Austin Lewis

Solidarity and Unemployment

(May 1915)


Source: From International Socialist Review, Vol. 15 No. 11, May 1915, pp. 652–655.
Transcription: Matthew Siegfried.
HTML mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists Internet Archive (2022).
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2022). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.


A UNION is for persons in employment. When owing to the exigencies of the economic situation or, for other reasons, the craftsman loses his employment, he ceases automatically, as it were, to be a member of the craft. The craft rules do not apply to him. And if the period of unemployment is in any way protracted it is also obvious that he will cease to be a dues paying member of the union and will thus be lost to the organization.

But a man out of employment is still a man. He must eat, and if he has a family it must eat also. The union offers him no remedy for his condition. It really cannot offer him any. If labor is a commodity, which is predicated by the very nature of craft union, he is merely a commodity which cannot find a market and, being in this condition, must suffer the fate of all commodities for which there is no effective demand; he must be laid on the shelf.

But to be laid on the shelf is precisely what the unemployed, skilled or unskilled, cannot endure. His labor power may be a commodity, though he would not gladly admit it. But that commodity is wrapped in a human body, which must be fed, and cannot be fed unless that labor power is released and enabled to earn.

So that while the unemployed may be ignored by the union, the union cannot, as a matter of fact, afford to ignore him. For the unemployed, by virtue of his human attributes, becomes the enemy of the union in that he is compelled to go out and earn his bread under such conditions as the times permit, union or no union. Necessity knows no law, and the need of life is superior to the laws of the union.

This can be seen even in the ranks of the union when the threat of hard times puts the fear of ensuing want into the hearts of the workers. Little by little the scale becomes lowered. Little by little the men ignore the union rules in order to keep their jobs. The business agent is really powerless against this tendency, which he cannot afford to recognize, for to admit that men are working under the scale would be to threaten the very foundations of the union itself, since who would pay dues when the union is unable to guarantee the results for which dues are paid? The business agent therefore is compelled to make examples. Certain men are caught, brought in and fined, but this does not stop the process, which is inevitable, for the conditions are superior to any rules.

Of course, if the tendency were universal the union would lose, in that the gates would be thrown wide open, and the era of individual would succeed that of collective bargaining, and at the end of the period of hard times the union would) have to begin at the beginning again.

But as a matter of fact the union can control sufficient, even during the hard times, among the large contractors and those with whom the good will of the union is more important, from a business point of view, than the mere economies achieved by lowering the scale. They are thus able to hold the nucleus of the work at the same rates as before the period of unemployment and to advertise the scale as maintained, whether it is so or not. The union may therefore maintain itself, but at an enormous sacrifice. On all the small jobs, particularly those which lie outside a large town where the union is in control, the scales are cut to pieces. Men work, although ostensibly belonging to the union, at lower rates than the union allows.

And it is just at this point that the hardest burden falls on the best union men. They will refuse to work under scale and, unless they are able to get jobs m places where the shield of the union fully protects them, they go without work altogether and thus become part of the unemployed. While, on the other hand, the mere mercenary who is in the union for pecuniary reasons, dodges, makes terms with the bosses, carries himself through the hard times on the reduced scale, and comes in for the full scale when returning prosperity makes jobs at the proper union rate possible.

Unemployment, therefore, strikes at the very basis of unionism. It also strikes at the basis of working class progress. For the craftsman who is unemployed, while he may have compunction against reducing the returns on his own craft, has, naturally, little about reducing the rate for unskilled labor, so that the poorest and most helpless portion of the working class is compelled to see its scanty wages still further reduced by the inroads of those who have had better wages than the unskilled could ever hope to get, but who now lay the burden of their needs on backs already breaking beneath the load.

Times of unemployment have always been times when the solidarity of labor seemed the most foolish of dreams. It is a time of rout, of the devil take the hindmost. There is no opportunity save to preserve one’s self, and, under such conditions, the more or less incoherent voice of class solidarity is lost in the uproar. At no time hitherto have such times been other than times of disillusionment and disappointment.

But this winter, hard as it has been, and discouraging in many respects as far as the demonstrations of the unemployed have been, has still shown some remarkable signs of a tendency in the direction of solidarity which we have not hitherto had. These are, moreover, evidently not of a superficial or transitory character, but rather mark a development which will take on a broader scope until the solution of the unemployed problem by labor itself will appear more probable than has hitherto been the case.

In California in 1914, when the unemployed problem pressed for solution, work was offered at certain reduced rates of pay, which the unemployed refused. Their refusal was met with a howl of horrified dismay by the members of the committee which was charged with the care of the unemployed. It seemed outrageous that men who were supposed to be on the verge of starvation – and actually were so – should have any voice as regards wages, beyond the mere starvation point. They should be content to get whatever was offered to them, it was solemnly stated, for the charity of the community was saving them from destruction, and they owed society thanks for its helping hand. They had no right to look a gift horse in the mouth. It was not their place to criticize the amount of the gift. They were not entitled to the usual recompense for their labor; they were entitled, perhaps, as members of a Christian community to be saved from starvation, perhaps hardly that.

But the unemployed remained firm in their original demand. They would not work for less than the rate which the Laborers’ Union had fixed as the minimum for laborers. In other words, their solidarity was such that they would not make the lives of those who were fortunate enough to have work more insecure by their actions.

They would not scab even on those who had no organization. The effect is obvious. The acceptance of the terms offered by the committee would have reduced the wages of that unskilled labor which was employed and, at the same time, would have materially lessened the aggregate amount paid for employment in those occupations which come under the head of unskilled. The unskilled would have entered the competitive labor market and the general level of welfare would have still further lowered. In refusing the terms the unemployed therefore conferred a benefit on the entire community.

But their action was, as we have already seen, deeply resented; so much so indeed, that every effort of the ruling class was devoted to driving them out of the city of San Francisco. Their meetings were rudely disturbed by the police and when, in the course of their travels, they arrived at Sacramento they were outrageously abused and maltreated with the openly expressed approval of the governor of the State.

But they had accomplished their work and had made a display of solidarity as unexpected as vigorous. Henceforward there was a greater tendency on the part of organized labor to take steps which would help in the partial solution of the unemployed problem, independent of the State.

The governing class, on its part, also saw that something had to be done, and proceeded to formulate plans for employment bureaus throughout the State. These bureaus were to place the worker, as far as possible, in touch with such jobs as could be found, and at the same time to extend the state activities so that work could be found for the unemployed at the regular rate of pay for unskilled labor. It has been assumed that such employment as is given shall not tend to reduce the scale of wages for the unskilled. This is directly due to the attitude of the unemployed as above described, and marks a striking advance on former schemes of this kind.

But a dispute has arisen as to the Commission which shall have charge of the unemployed question. The Labor Commission, which is purely labor, claims it and so does the Housing and Immigration Commission, which is much more mixed in its composition and has as a member of the commission a Roman Cathode Bishop of San Francisco, and certain other representatives of the non-labor element. The Housing and Immigration Commission says that they can handle the matter better, as a mixed board would have a better chance in dealing with employers than would a purely labor body. The Labor Commission, however, claims the handling of the matter of unemployment as being entirely within their scope as representatives of the working class, which alone should have the say in matters of employment.

Thus a lively fight has been precipitated between the two commissions, which has found an echo in the San Francisco Labor Council and has caused quite an amount of discussion. The result is that the feeling of labor solidarity in the matter of unemployment is much increased and an educational agitation of no slight importance has resulted.

On the other hand, the unions are themselves taking a much greater interest in the question than heretofore and have announced their intention of looking after their unemployed as far as possible.

Proposals have been made and widely agitated that the men employed should work fewer hours than usual so as to allow of the employment of members of unions who are out of employment. It has been argued that there should be a general working day of four days a week in place of six so as to give the unemployed a chance to earn something and thus keep things together. This suggestion has met with a much wider response than would have been possible hitherto, but it cannot be said that the proposal is as yet in a sufficiently practical shape to be really considered.

The State Conference of Painters, however, passed resolutions to the effect that in the winter months the work day should be six instead of eight hours. This also has been done by the painters of Chicago. Other unions are taking the question in hand with the purpose of dealing with the unemployment problem.

All of these advances are admittedly slight, and the backwardness of the organized working class in these respects, as in many others, is irritating and perplexing. But the really encouraging circumstance is that the working class is beginning to take up the unemployment problem as a working class and not as a governmental problem.

This implies a growth in sympathy and understanding in a word that solidarity which has been so often preached but so seldom practiced. Any union which attempts to deal with the question of its unemployed must necessarily make a much closer and deeper examination of labor conditions than the workers themselves have been so far in the habit of making. It must in the long run learn that identity of interest which binds the whole working class together. However, a very definite step has been taken towards that solidarity this year.

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