Popular Science Monthly/Volume 8/March 1876/The Functions of Association in its Relation to Labor

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THE writer is a member of a copartnership chiefly devoted to the business of manufacturing textile fabrics. Within twenty years this firm has divided interests in different mills with eight persons, who acted as superintendents or assistant superintendents of the mills in which they were engaged. These combinations were of the nature of industrial partnerships, and proved uniformly successful. Of these eight persons, two were originally factory accountants, two were finishing overseers, and four were weaving overseers; all were men who had served long in the factories, and were outgrowths from factory-life. If it be true that in the armies of Napoleon every private carried a marshal's báton in his knapsack, or, as Sydney Smith puts it, if every English curate is a possible bishop, then these industrial combinations must have produced better cloth for the people and a better life in the makers of the cloth, or the laborers who were confined in the factories. The firm owned or controlled ample capital for their enterprises, and employed the laborers. It needs no argument to show that the business was more thoroughly done because these industrial partners were taken from among the laborers; and it is likewise evident that each rank of laborers was elevated and stimulated by these promotions.

Under that modern system of organization which unites the laborers into one mass, striving to obtain the highest price for their services, and combines employers in another assembly seeking to obtain labor at the lowest price, our industrial partnerships would have been impossible. If close combinations resulting in certain antagonism, such as has prevailed in England for a generation, had existed here, then no links could have reached across from the chain of laborers on the one side to the chain of employers and capitalists on the other. These combinations are growing in America; the life they foreshadow must differ from the industrial life described above. It was this thought which led me to consider the matter, and to try to ascertain the true functions of association. The topic is broader than my theme, and enters into all phases of civilized society, but I would sider it in the relations of organized labor, which include the so-called labor and capital (or capital and labor) disputes. The same principles of association prevail here which dominate all social action. What are the powers, the rights, and the limits of association, whether it be of the employers or the employed? I shall resolve the question of rights into that of powers. If there be a legitimate power inherent in these associations, I will not maintain any vested right against it. This is not strictly accurate, but sufficiently so for this discussion.

In treating of association we must first consider the materials which make it; the characteristics of the individuals who associate themselves together. And here we must remember that the individual is a social entity of quite recent growth. The Roman, German, Anglo-Saxon societies knew nothing of individual men and women. The Roman family, gens, or house and tribe, the German benefice, commendation, and guild, the Anglo-Saxon ceorl and eorl castes, with their tithings and hundreds—all these institutions, mingling in the stream of history, made each individual into a part of something other than himself. Society as well as government was classified into groups, which were further classified and subdivided. The single individual had no place; under the Saxon laws he was outlawed, and might be killed. These groups gradually broke up, under the friction of modern life. America, as we have been frequently told in the centennial reminiscences of this period, for two hundred years received the germinal ideas of Europe. We received, through immigration, the most characteristic and modern ideas, and incorporated them into a new political and social life, freed from many restraints still prevailing in the old countries. Politically, the individual was fully recognized for the first time; socially, he was raised into freer activity than any society had ever developed; yet, socially, the individual was more limited by the influence of the old grouping than he was in his political relations. These distinctions are important, because they modify all the subsequent relations of employers and employed, and control the character of associations in this country.

The associations of employers in America thus far have been loosely formed, and their action on the labor question has been indirect. The associations of laborers have been modeled after those prevailing in England, and known as trades-unions. If we would comprehend the principles of any association of laborers in America, we must first study the history of these English unions, for the results achieved by these powerful organizations govern the movements of all labor agitators, whether they are conscious of it or not. The whole principle of trades-unionism has been set forth carefully and candidly by Mr. Thornton in his work "On Labor." Mr. Thornton is neither a communist nor a socialist, but an acute and thoughtful Englishman, with large sympathies, who, whenever his sense of justice will allow, leans to the side of labor in its struggles with capital. He sees in labor, as capital, not theories, but immense and awful facts which must bruise and grind each other until they are worn into some finer social relations. The idea that some wrong principles in the first constitution of the facts might be changed, and the whole result might be ameliorated, never occurs to him. The whole affair must be fought out representatively and fairly; and, when the strongest force has manifested itself, right will prevail. He admits the many evils of trades-unionism, stating them with candor and force. But he believes the institution to be absolutely necessary. He says, on page 320:

"Laborers may, by combining, acquire an influence which, if exercised with moderation and discretion, employers will in general be willing rather to propitiate than to oppose. Among the concessions which may in consequence be obtained by unionists, the most material are those which affect the remuneration of labor, and these, it is commonly supposed, cannot, when due solely to unionist action, be of permanent operation. We have learned, however, in the course of the present chapter, that the fact of an increase in the rate of remuneration having been artificially caused, furnishes no reason why, in the great majority of cases, that increase should not be lasting.... Such being the efficacy of unionism, there is no difficulty in accounting for its popularity without resorting, in explanation of unionist loyalty, to any of those terrorist theories, the exaggerations of which have already been exposed, and on which no additional words need here be expended."

Mr. Thornton supports the extraordinary theory that an artificial rise of wages may be made into a permanent value by reconstructing the whole formula of supply and demand as it is enunciated by economists and men of affairs. He says, on page 108:

"The price of labor is determined, not by supply and demand, which never determined the price of any thing, nor yet by competition, which generally determines the price of everything else, but by combination among the masters. Competition in a small minority of cases, combination in a great majority, have appeared to be normally the determining causes of the rate of wages or price of labor."

It is not necessary to refute this theory in its relation to price and value—it refutes itself; common facts, occurring since he wrote, have nullified it. I am only stating the basis of trades-unionism in the words of its most intelligent advocate. It is interesting to compare these doctrines of Mr. Thornton with those of Josiah Warren, an American socialist, who approaches the question from the opposite direction. Mr. Warren works his theory of value, price, and supply and demand, out of the sovereignty of the individual, as he terms it; while Mr. Thornton's comes out of the historic organization of society, political and social, as well as economical. Mr. Warren was an earnest man, who has had and now has a great influence in forming the opinions of laborers and labor-agitators in this country. He says in his pamphlet on "True Civilization" (pages 41, 64, 100):

"It is now evident to all eyes that labor does not obtain its legitimate reward, but, on the contrary, that those who work the hardest fare the worst. . . . . At this point society must attend to the rights of labor, and settle once for all the great problem of its just reward. This appears to demand a discrimination, a disconnection, a disunion, between cost and value. . . . Making value, or 'what a thing will bring,' the limit of its price, stagnates exchange and prevents our wants from being supplied. Now, if it were not a part of our present system to get a price according to the degree of want or suffering of the community, there would long since have been some arrangement made to adapt the supply to the demand.. . . Cost being made the limit of price, would give to the washer-woman a greater income than the importer of foreign goods; that this would entirely upset the present system of national trade, stop all wars arising out of the scramble for the profits of trade, and demolish all tariffs, duties, and all systems of policy that give rise to them; would abolish all distinctions of rich and poor; would enable every one to consume as much as he produced, and, consequently, prevent any one from living at the cost of another without his or her consent."

The difficulty underlying these two economical theories is the same, as I understand it. Mr. Thornton, and in a certain degree the political economists also, convert supply and demand into two entities. Take his illustration (page 59):

"Suppose at each of two horse-fairs a horse to be sold valued by its owner at £50, and suppose there be in the one case two and in the other three persons, of whom each is ready to pay £50 for the horse, though no one of them can afford to pay more. In both cases supply is the same—viz., one horse at £50—but demand is different, being in the one case two and in the other three horses at £50. Yet the price at which the horse will be sold will be the same in both cases, viz., £50."

Here he assigns a metaphysical limit to supply, and yet admits only a portion of the mental process by which that limit is reached. The fact that the buyers can afford to pay only £50 has little to do with the price paid. The cause which influences their mental action is, that they know there are plenty of other horses they can buy at £50, though there is only one at hand. Economically, the absent horses enter into the supply nearly as effectively as the one present. This supply, present and absent, affects the minds of both buyer and seller, and limits the price; the limit is not a metaphysical one, imposed by the competition of sellers alone, as Mr. Thornton would have us believe, and as he directly says elsewhere. We must bear in mind that Mr. Thornton has been partially approved by Mill and Prof. Cairns, in considering the weight of his theories. In the relations of capital and labor, he assumes that capitalists have the same control of the market-price of labor which he conceives sellers to have in ordinary trade; hence the necessity of trades-unionism to resist this control, which could not be governed by the economical forces of the market; and hence the above formula of supply and demand. Mr. Warren's error is essentially the same. In his view, the price of labor is regulated by a metaphysical entity, which is not the relation of the labor-supply to the general market and demand, but is a result of "the want or suffering of the community." To overcome this entity he would revolutionize trade and production, abolish profit, and base every transaction on its cost in labor, without regard to the results of that labor.

Now, as I understand supply and demand in the market, they are not dead-weights of matter, like a rock crushing my finger; they are forces like the gravitation controlling the rock, and which I must recognize if I would keep my finger whole and escape mental distress. These forces affect laborers and capitalists, producers and consumers alike, and they are the strongest influence in fixing market-prices. In fact, we may consider them the only forces present and active when the selling price is fixed. All other forces must have been transmuted before price can be fixed. It is not easy to comprehend these forces, for Prof. Cairns, while saying[1] "demand and supply are essentially the same phenomena regarded from different points of view, consequently general demand cannot increase or diminish except in constant relation with general supply," yet says also they are "not independent economic forces." Mr. Mill says:[2]

"Demand and supply—the quantity demanded and the quantity supplied—will be made equal. If unequal at any moment competition equalizes them, and the manner in which this is done is by an adjustment of the value."

Yet every merchant knows that competition is only one of many elements which enter into an "equation" of supply and demand. I dwell on this, not to show the differences of professional economists, but to illustrate the subtlety of these controlling influences of the market-price of labor and commodities. These influences are quite beyond the comprehension of a trades-union as such. We may say a powerful union would employ a leader of great capacity, who would construe these influences properly; but the very process which made him a union-leader would unfit him for a judge of the markets. A general can lead an army to victory; but generals, as a class, have been poor judges of national policy, in war or peace. The union-leader may extort an advance of wages through the force of his followers. But this advance in price must be converted into permanent exchange value in order to be of benefit to the laborer. One possible element of this value is the very labor of the unionists themselves while they were striking for the advance; or the advance may have carried the products out of relation to all other values. The only solvents of these delicate problems are the principles of supply and demand I have stated. They must be interpreted by social agents with the highest faculties and the best power of discrimination. If society proves one of these men and finds him trustworthy, it must keep him and allow him full play. Like tea and wine tasters, they must not be argued with nor forced into unnatural decisions by the power of numbers. If it be said that a unionist can perform this delicate social duty, let us hear what Mr. Thornton[3] says in this regard:

"They" (trades-unions) "tell us plainly what they aspire to is 'control over the destinies of labor;' that they want not merely to be freed from dictation, but to dictate—to be able to arrange the conditions of employment at their own discretion."

Mr. Applegarth, one of the most accomplished unionists, says:

"The business of the employed is to look after their own interests, leaving employers, customers, and the rest of society, to look after theirs and to shift for themselves as they best may."

Firm associations of employers promote the highest economical ends no better when they antagonize the market, or society economically considered. The notion long prevailed in trade and manufactures, that advantages and profits should be secured through monopolies and arbitrary control of the markets. Modern society has abandoned this theory; has forced employers and sellers into a larger view of their own interests through social obligation; and it will compel labor-organizations toward the same end by irresistible social laws. Mr. Thornton admits this principle in another form, for he constantly says the close organizations of laborers are now compelling absolute combinations of the employers to oppose them, and that these latter must surely prevail. Yet he regards the struggle as necessary, and the only means of bringing order and justice out of clashing class antagonisms. However this may be in England, and it is not our business to inquire, in America the principle does not and cannot prevail. European civilization has left but one citadel to the few, in their opposition to the many. Chieftainship, social prestige, money, all pass away from a class if its individual members are not true to its instincts. One fortress remains, where, intrenched by law, the privilege of classes can hold all assailants at bay, and can repair the unthrifty ravages of reckless individuals. Land, the final reservoir of natural advantage, the sure protector of privilege, is, in Europe, practically beyond the reach of the many. In England, the country of greatest abundance, capital ventures itself commercially not below five to ten per cent., while it rests content in land at two per cent. This petty profit shows contrariwise the immense power and value of land. In our country it is practically free; the Government gives a homestead on the open prairie, or, if that be too distant and uncertain, the laborer, riding one hundred miles by rail from a crowded district in New England, can find cheap, fertile lands, with homestead buildings abandoned and decaying. It is impossible for one class to oppress another long, while these doors open freely outward to the great advantages of Nature and land. If, according to Mr. Thornton's theory, employers do not compete for, but combine against labor, or, if they do not compete forcibly enough. Nature does now, and must for centuries to come, open her arms to the sons and daughters of toil. It must be remembered that the thrifty laborer is always a capitalist here. The struggle is not between labor and capital, want and plenty; it is between the employed with a little capital and the employer with more. I throw out of the estimate the improvident and reckless; if socialists or unionists have discovered a method which will give these classes an even chance, they have found a principle which Omnipotence itself has never ventured to put in practice.

If these principles be true, one may ask, Why do we have strikes or discontented laborers in America? I answer, they are the diseases of health; inflammations come from turgid arteries as well as from sluggish veins. Our abounding life has compelled an eager competition among employers. Employers have invariably tended to overproduction, as capitalists know to their cost. Strikes have hardly ever advanced the price of labor; they have never long increased its exchange value, as I indicated above. There is very little communistic sentiment in the United States, but many socialistic theories of a vague sort. That astute public servant, General Butler, would hardly be found uttering such nonsense, if it were not wanted in the sociopolitical market. The "glittering generality" of equality has partially corrupted the good sense of the citizen; only in part, but the effect is positive. Things are free, they say; why not have a better chance for all? Not through communism; property is both new and old here; it is sacred as a treasure, arid dear as a newly-born babe in Anglo-American eyes. Let there be new property; give us all a new chance; the bird of freedom is so 'tarnally strong, why not roast-beef and two dollars a day? The American love of speculation tends in the same direction.

Then there is another principle moving in harmony with this. In great emergencies, when the state or social order is threatened, every American citizen becomes great, and views the State as belonging to all. In petty affairs, and every-day political matters, the average citizen, small capitalist as well as laborer, views the State as belonging to the many considered apart from the few. "The rich have enough; let the poor of the State lean to us," they would say. This blind instinct has entered into strikes and labor-struggles.

The agitators felt that in some way the masses would win, the constable's club would wait on the bayonets, and the militia would sway with the voters for the poor and against the rich; therefore a striker might knock a peaceful laborer on the head with impunity. The common-weal feeling, the American union sentiment as Mr. Wasson puts it, "the sovereignty of rational obligation," must stamp out this atrocious delusion. I regard this issue of fact in the late Fall River strike as the best and almost the only good principle established there. The municipal and military power promptly restored order and left the trades-unionists their peaceable and natural powers of resistance, all which any association of this sort can legitimately claim.

The fundamental truths cannot be too deeply impressed on both employers and employed. Let no employer busy himself in politics or jurisprudence, about unionist combinations or conspiracies. We have laws enough now, if we will obey and enforce them. If any striker or unionist trespasses on the rights at common law of his employer or brother laborer, punish him with humane haste and compassionate severity. One labor-leader says an employer has no more right to discharge a man than to dungeon him. That is their business individually, and can only be controlled by the larger social and nobler instincts of humanity. If laborers choose to starve rather than work for less wages, or employers choose to rust out their mills rather than take less profits, let them. It is not the business of organized associations to interfere. Not even the State, the greatest of all associations, can control this complication. The issue lies among the great seething forces of the market indicated above; they are both economical and social, any external pressure will only aggravate the difficulty.

There can be only one legitimate power in an American labor association assuming to control the employed; that, in the famous words of Adam Smith, is the power of "higgling the market." On every other side its action is hedged by great social limits which I have indicated rather than stated. This, like friction in mechanics, is a necessary function, but is attainable by other means, and is it worth the social cost involved in associations using all the methods of a despotism? The general rise in wages has been equal, in countries unvisited by trades-unions, to that obtained in England, as Mr. Brassey has shown.

Higgling prices through combination is not a creative force, it is a negative accessory to creative faculties. It involves tremendous waste of social and economical forces. To quote Thornton (pages 344-346):

"A bricklayer's assistant, who by looking on has learned how to lay bricks as well as his principal, is generally doomed nevertheless to continue a laborer for life.". . . Bricks beyond Lancashire are excluded. "To enforce the exclusion, paid agents are employed; every cart of bricks coming toward Manchester is watched, and, if the contents be found to have come from without the prescribed boundary, the bricklayers at once refuse to work. . . . A master-mason at Ashton obtained some stone ready polished from a quarry near Macclesfield. His men, however, in obedience to club rules, refused to fix it until the polished part had been defaced, and they had polished it again by hand, though not so well as at first!. . . On the importation of worked stone into Barrow, the lodge demanded first that the bases should be worked over again; secondly, when this was refused as an impossible interference with the architects' design, that as much time as would have been required to rework them should be occupied by the Barrow masons in standing over them."

These are not mere caprices and fancies, they are the certain aberrations which misdirected, arbitrary power must cause.

This power of vagary is even more dangerous politically than it is in the industrial world. The eight-hour league lately attempted to canvass in favor of Randall for Speaker. What business has a labor league, an Odd-Fellows' lodge, or a Methodist church, as such, in the election of an officer of the United States Government? Let them consider Shay's insurrection, the slavery rebellion, and Know-Nothingism, both in its success and its failure.

Politically the genius of America welcomes every individual waif, allows him all liberty of political association or agitation; and he may make social or industrial combinations at will. Let any one of these extra-political associations lift a finger to interfere with a fold of her political garment, and she will crush it under a step heavier than the tread of Roman legions; she will smite it with an arm swifter and mightier than the embodied power of feudal or constitutional monarchies!

I would not deny the right of the individual laborer to "strike" when he is wronged beyond endurance. This inheres in him, like the right of revolution in the citizen—a dangerous power, only to be evoked in dire need, it cannot be formulated socially. As political order binds the citizen, so contract, that mystic sacrament of civilization, must ever hold the laborer fast; it can only be overcome by bitter injustice.

It may be said that trades-unionism, though vicious in direct influence, may enlarge the laborer through indirect social action. We must remember that the laborer here has social opportunities unknown in Europe. The freemasons, militia companies, Patrick's brotherhoods, and Good Templars, all found themselves on broad and benevolent ideas; higgling prices, the one effective force of a trades-union, can hardly equal these ideas in elevating the laborer. Going back to our characteristics of American citizens, it is not to be imagined that we lost all traces of old social groups because we did not represent them in our political organizations. The individual had become sufficiently socialized to be the unit of state, yet he did not lose all historic antecedents. The old groups show their traces in the American as well as in the Italian, German, and Englishman. We have not changed social laws, but given them new elasticity. Water cannot be water unless it intermingles freely with air. Society must refresh itself with new individual units, always moving, always classifying, always mingling unit and group again, like drop and stream, cloud and sea, water and air. Trades-unionism, and all socialism, in so far as it trenches on the State, is a backward step in this American progress. They clasp rigid fetters on movements which were becoming more supple and elastic. All social organisms are finally parts of the State* that tangible divine power, the right arm of God in his relations with men. There can be no true functions of association which tend to embarrass the free development of the State—the association of associations.


  1. "Principles of Political Economy," p. 42.
  2. "Political Economy," vol. i., p. 551, American edition.
  3. Pp. 193, 194.