Karl Marx in the New York Daily Tribune 1853

On Strikes and the Value of Labor


Source: Marx and Engels on the Trade Unions, Edited by Kenneth Lapides;
Written: by Marx;
First Published: in the New York Daily Tribune, September 27 1853;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

While thus the bright sunshine of commercial and industrial prosperity is hidden by gloomy prospects, strikes are still forming, and will for some time yet form, an important feature of our industrial condition, only they are beginning to change their character contemporary with the change that is now going on in the general condition of the country.

At Bury a new advance of 2d. per 1,000 hanks has been asked on the part of the spinners. Masters refusing, they left work, and the weavers will do so as soon as they have worked up the yarn on hand. At Preston, while the weavers still demand an advance of 10 per cent, being supported by the operatives of the surrounding districts, six masters have already locked up their mills and the others are likely to follow them. Two thousand operatives have thus been thrown out of work. At Blackburn the mechanics of Mr. Dickinson, iron-founder, still remain out. At Wigan the capreelers of one mill have struck for an advance of Id. per score, and the throstle-spinners of another mill refused to commence work until their wages were advanced. The mills were closed. At the same place the coalminers’ strike, embracing about 5,000 hands, is going on. The Earl of Crawford, and other extensive [coal-mine owners] in the neighborhood, dismissed their hands on Wednesday evening. A numerous meeting of the colliers was then held in Scales’ Orchard. At Manchester 5,000 looms stand still, besides the minor strikes going forward, such as that of the fustian-dyers, the skein-dyers, felt-hat makers, etc.

At Bolton, meetings of the operative cotton-spinners are being held for an advance of wages. There are shoemakers’ strikes at Trenton, Bridgewater, etc.; cab-drivers’ strikes at Glasgow; masons’ strikes at Kilmarnock, threatened turn-outs of the police at Oldham, etc. At Birmingham, nailers demand an advance of 10 per cent, at Wolverhampton, the carpenters one of 6d. per day; the London carpenters ditto, and so on. While through the principal manufacturing towns of Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, etc., the operatives are holding public meetings, to decide upon measures for the support of their suffering brethren, the masters on the other hand are resolved to close their establishments for an indefinite period, with the design of starving their hands into submission.

“We find,” says the Sunday Times, “that generally speaking, the demand for an advance of wages has not exceeded 6d. a day; and, looking at the present price of provisions, [...] it can hardly be said [...] that the demand is an unreasonable one. We know it has been said that one aim of the present strikers is to obtain a sort of communistic share of the real or supposed profits of the manufacturer; but the comparison between the increased demand for wages and the enhanced value of the prime necessaries of life, furnishes an ample refutation of the charge.”

When the working people ask for more than “the prime necessaries of life,” when they pretend “to share” in the profits resulting from their own industry, then they are accused of communistic tendencies. What has the price of provisions to do with the “eternal and supreme law of supply and demand"? In 1839, 1840, 1841, and 1842, while there was a continued rise in the price of provisions, wages were sinking until they reached the starvation point. “Wages,” said then the same manufacturers, “don’t depend upon the price of provisions, but upon the eternal law of supply and demand.”

“The demands of the working people,” says the Sunday Times, “may be submitted to when urged in a respectful manner.”

What has respect to do with the “eternal law of supply and demand"? Has any one ever heard of the price of coffee rising at Mincing-lane when “urged in a respectful manner"? The trade in human flesh and blood being carried on in the same manner as that of any other commodity, give it at least the chances of any other.

The wages-movement has been going on now for a period of six months. Let us judge it by the test acknowledged on the part of the masters themselves, by the “eternal laws of supply and demand,” or are we, perhaps, to understand, that the eternal laws of political economy must be interpreted in the same manner as the eternal peace treaties Russia has concluded with Turkey?

Six months ago the work-people, had they even found their position not strengthened by the great demand for their labor, by constant and enormous emigration to the gold fields and to America, must have inferred the enhancement of industrial profits from the general prosperity-cry uttered by the middle-class press exulting at the blessings of Free Trade. The workmen, of course, demanded their share of that so loudly proclaimed prosperity, but the masters fought hard against them. Then, the workmen combine, threaten to strike, enforce their demands in a more or less amicable manner. Wherever a strike occurs, the whole of the masters and their organs in pulpit, platform and press, break out into immoderate vituperation of the “impudence and stupidity” “of such attempts at dictation.

Now, what did the strikes prove, if not that the workmen preferred applying a mode of their own of testing the proportion of the supply to the demand rather than to trust to the interested assurances of their employers? Under certain circumstances, there is for the workman no other means of ascertaining whether he is or not paid the actual market value of his labor, but to strike or to threaten to do so. In 1852, on an average, the margin between the cost of the raw material and the price of the finished goods — for instance, the margin between the cost of raw cotton and that of yarn, between the price of yarn and that of cotton goods, was greater, consequently the profit of the spinner and the manufacturer was undoubtedly larger than it has been in 1853. Neither yarn not goods have, until very lately, risen in the same proportion as cotton. Why, then, did the manufacturers not advance wages at once in 1852? There was no cause, they say, in the relative position of supply and demand justifying such a rise of wages in 1852. Indeed? Hands were not quite as short a year ago as they are now, but the difference is out of proportion to the sudden and repeated rise of wages forced out of the manufacturers since then, by virtue of the law of supply and demand, as expounded by turnouts. There are, certainly, more factories at work than last year, and more able-bodied workmen have emigrated since then, but at the same time never has there been such a supply of factory labor poured into our “hives of industry” from agricultural and other pursuits, as during the last twelve months.

The fact is that the “hands,” as usual, perceived only too late, that the value of their labor had risen 30 per cent many a month ago, and then in the summer of this year — only then — they began to strike, first for 10 per cent, then for another 10 per cent, and so on, for as much, of course, as they could get. The constant success of these strikes, while it generalized them all over the country, was the best proof of their legitimacy, and their rapid succession in the same branch of trade, by the same “hands” claiming fresh advances, fully proved that according to supply and demand the work-people had long been entitled to a rise of wages, which was merely kept from them on account of their being ignorant of the state of the labor market. When they at last became acquainted with it, the manufacturers, who had all the while preached “the eternal law of supply and demand,” fell back on the doctrine of “enlightened despotism,” claiming the right to do as they liked with their own, and propounding as their angry ultimatum that the work-people don’t know what is good for them.

The change in the general commercial prospects must change the relative position of the work-people and their employers. Sudden as it came on, it found many strikes begun, still more in preparation. No doubt, there will be more, in spite of the depression, and, also, for a rise of wages, for as to the argument of the manufacturer, that he cannot afford to advance, the workmen will reply, that provisions are dearer, both arguments being equally powerful. However, should, as I suppose, the depression prove lasting, the work-people will soon get the worst of it, and have to struggle — very unsuccessfully — against reduction. But then their activity will soon be carried over to the political field, and the new organization of trades, gained in the strikes, will be of immense value to them.