Centralization in industry

This article was published by the newspaper of the Southern District of the IWW's IU 120 the industrial union of timber workers. It was part of a series on decentralization in the early 1910s that featured back and forth around questions of the vision of the union, structure, and capitalism of its day.

Submitted by s.nappalos on March 30, 2015

The Voice of the People, New Orleans Oct 30th, 1913
Published by the National Industrial Union of Forest and Lumber Workers of the IWW, Southern District.

Centralization in Industry
Paul Dupres
Winnipeg, Canada Sept 29, 1913.

From the series The Question of Decentralization [part 6 out of 7]

The centralists, when beaten at all other points, make what they consider conclusive argument in the following: The IWW is building up the structure of the new society, and as modern industry is highly centralized the IWW must be highly centralized also.

This argument is sound save for two details, 1st, the IWW is not building up the structure of the new society (as this is generally understood), 2nd, modern industry is not centralized (as centralists understand and use this term). Let us consider the first of the shocking propositions in this altogether shocking rejoinder.

Summed up, the current theory is that the labor unions will in the new society, take charge of and oversee production. As our noted theoretician WE Trautmann says; they will "legislate the industries". How unnecessary will be the interference of the labor unions is readily apparent when one considers the existing producing, or shop organization of modern industry. The shop organizations are the totality of workers of all kinds in the various industries. They have been called into being solely for the purpose of carrying on production. They are the social producing organism. They are the embodiment of the best thought and experience that humanity has been able to apply to production. These shop organizations are not capitalistic in nature, but economic. They will not perish with the fall of capitalism. On the contrary, the revolution will give a strong stimulus to their still higher development. They will not need the assistance, as producing organizations, from any government, be it political or labor union in character.

Compared to the shop organizations the labor unions would be ridiculous as producing organizations. The labor unions are only fighting organizations; they know nothing about carrying on production. Their chief function is to overthrow capitalism. If they have any function to perform in the new society it will doubtless be to serve as employment agencies. It is worthy of note that even under capitalism the labor unions so strongly sees the need for a distributive shop organization for the workers that they are universally trying to serve as employment agencies. This is equally true of both the reddest and yellowest unions. Though unions may have nothing else in common, not even the strike, they will all be found functioning as employment agencies as best they can.

But, for the sake of argument, let us withdraw our shop organization theory and accept as correct the centralist theory that the highly developed shop organizations of modern industry, which know all about production, will be superseded in the new society by the labor unions, which know nothing about production. And then let us examine in order to learn if the labor unions, as future producing organizations, should be centralized or not.

The term centralization as used by the centralists in relation to industry, means the bringing of great groups of workers and vast industrial processes under the arbitrary control of a few individuals. Let us admit at once that the combination of the ownership of great industries into the hands of a few men is throwing the workers involved directly under the control of these men, who are using their power in the most arbitrary fashion, compelling the workers to give them more and more of their product. The modern industries, as regards the relations of the workers and capitalists, are, therefore, admittedly centralized. But as exploitation of the workers will cease with the fall of capitalism, and masters and slaves will be merged into one arm of producers, this phase of industrial centralization will pass away. The workers will be free; they will no longer need to be compelled to work; the centralized boss will vanish. The sole problem then will be the best way of exploiting the industrial processes. Our task is therefore to learn whether industrial processes of modern industries are centralized.

Let us admit at once, that unquestionably a certain amount of centralization does exist in the operation of the industrial processes. But let us call attention to the facts that this centralization is distinctly detrimental to industry, and that it is in course of rapid disappearance. Or in other words, that the tendency in modern industry is from a partial centralization to a completer decentralization of the industrial processes. Let us first outline why industrial decentralization is necessary; then indicate the germ of industrial centralization, and, finally, conclude by a typical example of decentralization in modern industry.

Industrial processes are based on natural laws which submit to no arbitrary authority. They can be best exploited when the workers thoroughly understand them and shape their conduct strictly in accordance with their mandates. Any attempt to run counter to these laws, whether through ignorance or arbitrariness, inevitably results in decreased efficiency. So vast and complicated is modern industry that no one man, or central group of men, can possibly be sufficiently informed to direct the operations of the vast armies of workers in such manner as to produce the greatest efficiency. Specialization, which necessarily carries with it decentralization of power, is inevitable. The man on the job must be given autonomy to perform the task in hand in order to develop the greatest efficiency. This applies equally to an individual worker, shop, or an industry as a whole.

Intelligent capitalists and managers are getting an inkling of the necessity for autonomy in industry and the trend everywhere is towards specialization and decentralization. The day is rapidly passing of the old fashioned industrial dictator who kept all the "threads of his business" in his own hands, with a consequent immense loss of efficiency, due to his ignorance, etc. His arbitrary rule is being replaced by the natural rule of the facts and figures of the industries. These facts and figures cannot rule where arbitrary power exists to check their free expression. Hence the necessity to abolish the industrial dictators.

Though the influence of the industrial dictators is decidedly on the wane still many of their kind linger to blight industrial efficiency. As owners, boards of directors, managers, etc., they are afflicted with all the diseases of centralization, viz., ignorance, stupidity, cowardice, conservatism, stubbornness, recklessness, etc., And as such dictators cannot possibly be well enough informed to act in all cases, these diseases of centralization constantly make themselves felt, to the extreme detriment of industry.

The introduction of the automatic car coupler offers one of typical instances of the stupidity of centralized management. This invention has revolutionized railroading and vastly increased the earnings of the railroads; yet for years, the railroad dictators, in the face of facts, figures and common sense, bitterly contested it. They were brought to accept it only by a national law. The same short-sighted policy is now being pursued in the warfare against the introduction of safety appliances, better sanitary conditions, etc., in the various industries. The dictators refuse to accept these innovations, though it is patent it would be profitable to do so. Their conservative attitude is typical of all centralized bodies.

As a result of centralized management many industries are little better than scrap heaps and slaughter pens. Their necessarily incompetent dictators refuse to adopt the processes, machinery, etc that would put them on a modern basis. However this backward condition is being eliminated in the higher developed industries by the application of the decentralized principle. The arbitrary despot is being replaced by the specialist. The prejudices and conservatism of the former are giving way to the facts and figures of the latter. The specialist, or the man on the job, is being recognized as the competent authority and being given the autonomy necessary to his work. This tendency is so widespread and well recognized that it were needless to give specific instances.

Let us illustrate the naturally decentralized character of modern industry, by citing a fragment of the process of railroading -an industry that the centralists call highly centralized:

A freight train pulls into a freight yard from a foreign railroad. The foreign train crew leave it at the specified place-a place that has been selected for convenience, and not because some oficial arbitrarily chose it. The car inspectors immediately inspect the train. Without interference from over officials they send it to the repair track all cars unfit for the road. They have no arbitrary power in the matter, nor have their bosses. All must submit to the dictates of the industry, or serious trouble results. Meanwhile the yard clerk has received the bills of lading from the foreign train conductor. Automatically, if you will, he makes out a list of the car numbers and their destination. He hand this to the car marker who, without further ado, marks the cars accordingly. The switch engine then takes hold of them and they are switched, not in accordance with the whims of some dictator, but as the industry dictates. As soon as a train is made up a timely call is made for a train crew. These take the proper engine and after going through all the necessary road regulations, etc., they deliver the cars, not where they might wish to, but where they belong.

And so it goes throughout the entire railroad industry, as well as all other industries; It will be seen by this that the nature of the industry is the determining factor in the industrial process, not the arbitrary will of some dictator. To the extent that bossism interferes with those natural processes decreased efficiency results. Only when the arbitrary human factor is eliminated altogether will the acme of efficiency result. And capitalism, though from its oppressive character it can never achieve it, is drifting rapidly towards this goal. Only in the future society, when there will be no need for slave driving, that complete industrial decentralization will be reached. Then "the man on the job," whether this be an individual worker, shop, or industry, will be given full charge of the work that falls within its natural jurisdiction. The result will be the absolute negation of government, whether it be an exterior political or labor union government, or an interior system of centralized bossism.
Centralists when they turn to modern industry for support of their theory are met with a strong rebuff. For, i industry, more than in any labor union, is found in operation the decentralist principle that the only competent one to perform a task, is the man or group having it in hand, and what centralization exists, is in a decidedly bad way.

The centralization in the management of the industrial processes is recognizedly bad, and the tendency is all away from it. No doubt it will be abolished altogether in the future society. As for the centralization in the relations between the capitalists and the workers, even the centralists would hardly defend that. Its future is not bright either, for unless all signs fails, the revolution will destroy it and give the workers the control over their own labor power. Centralization, that lingering child of theology and kingcraft, can find no excuse in modern industry for its being. It is an interloper there. And it is high time that it is recognized as such in the labor movement and treated accordingly.