Chapter 02: The General Conditions of American Workers

Submitted by Reddebrek on April 19, 2016

THE average condition of the average wage-labourer in America is as bad as it is in England. In support of this, our chief evidence will be taken from the latest annual reports of the Bureau of Labour for the various States. For these reports, together with much valuable oral information, we are indebted to Colonel Carroll D. Wright, the head of the Massachusetts Bureau (the first established in America), from the time of its founding until now. Colonel Wright is also the head of the Central Bureau, established in 1884, at Washington. The work of this central office is the generalising the generalisations of the individual States, for the benefit of the Union as a whole.

Here is a list of the States in which these Bureaux are at work, with the date of the founding of each :--Massachusetts, 1869; Pennsylvania, 1872; Ohio, 1877; New Jersey, 1878; Missouri, 1879; Illinois, 1879; Indiana, 1879; New York, 1883; California, 1883; Michigan, 1883; Wisconsin, 1883; Iowa, 1884; Maryland, 1884; Kansas, 1885; Connecticut, 1685; and the "National Bureau," Washington, 1884.

On the value of these reports it is not necessary to dwell. But before passing to the consideration of the results yielded by them two statements may be made. First, these facts, figures, and comments call to mind in the most remarkable way the reports of the English Inspectors under the Factory and Mines Acts. It is impossible to read them without seeing the fatal similarity between the reports from England in the years 1834-66, and those from America of the years 1884-87. He that will compare the abstracts of these too-much-forgotten English reports given in Karl Marx' "Capital" (vol. i., chap. x.) with the quotations now given, will have no difficulty in seeing how stereotyped are the methods of the system of capitalist production. And he that will compare the picture drawn by F. Engels of the English Working Class in 1844 will see how absolutely parallel are the positions of the English workers in 1844 and of the American in 1887. With this difference. The American has the forty years' experience of his European brethren to teach him, and as Engels says, in America it takes ten months to do what in Europe takes ten years to achieve. Every word of Engels' Introduction, chapter after chapter, page after page of his book, by the simple substitution of "America" for "England," and "American" for "English," apply to the United States of to-day, and thanks to these forty years' experience, thanks to the higher development of the capitalist system, the concluding words of Engels' work are especially true of the America of our time. "The classes are divided more and more sharply, the spirit of resistance penetrates the workers, the bitterness intensifies, the guerrilla skirmishes become concentrated in more important battles, and soon a slight impulse will suffice to set the avalanche in motion."

(2) The other fact to be noted is that, with one exception, the whole of the Commissioners for the States whose reports we have examined are, as a result of their investigations, in favour of the views advocated by the intelligent of the working class, and opposed by the capitalist class as a body. And this result is not arrived at by any partial, or incomplete, or unfair statement of facts. With one exception, the most scrupulous honesty,and an almost pedantic accuracy of statement, and balancing of evidence are notable. The one exception is that of Mr. Frank A. Flower, the Commissioner for Wisconsin. He, to take but one example, sets an abstract of the opinion of 756 masters against an abstract of opinion of 12 men on the "eight hour" movement. Mr. Flower, of Wisconsin, is also the exception mentioned earlier to the general rule, that the Commissioners endorse the demands that labour is making at the hands of capital.

The evidence to be now given is arranged thus: --(1) Evidence of a general nature, necessarily worded with less of precision than is obtainable when actual facts and figures are dealt with; (2) Evidence as to the conduct of employers; (3) Evidence as to the wages, work, method of living of the employed; (4) Evidence as to female and child labour.

In studying this evidence we must remember that it applies almost wholly to the actual workers, and takes no account of the thousands who would work but cannot find anything to do.

(1) GENERAL.--In this connection we give (a) Certain quotations from the various reports on the general condition of the corking class; (b) Actual statements of comparison between England and America.

(a) Condition. Fall River (Massachusetts) :--"Every mill in the city is making money but the operatives travel in the same old path-sickness, suffering, and small pay." "There is a state of things here that should make men blush for shame" (Physician, p. 204). (Cotton Operative, pp. 137-8.) "Improved machinery and increased speed, while it increases the manufacturers' profits, and enables the operative to earn more money, yet gives the operative nearly one-third less for his work than formerly;... the operatives make more actual money, but they do so much more work for the increased money that they get less per yard than formerly" (Comm., p. 46). "Perhaps any of the evils which exist arise from... the increasing tendency to regard the operative simply as a wheel, or a pin to a machine. He is, in the eyes of employers, very much what a mule or spindle is, and no more.... It is the fault of the system, not of any man or set of men. They care not who or what the operative is, or where he lives, or what his character, except as any of these things bear on production. They may and do care as men, but not as agents, superintendents, or overseers.... We are preparing for New Liverpools, and New Lancashires on American soil, with ignorance, vice, and stupidity as the characteristics of the operative population" (Clergyman's evidence, quoted by Commissioner,. pp. 186, 187).

Kansas (State):--"Nearly all of our labouring classes here are as badly off as ourselves. What we are to do this winter I don't know. We would be thankful for another railroad wreck, if no one was hurt; it would be a Godsend to all of us" (Plasterer, p. 110). " The wage community in which I live is becoming worse; it is deplorable" (Tinner). "I find that times are getting worse as I grow older" (Teamster). "Corporations must be restrained in some way, or the working people will soon be beggars. I don't see how I am going to live through the winter, as I can get no work at any price" (Plasterer). For the last seven years things have been growing rapidly worse" (Stonemason). "Work is very slack at present" (Labourer). "Times are harder now than I ever knew before" (Labourer). "I was raised a slave. ... I was better off as a slave" (Farmer, pp. 119-122). "The condition of the labouring classes is too bad for utterance, and is rapidly growing worse" (p. 205). "The depression existing among our wage-workers" (the Commissioner himself, p. 226). "The condition of the wage-worker is worse than I thought, and deserves to be brought more prominently before the public" (One of the canvassers for the Bureau, p. 259). "It is useless to disguise the fact that out of this...enforced idleness grows much of the discontent and dissatisfaction now pervading the country, and which has obtained a strong foothold now upon the soil of Kansas, where only the other day her pioneers were staking out homesteads almost within sight of her capital city. (Comm., p. 226). ... And it should be born in mind that the settlement of Kansas was begun only thirty years ago, and men of middle age vividly recall the fact that this whole region was marked on the school-boy atlases as the great American desert" (Comm., p. 4).

We purposely give a number of quotations from the Kansas report, as Kansas is one of those fabled Western States as to which the emigrant agents wax eloquent. And in this connection the following facts that came within our personal observation of the much " boomed " Kansas City may be of interest. In districts still quite wild, at least an hour distant from the city, are wretched wooden shanties with three or four rooms. The ground on which these are built cost 600 dollars. The "houses" coat another 600, i.e., £ 240 for three-roomed huts, an hour's distance from the town, roadless, on the top of a bluff, and in a wilderness of mud. And the working men who build or hire these shanties must, in order to do so, mortgage heavily, and then become the mere bond-slaves of the large packing and other corporations that are "running" Kansas City as the "Western Chicago." It is also worth noting that the immense coloured population of Kansas is beginning to understand the wage-slavery question. "Their purpose" (i.e., of the "idle classes") "is to keep us poor, so that we shall be compelled to toil for their benefit. I know that our condition is growing rapidly worse, and serious results will surely follow if something is not done. The coloured people are getting awake on this matter. The time is past when they can be deceived. They are beginning to think for themselves" (Labourer and Minister, D. 253).

Pennsylvania:--" The rich and poor are further apart than ever before" (Commissioner, p. xiii.). "The condition of the labouring classes in this: city (Pittsburgh) is very bad; their wages are very low; they do not average six dollars a week the year round. Hardly enough to live" (Glass-blower, p. 133). "I have moved my residence five times during the year 1885, to keep myself in employment" (Coal-miner, Mercer County, p. 165). "I have never experienced such uneasiness in my life as at present, in trying to procure the necessaries of life" (Coal-miner, Westmoreland County, p. 164). "I am an American citizen....The miners are not making a decent living by any means, nor could they do so if they were working full time at the price now paid.... We do not get half a living....We are not paying our way, but going in debt every month" (Miner, Irwin, p. 179).

Michigan:--"Labour to-day is poorer paid than ever before; more discontent exists, more men in despair, and if a change is not soon devised, trouble must come....I am willing to work as most men are, and now it is time something was done" (Shoemaker in Factory, p. 165). "Employers appear to be trying to ascertain how little a working man can subsist upon, rather than to determine what rate of wages will enable them to procure their wares at the lowest net cost" (Accountant, p. 162).

Ohio :--" The American mechanic, subjected as he is to fluctuating extremes of climate, requires a variety of food, and nature has provided it for him; but does he get it in Ohio?...It can hardly be claimed that he does....Labour-saving machinery has been a blessing to humanity;...but if it has reached that point in development where it forces muscular labour into competition with it, how long will it be before it becomes a curse instead of a blessing? The answer must come from the manufacturers themselves. When man must die that trade may thrive, we have reached the danger Line to the republic, and the transition should be sudden and complete" (Comm., pp. 10, 95).

New Jersey:--"The struggle for existence is daily becoming keener, and the average wage-labourer must practise the strictest economy, or he will ~nd himself behind at the end of the season (Comm., p. 142). "I have in former years accumulated considerable, but now.., cannot make a cent above expenses" (Locksmith, Newark, p. 220).

(b) Comparison between England and America. Fall River:--"They are more tyrannical here in Fall River than they are in England. I always thought they were tyrants at home, but found out differently when I came here" (Cotton operative, p. 146). "The universal sentiment was that America, as presented by Fall River, was far behind England in the matter of the treatment of the operatives" (The Commissioner, p. 7).

New Jersey:--"I would like to go back to England again, as this country seems to be getting worse every day" (Paterson labourer, p. 228).

Pennsylvania:--" I was better off there [Durham, England] than I am here at the present time" (Miner, p. 123). "The wage-labourer is worse off in this country than in England" (Iron-worker, p. 128). "My condition there was as good as it is here....My candid opinion is that the working man in England is as well off as he is here" (Puddler, pp. 129-30). "Six years since I came to this country with wife and five children,... was able to pay their way over along with me, and had enough money purchase all necessaries for housekeeping, furniture, tools, etc. To-day (though some of my family have grown up to help me a little), were I to sell off everything I am possessed of, I could not pay off the debts I owe, much less pay our way back to Europe" (Miner, p. 130, 131). "My condition was as good there [Wales] as in this country" (Miner, p. 136). "On the whole, I believe, they [in Scotland] are more contented" (Check-weighman, p. 176). "I was in South Wales. Was above my present condition" (Fire-boss, p. 177). "My condition there [Durham] was better than here for the last two years" (Miner, p. 178). "My condition, I think, was better off there [Scotland] than here" (Miner, p. 186). "I came to this country five years ago, and I can say, with a clear conscience, I never was in lower circumstances than I am at present" (Miner, p. 170). On the other hand, one or two miners say they are "better off" in America than in England, but these are, apparently, exceptions to the general rule.

Michigan:--"I did not find America as represented to us in England" (Labourer, p. 165).

From the Ohio report we take some very significant passages. They are of a much less general character than all the quotations thus far given, inasmuch as they deal with actual figures with such trifles as wages, working-time, duration of life. "The Ohio moulder earns eighty dollars more than the British moulder,"--but mark the sequel,--"he has corked 312 hours, or 35 day longer to do it....The American moulder dies before he reaches the age of forty, while his British prototype lives to be fifty years and eleven months" (p. 9). As sixteen is the age when in both countries the moulder begins moulding, "the American moulder has twenty-four years to work before death is sure to come, while the British moulder has thirty-five" (p. 9). "In a word, the European workman is a mechanic still, whilst the American workman has ceased to be a mechanic, and has become a machine" (Comm., p. 8).