Mary E. Marcy

Economic Power

(February 1918)

From International Socialist Review, Vol. 18 No. 8, February 1918.
Transcribed by Matthew Siegfried.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

WHEN we speak of Economic Power we refer to that power exercised by men or by a group of men through the control of the processes of production and distribution of a country. The Economic Power possessed by the men who control these processes is brought out most forcibly during a period of war when there is a great call for increased productivity in so many fields of industry. To illustrate:

The British Government discovered during the early days of the war that it was not expedient to “fix” the price of wheat in the British isles at so low a point that the land-owners would use their land in raising more profitable grains; that unless the farmers were assured of as much profit on wheat as they stood to make on other grains, they would sow their land. in oats, corn or rye to the detriment of the very badly needed wheat crop. In other words, the farmers or land-owners possessed an enormous economic power thru the control of the sources of the wheat supply. The British Government secured the co-operation of the land-owners by yielding before the economic power exercised through control of the land.

In this country, the United States Government wisely profited by the experiences of Great Britain and guaranteed to the American farmers $2.20 wheat for 1917 and, we believe, $2.00 wheat for 1918, in order to win over the economic power exercised by the land-owners here.

Even the Imperial German Government, which has reduced Regulation to the fine point of regulating the regulators, has had constantly to reckon with the economic power possessed by her citizens who control the industries of Germany.

When the Food Administrator declared the price of bacon too high and “fixed” a new price 50 per cent lower than the old rate, it was speedily discovered that bacon had utterly disappeared from the markets; that the farmers were secretly engaged in the extremely profitable business of selling bacon privately to well-to-do families. In order to induce the farmers to put this necessary commodity once more upon the market, his very powerful Highness was reduced to the extremity of lifting the ban and allowing the price of bacon to jump to its former high altitude.

The newspapers reported about two years ago that when Great Britain sought to draw the blockade more tightly against Germany, the Standard Oil Company advised the British Government that unless it permitted Broadway to ship oil to Germany, the Standard Oil Company would refuse to supply the British with oil. This is a very clear-cut example of the economic power of a man, or a group of men, who control the processes of production. It is sometimes in their power to defy, or to command or to control the policies of the most powerful governments that exist today.

During war time, when many things must be accomplished speedily if they are to be done at all, the economic power of those who control production or industry, or transportation, stands forth revealed as it never does in periods of lesser national stress.

Take the coal mines for example. Of course everybody knows that the factories and the railroads, the shops and mills, as well as the people to whom coal is an actual household necessity, everybody knows that all these people and enterprises have to have coal in peace as well as in times of war. Coal is one of the everyday necessities of modern civilized life.

Now, the people who control the coal supply, very often the private owners of the coal mines are in a position at all times to exercise an incalculable economic power over the lives of all the rest of the people. They may control the entire supply of a particular kind of coal; they may secretly, or through some legal hocus pocus, combine to raise the price we have to pay for coal. They may declare, as they have been more than once upon the very point of declaring during the past few months, that if any Government does not “fix” the price of coal high enough to insure the stockholders’ satisfactory dividends, they will close the mines and refuse to sell any coal at all until they can get their own price.

A single individual, traveling in Japan, whose father may have secured the coal lands as a gift from the Government a few years ago, may be able to cable instructions for the closing down of a score of coal mines if the conditions under which coal is mined and the price at which it sells, do not satisfy him. This is what we mean by Economic Power – in a nut-shell. That the coal operators have not resorted to their old time methods of more excessive hold-up is due entirely to the present war crisis and the extraordinary powers conferred upon President Wilson which might enable the Government to take over and operate the coal mines for the period of the war at least.

During peace times the men who possess economic power thru the control of the coal mines are checked in their greed for profits only by the miners who actually perform the job and produce the coal, the economic power of other capitalists and the danger that should their piracies become too onerous to the capitalist class of the country, the Government may step in and investigate, with the nauseous threat of Government Regulation and Government Ownership hovering in the distance.

In this connection it is interesting to note that nearly all the coal; timber and other mining lands in the United States were primarily given outright to the original holders by the Government, or sold at a purely nominal figure, or were obtained by fraud, or bribery, or by both. But that is beside the point. No matter how the mine owner secured his power, or “his mine,” he is able to exercise an enormous economic pressure through his control of it.

Consider the railroads. They connect the cities with the food, the fuel, the clothing, the raw materials necessary to life and to manufacture from Maine to Oregon. Without them delivering the commodities necessary to life and to production from day to day, the cities and villages would face famine. Business would be utterly at a standstill.

The handful of men, who have cheated, bribed for, or who have stolen or inherited the control of the railroads, exercise an almost unlimited economic power – checked only at all times by the economic power of the capitalist class as a whole, or the Government, which may step in to protect the interests of this class, and the economic power possessed by the railway-workers either to misuse or to withhold or supply their labor power on the job.

During the past month the newspapers have been telling us something of the findings of the Government investigators in the packing industries. We learn that three or four men, controlling railway terminals, grain elevators, vast storage and packing plants, cars, locomotives, stockyard facilities, with a near-monopoly of the markets for buying and selling of stock and packing and farm products, are able to exercise at all times a stupendous economic power, whereby they have steadily raised the prices of food products at the expense of the less economically powerful capitalists, who are forced to raise the wages of their employees to meet the increased tax on living, levied (thru the control of economic power) by men like Messrs. Swift, Armour and Morris.

The lumber interests occupy a particularly strong economic position in war time, when the Government requires lumber for ship building, for cantonments and barracks and for the manufacture of airplanes. As our hearts swell with pity over the straightened circumstances (?) of the lumber barons it is interesting to read in a Saturday Evening Post editorial in the issue of January 5th, 1918:

“Since 1860, the United States has deeded to private owners 54,000,000 acres of commercial timberland in the Pacific States – in effect, giving it away ... A fortune for the asking!”

And yet, we see some of these same extremely lucky (?) lumbermen allowing the output from the camps and mills which they control to fall below the requirements of the Government needs for war purposes by refusing to yield to the demands of the lumberjacks who went out on strike for the Eight-Hour Day, for sheets on their beds and beds to sleep in.

It is true that these lumber barons would have been glad and even anxious to have the lumberjacks get out the lumber needed by the Government, if the yielding of the Eight-Hour Day and sanitary camp conditions had not meant a little lower war profits on the capital they had probably never invested. Barring Government interference, and the strong hands or the labor power of the lumberjacks, the lumber capitalists possess a great economic power thru their control of the lumber industry.

We might continue to illustrate indefinitely, but these few examples will suffice. We have tried to show you what economic power is and how it has usually been imposed upon the people of a country.

But do not imagine that the economic power of the mine owners, for instance, of the railroad magnates or the packing interests and other capitalists who exercise economic power thru the control of industry, ends here. The power they possess, or that they have been permitted to use, over the productive and transportation forces, are merely the beginning of the pressure they wield over and in and thru every phase of our social life. Their power and influence extend into every field of human activity and spread into a thousand ramifications.

In Montana, for example, people will tell you that “Butte is a copper town.” They actually mean that the men who control the mines and the products of the mines control the newspapers, have, secretly, most of the professional men in the city in their employ, in many instances have elected their own judges, their own municipal and state, and even, national representatives. They mean that every social institution in Butte, and to a great degree in Montana, with its national reflection, of course, is controlled, biased, influenced or owned by the copper interests.

A city in Wisconsin, which we shall not now name, is dominated in a similar way by the powerful lumbermen of the Badger state. Discreet municipal and state officers are elected by the lumbermen’s controlled press and by lumber campaign contributions. In a particular town we know, where the lumberjacks are brought after meeting with accidents in the woods, every hospital and every physician is privately in the pay of the lumber companies. And every municipal office holder has been elected by lumber backing and by lumber coin.

We are trying to give here a faint suggestion of the ramifications of the power possessed by the men who control the industries of a nation. And now we want to take up the other side of the question. We want to consider the men who work on the jobs. We want to see whether it is true that, after all, all economic power really lies in the hands of the workers who produce things; who get out the logs, who operate the packing plants, and run the railroads, who mine the coal and the copper, and who produce and transport all necessary and useful things.

The trade unions are organized for the expressed purpose of exercising the economic power possessed by the workers thru the use of their hands or brains in operating the industries, and in running the railroads.

Everybody knows that without the labor power of the working class not one wheel would revolve, not a single train would move, nor a railroad be built, cloth would not be woven or made up into clothing; the mills would cease to hum and the factories to operate, coal and copper would cease to be mined – without the ready hands and the brains of the workers on the jobs.

And so, after all, it would seem that the commands of the industrial overlords regarding production, when they say goods shall be produced, or shall not be produced, oil delivered, coal mined, clothing made – that all these commands depend wholly upon the will of the working class. The workers mine the coal and produce the necessary and beautiful things of life. When they fold their arms everything stops; lights go out, telephones become useless, trains stop running; the factories, mines, shops and mills lie idle when the workers withhold their labor power. The life of the world depends utterly and absolutely upon the steady labor of the working class.

In the early days of manufacture, the laborers discovered that it was impossible to improve their condition by individual appeals to their employers. They discovered that appeals to elected representatives went unheard and that all old methods of trying to improve the conditions of the workers proved utterly futile. And so the men in the industries organized into trade unions to exercise their economic power in forcing the employers of labor to concede better working conditions, shorter hours or higher wages.

And gradually, thru long and bitter fights, the workers have shortened the working hours of labor from fourteen, to twelve, and from twelve to ten, and nine, and now in many instances, to eight hours a day.

The daily newspapers claim that just before our last presidential election the railroad men, through the threat of withholding their labor power on the railroads, forced President Wilson and Congress to hurriedly pass a law giving the brotherhoods an eight-hour workday.

Sometimes laws are passed for the benefit of labor which are not obeyed by the employers. In the mines, for example, it is only on rare occasions that all the laws for safe-guarding the miners in the mines are obeyed or enforced. The mining operators hire men to mine coal or copper and those who complain of the lack of safety devices or the lack of safety systems, or who insist that the miners purchase commodities where they please or receive their pay in cash oftener than the bosses design, are merely discharged and others, who will take the jobs are put in their places.

A law was passed in 1903 or ’04 providing for the eight-hour day in Colorado mines. The employers refused to obey that law and the law was not enforced by the constituted authorities. A strike of the W.F. of M. was called to enforce the law through the economic power possessed by the miners on the job.

When legal methods have failed to bring relief the workers in mine, shops and factories have again and again enforced the labor laws or have passed new labor laws, not in the statutes, by exercising their economic power on strike or on the job.

In the Northwest the lumberjacks have just passed the eight-hour day in the lumber camps by using their economic power and striking on the job. The men would work eight hours and then quit and go home. The bosses hired and fired crew after crew. And the crews went to work on many jobs and were fired from them. But group after group of the men quit after working eight hours. At last the employers decided that in order to secure men to work steadily they would have to grant the eight-hour day. The lumberjacks were only working eight hours anyway.

In spite of the steady struggle and the innumerable battles between the employers and the men who perform the work, and in spite of the steady gains made by labor, the workers have lost as many bouts as they have gained, in so far as winning their immediate ends are concerned. But the workers have seen many things; have learned many things.

They have witnessed, during the past fifty years, an unprecedented improvement in the machinery of production; they have seen automatic machinery introduced in factories and in mills that enable one man to perform the labor that formerly required ten or twenty men. In spite of increased wages for the workers and in spite of improved shop conditions, they see that the workers are exploited more intensely, because of the use of labor-saving machines, than they were in the past. They know that the share of the workers’ products appropriated by the employing class is steadily increasing because of the wonderfully increased productivity of labor, thru the use of improved machinery of production.

They are beginning to find out that the old methods of trade warfare are growing more and more ineffective in the face of the growing organization of the capitalist class.

A machine is installed in a plant that eliminates the need of trade skill in the production of a certain commodity. For example, unskilled men may operate the machines and produce the same goods. And so that particular trade ceases to function in the labor world. Improved machines are constantly displacing skilled men and putting all labor on the same unskilled and unorganized basis.

It is obviously impossible to maintain a trade union based upon a specialized skilled trade when there is no such trade to work at.

The industrial unionists are pointing out that the agreements between employers and employed, whereby the men agree to work certain hours for stipulated wages for a certain length of time, nullify or abrogate the purposes of real working class unionism, since these agreements, if they are carried out, will permit one group of workers to continue at work on the job while another group is out on strike. They claim that when one group of miners goes on strike at the expiration of an agreement and another group in the next mine goes on working, the workers are dividing their economic power (the power of carrying on, or stopping production) and breaking the strikes of their own brothers.

The Industrial Workers of the World propose that, in order to exercise their utmost economic power, it is to the interest of the workers to organize every worker in an industry into One Big Union, so that every worker shall be in a position, unhindered by any agreements, to go on strike, and stop production, when the needs of the workers shall so demand.

This organization is teaching the workers to realize and exercise their actual power. And the German Left Wing socialists are calling on the men in the mines of Germany to stop the production of coal in order to force the militarists to accept a peace without conquest. They are begging the men on the railroads to go on strike, to fold their arms and to prevent the armies at the front from securing supplies and thus making not only possible, but necessary, a retreat of the German soldiers to the German border.

It was in Russia only a few weeks ago that we saw the workers in the industries and on the railroads refusing to work for wages and declaring that they would only continue producing commodities upon the condition that private profit cease and the mills and mines and factories be operated for the benefit of the people who ran them, and that exchange should ultimately be managed upon the basis of Labor for Labor and Service for Service.

There is no power in the world strong enough to oppose successfully the will of the organized, useful, productive working class, when it is conscious of its class interests and determined to serve them. For it is only the people who work who carry folks around, and feed them, and shelter and warm and clothe them, and take things to them. Without the hands and the brains of the workers no order, however imperial, will ever be executed.

And so the industrial unionists, the socialists and the militant trade unionists are gradually coming closer together, gradually realizing that they must organize, on the job, as industries and as a class, and thru the use of the economic power of the workers, make possible the glad day when Labor shall come at last into its own.

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