The New Place of Labor


LABOR has won a new place in American life in the last twelve months. The workers have been accorded unprecedented recognition in the conduct of public affairs. The leaders of organized labor have been called to Washington, not merely to advise, but actively to administer; and the rank and file of workers, especially in the war industries, have secured concessions in the principles and terms of labor-adjustment for which they had struggled unsuccessfully for a decade.

No one who visualizes the protean diversity of American conditions believes that American labor is about to take the reins of government into its hands, or that there is a unified host of a myriad manual workers advancing with clear aims under a common banner. The situation in a working class of thirty million people is not so simple. But when, as is the case to-day, a point of vantage has been reached, it is important to define the changes and to get a sense of the direction which liberated forces and new tendencies are taking. We want to know how labor has achieved its new place: whether its advances represent an asset in successful war labor policy; whether the leverage of the workers’ present position portends a ‘reconstruction’ which is sound, or one characterized by classconflict, disruption, and animosity. It is now so obvious that after the war labor will drive progressively ahead from the position it holds at the end of the war, that a genuine concern for the future of American democracy makes necessary some attempt to estimate the present status of the workers.

Unquestionably the Wilson administration has been sympathetic with organized labor. There is no other way to account for the amity which has been characteristic of the government’s relations with the workers at the navy yards and arsenals. Organized as these workers are into a number of craft unions, it has been possible for Secretaries Daniels and Baker to adjust all matters in a way which has precluded practically all strikes at government plants.

A remarkable memorandum, to which Secretary Baker and Mr. Gompers, the President of the American Federation of Labor, were parties, made possible the building of all the cantonments without any considerable interruption of work. This agreement forestalled friction by assuring union terms and conditions of employment to the workers in the several building trades engaged in this enormous construction. But this was only the precursor of genuine collective contracts between the government and organized labor in three other fields. The contracts with the longshoremen, the seamen, and the shipyard crafts mark a revolutionary change in official policy. Never before has the Federal government negotiated in this direct manner with associations of workers; even at the navy yards and arsenals, negotiations have never been with the unions as such.

The new procedure shows that the government realizes that its responsibilities as an employer are no different from those of the private employer. And the revised policy has this initial justification — it works. This practice of direct dealing with national and local labor leaders through collective contracts has kept the workers on the job. It affords them machinery for taking up with the government and with private employers, in orderly fashion, whatever differences may arise. It convinces the men that the American struggle for democracy is being carried forward behind the lines no less than in the trenches.

It is only when the workers find matters at a breaking-point, — and let them break, — that the public thinks or cares about the conditions under which the great work-a-day war-work of the country is done. Then, all too often, there are nothing but recrimination and abusive epithets. But let the American public recollect that, since the war started, it has had to give no thought to the thousands of seamen engaged in the extremely hazardous occupation of operating our vessels in the war-zone. They are working under an agreement between the ship-owners, the Departments of Commerce and Labor, the Shipping Board, and the International Seamen’s Union.

There has been, with two relatively unimportant exceptions, no occasion for the country to regard the longshoremen who load all the vessels for Europe as anything but honest, hard workers, engaged, be it said in passing, in a heavy, dangerous, and very irregular employment. They too are working under a contract — between the Shipping Board and the International Longshoremen’s Association.

But looking back over the work of a short ten months, perhaps the most notable achievement has been the shipyard agreement of August 25, 1917. This also has kept the peace in the shipyards to an unparalleled extent — especially when the unsettled character of this new industry is borne in mind. To this agreement the presidents of eight international unions were signatory; and they bound themselves to control the workers in yards where, at the time, they had few if any members.

And yet, despite this fundamental weakness in their position, the national labor leaders have been able to keep the rank and file in line to an extent little short of miraculous. The job that the Navy Department and the Emergency Fleet Corporation, the other parties to the agreement, put upon these leaders might have made bolder men hesitate. It was just because he saw no clear assurance that he could keep the carpenters in hand under such disorganized conditions that President Hutcheson of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters asked that the union shop be required as one term of the agreement. Logically he was right: he was being asked to assume responsibility for the conduct of men over whom he had control only to the extent that they were members of his organization. He therefore refused to sign; and the national organization of carpenters is not to-day officially a party to the contract. But that makes little practical difference, because the local organizations of carpenters have in each case agreed to abide by awards, and they have therefore been recognized and dealt with.

The Shipbuilding Labor Adjustment Board, in accordance with the terms of the agreement, has recently finished its initial task of deciding upon terms of employment in the several shipbuilding districts of the country. It has made five major awards; and in each a progressive clarifying of official laborpolicy is to be noted. They indicate governmental sanction of policies upon which governmental pronouncement is new. And this sanction is significant because so many representative crafts are involved and so many districts and workers are affected. There are now something over 230,000 workers operating under the awards, and before the summer ends there will probably be close to 500,000. In this situation the Adjustment Board is nominally determining shipyard labor standards; in reality it is profoundly influencing all labor standards on a nation-wide scale. This gives a national interest to its policies and awards.

The board has declared for a wage determined in relation to the cost of living— not a mere ‘subsistence’ minimum, but a ‘comfort’ minimum, an amount on which a man can bring up a family in wholesome decency. It discovers that the wide divergences, popularly supposed to exist between the cost of living in different parts of the country, do not exist. It has therefore promulgated only two different wage-scales for the entire country: one for the Southern, Northern, and Middle states, another for the Pacific states. The Pacific-coast scale is $5,775; the Atlantic scale $5.60, per day. There are indications that before long the Atlantic scale may be increased, and then there will be one rate of wages operative for shipyard workers the country over.

This national uniformity of rates of pay for each craft will have the value, at least for war purposes, of reducing the unnecessary movement of labor and of attracting first-grade mechanics to the yards. All the shipyard awards also grant a basic eight-hour day and a differential of five per cent for nightwork. They require the creation in each yard of craft and joint-shop committees, to confer with the management on all differences that arise. They order the provision of adequate sanitary facilities. In short, an unprecedented degree of standardization and leveling-up of shipyard conditions has been attained.

In point of numbers and in the variety of trades affected, the only other group of workers that compares with the shipbuilders, is the railroad employees, of whom there are now under direct Federal control nearly 2,000,000. To achieve a standardization of rates in this great public service, so that wages will compare favorably with the rates in the shipyards, is manifestly necessary if men are not to leave the boiler-shops of the railroads, for example, and go into the boiler-shops under the Fleet Corporation. Yet after prolonged inquiry by the Railroad Wage Commission appointed to recommend to the Director-General wage-scales for the railroad workers of the country, Director MacAdoo has granted increases which still leave the war-time shop employees of the railroads less well paid, than the same trade in the shipyards. Since all increases under his order are on a percentage basis, all existing irregularities and inconsistencies of rates are maintained. A nationally effective uniform scale under which, for example, all machinists in all railroad shops get the same hourly rate, still remains to be achieved. Other no less important standards, however, of hours, overtime pay, equal pay to women for equal work, are established uniformly for the nation; and the appointment of a representative Board of Railroad Wages and Working Conditions, to consider ‘inequalities as to wages and conditions arising from competition with employees in other industries,’ has already made it possible for the railroad shop employees to ask for a reconsideration of their rates.

But the accomplished achievement of the new railroad administration is the selection of a strong Director of Labor, chosen from among the presidents of the railroad brotherhoods, and an assistant director who has been president of one of the ‘shop unions.’ It is the function of these labor administrators to take up and advise with the Director General upon all labor matters which are not under direct controversy between management and men. For the settlement of such actual controversies, there is provision for three national adjustment boards, two of which have already been appointed. There remains to be selected a board for railroad office employees. To these boards will come for adjustment, subject to review by the Director General, difficulties which it is found impossible to settle through agencies created under existing collective agreements between railroads and the unions.

Like the railroad administration, the fuel administration is working through rather than against the organization of the workers. The former president of the United Mine Workers — a union of over 300,000 miners — is close to Mr. Garfield in the determination of labor policy in relation to fuel. The coal of the largest producing areas of the country is practically all mined under conditions determined by collective agreements. And the only complaint about mine output since the war commenced has been that it could not be removed from the pit-mouth fast enough to make room for the new production.

The labor conditions under which the work contracted for by the War Department has been done are, unfortunately, far from uniform. In the manufacture of all leather goods for the army the terms of employment are stipulated in a written agreement between the Department, the leathergoods employers and the United Leather-Workers’ International Union. But aside from this, the Ordnance, Quartermaster-General’s, Signal Corps, and Surgeon-General’s divisions of the War Department, the critical production bodies for the army, pursue no uniform methods in relations with the workers employed on their contracts in private shops. The Ordnance, Signal Corps, and Quartermaster’s branches have industrial-service sections in which administrative experts in employment management, housing, conciliation and adjustment, women’s work, and the like, are fast being chosen and set at work. The Quartermaster’s branch has also a special labor director in connection with the manufacture of army garments.

But these efforts are all made for, and not with, the workers. The methods of meeting labor disaffection in contract shops are distinctly opportunist. Officials of organized labor, while they are from time to time called in to prevent the interruption of work, have no formal status in the War Department in its important industrial relations’ undertakings. There is no adjustment board representing workers, employers, and public, as there is for the shipyards. In consequence, the all but strikeless record in shipbuilding is not found in army contract factories; exhibitions of discontent have occurred, and have been occasioned by industrial conditions which the War Department has not adequately controlled.


Significant in the development of the new national attitude toward labor has been the report of the President’s Mediation Commission. Its trip into the West in the late fall brought it face to face with less than a dozen impending controversies. Yet so critical were the issues involved in each of these, that the recommendations of the commission carry special weight. Its report adds its support to the great tide of opinion favoring the eight-hour day; it declares unequivocally for the necessity of collective bargaining as the only means by which the power of workers and employers can be approximately equalized, and the suppressed and thwarted impulses in working-class life be given free and positive play. The commission left behind it, in each of the districts which it investigated, agencies for the joint control and determination of controverted issues. And it set in motion in Chicago the machinery which culminated in Judge Altschuler’s farreaching decision on working conditions in the packing industry. This award has brought to some thousands of workers a basic eight-hour day, increased wages, and the right to organize; and it has declared that minimum wages shall be based upon the actual cost of living.

There have, in short, emerged, in the numerous efforts to cope with the labor problem for war purposes, a variety of suggestions for a national labor policy. The demand for a formulated declaration upon many of these matters became more and more widespread, and in response to it President Wilson appointed the so-called Taft-Walsh Board, of five employers, five labor leaders, and Messrs. William Howard Taft and Frank P. Walsh, to frame a labor policy for the nation. Its unanimous recommendations have all been in the direction we are tracing. They declare for the right of labor to organize and to bargain collectively; for the basic eight-hour day; for the collating, through the unions and the United States employment service, of information about skilled workers available for the war industries; for the fixing of minimum wages which shall ‘insure the subsistence of the worker and his family in health and reasonable comfort’; and for the appointment of a National War Labor Board, selected in the same manner as the policy-determining board. The function of this new body is to adjust all disputes for the settlement of which no other machinery exists or is created.

These recommendations were accepted in their entirety by the government, and the policy board was reappointed by the President, to act upon controversies which may hereafter arise and upon any further difficult matters of policy.

The President in further pursuit of uniformity in labor policy and of administrative coördination also placed in the hands of Secretary of Labor Wilson the Labor Administration of the war industries. And in order to facilitate the departmental reorganizations which the adoption of common methods of handling industrial relations requires, Secretary Wilson has secured the services of Professor Felix Frankfurter as assistant labor administrator. In the rearrangement of duties which this implies, the Taft-Walsh Board becomes in effect the supreme court of war industry; and Mr. Frankfurter’s organization is devoted to the administration of the nation’s labor policies through existing and prospective agencies of investigation and adjustment, and to the more complete clarifying of those policies, where necessary.

For no one believes that the country has come to a completely clear understanding of its labor policy. What, for example, is the national policy regarding the basic eight-hour day? The great steel plants working on war contracts do not have it. What is to be our policy respecting uniform rates for each craft on a country-wide basis? What is to be our policy about the way to secure for the essential trades the really skilled craftsmen? Are the unions to be asked to mobilize them by draining their own clientele from less essential industries, or are we to set up training courses to give specialized instruction to the unskilled? Or should we do both, and if so, how are we to avoid flooding the labor-market after the war with an over-supply of skilled mechanics? These are vital questions of policy which we have not yet settled, and the ignoring of them still delays the maximum utilization of our energies.

On the whole, however, it is undeniable that America has gradually felt its way into a method of handling the industrial situation which, if not completely satisfactory or consistent, is surprisingly effective when considered in the light of our pre-war muddle in these matters. The problem has been one of temporary adjustment; and it is admittedly being dealt with only on that basis. We have ‘fixed it up’; we are ‘getting by’; we have a ‘patched peace’ —and the supplies are coming through.

What more can be asked?

Nothing more will be asked by those who are looking so intently at to-day that they forget to-morrow. For the emergency the nation is — with certain important exceptions — prepared. But for the emergence, for the turgid period of reconstruction, for the generation of democratic expansion that will follow the war — are we prepared for that? The question is raised, not to distract attention from immediate military issues, not to belittle the value of what has been done. It is raised because the facts of labor’s present position, influence, and purposes point inevitably to a new dispensation. A new generation in the labor world, studying zealously the reconstruction lessons which British labor is teaching, is forcing us to find an answer. We shall win the war, is the claim of the younger labor leaders, not alone by invincible efforts on the ‘frontier of freedom,’ but by simultaneous assault — or at least reconnoitring parties — against antidemocratic forces at home.

Whether this be true or not, the fact is that the position and temper of the workers in America to-day is very different from what it was a year ago. Problems that had no place, except in the trade-union local or the college economics class, are fast becoming matters for national statesmanship. Labor after the war is certain to exert an influence in determining the direction of reconstruction which is not yet widely appreciated. The problem of industrial government will be forced upon public attention until a solution is at least attempted, if not assured. The only question is, to what extent the other progressive elements in the community will join with labor to clarify its purposes and give form and substance to its aspirations.


It is a national crisis which we now face. It is a national reconstruction which we must envisage. It will not be labor’s rebirth alone; it will not be a regeneration in which either wealth or the middle class must do penance for the sins of the world. The reconstruction that we face cuts across class lines. It imposes universal obligations. With reconstruction will come a fundamental criticism of existing social arrangements; a fundamental revulsion against individual self-engrossments. Reconstruction will be the new application of intelligence, good-will, and faith in human nature as we know it, to the problem of supplying goods, creating freedom, and fostering personality for all the people.

But because reconstruction contemplates this inclusive desire, this universal purpose, the claims of labor and the obstacles in its way require special consideration. In the post-war period of readjustment those claims will be met, ‘those dead shall not have died in vain,’only if our country begins now to make provision for the future in the several departments of public activity. There is grave danger, for example, that in the shifting of industrial energies to peace-time pursuits, and in the process of demobilizing over two million men, serious unemployment and suffering will result. The provision of work or sustenance for those industrially displaced by the cessation of war is a public duty we cannot shirk. The right to a job, or, failing that, to the means of livelihood, is to-day established beyond all question.

No less imperative in a true social democracy is the securing of public control over the vital sources of wellbeing and prosperity. Transportation, fuel, water-power, minerals, land, foodstuffs — should not these continue to be administered on a national basis, in order adequately to assure the supplying of public needs? What part in such administration voluntary associations should play, and what part the State should assume, is not so easily answered. But during reconstruction the labor liberals will have in view the preserving and encouraging of individuality and personal capacity, of local initiative and responsibility. All liberal sympathizers will inevitably distrust and discourage plans that entail any extension of centralization and bureaucracy. Indeed, the era of reconstruction will doubtless witness a prolonged and profound struggle between the principles of state control and of voluntary functional control. And no end to the struggle will be in sight until the electorate reconstructs in clear terms its ideas as to the purpose which should govern the control of all social organizations. As a thoughtful English writer has phrased it, ' Reconstruction, if it is not to be a mere will-o’-the-wisp, must be a nice balancing of two factors — the creation of systems which shall not be too easily at the mercy of personality, and the building of personalities which shall bring life and spirit into the dry bones of system.’


Another of the many far-reaching questions of economic and ethical reorganization is labor’s relation to methods of international government and control. After the war the search for markets will go on; large-scale purchase between countries will go on; the export of capital and the sale of credit will continue; labor standards will vary enormously between the nations. And all these matters will continue, as they have done in the past, to occasion friction, jealousy, and enmity between nations — unless there is some popular attempt to make the parliament of a society of nations something more than a great debating organization. There must come organizations intrusted with the control of these delicate fiscal matters in the public interest, and qualified to assume their administration on a larger and larger international scale. That labor’s interests and passionate desire for peace will be served only by such effective control of these critical problems has been attested by the workers themselves in the historic document setting forth the war aims of the labor groups of the allied countries.1

But no satisfactory control of affairs between nations is likely, until each country is able to bring its internal economic affairs to a head in such a way as to create responsible national agents with whom other nations can deal. One guaranty of successful negotiation and administration on a greater than national scale will be the existence within each country of an integrated (which does not necessarily mean centralized) industrial system. And no complete integration of economic forces and activities is possible until the place of labor in the scheme, and the purpose of the scheme, are made clear.

Labor’s place in a better organized national system is being better understood as the war progresses. The government is increasingly assuring the workers a more adequate wage than ever before; hours are slowly but surely being reduced; working conditions are improving. And beyond these material matters of terms, the workers are now becoming interested in the control of industry itself, in the underlying questions of the amount of profit, the desirability of extending credits, the establishing of accurate and uniform cost-accounting systems. And in international affairs the workers are finding that they have a tremendous stake, and they are demanding a place at the peace conference for representatives of organized labor from all the warring countries.

But the purpose of superior organization has still to be established. For what is the country going to use its national economic machinery? Labor demands some assurances on this point; it has no disposition to foster a great productive organization which will be used for profiteering or imperialist ends. The workers have already foreseen this danger. In consequence they have themselves stated what they conceive to be an adequate animating purpose for an improved industrial organization. The Inter-Allied Labor Conference, in the statement of its waraims, insists that ‘Within each country the government must for some time to come maintain its control of the most indispensable commodities, in order to secure their appropriation . . . to meet the most urgent needs of the whole community.’

This declaration of a social purpose for industry is made in behalf of millions of workers in at least four European countries. Does it not give the clue we seek? Were the traditional humanitarian aims and purposes of the American democracy ever more explicitly stated? If this is reconstruction, it contains no essentially new elements. If this is labor’s goal, it is hardly at variance with aims historically cherished in this country. Reconstruction becomes but the continuation of a national moral enterprise begun a century and a half ago. Yet there is this difference. We seek to-day the extension of representative government, not only into politics, but into industry. The workers are anxious that, consistently throughout the whole fabric of American life, our common efforts shall contribute to the rearing of a great community wherein shall dwell a happy people disciplined for the fullness of freedom.

  1. The Inter-Allied Labor War-Aims appeared in full in the supplement to the New Republic, March 23, 1918.