Immigration and the Labor-Supply

“It is my belief that immigration from Europe will decrease after the war, but that that decrease will not be a menace to our industrial and commercial advancement. In the long run, I believe that it will, instead, be a benefit.”

The war is over. Reconstruction is now the world’s absorbing interest. Much of the economic and political structure of modern society must be recast. The rearrangement of the map of Europe and of international relations, at the Peace Conference, will be but early steps in a process of readjustment on which the world’s thought will be centred for the next twenty years. This reconstruction problem is not a reestablishment of the socio-economic relations which obtained before the war. It is reconstruction. If the war had ended two years ago, its issues might have been confined to international politics; but in the last two years the thought of the Western world has grappled with fundamentals. The laborers and peasants of Russia, the factory-hands of England, and the common laborers of America have been fired with a vision of a new world in which their past sufferings will be replaced by a greater degree of welfare than they have yet enjoyed.

Many people believe that America’s reconstruction labor-problem is a struggle between capitalists and organized labor over the question whether or not labor will retain the advances in organization and wages which it has obtained during the war. In my judgment, that struggle is but the opening skirmish of a much further-reaching contest. Millions of workers have been aroused to ask whether democracy is a reality when it is accompanied by the amount of unemployment, low wages, bad housing, and the like, which have existed up to the present time. The peasants of Russia and of other countries are asking whether the land-systems of the past are compatible with democracy. In a word, the aroused self-consciousness of classes heretofore submerged will force a widespread struggle over fundamentals of social organization and social policies.

The world has neither comprehended nor felt the full power of the forces underlying the radical socialistic movements shaking Europe to-day. These movements are due to the cumulative discontents of generations. The Bolsheviki, the I.W.W., and similar organizations may be crushed as organizations, but this will not stifle the revolt they express. These organizations are concrete manifestations of the economic discontent of the peasant and laboring classes, and discontent is not cured by force. In ancient times the control of society was in the hands of landlords. During the later Middle Ages the capitalistic class emerged and compelled the landlords to divide social control with them. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the skilled mechanics and small farmers forced a place for themselves in the political and economic control of society. Now the laborers of Europe and America, with the peasants of Italy and Russia, have emerged into self-consciousness, and demand participation in the management of the world’s life. The uprising of these groups is due to causes that have been operating over a long period of time, in Russia, Germany, France, England, Italy, the United States, and lesser nations: causes too fundamental to be dismissed with superficial concessions or crushed by political or economic force. Though they may lose in their early efforts, they will continue the struggle until they win self-government and justice.

Those of us who believe in democracy, as contrasted with autocracy and anarchy, should waste no time. It is our task to discover the real causes of these movements, and to point out the social reconstruction which will remove them. It is idle for us to waste time denouncing Trotsky, Lenin, or other leaders. Those leaders have simply focuses heartaches. It is the causes of the heartaches which should interest scientific men who believe in democracy and justice. We do not defend the excesses which accompany these movements—excesses due in part to a long-repressed sense of injustice, in part to ignorance, in part to criminal leadership, in part to the fact that criminal and tough elements gravitate into such movements, to use them for their own ends. But we do insist that an uprising involving so much of the world’s area and so many millions of men could arise only because of widespread, common grievances. One of those grievances, though it will be formulated by them in language which describes its results rather than the causes of those results, has been the labor-supply policy of modern capitalism.

I. Our Pre-War Labor-Supply Policy

Capitalists, and too many economists, have thought of labor as a commodity, and of labor-supply as one of the instrumentalities conveniently provided to help the capitalist grind out products and profits. Labor has been a factor in production. Their thought has conceived the workman as a laborer rather than as a father, husband, and citizen. The human has been subordinated to the economic. But the worker has seen himself in an opposite fashion. To him, his home and personal life were the important things, his labor but an incidental, necessary experience of his life. They saw him as a tool in production; he saw himself as a citizen. They saw no reason why he should not be satisfied when he got his wages; he saw no reason for being satisfied unless he shared in the determination of the conditions, economic and political, under which he lived.

It is this fundamental conflict in point of view which has made it so difficult for the employer and the worker to reach a common ground of agreement. One has thought in terms of business; the other in terms of human nature.

The labor-supply policy of Europe and America has been a very simple one—the maintenance of a reserve of labor adequate for the employers’ needs in their most busy periods, but for which they assumed no responsibility when they were not actually employing the workers. To one who thinks of labor as a commodity, a factor in production, an economic complement to land, capital, and management, the idea of a labor-reserve is as natural as the idea of a capital-reserve or a land-reserve, and there is no more reason that labor should expect continuous employment than there is that capital or land should expect continuous remunerative utilization.

But to one who thinks of labor in terms of personalities, the idea of a labor-reserve looks entirely different. To him a labor-reserve means fathers out of employment, children underfed, sick mothers without medical attention, increased infant mortality, families in debt, the coal-bin empty, the landlord threatening eviction. It means working efficiency deteriorated by idleness, the breaking down of regular working habits, the deterioration of mankind. He knows that, to the men and the women who constitute that labor-reserve, their economic situation means suffering part of the time, worry all the time, and life-failure in tens of thousands of cases every year. The uprising which is shaping the economic world to-day demands that we now begin to think of labor-reserves and others of our economic customs from the workers’ point of view; that we reconstruct our society of some plan that will give all men a chance for happiness and success, all babies a chance for survival, all children a chance for proper care and schooling.

The large labor-reserve or surplus which has been persistently with us in America is largely due to four facts: —

(1) A fluctuating but unceasing inflow of immigrant labor;

(2) An unorganized labor market;

(3) A decentralization of the labor-surplus; and

(4) A rapid, wasteful turnover of labor.

These four are closely related. They interact upon each other. The effects of each one are in part a cause and in part a result of the other three.

1. Immigration has been largely the response to an active demand for labor in America. We have steadily drawn from Europe supplies of labor brought to maturity, or near maturity, in foreign countries. In the fifteen years immediately preceding the war they increased our net population by about ten millions. In prosperous years, the volume of immigration was much larger than in bad years. The wave fluctuated, but the human tide continued to flow. And yet, in every year and month and on every day in which these millions were coming, there were idle workmen on the streets of every city in America. Abundant supplies of land, rich natural resources, and expanding industries continually called for labor for their utilization. Nevertheless, every morning of the year found idle men at tens of thousands of factory-gates, hanging around employment offices, or pacing the streets. Labor surplus has been as ever-present as labor shortage. Investigation after investigation of employment conditions has demonstrated a continuing supply of idle men in America. Employers have lacked men at the same time that men have lacked work.

It does not necessarily follow that the accretions of population due to immigration produced a surplus of labor in America that could not be employed. Our industries have been developing with marvelous rapidity in the last quarter century. But the facts are that there have never been less than a million idle men, and often five or six millions, at a time during the last twenty years. This continuing surplus has been due in part to the lack of adjustment of immigration to our varying labor needs. But it has also been due in part to the fact that the labor we have is not properly distributed, in part to the fact that the labor-reserve is decentralized, and in part to the excessive turnover of labor which has obtained in our industries.

2. Our unorganized labor market has made it impossible for employers to get labor from any central agency as they get capital from the banking system. They have had to depend upon the picking up of labor wherever they could find it lying around loose. If they could not find the kind of a man they wanted out of employment, their only recourse was to patronize some private employment agency, or to steal the man from another employer. Both policies were followed, even by reputable concerns. During the war the government established an employment service, which is trying to organize the labor market; but we must not lose sight of the facts that that service is a piece of war-machinery rather than a piece of industrial machinery, and that it was not established to help solve either the employers’ or the employees’ employment problem, but to facilitate the transfer of labor from non-essential to essential industries in war-time. It had a war-function, not an industrial function. We sincerely hope that the efforts now being made to develop the United States Employment Service into a permanent system of control over the employment situation will be successful. But that consummation has not yet been attained.

3. The third characteristic of our labor-supply which permitted labor-surplus and unfilled labor-demand to co-exist, was the decentralized character of our labor-reserves. Inasmuch as there was no organized labor market, and as immigration continually replenished the labor-supply, each American employer and each locality developed a local labor-reserve. Each employer expected as a matter of course that there would be idle men at his factory-gate to-morrow morning—every morning. And there were. He based his production policy upon that expectation. Unless there was such a reserve at his place of business, or in his immediate locality, he complained of labor-shortage. In his mind, consciously or unconsciously, was the idea that he was entitled to have on hand at all times enough workers to man his enterprise at maximum capacity, even if he did not run the business at maximum capacity more than thirty days a year. He expected that those who did his hiring would be able to engage from an assembled group the men best suited to his work, and thought it the natural thing that laborers should compete with each other for the jobs he had to offer. In other words, American business has been carried on on the theory that men will work for short periods.

4. A rapid turnover or shifting of labor has been inevitable, with the unregulated immigration, unorganized labor market, and decentralized labor-reserve which we have described.

Labor has passed through our industries rather than into them. A relatively small number of progressive employers have inaugurated labor policies which hold their labor force; but most employers hire two, three, or four men during a year to fill one work place. They clamor for more men, while they let those they have slip through their fingers.

II. The Effect of the War on the Labor Supply

Into this situation came the war. In 1914, 1,218,480 immigrants came to the United States. The total immigration of the next four years was but 1,031,547, or 186,933 less than in 1914, and 166,345 less than in 1913. Each year of the war immigration decreased. It fell from 326,700 in 1915 to 110,618 in 1918. In 1915, immigration gave us a net increase of population of nearly 123,000; in 1918, of but 16,033. During these four years 494,701 aliens departed from this country, which left us with a net increase of population by immigration during the war of 536,846, or about 134,000 a year. The net immigration of 1913 was 889,702; of 1914, 915,142. The war decreased immigration’s contribution to our labor-supply about 85 per cent. It is not certain that our net increase of population by immigration during the war equaled the number of Americans who entered the Allied armies before April, 1917, went to Canada to take the place of Canadians who had gone to the front, and went to Europe to help in the Red Cross and similar work for the Allies. Immigration during the war is therefore of negligible importance as a factor in our labor market.

On the other hand, several million men were withdrawn from employment in America for military, Red Cross, Y.M.C.A., and similar war-work. Their places were taken in part by men and women who had not previously been engaged in economic activities, and in part by absorbing into employment much of the idle labor-surplus.

During the war we experienced a considerable decrease in the nation’s supply of labor in the face of the war’s increase in demand for labor. We needed more, had less, and in effect received none from outside. What happened? By better distribution of what we had, we manned our war-industries. We did not fill every place which needed a man, but we were not crippled by a lack of labor-surpluses. It is true that many of the workers idle in war-time were men of low quality, but by no means all of them were. Throughout the war honest, competent workmen were seeking work at practically all times. Some of them were not fitted for the jobs which happened to be open; some were too far away; some did not know where the opportunities to obtain work were. Unfilled labor-demands and unused labor-surpluses existed side by side as in normal times.

III. Post-War Labor Policy

All of these facts bear vitally on the after-the-war situation. In the first place, they suggest that American industry does not need nearly as many laborers in the country in proportion to the output as it has always had. It is beyond dispute that our industries have been careless in their labor policies. It likewise seems clear that one reason for their carelessness has been the supply of idle workers who were at their doors practically all the time. The employer did not think as much about labor conservation as he did about capital conservation, because labor was easy to get but capital was hard to get. It was when labor became relatively scarce, that employers in general became interested in reducing labor turnover, in maintaining labor efficiency, in paying good wages, in reducing hours, in providing better houses and working conditions. The world-war period was the first period in American history when the interests of the common laborer received serious consideration.

The question which now confronts us is: Shall we endeavor after the war to revert to the old labor-supply policy; or shall we develop constructive policies which will enable our industries to carry on production with smaller labor-reserves?

The termination of war-industries is, of course, throwing many workers out of employment. There can be little question that more people will be out of employment this winter than last. There is no doubt in my mind, from the evidence I have obtained, that there are more out of work now than were out of work last year at this time. Anyone familiar with the industrial readjustments which occurred during the war-period knows that it would be impossible for our industries to return to a peace basis without temporarily throwing many workmen out of employment. Demobilized soldiers and sailors will add to the number of the unemployed, in spite of the efforts being made to absorb them into industry; but the dislocation of industrial workers working in purely war-time industries and in industries heavily loaded with war-orders is the more serious aspect of the situation. We appreciate the efforts of government officials and leading business men to steady industry during the period of readjustment; but it is untrue to say that men are not being thrown out of employment by the termination of the war, and it is untrue to say that every returned soldier and sailor is fining, or will find, a job awaiting him. The number of unemployed in the country has been increasing steadily since the termination of the war. Both the time of year and the suddenness of peace make it inevitable. Efforts to camouflage the situation will only make it worse. Honesty requires that we recognize that we have a serious problem to face this winter, in the matter of replacing unemployed workers in employment.

Returning to our discussion of the labor-supply situation during the coming years, as contrasted simply with the situation of this winter, we wish now to point out that the immigration question is a vital consideration. Before the war, immigration provided a steady stream of labor to maintain the decentralized labor-reserves; and in the immediate future, both the probabilities of immigration and the policy which we are to advocate for the regulation of immigration are of vital importance. Those who wish to reestablish the pre-war situation will seek to stimulate immigration. Those who believe that reduced immigration is desirable will advocate maintenance of our present immigration laws or the enactment of more stringent ones. It is my belief that immigration from Europe will decrease after the war, but that that decrease will not be a menace to our industrial and commercial advancement. In the long run, I believe that it will, instead, be a benefit.

The New York Evening Post estimated that the total fatalities in the European armies amounted to approximately ten million men. The permanent disablements would in all probability bring the figures for labor-loss up to twelve million or more. These were men in the prime of life, of the type who emigrate to America. The civilian casualties will certainly equal the military ones, when we take into account the deliberate slaughter of large numbers of people in Armenia, Serbia, Roumania, Poland, Belgium, and France; the increased death-rates of women and children due to lack of food, shelter, and medical care; and the lowered birth-rate. Some competent observers, such as Mr. Hoover, believe that the civilian death-rate may more than double the military loss before the effects of the struggle have terminated. The total population of Europe is approximately four hundred and thirty million, which would mean that approximately five per cent of the population, and probably eight per cent of the workers, lost their lives in the war. In other words, the war caused a reduction of population in Europe from three to five times as large as it would have suffered by emigration to North and South America during the four years, if peace had continued. Approximately forty per cent, or about four hundred thousand a year on the average, of the immigrants to America have been males of military age. Probably one hundred thousand more went to South America. Europe’s loss of man-power—that is, of men in the prime of life—was, therefore, five times as great on account on the war as it would have been on account of emigration. Now, if twenty men are lost in each locality during four years where four were lost before, the discrepancy cannot but affect the number of persons available for emigration to foreign lands. It would look as if European emigration to America must be checked immediately after the war, although other peculiarities of the situation—such as shortage of capital in Europe and high war-taxes—may increase the tendency to emigrate.

There are many in this country who realize this probability of a reduced European immigration, who are turning longing eyes toward Asia. They will reopen the question of Oriental immigration if they get the opportunity. It is not improbable that they will endeavor to amend our immigration laws at this session of Congress. They are clinging to the policy of providing a labor-surplus for each employer, which will enable him to man his plant at his own convenience, carry on his business with the same violent fluctuations of employment as in the past, and keep down the rate of wages. This effort to reopen our gates to Oriental immigration is nothing less than suicidal. It probably could not be done openly: organized labor’s resistance would be too strong to permit that. But if it should be done, either openly or underhandedly, it would bring the whirlwinds of the workers’ wrath about our heads, and develop a hatred of our economic system, and even of our government, in millions.

The sufferings which the workingmen have endured in the past because of irregular employment have been many times greater than was necessary. They are among the deep-seated causes of bitterness among the workers, and they are a sin against humanity for which our civilization will pay a high price if they are allowed to continue. The thought of the workers is in a critical state. As yet, only a small minority have entirely lost faith in our economic system. If our reconstruction policies eliminate avoidable industrial hardships, the workers’ faith in democracy, political and industrial, will be maintained. If we try to revert to the old system of making labor but an agency of capital, a storm is going to break—if not now, at no distant date.

I am not certain that a stoppage of immigration for ten years would retard our industrial development. It is certain that we have never obtained the maximum possible output from our wage-earners. Irregularity of employment, lack of training, and lack of proper care of their health, have prevented them from attaining their potential efficiency.  If our labor-supply decreases while our need for labor increases or maintains itself, the result will unquestionably be a rapid development of industrial training. This was what enabled us to meet, at least in part, our shortage of skilled labor during the war. If, in the face of a decreased immigration, we devote ourselves to constructive labor policies which will increase the technical skill of our laboring population, reduce labor-turnover, and maintain the laborers’ health, character, and intelligence, we shall meet the need both of industry and of the workers for a higher standard of living. For it goes without saying that a rise in the general efficiency of labor will enable wages to remain at a higher level than if the pre-war condition is revived.

Of course, immigration will not cease, and the industrial expansion to which we look forward when the first after-effects of the war have passed will not find us with a seriously decreased supply of workmen. There is certainly no prospect of such a reduction in immigration as would justify any relaxation of our present immigration laws. A thorough organization of the labor market, to bring the man and the job together with the least loss of time to each; a constructive stud of means for reducing labor-turnover; and training, health-conservation, and steadied employment to increase the workers’ efficiency—these are the policies which will man our industries and at the same time develop in the workers a stronger confidence in our civilization.

The war’s effect on our labor-supply should result in policies which will give us a more efficient labor force with a higher standard of living. When immigration resumes it normal flow, as it may do in a few years, our efficient domestic labor force will enable us to absorb the new immigration without creating the evils of the past. Instead of deploring the check to immigration which will probably result from the war, we should interest ourselves in stimulating labor policies that will raise the efficiency of our whole labor population. This will give us a healthy labor policy in place of the suicidal policies of the past. Nothing will promote America’s industrial position among the nations more surely; nothing will operate so effectively to check extreme labor movements like Bolshevism.