FOLLOWING my resignation from Wall Street, I arrived at my new job on the morning of a great Company celebration, the first gathering of all local employees and executives, together with their families, in the something over forty years’ history of the Mohawk Instrument Company. More than thirty thousand people had been admitted to the fairgrounds. It was a sparkling October day, and to watch the sturdy young workmen going through broad jumps, potato races, tugs of war, — all the sports of a typical field day, — the married workmen in their best and leading their children to one booth after another, where, free of charge, the children could float themselves in lemonade and pop and gorge themselves on ‘wienies’ and popcorn, must have been a satisfaction to the executives who had built up this organization. Forty years without a strike, this company could honestly boast.
My new chief, Mr. McGill, was being congratulated on every side on the huge success he had pulled off in the Company’s first big affair of the sort. A newcomer, he was the Company’s first manager of industrial relations, and was reputed to be a brilliant man who could get things done.
Since I had been informed by Mr. McGill that he liked to have his staff on hand promptly at eight in the morning, it was with almost as much nervousness as I had suffered on my first day in Wall Street that I hurried along toward the high building that housed the executive offices. The hilarity I had witnessed on the previous Saturday had hardly prepared me for the austere atmosphere in which I found myself on entering the spacious vestibule.
From correspondence with Mr. McGill prior to my coming I had gathered that I was to be his first assistant. His own field was assumed to cover labor relations, not only at the executive offices and at the manufacturing plants in the city, but at the Company’s offices or plants all over the country. First of all, I was to establish a modern employment department such as I had built up at the International Investment Corporation in Wall Street. Each of the manufacturing plants had its own employment department, but, although some fourteen hundred people worked at the executive offices, thus far the ‘hiring and firing’ had been done in the old way — each department head finding his own help, with little coöperation between departments.
The higher executives to whom I was introduced met me with a heartiness that was in marked contrast to the aloof attitude I had encountered in Wall Street. Another contrast struck me. In Wall Street things moved at a furious tempo. Here, in spite of the whir of machinery and the enormous volume of business, there was a leisurely atmosphere. In the executive offices I had already observed a good deal of aimless sauntering around and some unconcealed loafing. No one I could see anywhere was hurrying except my own chief. The new manager of industrial relations was dawning on the Company, I suspected, as an amusing but rather terrifying example of Western ‘push.’ I was all the more surprised, since I had been chosen by this energetic man as his first assistant, to find myself consigned at the start to almost complete inactivity.
Each morning the letters were brought in to me from my chief’s desk — a high stack, but rapidly dispatched, as it was hardly necessary to do more than classify them and hand them to a typist. There was no mention of my doing anything else, though my chief himself continued to fly hither and yon, busy keeping tab on the many enterprises he had instituted in the course of a year.
I employed my leisure in looking over files, studying the Company’s past history and present structure, and cultivating acquaintance with the porter sweeping outside my door, the boy who filled my inkwell, the electrician who came to change the bulbs, the carpenter putting up walls to another cell. News spread that I was not a formidable person, and very soon visitors of all sorts were dropping in.
One day I had a visit from a quiet elderly gentleman with no pretensions of dress or manner, but his call, I learned later, had created a stir. He was Mr. Coleman, the president. He said he hoped I was going to like my new home—both the Company and the city. My thoughts darted back to Wall Street. This was a better start! I wondered, however, what Mr. Coleman—vastly wealthy but likewise thrifty— would think if he knew of the waste in bringing me from New York to do what any fifteendollar-a-week clerk in his organization could have done quite as well.
I tried to curb my growing impatience, and at last cornered my chief. ‘Mr. McGill, I must have an understanding. Why should I have left New York — ’
‘Oh, now, be patient,’ he interrupted; adding in an undertone, ‘Industrial relations work is on trial. We have to go very, very slowly.’
’But was n’t it understood—’ I began, to be cut short with, almost in a whisper, ‘The sales department is unwilling that you should have anything to do with employment. There’s to be a meeting this afternoon.’
He came in with an air of elation next morning to tell me the result of the meeting. The sales manager had said some caustic things, but had been overruled by other executives present, and I was to start at once interviewing applicants.
I began with the idea of very gradually taking over prerogatives that had formerly belonged to others. But the job I had planned to pace slowly paced itself. The comptroller, with many departments under his general charge, immediately saw the advantages of an employment department at the executive offices. He gave me his support from the start. Lesser executives followed his lead. In no time at all I was as busy as I had ever been in my most rushing days in Wall Street.
It was during these first months that the cashier blustered into my office one day and, without preface, shouted: ‘ Say, did n’t you know we had an agreement with—and—’ (mentioning two other large concerns in the city) ‘not to take their help, and they’re not to take any of ours?’
I nodded. I had heard rumors of this gentlemen’s agreement.
‘Well, what did you mean, then,’ he asked excitedly, ‘by sending that girl up for the paymaster’s job?’
‘She seemed just the type the paymaster’s looking for.’
‘Where’s her application?’ The cashier began tearing through the papers on my desk. ‘See where she’s working?’ He pointed to the sheet in his hand.
‘Yes, but she’s going to leave, whether we take her or not. Notice what she’s getting! Says she’s wanted for a long time to find something else, but has her mother. Did n’t dare look around.’
‘Look around!’ the cashier echoed scornfully. ‘That’s it! They’re all shopping around.’
‘ Why should n’t they, if their own company won’t recognize they’ve got to have more to be even as well off as they were a year or so ago?’
The cashier looked at me a moment without speaking, and then burst into a laugh. ‘Gee, you sound like the Labor Herald!'
‘You read it?’
‘Read what? The Labor Herald! Say, you’re joking, ain’t you?’
‘I find some valuable suggestions in the labor press.’
The cashier leaned over my desk. His voice dropped to a confidential pitch. ‘You’d better not let ’em find out upstairs that you’re reading those Bolshevist papers!’
‘Some of us had better find out what they’re saying, had n’t we? We ought at least to know their state of mind if we’re to cope with “Bolsheviki.”’
‘Might be something in that,’ the cashier admitted, with a shrewd look, as if the idea had occurred to him for the first time. ‘But watch your step!’ he counseled, a twinkle in his eye.
If the question of more production was in the very air, no less was ' Bolshevism.’ Every discussion in business hours drifted toward it, and at dinner tables where I met socially some of the executives of the Mohawk Company, besides other business leaders, and lawyers, judges, and doctors of the city, conversation invariably centred on this latest bugaboo.
An organization that apparently, in the main, during the four decades of its history had treated its workers with consideration might reasonably have been expected to escape the current hysteria, but the Mohawk Company fell in line, circulating a fevered ‘ Letter from the President,’ in which employees were warned of ‘the poison that had gained a foothold in the community,’ and exhorted ‘to crush its vile head.'
In spite of ominous signs that attention to ‘ the human factor in industry ’ was still far from being a need acknowledged by industry itself, and though the sales department remained on its dignity, refusing me recognition, yet my work of employing and conferring grew with unbelievable rapidity. Immersed in my work, I saw Mr. McGill only occasionally. Did I only imagine that his ‘Hello’ was not so cheery as formerly, his color less brilliant, and that he looked tired? When I asked him if be was well, he answered with all his old vigor, ‘Oh, yes — never ill!’
Mr. McGill’s programme for increased safety and for better medical supervision was apparently meeting with hearty response. Furthermore, there had never before been such activity in athletics. And his ‘foremen’s meetings’ were so popular that tickets of admission to them were fought over.
Everything the new manager of industrial relations had started was, in Company language, going with a bang. But I caught unflattering innuendoes whenever his name was mentioned. The salary he was drawing, higher than that of executives who had been with the Company for years, had leaked out. It seemed to rankle. Was Mr. McGill conscious that regard for him was not growing?
But I had little time to dwell on these things. Complaints were growing louder and more widespread. Office workers, and many hundreds of others at the executive offices whose work was manual, were anxious and irritable from having to go into debt to provide themselves and their families with even the bare necessities. They were keenly resentful that wages at the executive offices were not only lower than elsewhere for the same grade of work and workers, but considerably lower than elsewhere in their own company. There had been little effort to have wages keep pace with the cost of living, and no effort at all to standardize wages, which at the executive offices often varied by a number of dollars a week for identically the same work on opposite sides of the same wall.
The employees’ resentment was in no wise soothed by knowledge of the Mohawk Company’s enormous profits. Each extra dividend declared added fuel. Department heads were besieged by demands for more money. They ignored so far as possible the round robins that were being circulated, lest they should be called on to fire the signers; their departments were already undermanned.
When I asked the harassed department heads why they did not try to have the wages in their departments equitably adjusted, I received the invariable answer that it was of no use. From time immemorial the cashier had been entrusted with the sole responsibility of deciding wages at the executive offices, and department heads had so many times been roughly ‘ turned down’ when they presented a list of increases to him that they were unwilling to risk it again.
In strictly office departments, even more workers were leaving. More than one of the higher executives complained in my presence that help was not what it used to be when workers took what they got, glad to get it. The modern tendency to ask for more wages they looked on as an impertinence, as disloyalty to the Company.
I was considering what course to pursue when a caller one noon decided me. Recognizing him as an employee that had left the packing department about two weeks before to take a job with another company, and remembering that Mr. Peacock, the head of the department, had told me, ‘I’d rather lost twenty men than Jack Dowling,’I insisted that Mr. Dowling should sit down.
‘How are you getting along in your new place?’ I inquired.
‘Well, I’ll tell you,’he started. ‘I hated like sin to leave. There ain’t another boss in the Mohawk Company equal to Eddy Peacock. I think something of that man, I’ll tell the world! He’s been like a father to me. All the fellers think the same, or there would n’t be a gol-darned man left in the department.’
I waited for my caller, twisting about, to dispose his long legs more comfortably.
‘Well, I’ll tell you,’he started over again. ‘ Peacock ain’t to blame. He knows his men are n’t getting enough, but he dass n’t ask for more. You see, Mr. Peacock was a kid, like me, when he come here. He’s just “Eddy” to ’em upstairs. They kid him along and don’t pay no attention to what he says. That’s the way I ’ve doped it out. And you see, Mr. Peacock’s like myself: he ain’t got much education. But if there’s a man in the U. S. A. knows the packing game better’n Eddy, I wish somebody’d show him to me. He sends the goods out of this company right, you bet!
‘Say!’ he continued, leaning his arms, with their frayed shirt cuffs, on my desk, and suddenly looking at me with an earnest, almost wistful gaze, ‘ I hope I ain’t fresh, but do you suppose you could do something for the fellers? I would n’t ’a’ asked while I was working here myself, but I ain’t got nothing to lose now — or to gain, comes to that. I’m out. And maybe—’ He paused, to add breathlessly, ‘I’ll tell you the truth. There’s men in there,’ nodding toward the packing department, ‘men with families, good workers too, ain’t getting what they ought to eat. There’s some society or other takes their kids to the country in the summer and feeds ’em up. I want to get married sometime, — I’ve got a girl, — but good night, I ain’t going to let the town buy milk for my kids ’cause their dad can’t! And — would you believe it? — there’s a lot of the fellers in there buys everything they’ve got on secondhand.
I ain’t come to wearin’ secondhand shirts yet!’ he wound up, with fine young scorn. ‘That’s why I left, before I got there.’
After closing time I was closeted with Mr. McGill. He looked downright distressed when I repeated to him part of young Dowling’s talk. But when I suggested that there should be a wage survey, to prove by statistics that adjustments needed to be made, and that the industrial relations department should propose the survey, Mr. McGill jumped up and began walking back and forth.
‘We can’t touch the wages! We can’t touch the wages!’ he cried, in an agitated but subdued voice.
‘If industrial relations work has nothing to do with wages,’I said finally, ‘then, Mr. McGill, we have different conceptions of the term.’
‘Oh, I grant you, I grant you,’ he replied, ‘wages stand in the very vestibule of industrial relations. But we dare n’t touch them! The department’s not strong enough yet.’
‘The situation won’t wait till the department grows a beard,’ I said. ‘If hundreds of men walk out now, in the busy season, and we have n’t lifted a hand — well, it would be the death of an industrial relations department in this company if I were its president!’
‘But the executives don’t look at it that way.’
‘Who’s going to bring them to if we don’t?’ I hazarded. ‘And what department is going to probe and right such matters as wages if ours does n’t?’
I left, feeling I had said, in the heat of the moment, too much — a feeling confirmed when Mr. McGill found it inconvenient to confer with me through several days that followed. There were but two courses for me to take: to make another effort to arouse Mr. McGill, and, failing, to resign, or to go to the general manager, perhaps to the president.
I had about concluded that to resign was the better course when Mr. McGill met me in the hall and, with the most jubilant expression I had seen on his face for weeks, announced: —
‘A wage survey starts to-morrow. I’m putting three men on it. We’ll have the data ready in short order.’
The survey finished, department heads were asked to confer with me. My lengthiest sessions were with Mr. Peacock. Nearly two hundred of his men were entitled to more pay, but as Mr. Peacock went over their names he would fall from time to time into a state bordering on panic.
‘They’ll never pass it—that long list!’ he would exclaim. ‘I have n’t the nerve, really I have n’t, to send it up.’
He would add a few more names and then go all to pieces again, recalling the many times the cashier had ‘ knocked him over the head.’ Twentyfive years of this had done its work on one of the most sensitive and compassionate natures ever encased in a roughand-ready form. One of his foremen had told me that Mr. Peacock had nothing himself because he had gone down into his own pocket too often for doctor and hospital and undertaker bills for his men.
It was on the very eve of presenting the lists that Mr. Burlington, the general manager, telephoned that he would like to see me. I found Mr. Sweet, a vice president, in close consultation with him.
‘I’ve been wondering,’ said the general manager, in his thoughtful way, ‘whether this proposed wage increase is really necessary.’
I glanced at Mr. Sweet, who was examining a carved-ivory paper knife.
‘You saw the report, Mr. Burlington,’ I said. ‘With rents what they are, and the present cost of coal and food, it’s not possible for some of the men to —'
‘What have we got to do with that ?’ interposed Mr. Sweet, tossing the paper knife on the desk. ‘The employees would be all right if they were let alone.’
I looked directly at him. ‘Has anyone been stirring them up?’
‘It’s been our policy,’ he resumed, after a silence, ‘to keep wages confidential.’
‘But can you keep them confidential, when James Jones is getting seven dollars a week less than his brother, doing the same thing in the same company?’
Apparently I had been summoned in the forlorn hope that the inevitable might be averted. I heard nothing further, but continued to be anxious till the committee had actually come together.
The general manager presided. Mr. Ball, the burly sales manager, growled that there was n’t a man or girl in his department earning his or her pay as it was, and registered a blanket objection to any and all increases. The comptroller tried to talk down the sales manager. He believed in paying people, and then getting work out of them. Less loafing, fewer people, and more pay for the few, summed up his position. A third member of the committee expressed himself as inclined — if not warmly, at least inclined — to the side of the employees.
At this juncture, Vice President Sweet slid into the room and took the place made for him at the right hand of the general manager. My heart sank. He was not a member of the committee, but had come, only too plainly, for the purpose of bolstering up the general manager against his tendency to give the workers their due.
The reading of the lists began. Vice President Sweet proved to have an uncanny memory for even the most obscure workers. For each name that was read he had an anecdote that made the employee in question appear either a knave or a fool.
But the fifth member of the committee, hitherto silent, now had something to say. He knew even more about the employees personally than did Mr. Sweet — knew good of them, as well as bad; and every story that Mr. Sweet told he capped with a better, until the whole committee rocked, even the general manager wiping his eyes.
The fifth member knew more about wages, past and present, inside the Company and out, than all the rest of the committee put together. He fought for the increases with such force, coupled with such fun, that more than a thousand went rollicking through, marked with the general manager’s almost unconsciously penciled O. K.
The astonishing fifth member was the cashier. The most reviled man in the organization, and he knew it. The man who for a quarter of a century had systematically opposed every penny’s addition to the pay roll. The man who had done the job expected of him in the only way he knew how to do it, and according to the general procedure of his time; but who was withal so shrewd that he saw, before many others, a turn in the tide, and of so robust a kindliness that even years of tyrannous practice had not completely dulled it. The responsibility of his ungrateful office having now been handed on to a committee, he rebounded with characteristic vigor.
It was reassuring to see Mr. McGill driving at things with all the exuberant energy he had displayed when I first joined his staff. In the late winter he arranged a foremen’s meeting that he planned to have the largest and best he had ever attempted. He persuaded Mr. Coleman, the president, to give a brief talk, preceding the speaker of the evening, who was coming, as usual, from out of town.
Higher executives, as well as foremen, opened their eyes when broiled live lobster and celery replaced the customary roast veal and mashed potatoes of such occasions, and I caught a whisper that the manager of industrial relations knew how to spend the Company’s money. But everyone praised it as a ‘wonderful spread’ before settling down to the hush that preceded the president’s remarks. Many of the foremen had never seen the president before.
Unaccustomed to speaking, and very pale, the president addressed the gathering as his ‘fellow employees.’ His quietly spoken words sent a visible thrill through the great crowd of middle-aged foremen leaning forward to listen, with an almost yearning expression, to the first speech their president had ever made them. Tears clouded the eyes of many when in ending he spoke of his age, of the fact that he would not always be with them, but would trust them to carry on.
Thus moulded into a receptive mood, they gave the visiting speaker of the evening the closest attention. It was, I thought, a good speech—not strikingly original, a bit over the foremen’s heads, perhaps, but calculated to provoke thought in the higher executives present. I felt slightly disturbed when the speaker referred not only to the ‘living wage’ but to the ‘family wage,’ and when he pleaded for more effort on the part of industry to satisfy man’s instincts. It would never have occurred to me, however, that there was anything revolutionary in the address, and I was delighted to hear many executives, with whom I talked as we left the hall, commend it. After all, they were more open-minded than I had credited them with being.
Next day rumors were afloat that the president had been displeased. He believed, and perhaps rightly, that under modern conditions, with the subdivision of labor into the minute parts required by quantity production, you could not satisfy a man’s instincts in industry. If he was to satisfy them, the president held, he must do so after working hours. The president considered it a grave mistake to have a ’ talk to foremen ’ along lines that might lead to fruitless agitation.
Lesser executives were quick to trim their sails, and men who had spoken of the speech as ‘splendid’ were now vying with each other in abuse of both speech and speaker.
Mr. McGill stopped at my office long enough to admit that the president had been displeased, but he added, with a cheerfulness apparently forced, that he thought it would ‘all blow over.’
Less than a week later he asked if I would come to his office after closing time. This was not an unusual request and his manner was not unusual when he made it, so I was entirely unprepared for what he had to tell.
A meeting had been called, the day before, of plant managers, directors, all the high executives. The president had sat at the head of the table, and Mr. McGill had heard each one of the executives present say what he thought of the value of the industrial relations department, which had now had a year’s trial. There was no reference at all, as I remember Mr. McGill’s story, to the recent talk to the foremen. Someone mentioned the lobsters.
‘I’ll never forget old Sweet’s face!' said Mr. McGill. ' He sat during the whole meeting with a sly smile on his face — did n’t look me once in the eyes.’
It was the one hint of resentment in Mr. McGill’s recital. He had proved unacceptable to the executives of the Mohawk Company, and he admitted their right to tell him so. I had never seen the manager of industrial relations more a man than in his account of his dismissal. A mention, without dwelling on it, of his wife, his children, and the home he had bought, was the only intimation that he was cut to the quick.
‘I never knew where I stood with them,’ he ended, a little wearily. ‘It’s a relief to have it all over.’
From the first of the year men in some of the plants had been working only part time. By summer it was apparent that, instead of a revival of business, there had been further decline. Talk of a wage cut now became general. Report of a flat cut, the same per cent throughout the Company, was being circulated.
The five factories had set their wage rates, as they did everything else, quite independently of each other. There had been the least possible effort — if, indeed, any at all — toward standardization. At the executive offices, only recently had wages been brought near the figures for like work elsewhere, though even now they were not up to them. In general, wages had received only such attention from the management as was forced upon it from time to time.
Not a word had been said to the manager of industrial relations or to myself—not a word, that is, by the executives. The employees talked of nothing else. I kept waiting for a summons to the president’s office or to the general manager’s office. Surely nothing affected the welfare of employees more vitally than a wage cut.
I was still waiting when one day Mr. Jewel, my new chief and Mr. McGill’s successor, came into my office, carefully closing behind him the door I always left open. Mr. Jewel was not an outsider. He had been promoted from within the organization.
’I wonder if you’ve heard,’ he said with a serious look, drawing a chair close to the desk. ’The cut’s been decided on.’
‘ Decided! ’
He nodded. ’Fifteen per cent.’
‘Without a word to us about it! How can they do such a thing?’
Mr. Jewel agreed that the cut decided upon would be thoroughly inequitable. ’But it’s decided,’ he said. ’I have it from reliable sources.’
’It’s not announced yet!’ My excitement was growing every minute. ‘We must go to the president, or to the plant managers!’
‘They have n’t asked our advice,’ Mr. Jewel reproved me. ‘Yes, it’s bad, but there’s nothing to be done. The managers have decided and they’ll hardly reconsider.’
‘Why should n’t they reconsider?’ I persisted, to Mr. Jewel’s discomfort. ’What are managers, anyway? Are n’t they just human — and fallible?’
Mr. Jewel looked a trifle shocked.
‘They don’t expect us to interfere with wages,’ he said, with an air of finality. My thoughts flew back to his predecessor, who had said the same thing.
‘ They may not expect it, but we should! How can we ever look a worker in the face again if we let this thing go through?’
Had the managers ignored us deliberately? On reflection, I realized that management’s habit of arbitrary decisions in regard to workers was an old growth, deep-rooted. In matters of this sort it functioned almost automatically.
In any event, I had better go to the president. The president was the most reasonable man in the Company, the least ruled by his emotions. In the way of this action stood my aversion to going over the head of a superior. The longer I worked in the business world, the more I respected organization. I decided on the middle course of discussing the matter with another high executive, a scientist, and, according to the nature of scientists, liberally inclined, though not to a point where business profits would suffer from philosophic considerations. I frankly stated to him what seemed to me the absurdity of a company maintaining an industrial relations department if the department was to be disregarded whenever an industrial relations crisis arose.
This scholarly and agreeable gentleman was one of the few executives in the Company on an easy footing with the president, respecting without fearing the shy but compelling genius at whose least word so many men trembled, often men of no mean attainments themselves. Within a few hours a special meeting was called. The manager of industrial relations and I were invited to be present.
The wage cut eventually decided on was as high as twenty per cent for certain classes of labor, but it exempted entirely certain other classes, and averaged, instead of fifteen, as originally proposed, about nine per cent.
Winter was coming on. In every factory men sat dumbly before their machines waiting for the foreman’s tap on the shoulder. ‘Sorry, Bill, but it hits you this time!’
At Mohawk Works No. 1, nearly two thousand men were laid off one noon, with only a few hours’ formal notice. The manager, ‘Big Bob’ Welsh, who looked like a gorilla, the most beloved man in the Company, — or, for the matter of that, in the city, — had been seen standing at a window in his office with the tears streaming down his face as he watched the laidoff men file out.
All the previous winter his men had worked half time. The many months of half time had largely exhausted their savings. Things were getting acute. Some factories in town had resorted to putting two men on the same job, working alternate weeks. Even among the Company plants Mohawk Park had adopted this expedient in preference to laying off men entirely. Strangely, inexplicably, at Mohawk Works No. 1, under Bob Welsh, the most sensitive to human suffering of all the plant managers, it had not been attempted.
One case of distress after another in families of the Mohawk Works’ laid-off men was discovered. Finally I asked the general manager why Mohawk Works had not tried, as other factories were doing, to distribute such work as it had among more of its men.
‘Mr. Welsh thinks it would n’t work at his plant,’ Mr. Burlington told me.
‘ Would n’t work?’ I repeated. ‘Why not?’
’I did n’t ask him.’
Taught by many sessions with busy executives, I knew better than to come unprepared, and I quickly produced my evidence. Jobs of the same type as those at Mohawk Works were being satisfactorily split and shared at numerous other up-State factories.
The general manager looked thoughtful. ‘I hardly see how it can be suggested to Mr. Welsh,’ he said, with characteristic delicacy of feeling, ‘if he has n’t seen it himself.’
‘It would n’t be appropriate for me to point it out to him, but I should think it would be a perfectly proper suggestion to come from — from the seats of the mighty!’
Mr. Burlington’s nobly moulded features relaxed in a slight smile. Although always reluctant to exert pressure, he informed me a few days later that Mr. Welsh had been prevailed on to put the matter up to a division of his works to see whether the five hundred men still working there would share their jobs with five hundred laid-off men. The workmen should decide for themselves.
I awaited their decision with mixed hope and fear. At Mohawk Works, employee representation was in force. Only Bob Welsh, with his twinkling eyes, inimitable nasal drawl, and irresistible stories, could have achieved employee representation in face of the united disapproval of all the other upper executives. The Mohawk Works employees had not been permitted to pass on such major matters as the recent wage cut and lay-offs, but for several years past they had decided many internal affairs. How would the Company’s sole experiment in allowing employees a voice in things stand the terrible test that was now to be put upon it? Would men who had been out of work much of the year before vote to put themselves still deeper in the hole in order to let the other fellows come up a little nearer the surface?
It was Bob Welsh himself who came over to tell me. He was a frequent visitor, always poking in his head when he passed my door and saying in a mysterious whisper, ‘ You still here? Thought you’d been given the sack before this!’
Mr. Welsh’s huge apelike figure filled the doorway now. He came slowly toward my desk, — his broad shoulders habitually a little stooped, his long arms dangling, — looking right at me, but not saying a word. His eyes were swimming as he came near, his face working, as he said in a hoarse, halting voice: —
‘Five hundred — every man jack of them — voted to give up half their jobs! You think employee representation has hurt my boys much? Hey? How about it?’
I think I had never before realized till that winter the high cost of being sick, the high cost of being born, and the still higher cost of dying. It was doctor, hospital, undertaker bills that had wiped out the men’s surplus in nearly every case and left them little or nothing to go on when one of the ever-recurring periods of unemployment, which their fathers had known before them, struck them again.
Our Company employment offices were no longer crowded. The first stage of unemployment had passed. The second stage —apathy—had succeeded. There were no jobs.
And if a job did turn up here or there the Mohawk Company’s laid-off men had a slim chance, they soon found, to get it. The very stability of the industry, relatively speaking, its great prestige, worked against its men. As soon as an employer learned they were Mohawk men he would say, ‘Nothing doing! About the time we got you broken in, they’d call you back.’
It was at this juncture that a thoughtful, and captivating, Englishman made a visit to the United States. He talked before various organizations on his personal effort to meet the problem of unemployment by a plan he had put into operation in his own factory. He talked in a way that made universities listen, the Academy of Political and Social Science take notice, and even some American manufacturers warm up.
A few of the Mohawk Company’s executives had chanced to hear Mr. Rowntree. I thought about it a good deal, and at last one day asked the president if he would appoint a committee to study the problem of unemployment as it affected his own company, the committee to make any recommendations its study might suggest.
The committee met almost weekly, sometimes more than once a week, for the greater part of a year. It included a brilliant young statistician, the Company’s ranking industrial engineer, an expert accountant, and three production managers. Four of its nine members were deeply interested in the subject from the start, another speedily became so, and two more were open to argument. The chairman remained from beginning to end good-naturedly vague as to what was going on.
The member whose attitude mattered most was one of the Company’s higher executives. Able but unassuming, Mr. Staub revealed himself at the very first meeting. ‘I never thought,’ he said, quite simply, ‘that we had any responsibility whatsoever toward men we laid off.’
An idea such as Wolman’s, — that industry which depends upon the workers to keep it alive should take care of them when they are unemployed,—or Rowntree’s, — that if, in order to function efficiently, industry retains a reserve of workers to meet its varying demands, it should make provision for the maintenance of the reserve when it cannot be absorbed, — struck Mr. Staub with the shock of complete novelty.
It was not long, however, before the committee was working as a unit under the conviction that, if the Mohawk Company had to pay for its own unemployment, it would take pains to reduce the evil to a minimum, with Mr. Staub not only concurring in this view but offering invaluable suggestions for the unemployment benefit plan which began to take shape.
Practically everything that had been printed on the subject of unemployment was studied and discussed. The Company’s own habits were scrutinized. Was it accustomed to planning so as to avoid the necessity of taking on hundreds of men to-day, only to turn them off to-morrow?
The committee tried to keep its proceedings confidential. But no group gathering regularly over so long a stretch of time could fail to arouse curiosity. What it was occupied with leaked out. It trickled outside the Company, to our astonishment as far west as the Pacific coast. From industries all over the country came letters of inquiry.
There were many encouraging signs. The plant managers kept inquiring in regard to the committee’s progress. The president was apparently not much interested one way or the other. But, judging from the past, if his plant managers registered their approval of an unemployment benefit plan, he was agreeable to having one. To offset what might have been regarded as the president’s indifference, I had never seen the general manager so unmistakably favorable to any proposal of the sort. It appealed both to Mr. Burlington’s reason and to his conscience.
It seemed as if the plan in all its detail would never be ready. Spring approached. The unemployment situation, if not materially better in the Company, was generally slightly improved. The committee frankly recognized the fact that the plan had less chance of adoption with every day that the unemployment situation grew better. We harried the clerks to give us their figures. The chairman, to the other members’ consternation, ran off for a holiday. He was pelted with telegrams to return or to authorize his signature, that there might be no further delay. At last a day was appointed for the plant managers to consider the plan. The committee had requested that I should be present at the meeting.
The plan was not intended to afford any relief to the existing situation, and would not become operative till a year after its adoption. It was proposed that a fund should be built up adequate for disbursements in the next period of depression, estimated, if prophecy could be based on industrial history, to come in 1928. Whether it came in 1928 or not, it would recur within an appreciable period.
Copies of the plan were sent to the plant managers in advance of the conference. We expected some, though not insuperable, opposition. I was not, myself, altogether sure of the general manager. We counted, however, on Bob Welsh, the workman’s friend.
As fate would have it, during the time the managers were allowed in which to familiarize themselves with the plan before meeting to vote on it, the Chamber of Commerce issued a promised ‘Survey.’ Offering it as an exhaustive and dispassionate study of unemployment, the Chamber warned its four thousand members against any and all ‘panaceas.’ The effects of the British dole were dwelt on at length as a horrible, if far from apposite, example. It became plain, among other things, that a movement was on foot to forestall any such bill as had been introduced in the legislatures of Massachusetts and Wisconsin, and to render anathema the very term ‘unemployment insurance.’
A startling whisper now began to go around. Mr. Welsh was working hand in glove with that powerful organization known as the Associated Industries.
The afternoon before the conference, Mr. Welsh telephoned to ask if I would come to his office. He sat humped over his desk with the committee’s report before him. ‘Sit down,’ he said, and I took the chair by his side.
‘Sounds,’ he said, still reading, and talking out of the corner of his mouth, ‘as if it had been written for a woman’s club.’
I winced, and my heart began to beat fast, but I answered in the bantering manner in which Mr. Welsh and I had always conversed together, ‘I suppose that’s your flattering way of intimating that I composed the document.’
‘Bears your earmarks.’
‘Now, Mr. Welsh, abuse is not argument. I plead guilty to being a woman, and to belonging to a few women’s organizations — none, however, so far as I know, that maintain a lobby at—.’
‘What do you mean by that?’ he caught me up, scowling, with a sharp look from under his shaggy eyebrows.
‘Come! When was the Associated Industries, Mr. Welsh, ever on the side of—?’
He stopped me again, this time with a short laugh, not altogether pleasant. ‘Oh, here!’ Then, more in his accustomed tone, he asked, ‘You know O’Shea?’ — a well-known lobbyist. ‘You’d like Mike.’
‘I don’t doubt it,’ I said. ‘Some of the most delightful men of my acquaintance are thoroughgoing rascals.’
By this time Mr. Welsh was in fairly good humor and we could get down to discussion. My hopes were reviving a little, when he suddenly picked up the report and, waving it in the air, said, ‘This thing’s Socialism!’
‘Socialism!’ I laughed outright, in spite of myself. ‘What do you find in it that is socialistic?’
He read mockingly from the first paragraph: —
‘Fear of unemployment and the sense of injustice associated with this fear in the mind of the worker are two of the most potent causes of labor unrest.’
‘You call that Socialism?’ I asked.
’Oh, it’s the whole thing,’ he said impatiently, ‘the tone of it.’
‘Socialism! That’s just what it is n’t. It’s Capitalism. It’s an effort to tinker up the old machine, so there’ll be no danger of its breaking down.’
‘Pure Socialism!’ Mr. Welsh reiterated unreasoningly. No other word, unless it might be its recent rival, ‘Bolshevism,’ was so devastating. With this word Mr. Welsh could destroy, I realized, all the work of the unemployment committee.
We talked till the light of the early spring afternoon had faded and Mr. Welsh’s secretary had covered her typewriter and reached for her hat. I said all that I knew how to say, but it was talking against a wall.
I had jested with Mr. Welsh many times in the past, but I did not even attempt to smile as I stood with my back to his office door.
‘ God Almighty, Mr. Welsh, intended you and Mr. Burlington, with your great gifts, to be leaders, not followers — great liberal leaders! ’
Mr. Welsh answered me with a prolonged stare.
Next morning I had hardly glanced at the first batch of mail before Mr. Welsh walked in.
‘ You kept me awake last night,’ he said.
‘I’m honored. I’d hardly dared hope I had made so much impression.’
‘You kept me awake—thinking,’ he repeated, and with the word ‘thinking’ again my hope revived.
‘Still friends?’ he asked, coming closer.
‘We’re friends?’ he asked again.
‘Never better,’ I assured him, but I knew now, from his insistence, that only a miracle could save the plan.
The meeting held surprises. Mr. Welsh sat perfectly glum while members of the committee answered questions put to them. The general manager, as chairman of the conference, delivered a sort of charge to the jury, prior to the vote, which must be unanimous if the plan was to be adopted, clearly manifesting his own desire that a favorable verdict be brought in. There was a minute’s silence. Then he turned, as if in duty bound, to the manager of Mohawk Works.
‘What do you think of it, Welsh? You have n’t said.’
There was another minute of silence.
‘Damned drivel!’ came from Mr. Welsh, half under his breath, followed by the word I had waited for in dread, ‘Socialism!’ — then by another parrot phrase, a little louder and equally distasteful to the average manufacturer, ‘ Paternalism! ’
Everybody was straining to hear now.
‘You’ll soon get the workman so you’ll have to feed him pap out of a spoon. It’s folderol! Help him through periods of unemployment, the way this thing proposes, and you deprive him of all motive to save.’
‘All?’ I had held myself in check up to this time. ‘All motive, Mr. Welsh? What about owning his own home, educating his children, sickness, old age, death? The workman’s not embarrassed, if you’ll permit me to disagree with you, sir, by any scarcity of objects to save for.’
‘Bravo!’ called out the manager of Mohawk Park, down at the end of the table.
It came to me that, if I should picture to these executives just one of the scenes my eyes had rested on during the two winters their men had been out of work, they could not fail to respond. What were these men around the table? The most thoughtful and indulgent of husbands, the kindest, most tender of fathers. Why not tap this well? But would it be playing the game? My momentary struggle came to an abrupt end with the sound of Mr. Welsh’s voice, his old familiar nasal drawl, with all its humorous inflections. He was telling a story — apropos, sidesplitting, deadly. The only chance was a better story. But if there was anyone living who could tell a better, I had never heard him.
The conference broke up, left the room in little groups of two or three, talking together lightly, as if nothing had been at stake. There was only one thing for me to do — to demonstrate that if business had taught me nothing else it had taught me to be a tolerably good loser.