Trade-Unions and Public Policy: Democracy or Dynamite?

ONLY a prophet, or the son of a prophet, would undertake as yet to forecast the ultimate results of the McNamara case, but it is clear that organized labor has been dealt a staggering blow. The brave talk of leaders of that movement is in part a mere whistling to keep up courage, and in part the result of failure to understand the situation, which from their point of view is about as bad as possible. For a generation the leaders of the American Federation of Labor have been advocating purely ‘trade’ policies, —collective bargaining, the joint agreement, the union or ‘closed’ shop, the control of apprentices, the direct and indirect restriction of output, with the strike and boycott always in reserve as possible weapons. Direct political action they have eschewed, and a separate labor party has been anathema to them. The McNamara case represents the complete bankruptcy of the trade policy.

The reason for this failure is simple. In the present state of industry and the law, the employer is stronger than his men. The law protects his property, and if he is willing to fight out the issue, he wins, in any legally conducted struggle, with the aid of hunger and the courts. If labor conditions are bad and if the means of information are unusually good, public opinion may sometimes bring even a recalcitrant employer to terms; but, under ordinary conditions, one who is determined to fight to a finish can defeat his men if they keep within the law. Unionists have not recognized this fact, and have not recognized that American employers in general, despite lip-service to the principle of labor organization, do not believe in trade-unions. This lack of discernment has led unionists to a futile and disastrous reliance on ‘trade’ policies.

If the employers had been conciliatory, all might have been well; but they have preferred, on the whole, to fight the men’s organizations, and in a long series of labor conflicts, running back to the great Homestead strike twenty years ago, have carried on successful war against them. During recent years, while the men have been struggling vainly for the closed shop, employers have been pursuing the union-smashing policy with increasing vigor and success.

In the course of the struggle, the unions have sometimes gained their ends by persuasion. Failing that, some of their members have resorted to threats and intimidation. Thence the transition has been easy to brickbats, and thence to dynamite. Facilis descensus Averno. Whether a strike can succeed in the face of stubborn opposition, if force and the possibility of force be eliminated, is a question at least open to grave doubt. In any case neither leaders nor rank and file have set their faces resolutely against every manifestation of violence. They could not do so; for though they may not have recognized it consciously, a background of potential violence was almost an essential condition to the successful pursuit of trade policies in the face of determined opposition from employers buttressed by the law.

In view of these conditions, the public has looked with some indulgence upon a certain degree of lawlessness, feeling that the men often had a good cause, and that the strike was a necessary means of obtaining justice. The logical result of such indulgence now stands revealed in the McNamara affair, and public opinion recoils in horror from what it has itself helped to create. What does it all mean? We may well have reached a turning-point in our industrial and, perhaps, in our political life.

For the unionist it means a profound searching of heart and, perhaps, a change of leadership. It is unnecessary to discuss the charges of incompetency and bad faith so freely hurled at Mr. Gompers and his associates in this unhappy affair. Given the American employer as he is, these leaders are now shown to have been guiding labor into a cul-de-sac whence it could escape only by using force. The weapon of violence is now struck from its hand, and it must find a new one. Shall it be actual revolution or political action? The second alternative appears more probable, provided the courts leave open the possibility of progressive legal action.

Labor, it is to be hoped, will now see that the whole power of society will be exerted to repress the private use of force, will see that that way lies no salvation, will see that the old leaders have been unconsciously encouraging violence, and will, therefore, turn definitely from those leaders and their counsels and strike out in the new paths of direct political action, just as labor has done in England with such marked success. The Socialist party may well be the residuary legatee of the McNamara case, or we may possibly see an entirely new labor party. In either case, the result would be almost wholly desirable; for the labor movement would be proceeding along lines where results, though slow, would in time be possible of realization, because the rights and grievances of labor could be presented effectively at the bar of public opinion. Labor cannot get its progressive rights by its own unaided struggles. Such attainment involves a progressive change in ideas, laws, and institutions that can come about only as a result of informed public discussion. The difficulty with the trade policy is that it involves such discussion only between the two parties directly interested.

If the McNamara case should lead to a distinctly political labor movement, thoughtful persons might well rejoice. Such a movement would undoubtedly be democratic, radical, probably socialistic; it would have comparatively small regard for property rights, and comparatively great regard for personal human rights; it would certainly cause members of the American Liberty and Property League to lie awake nights over its unsafe notions; it would do much blundering politically unless it were unexpectedly well led; it would probably advocate some economically impossible measures; and it would exercise a tremendous influence for good in our political, legal, and economic development. Under our two-party system of non-representative government we lack the machinery for getting at the facts necessary for intelligent public judgment of many important questions, and we have no proper organization to formulate and express such judgment. A labor party might well be of service in both the formation and the expression of sound public opinion.

To turn from the labor group, what will be the attitude of the public in view of the astonishing revelations and reticences of the Los Angeles trial? ‘The public,’ so-called, includes the farmers, the artisans in small places, the smaller tradesmen everywhere, and to some extent the large ones as well, the salaried and professional classes, in so far as they are not closely attached to large employers — in a word, it includes all those who are not directly parties to the struggle, those who are not employers or employees in organized trades, or in industries where men work in large masses. Heretofore, this public, brought up in a tradition of ultra-individualism, has viewed suspiciously the combination of workmen in frank recognition of a class-interest; it has resented the invasion of the ‘individual liberty’ of the non-union workman by the union-shop policy; it has listened sympathetically to the employer’s complaints of interference with the efficiency of his business; and it has reprobated the attack on civilization involved in the use of brickbats and dynamite, though it has rightly been unwilling to believe that any considerable proportion of union men favored the use of such weapons. On the other hand, it has had an uneasy consciousness that somehow the employer was getting undue power, and it has been inclined to give the union the benefit of the doubt as the only agency offering in any way to redress the balance; it has felt that so long as the methods used were not too outrageous, some allowance ought to be made, because in the industrial world, save on the Fourth of July, all men are not free and equal.

To a public in this frame of mind have come the McNamara revelations. It has the confession of leaders in one union to two dynamite outrages; it has reason to believe that men in this same organization have been responsible for a long series of similar events; it has seen the leaders of organized labor rushing to the defense of these now self-confessed dynamiters; and now that the confession has come, it sees the leader of them all with nothing better to offer than the excuse that he has been cruelly deceived, and it finds itself wondering whether the whole labor movement is not run primarily for the benefit of a coterie of more or less lawless leaders.

In this new frame of mind, the public will doubtless be inclined to endure with far less equanimity than heretofore the inconvenience, suffering, and danger brought upon it by strikes, and to demand more insistently that employees patch up their differences with their employers without blowing society into bits with dynamite. Moreover, as the employer is usually the one who invokes the law, and the worker, so far as the public is informed, the one who places the dynamite, it is led to the conclusion that the employer, after all, was right in fighting these lawless organizations, as it now thinks them. Both the facts and the logic, underlying this conclusion are confused, but the resulting state of mind contains possibilities of no less grave danger on that account, and it throws on employers a tremendous responsibility.

The American employer has on the whole been opposed to trade-unions. He recognizes the right of labor to organize, but— it must not make trouble about wages, it must not ‘interfere’ with the management of the shop or the conditions under which labor is carried on; it must not do any of the things for which, primarily, unions come into existence. So long as this simple condition is complied with, the employer favors the organization of his workers — otherwise not. As a result of the McNamara affair, employers’ union-smashing organizations are likely to find their hands strengthened in the righteous work upon which they are engaged, and are likely to push on with it. Let a union overstep the law ever so little, and they will pounce down upon it; the successful pursuit of trade policies will be even more nearly impossible in the next decade than it has been in the past.

A secondary effect may well be more considerate treatment by employers of their workers individually. They have won a great victory; they have labor down; they can afford to be magnanimous. Workmen’s compensation, the installation of devices for sanitation and safety, welfare work of all kinds, these and other similar lines of action they may take up with even greater enthusiasm than heretofore. The employer is beginning to find that such work in the long run pays in dollars and cents. Furthermore, he honestly wants to do something for his employees. The things he wants to do are useful and will improve the condition of the laborer, but they will not solve the labor problem. The solution of that problem is just the task the employer must now set himself.

He can solve it temporarily by repression. Pittsburg has solved it for twenty years in that fashion, and today she sleeps on a volcano. Let the men of the American Manufacturers’ Association and their like have their way, as they probably can do in the existing state of the public mind, and we shall have peace in the labor world — peace without justice, and dynamite at the end; for dynamite is the weapon of the man who feels that he can get justice in no other way. If employers wish such results on a nationwide scale, let the repressive policy go on.

The labor-smashers, with their narrow vision, cannot be expected to see in the labor movement anything more than a sordid struggle for higher wages and shorter hours, combined with meddling interference with shop-rules by an ignorant and irresponsible walking delegate; the workers themselves for the most part may see it from the same point of view; but the situation demands a broader vision. Is it too much to expect broad-minded employers to catch a glimpse of the idea that the old labor movement, with all its blundering, represented a struggle toward the democratization of industry? That movement may have been stupid, it may have hampered the efficiency of production, it may have contained elements that necessitated its destruction, but the fundamental moving spirit in it was socially right, for it was the spirit of democracy. Even the demand for ‘recognition’ of the union, that bête noir of American employers, with its concomitants of the closed shop and exclusion of the non-unionist, was at bottom democratic, for it meant that the men themselves demanded a share in determining pay and conditions of work. The battle for democracy in industry is lost for the present. Will the employer be wise enough to recognize that the wrong has triumphed because the right directed its attack unwisely? Will he realize that this hour of triumph gives him opportunity unexampled for public injury or for public service?

In the slow growth of real democracy, perhaps the most difficult problem at present facing us is the democratizing of industry, the reconciling of economic efficiency through largescale production with non-autocratic management, making industry responsive to the needs and wishes of the men who work in it, and of the public whom it serves. This has given rise to the labor problem and the trust problem. The business man has been blindly struggling for what he considered his rights in both relations, that is, trying to maintain the status quo. Only a handful of concerns in the country are making any serious attempt at genuinely democratic organization. The old oligarchical arrangement looks so much simpler and easier, the men, in general, are so ill-fitted to participate intelligently in store and factory management, and the old system appears on its face so much more efficient, that few employers have the imagination or the courage to try anything fundamentally new. Instead, they insist on ‘running their own business,’ and trying to keep their men contented by means of welfare work, pensions, and similar improvements that leave control of important matters in the hands of the employer. Consequently no progress is made toward the solution of the real problem, which is to make the employer’s business not simply his business, but that of every man concerned in carrying it on, and of the public that is served by it. Unless the employer can now be brought to realize that his failure to face this problem is a fundamental cause of the McNamara affair and all it represents, and unless he can be brought to undertake the solution of the problem, it must be confessed that the prospect for the immediate future is not rosy.

It is idle to believe that the employer could for long ride victorious on the backs of a race of conquered workmen. Civilization has progressed too far for that, and revolution would quickly shatter such a society in pieces. But society cannot and will not endure, as the alternative to this, the breakdown of civil order and the creation of anarchy whenever employer and workman cannot come to terms.

It may be said, then, that the only escape is through socialism, public ownership and operation of the social industries. But merely to make industry public is to offer no guarantee of democracy within industry. Wages, hours, and conditions of work may be determined from above just as much as in privately-owned industry. Witness the New York street-cleaners’ strike. Through the weeks of that strike nothing was more evident than the inability of the men to get their side of the case heard. The case may have been weak, but in any decently organized industry there ought to be a chance for a fair presentation of grievances, a full discussion of them, and a settlement that represents more than the mere fiat of some individual. Public employment offers no guarantee of any such thing; like private employment it is usually undemocratic. The solution must be worked out by adjusting the relations between employer and employed in public and private industry alike, and not by merely making private industry public.

From all this one definite conclusion seems to emerge. Orderly social progress at present is conditioned on employers’ recognizing that their business is no longer their own, that its social responsibilities outweigh their individual rights in it, that they must serve the public so well that it will be satisfied with their administration, and must forward as rapidly as they can the process of democratization within industry itself so as to secure from their workers the necessary measure of coöperation in public service. Only by this means can they retain their leadership in the world of industry. They seem for the moment to have triumphed over the dynamiters. Would they make that triumph real? Let them accept the necessary condition. They must make their choice — shall it be democracy or dynamite?