AMONG the many curious and, at first sight, inexplicable customs of modern civilisation, that of industrial strikes seems one of the most extraordinary. Even writing, as I do, in the heart of a district where 75,000 men are in the seventh week of a contest of this kind, I find difficulty in convincing myself that such a thing as a strike, especially on a large scale, is a probable or even possible occurrence.
It seems almost beyond belief that a method so irrational and futile of determining questions of right dealing between man and man should be resorted to by an intelligent, practical, and, shall I say, religious community.
An actual fight with fists, swords, or guns, in which men deal ponderable blows of some sort, one can understand – it may at least determine a question of might, if not of right; but a contest between two parties as to which shall do nothing and, maybe, eat nothing, longest, with a view to deciding a question of either might or right, seems ridiculous beyond the reach of words.
Nevertheless, strikes are not only a fact of our time, but they are regarded by many people, especially amongst the working class, as being quite as natural and inevitable occurrences as thunderstorms, blizzards, earthquakes and other physical disturbances that usually play havoc with human life and property. And the more terrible their effects – the more the sufferings of women and children can be cited and the patience of the men commended – the more justifiable they are esteemed.
Strikes are especially frequent in Christian countries, although upon what particular passage of Scripture their authorisation rests I am unable to say. They occur most regularly in those districts where large and handsome churches have been erected through the beneficence of rich employers of labour and their devout daughters. Whenever you see a church being built you may rest assured that there will be a strike in the neighbourhood before the copper weathercock is perched upon the spire. New churches are decidedly unlucky in this respect, and should always be regarded with grave suspicion by the working classes. It is significant that, whereas clergymen in their prayers confidently communicate to the Almighty their desire for the success of British troops in battles abroad, they seldom venture a word of supplication on behalf of British armies of Labour on strike at home.
Although no actual fighting usually takes place in the course of a strike, the struggle is frequently as brutal in its intent and as devastating in its effect as a military engagement. Most of the vices and but few of the virtues that are supposed to be attached to war on the field are exemplified. All the magnificent exertion and adventure, and the heroic comradeship which of ten time characterise campaigning on the field, are usually absent; and weary, blunting idleness, and mean suspicion, hatred, and deception are encouraged instead. Women and children rather than the men themselves have to bear the heaviest load of suffering; and the harm to their bodies inflicted by, it may be, months of continuous privation, and in the winter time of torturing cold, is often such that almost as much wreck and ruin is done to human life as would occur were a similar number of men employed in a war of rival nations.
And, indeed, so far as strikes can be dignified by the name of war, they are wars between rival nations – not nations in the sense of people belonging to different countries, but of people having different interests, habits and obligations – the nation of the rich and idle and the nation of the poor and industrious. And, if you look at it closely, you will find that the cause of strikes is precisely the same as the cause of wars. Usually when one country seeks to invade another it does so with the object of appropriating the land and riches of the other nation and subjecting its people to some form of servitude. It is precisely with this object that employers seek to reduce their workmen’s wages or oppose trade unions, thereby provoking the workmen to strike. The employers – by which term I wish to include the land and capital-owning classes – desire to obtain more riches and idleness for themselves by appropriating a still further portion of their workmen’s wages or leisure. The workmen endeavour to resist this, just as one nation resists invasion by another; but, as I think we shall see later on, their method of resistance is of very little effect, and even when they seem to have gained a victory it is only for the moment, and at best they have only compelled the employers to be content with a little less plunder than they otherwise would have secured.
In strikes as in wars, therefore, justice has no say in the issue of the conflict – might is right; victory is vindication. The factory becomes a fortress in a state of siege. The workmen wish to get into it to be employed under the terms of their union; the employer refuses to allow them save on his own terms, and bribes other workmen – blacklegs – to occupy their vacated posts, hoping that destitution will ere long compel the rebellious trade unionists to offer submission to his rule and crave back employment on his conditions. The strikers endeavour to intercept the blacklegs from garrisoning the employer’s place, and also hope to compel him to surrender by jeopardising his custom and destroying his profits. Whichever side can hold out the longest wins. But, as I have said before, although it has the semblance of a fight, it is little better than a starvation contest, and chiefly interesting as an experiment in physiological and economic endurance. By the rules of the engagement neither side is supposed to touch the person or property of the other. The workmen merely set themselves to scare the employer into yielding through fear of incurring greater loss by holding out than by giving in, while the employer deliberately, and with the approval of his own and the public conscience, prays Famine to do service for him, well knowing that the men will stick out only so long as their ribs stick in. It is all very droll and very ghastly.
Great, moreover, as are the number of workmen effected in many instances, and momentous as may be the issues involved, strikes are nevertheless usually deadly dull affairs. Nobody is ever really enthusiastic about them, and although the newspapers occasionally contain long accounts of the very great ones, everybody forgets all about them as soon as they are settled and never wish to be reminded of them again. You never see boys poring over the pages of a Trades Union newspaper, and no enterprising publisher has ever thought of issuing a popular companion volume to British Battles on Land and Sea, entitled, Strikes and Lock-outs from the Thames to the Tay.
People will rush in thousands to see a football match or a couple of drunken men fight, but during even the greatest strikes hardly a soul will think of wandering down to the scene of the dispute unless a riot between the strikers and blacklegs is expected. And here I may opportunely remark how much more valiantly workmen comport themselves towards poor starving blacklegs than towards the fat and comfortable employers who hire these unfortunate wretches. Scores of blacklegs have been mauled in the course of strikes, but scarcely so much as one employer has had even his whiskers singed.
The reason of the indifference of the public towards strikes is not far to seek. People know that a strike is an irrational and foolish affair, and that there is no real go in it. They don’t like to see men knocking about hungry, with their women and children starving at home, and they cannot be persuaded that there is any right reason for such a proceeding. If the workmen, not knowing better what to do, even said: “Our masters refuse to pay us what we are entitled to, and unless we consent to be robbed by them we must stop work and begin to starve; let us therefore seize our masters as we would any other sneak-thieves and duck them in the river, and then let us go to our municipal councils, and if they refuse to give us work, let us duck them too” – then you would see the situation brightening. People would believe there was some earnestness in the matter, and crowds of interested and, I venture to say, approving spectators would flock to the scene. But for men to allege that they are being swindled, and endeavour to show how deeply they feel the injustice of it by going in for a few weeks’ starvation is in no wise an exhilarating event. And thus it is that strikes, notwithstanding the tragedy and magnificence of resolution which is often attached to them, are reckoned about as uninteresting as funerals.
We cannot dissociate the unreality of carrying on strikes from the motive that urges men to declare them. Most commonly the professed object is to obtain a rise or resist a reduction of wages. In other words, as I have already observed, the men insinuate that their master is intent upon, or has already succeeded in, cheating them out of their due. But although the fact of the case is usually as clear as day, it is perfectly evident that in most instances the workmen are not quite sure about it, and are not without a lurking suspicion that, after all, it may be they themselves and not their master who are endeavouring to do the cheating. For, did you ever know of a workman who really believed he was being defrauded of money behaving as workmen do when on strike?
I remember once observing the behaviour of a workman who really thought his master designed to cheat him. He was a moulder, and the dispute was all over the paltry sum of twopence, which he held had been knavishly deducted from his pay. In three minutes the pay-box was the scene of what appeared to be an incipient riot. All the dynamic expletives usually excluded from publication were exploding on the premises. The cashier was brought down, then the manager, and finally two policemen had to be summoned to give éclat to the proceedings. It was a splendid scene. There stood the little black moulder, the great streaks of sweat dripping down upon his indigo shirt, and his clenched fist in ugly proximity with the cashier’s nose, threatening to bring it down as a preliminary to calling in the entire forces of the Crown and Constitution to vindicate his right should the twopence not be restored to him on the spot!
That, I say, is an example of real trenchant indignation displayed by a single workman against what he firmly believed was an attempt to defraud him of twopence. Fancy, then, what ten thousand or a hundred thousand men, imbued with the same private pluck and public spirit, would do if they all conceived themselves to be robbed, not of a couple of coppers once perhaps in a lifetime, but of so many shillings every week? Multiply even that one man’s unit of protestation against being fleeced of twopence by the square of a hundred thousand men – why, it would shake the foundations of the empire and bring the whole fabric of the State rattling down about our ears!
And yet, when over 300,000 English miners were on strike in 1893 for nearly five months, and although they were resisting an attempt on the part of their employers to defraud each of them of five shillings a week, not once did their demeanour give occasion for political alarm, never once did they threaten the stability of the social edifice. Indeed, the only incendiary or insurrectionary incident that disturbed the Sabbath-peace of the combatants was occasioned as usual by those who are paid and appointed to preserve it. At Featherstone some soldiers, mistaking, no doubt, a peaceful assembly of black-faced miners for a tribe of Arabs or Hottentots, poured a volley of Lee-Metford bullets into their midst. For months the newspapers recorded with gruesome minuteness the heart-rending scenes of destitution among the miners’ families. Subscriptions were raised for them, philanthropists flecked to the front, and politicians – as is their wont on such occasions – beat unobtrusively in the background. Towards the latter days of the dispute, when the weather became bitterly cold, hundreds of thousands of poor people who were in no wise responsible for the strike endured appalling misery from the coal famine. And this was, up to that time, the greatest strike ever known in England! In what respect, save in increased magnitude of the numbers of the strikers and in the wider infliction of suffering upon the community generally, with perhaps a compensating shortening of the duration of the struggle, have our more recent strikes differed from it?
Three hundred thousand English workmen – twice the number of the military forces of the empire, and four times as many as won the battle of Waterloo – believing themselves to be mercilessly fleeced by a few hundred employers, volunteered to starve themselves and their families and involve thousands of their fellow-men in their misfortunes, accept charity and peacefully comport themselves, until such time as their immortal souls gave out or their masters discovered that it was no longer profitable to insist upon the additional rate of plunder.
It was not war. It was culpable, incomprehensible fatuity. Why, our solitary moulder, of whom I have just spoken, made more forcible protest over his trumpery twopence than did these well nigh half a million men over what presumably was to be a permanent purloining of five shillings a week off every man of them. No wonder we are termed a law-abiding people! But, please observe that the law is robbers’ law, and we, the people who abide by it, have been described by Carlyle as mostly fools.
Extraordinary as is the conduct of workmen during a strike, it is eclipsed by their conduct afterwards. I have already rioted the peculiar circumstance that whenever you see a handsome church in the course of erection you can foretell that there will be a strike in the neighbourhood before many months are gone. Similarly, wherever a strike has taken place, you may be morally certain that the employer of labour who has proposed the hardest terms and has in all ways made himself most obnoxious to his workmen, will be elected Member of Parliament for the locality on the very first vacancy. I have gone elaborately into the statistics bearing on this point, and so remarkable are the coincidences of the two events that I have been forced to the conclusion that politicians deliberately reckon upon the fact, and arrange that whenever an employer wishes to get into Parliament he shall first win the esteem of the electorate by a vigorous course of wage reductions and lockouts. No matter how infuriated against their master workmen may be during a strike, a few months after it is over the majority of them appear to acquire quite an affection for him; and the more soundly they have been beaten, the more ardent becomes their attachment!
Turning meanwhile from the absurdity of the modes of strikes, and the manners of those who engage in them, let us look sharply for a moment into the ostensible purpose which they are designed to accomplish.
That strikes in nowise determine the right or wrong of the claims of the workers is evident not only from the circumstance that usually the lowest paid and most severely wrought trades have generally been the least successful, but from the far more important consideration that there exists, and can exist no means of deciding, under the present competitive commercial conditions, what is and what is not a fair wage. Even when the matter in dispute is brought to the test of the market value of the products, and when the profits of the capitalists have been reduced to the lowest percentage, we havs not reached any standard of value which will bear scrutiny. The market value of an article which has perhaps cost a great deal of labour may be very low, whereas that which has cost little or no labour may be very high. Goods are sometimes sold under the actual cost paid in wages for them, while at any other time they may be sold for ten, twenty, or thirty times their wage cost. A fisherman, for example, after bringing in a boatload of fish which has cost him a couple of days’ labour in netting and hauling, may find that there is no demand whatever for his cargo, and may have to throw it away on the beach. A week later he brings in another load, and so great is the demand for his catch that he may sell it at double the price he had thought of asking for it. Of course, the irregularity in the quantity of fish produced is the chief cause of this great fluctuation in the price; but even were a fixed quantity of fish obtained every day from the sea, the competition of the buyers in the market would vary in intensity, and the wages of the fisherman would rise and fall in consequence.
The quantity of coal produced in this country does not, and certainly need not fluctuate much, yet the selling price and the wages paid to the miners fluctuate a great deal. For example , in the year 1890 the coal produced in Great Britain amounted to almost the same figure as in 1892 – 181,614,288 tons as against 181,786,871 tons – yet the selling price at the pit heads fell from £74,953,997 in 1890 to £66,050,451 in 1892, a difference of nearly 9 per cent. Again, during the period 1870-1874 there was an annual average export of 911,000 tons of railroad iron, and during the period 1885-1889 very nearly the same amount, viz., 915,000 tons. Yet from the former period to the latter, the price of the total had fallen from £9,420,000 to only £4,440,000. I am not here entering into the causes of the variation in the prices of products. I am merely noting the fact that they do vary even when the supply is approximately the same in quantity, and that consequently the selling price of commodities affords no equitable standard to which to appeal the question of wages. Even were masters content always to exact a uniform percentage of interest and profit, however low, workmen would find that the instability – under competition – of the market value of products would upon appeal justify frequent and considerable alterations in their wages. Nevertheless it is actually by this unstable and totally blind tribunal that masters in most instances profess to regulate the rates of wages; and it is by that, in the majority of instances, the success or failure of a strike is determined.
Of course, if the workers are sufficiently organised and determined they may, by prolonging a strike, occasionally succeed in compelling a rise of prices in the market, and thus make good for the moment their claim for an increase, or against a reduction, of pay. But this can only happen when the demand for the product is persistent, and when the market cannot be supplied from other districts or countries. Such favourable conditions are, however, of infrequent occurrence. There are few articles of urgent and imperative need to the community, or any section of it, which are produced only in one locality, or in any one manufacturing area likely to be affected by a strike. Most of the primary and indispensable articles of consumption or use can be obtained in an emergency from widely separate districts or countries; and it rarely or never happens that in all these places there is any sharply simultaneous, defensive, or offensive action by the workers.
1. Compare in this connection the dispute going on in Parliament even at this moment, between the miners and the Government, as to the necessity of a 14s. increase in the selling price of a ton of coal.
Last updated on 9.11.2007