial affairs the soundness of this doctrine is thus acknowledged by highest authority, it has apparently not yet dawned upon any one that its principles apply with tenfold force to almost every phase of the economical and efficient running of a railroad. That railroad men should be kept in ignorance of the financial condition of the corporation they work for is of comparatively little importance; but I think it will surprise the reader to be informed that the systematic and organized efforts of managers to interest and instruct employees in the human and economic sides of their calling can almost be represented by a blank. Railroad managers will naturally question this statement. Their public utterances, the betterment work they so cordially approve and assist in a dozen different directions, their insistence, upon public occasions, on the importance of social and economic coöperation, lend considerable strength to their position; but when we come to examine the employee at his work and look around for the practical exemplification of the opinions and ideals of the managing department, a strange and perhaps unlookedfor state of affairs is revealed. And right here we are brought face to face with the heart of the labor question on American railroads. From this point branch out the constructive lines along which economy of operation, safety of travel, and general efficiency of service, must be worked for and anticipated. Heretofore the employee has been treated as an implement; from now on, in the interests of society, he will have to be considered as a man endowed with receptive and intelligent faculties, who, with proper encouragement, will base his progress and interests upon reasonable and sympathetic foundations. The theories I am presenting are not nearly so strange as the facts in the case.

A few days ago, in a freight yard, while I happened to be looking on, a freight car was cornered through careless handling. Slight damage was done to the side and roof of the car. I asked the man who was responsible for the accident to give me his idea of the damage in dollars and cents. He thought a couple of dollars would fix it up all right. A month or so later, happening to meet this man on the street, I informed him that the actual expense incurred for repairing the car had been $47.50. He was surprised beyond measure. I then asked him if he thought employees should be educated along these lines. Would it do him any good as a man, and consequently the service, if the manager were to tell him that the trifling act of carelessness, the price of which he estimated at two dollars, was simply an item of a bill for breakages of over five thousand dollars a year in the small yard in which he worked, making no mention of the killed and injured ? Branching out into my subject, I asked him if he was personally interested in the fact that the station receipts on his division for September, 1908, were fifty thousand dollars less than for the same period in 1907 ? Would it make any difference in the feelings and the attitude of the men toward the management if they were systematically posted on these subjects ? I had quite a lengthy conversation with this man. Would it make any difference to the crossing man, I continued, if his attention was called to the statistics and the nature of crossing accidents on his particular railroad, to the dangers to be guarded against, and to the vast expense and suffering involved ? Would it do any good to those whose duties are connected with the passenger and station service to know that it cost the road a matter of eighty thousand dollars a year for such trifles as icy platforms, doors closing on hands, falling lamps, defective seats, tripping on station platforms, and the like? Would it, in his opinion, be a good idea for the management to get after every man and his job in this personal way, or was it better to let the men continue in utter ignorance of their surroundings and wider responsibilities? In a word, are we to be considered as men, or merely as things ?

To all these questions the man answered bluntly and frankly, “ You bet your life it would make a big difference.” Then I said to him, “ Now if the president of the road were to come out with a bulletin calling our attention to an expense account, for the year 1908, of a million dollars for preventable accidents and miscellaneous carelessness, and ask the men for a five per cent reduction on these items for 1909, what do you suppose would happen?”—“He would get it,” was the reply.

It must be evident, from the foregoing, that the education and enlightenment of the employees are being sadly neglected. Along the indicated lines, good feeling, coöperation, and daylight in every direction can be discerned. For if the education of the railroad man is to consist merely of the knowledge and the lessons to be derived from his daily routine, assisted by the inspiration received from mechanical and rule-of-thumb surroundings, the social and industrial results of his training are likely to be extremely narrow and unsatisfactory.

The importance of these considerations cannot be too earnestly impressed upon employees and managers. At first glance, the idea that an employee can be converted into a real wide-awake partner in the affairs and interests of his railroad, may appear to some to involve an undertaking of enormous proportions. As a matter of fact, it is nothing of the kind. Railroad managers are to-day successfully coping with problems ten times as complicated. The car-service system is a good illustration in point.

On my own railroad, for example, actually millions of freight cars are annually received from connections. From the moment when these cars touch the road, they are never lost sight of for a minute until they are set back to the track of the road from which they were received. If you want to know the actual history and adventures of each and every one of these cars, you wall find the information all ready for you in the records. Its number, its physical condition, its suitability for such and such freight, its capacity, its weight, its general equipment, and its behavior on the road, are all there for public inspection. But it is not a tenth part of the attention that a car receives from the management. Every one of them is watched, examined, inspected, and, when necessary, sent to the shops for repairs. Then cars of a certain class are called for to load at one point, cars of another class at another point, perhaps hundreds of miles away. During its short visit to your road every car has attached to its record a score of telegrams, a bundle of letters, a file of information. The car business on the wires never halts or slumbers, and an army of telegraphers and clerks are kept hustling night and day, year in and year out, at enormous expense, to keep order in all this seeming chaos. To give a complete history of the business would baffle the arithmetic of description. Yet, when I asked one of these car-service men how they managed to keep things straight, he assured me it was the easiest thing in the world!

From the side of the labor organization, according to its light and interest, this personal education of the employee has been closely watched and strictly attended to for years. During this period the manager has been busy with other concerns. He has permitted it to appear, to outsiders at any rate, as if the employee were, in a measure, an antagonistic feature. His office has been executive, not educationally and sympathetically administrative. You cannot blame the superintendent — he has never had a chance to get away from his rules and machinery of government. The world at large has been his enemy. To the reporter of a newspaper the railroad superintendent is still a sort of industrial Bluebeard, with a closet full of skeletons, and a head full of schemes for the confusion of employees and the public. But corporations and the public are now taking a saner view of the situation. Especially in the West corporations are beginning to understand that the railroad manager of the future will have to be first of all an educator. Destructive ideas and intentions on one side or the other are out of the question. The contest ahead of us is an educational rivalry. On the one hand we have the protective organization of the employee; on the other we have the economic, the social, the sympathetic administration of the management. There can be no question as to the beneficial results of this rivalry. But now, giving these ideas form and substance and applying them to everyday life on the railroads, what are the actual methods of management to be advised or adopted ? A practical exemplification of this will, I think, prove interesting reading.