Popular Science Monthly/Volume 40/December 1891/Silk Dresses and Eight Hours' Work

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By J. B. MANN.

THE remark occurs in a recent editorial article in a prominent religious newspaper commending the eight-hour movement that if all the women who want silk dresses could have work, all the silk factories in the country could be set in motion and would furnish employment to the many thousands of people then idle; or words of that import. The proposition at first sight seems philosophical, but is it not reasoning in a circle? Having work, people will buy silks. If they buy silks, the factories will run. If the factories run, the people will have work. The old lady said: "This snow will never melt until the weather is warmer, and the weather can never be warmer until the snow has melted." Making the statement does not solve the problem.

When we look at the matter with care we find, sorrowfully, that the women who have no silks are the very ones who do the hardest work; and hence, as they are working clear up to the limit of human endurance to get bread, they have no time left over to put into silk dresses. This fact upsets the theory. Horace Greeley had a theory that poverty in cities could be cured by getting the poor to go West and engage in farming; entirely overlooking the fact that the next sixpence the poor man could get, and the next, and so on, must go for bread, thus putting a trip to the West out of the question.

But the imagining of philosophers in regard to the remedies is of small account, because want of work is not in this country one of the leading causes of poverty, as every careful observer knows. There are at least a dozen things which are more potent causes of the evil, and too much work, by which constitutions are broken and health ruined, is one of them. Is the remedy, therefore, not to be found in the eight-hour movement? I answer, No. The eight-hour movement does not approach the root of the evil. It is assumed by the promoters of the movement that society has a given amount of wants which require a given amount of labor to supply, and hence it is inferred that if all the workers cut down their hours from twelve to eight, the men now out of employment will come up and do the work the others have relinquished. In that way it is claimed that there will be work for all. Another theory is that men will accomplish as much in the long run in eight hours as they now do in twelve. It is evident on the face of it that both theories are not true, because if as much should be done by the present workers after the change as before, no more would be left for the others to do than they have now. And in that case the present workers would come much nearer to exhausting their strength and injuring their health for the same money only that they get now. They would be no richer, and would drive their muscles and frames at a wearing pace not consistent with the laws of health.

But neither theory is true. Instead of there being a given amount of wants, as alleged, wants are found to be largely the result of means.

If the community have little, they require little, but as they become wealthy they spread out in proportion. People can't hire labor if they are poor, and hence to make a demand for labor somebody must be rich enough to pay for it. This is perfectly plain. Nobody goes in search of a poor man for employment, only in the last resort. It follows that whatever tends to wealth-making tends to want-making, and to an increase in the demand for labor and the supply of employment. On the other hand, whatever tends to a diminution of wealth tends necessarily to a diminution of the means to pay for labor, and also to less disposition to hire others to do the work. I think that these positions can not be successfully combated, and if not, we have a criterion by which to determine in what direction to look for improvement in the condition of the laboring man. Surely we shall never find it in anything that tends to a diminution of resources.

What is stated above in relation to wants being increased in proportion to the increase of wealth does not hold good in some individual cases, but in general it does, and it holds good to that extent that the common people everywhere accept it as a basis of action without stopping to reason about it at all, it is so natural. It is the reason why people leave a country like Ireland and come here. They expect to find dollars so plenty that, according to the old story, they do not deem it worth the while to pick up the quarters they may see lying on the wharf where they land. The same thing takes the smart boys from the poor country districts and small villages to the large towns and cities. They feel that they must get to places where there is an abundance of money. They do not fail to note that a man who has ten thousand dollars will build a three thousand dollar house, while the man with thirty thousand will build a house costing twelve thousand probably," and that calls for four times the labor of the other. They must get where such men abound, and where there are hundred-thousand-dollar men and millionaires, men who will build palaces, railroads, great warehouses, and ships. Poverty-stricken places are given a wide berth by all sensible folk, and so universal is the practice that we are not left in doubt as to the meaning of it.

Now wealth is principally the product of labor. Some get it by their own labor, and some by the labor of others; but however got by the individual, it is the result of personal or machine exertion and force. This necessitates the rule, therefore: More labor, more wealth; less labor, less wealth. This rule no one can escape or ignore.

The question now comes up, whether working eight hours a day tends to more riches or more production than working twelve. That it does not, I have already stated is my belief, and the belief is founded upon a long experience as a mechanic, farm laborer, employer, and observer. In twenty years of labor in a shop, I never saw the time when I could do twelve hours' work in eight hours, except possibly for a single day. I never saw the man that could do it, and I never heard of one that could do it.

I never met one that said he thought it could be done for any length of time. It is a well-established fact that most men that pretend to work well have a working gait of their own, and can not be hurried beyond that advantageously. If they are, they do poor work or break down. This is so obvious that any pretense that as much will be accomplished in the shorter hours in farming or physical labor of any kind borders on the ridiculous. So obvious is it, that the principal advocates of the eight-hour movement have ceased to put their case on this ground, and rely upon the other theory, that less work will be done, and consequently more work will be left to be given to the laborers seeking for something to do.

If this latter view be adopted, it follows that the eight-hour men are philanthropists, who have sacrificed, or propose to sacrifice, one third of their possible earnings for the good of their fellow-men who have no work. This is incredible. The laborers themselves do not act from any such principle. They are thinking all the time that, instead of making a sacrifice, they are getting more leisure and making more money. They think that, Instead of the work they could do in the four hours they have abandoned being done by the poor fellows who need help, it is not done at all, and, not being done at all, wages have risen, and thus they can get twelve hours' pay for eight hours' work.

In other words, they propose to increase the wealth of the community by lessening the amount produced by the community, thinking that, with a smaller amount to be divided as wages by one third, they can get a bigger share. Not only do they suppose this impossible thing, but they claim it has already been accomplished, and they say the advance in wages during the last thirty years has been caused by the reduction of hours.

Assuming this to be true, it is perfectly legitimate to argue that a further reduction of hours will work in the same way, and they name eight as the next station on the scale, with an intimation that soon six will be the point, and later four. I believe that most concede that it is necessary to have some work done, not perceiving the absurdity into which they fall by the concession. Logically, we say that if one can earn a dollar in one hour, he can earn the same the next hour, and the next, and so on to the limit of his endurance. But, if we begin at the other end of the line of argument, and say that one can do as much and get as much pay in ten hours as in twelve, and then say that he can get as much pay in eight as in twelve, and then again as much in six, there is no logical stop anywhere till the bottom is reached. The stubborn fact of time is kicked out of the back door. It is the same as saying that a man works six hours, earns three dollars, and then works six more at the same work for nothing; while the same persons who say it have to admit that, if the man worked six hours in one day and six hours the next day, he would get as much pay for the second six as for the first six. Time is too tough a customer to be disposed of in that manner, and we must deal with him as a fact that has come to stay.

I think the most stupid are now able to see that one's ability to provide for his wants depends primarily upon his labor, and that time is a principal element in the case. He must have it and he must use it, and his prosperity, other things being equal, will be much or little as time is wisely used or neglected. The law of prosperity has not been repealed by any of the edicts of the leagues and unions. Not a fact or principle has been abolished or suspended. An hour lost is the loss of the product of labor that might have been performed in that hour, and it falls on the man who owned the hour, and not on another man or set of men. He does not escape his loss by the absurd theory that he lost it after four o'clock of Monday, instead of before ten Tuesday morning. It is an absolute loss, whatever the day when it was made. If the man worked for himself, as the saying is, he would see it was a total loss and nothing else; but, working for another, he fancies the other man is the loser, or else, by some hocus-pocus, it is shifted upon society. If men worked by the piece they would see how it is. Let two men start together in life as shoemakers, with a view to do their best in getting on in the world, as Henry Wilson did sixty years ago. They are equal in skill and endurance, and can work twelve hours at a fair stroke without impairing health. Working by the piece, they find they can earn sixteen and two thirds cents per hour, or at the rate of two dollars a day. There is no difference between them in purpose, and only the small difference in the method of getting on, that James thinks he will sooner get in comfortable circumstances by working twelve hours a day, and John imagines that nine hours will answer the purpose just as well. At the end of the year of three hundred days they find that James has earned six hundred dollars, and John has earned but four hundred and fifty dollars. They keep on at this rate ten years, and James has laid by two thousand dollars, and John nothing. Now, the two thousand of James earns ten dollars a month for him, and is better than a good apprentice, because he pays the fund no wages and it costs nothing for board. The reason why they are "now so wide apart is that the extra hours of James have yielded fifteen hundred dollars principal in the ten years, and five hundred dollars in interest. John has nothing, because the expense of living of each and support of the families has amounted to four hundred and fifty dollars a year for each. In ten years more James will have interest-money sufficient to meet the family expense of four hundred and fifty dollars, and John will be with his nose still on the grindstone. A company of ten such men would lose in ten years twenty thousand dollars, and society would never make it up to them. Society would not pay for one hundred pairs of shoes when only seventy-five pairs were furnished, and the idea that it would is a delusion. Many workingmen have gained in the last half century, and the general condition has improved a great deal, but no part of the money gain has been due to less hours of labor. The people have grown rich during that time because they have availed themselves of the increased means of production which have been developed, and not because production has been lessened by the laborer refusing to work the former number of hours. Our riches are made up entirely of things produced, and when we say we are richer, we mean that we have more things which are the product of applied force. The increase of wealth, as was stated before, has increased the disposition to build more expensive houses and buy more elaborate furniture, and have an endless variety of things deemed needless a few years ago, causing a demand for labor and an increase of wages that in a measure counterbalances the loss of time. This is what has helped labor, and not the refusal to work more than ten hours. Had the other two hours a day been worked, the laborer would have been still richer by one sixth of the principal and all the interest on his extra earnings during the whole time that the ten-hour rule has prevailed. The workman, then, has simply exchanged the wealth he might have got in the extra two hours for leisure of two hours; a very proper thing to do if he can afford it, but he hasn't had the leisure and the money he might have earned in the lost time also.

The community is also the poorer to the same extent. It misses just the amount of wealth that the laborer has failed to produce in his idle hours. It finds on its hands a large body of men advanced in years who might now be comfortable, but are still struggling to meet the cost of increase in the style of living consequent on the increase of wealth, when they are more than one sixth short in possible resources.

The trouble with the eight-hour plan, however, is not here so much as in the fact that so many men who can not get a decent living on eight hours of labor are taught that they can earn as much in that time as in twelve hours, and are made to believe it, or else denounced as scabs and nobodies. If the laborer attempts to work more hours, he is called an enemy of workingmen, an enemy of progress, and so on, until he is forced to a life of partial idleness, while his children are suffering for comforts which his labor could furnish without injury to himself or to any mortal in the world. There are hosts of men somewhat deficient in skill who could partially make up in longer hours their lack of efficiency were they permitted to, but as they are not, they are forced to live on the verge of beggary all their days, and are taught to curse society for not giving them a better chance in the world. How many such there are in this country God only knows, but that they are numerous there can be no doubt. The evil is prodigious, and is not confined to this class entirely. Others are affected in an unfavorable way. The idea is encouraged that labor is an evil to be shunned like vice, and that there is a way to enjoy the fruits of labor without its exercise. The consequence of the prevalence of this idea is, that men are led to hope for the impossible, to trust in its coming, and to neglect the golden opportunities for making their way which lie directly before them. The man who thinks he is getting richer by three or four hours of idleness every day is not likely to set much value on time, and when he does not do that, he tends to unthriftiness, and in time will become a good deal of an idler if not a downright loafer. When the whole community becomes thus affected, the consequences will be serious. They are serious already.

That this is a remarkable age in which we live is the general belief, but of the things that go to make up this belief nothing is stranger than the fact that when all mankind were devoting their best thoughts to the discovery of ways to increase resources and add to the general and individual wealth of society, when schemes of all sorts were being devised to save time in transportation of goods and mails and persons, in planting corn and making hay, in pumping water and feeding cattle, in tanning leather and making whisky, in mounting flights of stairs and raising broods of chickens—the workingmen as a body should band together and contrive a scheme to compel all hands to throw away absolutely one fourth of their chances to earn and lay up money, and provide for that period sure to come to all who live out the allotted years of man, when leisure will be not merely a luxury but a necessity; yet this is exactly what they have done. They have in a considerable degree neutralized the gains to themselves to be derived from the use of machinery, and thus have allowed the machines to stand on the pay-rolls for the one quarter of wages they might have earned themselves. It was formerly supposed a wise saying that "the hand of the diligent maketh rich" but the proverb has been strangely modified in these days.

We are now told that the proverb was only three quarters true, and instead we must say, the man who works all of working time makes his neighbors poor, and will spend his last days in the work-house of the parish or on the highway as a tramp. Time lost is money lost to the one to whom the time belonged, whether he be rich or poor. The rich can lose some without feeling it, but the poor, alas! have none to spare. When this truth is fully appreciated by the destitute, a long stride will have been made toward the extinction of poverty.