Florence Kelley

Changing Labor Conditions in Wartime

Published: The Class Struggle, Vol II. No.2, March-April, 1918.
Transcribed: for marxists.org in August, 2002.

Changes before America entered the War

Since August, 1914, labor conditions in the United States have been changing incessantly, but the minds of the mass of wage-earners have not kept pace with these changes.

Before the war European immigration into the United States had been, for several years, at the rate of more than a million a year, largely from the nations then at war,--Italy and the Balkan countries. This vast influx almost exclusively of people of the wage-earning class produced no conspicuous fall in wages. Unemployment was present, both seasonal and chronic as it had been for many years, but not obviously increased by the immigration. There was still enough cheap land and sufficiently rapid expansion of industry to keep wage conditions relatively stable.

Real wages were declining. The dollar was already buying less food, fuel and shelter from year to year. But this was recognized as permanent only by a very small group of writers led by Isbel King.

Then came the war followed instantly both by a reduction in immigration and by epidemic unemployment which led to no permanent organization--either legislative or voluntary--intended to prevent its appearance on an immense scale at the close of the war.

Six months after hostilities opened however, unemployment diminished, and the Allies' contracts and the social results thereof began to grow clearly visible. To fill the void in the labor market created by the cessation of immigration and by the international demand for food, fuel and munitions, there began a flow of recruits to the ranks of industry such as this country had not previously experienced. Connecticut, one of the permanent homes of the munitions industry, revealed to the observant eye that lowering of industrial standards which has since spread in many directions.

A famous Connecticut arms manufacturing company having huge contracts began in 1915 to require men in its employ to bring in their wives if these had, before marriage, worked in their factories. In Connecticut, more than in most of the states, building and loan associations and savings banks had thriven, and great numbers of working men's homes were in process of being paid for. When therefore, the dictum went forth from the munitions works that a man having a wife eligible for employment and failing to bring her in when requested, need not come himself, great numbers of mothers began to work at night while caring for their young children by day. They attempted, by thus doing the work of two persons, to aid their husbands in saving their homes from foreclosure.

Soon the visiting nurses raised voices of warning. Tuberculous mothers whose disease had been arrested were again open cases. Able to maintain their restored health under the ordinary strains of home life with care and guidance of the tuberculosis nurses, these Connecticut mothers were perishing like grain before the scythe under the stress of the war contracts, two years before the United States entered the war. Home-making mothers by day and wage-earning wives by night, these were early victims of the world war.

It had been widely believed that Connecticut forbade the employment of women in manufacture after 10 P. M. at night, as Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, and Indiana do. When, however, an attempt was made to enforce this provision, the Connecticut courts held that the limitation applied only to stores, which have naturally only slight occasion to employ women after 10 P. M. It has not been possible to get the Connecticut legislature, which sat in 1915 and in 1917, to extend the prohibition of work of women at night to include factories.

Connecticut was merely a sample. Wherever war contracts have appeared, suction has been applied to draw in fresh groups of workers new to industry. Country-bred men and women have swarmed to the new munitions towns, and heavy pressure has been brought to bear upon all laws regulating working hours of women, miners and children.

The Negroes in Industry

Negroes, both men and women, were brought from the rural Southern States to Northern industrial centers in 1915 and 1916 first by hundreds, then by thousands, to the serious disorganization of Southern food production.

The world suffers hunger and we, with our unmeasured wealth, can save neither ourselves nor the starving peoples. While Europe looks to us for food, fuel and cotton, We are not meeting our own demand, much less that of the other nations.

One reason is neglect of the South. The nation has tacitly approved while two generations of masses of people have remained in blind ignorance of modern agriculture and horticulture. For more than a half century, ever since the Civil War, millions of our rural people, both white and colored, have by our national policy of neglect of education been left unqualified for producing maximum crops wherewith to meet the demand that the present crisis makes upon us.

Only in the present year ate appreciable sums becoming available under the Smith Hughes and the Smith Lever Laws, in the educationally least developed states for training teachers of agriculture, horticulture and domestic science, and for providing the requisite buildings and equipment for teaching these eminently necessary branches. Until now no federal provision similar to the grants in aid to education, long since established in Great Britain, have ever been made by our federal government.

The Negroes have never been welcomed in the labor movement. There has been a vicious circle. As agricultural workers entering industry they have often unconsciously injured white union men in two ways at once. They have deprived strikers of the chance to return to their previous workplaces, and at the same time have shared, by their mere entrance into the situation, in crippling or killing the labor organization responsible for the strike. Their numbers in industry are now such that they can neither be ignored nor dealt with in detail, so th~ orthodox unions are doing to them what for several years they have done to women wage-earners,--languidly going through the motions of organizing them.

Not until Negro men do what white women are doing, will they cease to make the labor situation worse for themselves and their fellow workers. They, too, must form organizations and use their growing numbers, and the political power which they command in the Northern States, to get besides collective bargaining, all the slender statutory protection of labor which the courts allow to stand.

The northward migration into industry of Negroes (of whom there were 8,000,000 in the rural Southern States to be drawn upon), the increase of women engaged in manufacture, and the reduction in their legal protection previously believPd to be in force, were well under way before the United States entered the war. The muster of children into industry was, as we shall see, active from the first.

The Drive Against Education

New York City, in the Fall of 1914, led by example the movement which is still increasing against popular education. Under the pretext of reforming the city's finances, appropriations for new school buildings ceased. A few old buildings were remodeled or were enlarged, but the attempt to give every child a school seat was openly abandoned for the first time since New York City adopted public schools. The theory was promulgated of~icially that teachers should work longer hours and children should have less instruction and more supervised play.

New York City's policy of crowding out school children by administrative action, like Connecticut's reactionary judicial and legislative procedure in regard to nightwork of women in factories, was an omen. No sooner did the United States enter the war than bills were introduced in state legislatures to exempt children, boys and girls alike, from school attendance in the Spring and Fall from the 12th birthday on, ostensibly to work on farms, the summer vacation being prolonged for this purpose to cover the months from April 1st to Nov. 1st.

In the propaganda for thus robbing the children of the birthright of school-life which is theirs as future American citizens, eminence was achieved by John Finley, Commissioner of Education of New York State who, in May 1917, supported an evil bill to so exempt children, and sailed for France soon after Governor Whitman had signed it, delegating to subordinates the task of drawing up the regulations for the guidance of local school authorities and the safeguarding of the children which the new law itself made his duty. In consequence of the agitation in this matter and of ambiguous instructions from state officials, schools in rural sections of New York were generally demoralized. The standard of elementary education was lowered for great numbers of boys and girls, and many educational authorities of the richest and industrially most highly developed state in the Union were revealed as the enemies of the children.

Foremost among the agitators for the reactionary law for long vacations were certain state educational authorities who, at a public hearing before Governor Whitman, at Albany, made the statement that already many boys had left school under the promise of the school officials, that the law would be passed, and the boys given school credit for the school work of the whole term. If the bill were not made law these boys would be placed in a most unfair position. This premature dismissal of boys, and the need to redeem the lawless promise of school credit for school work which the boys never performed, appears to have been a deciding factor in leading Governor Whitman to sign the bill.

The younger the children whose educational opportunity has been cut off, the more irreparable, of course, is their loss.

One result of the pernicious activity of the county school superintendents was the dispersal of many teachers whose term of employment was thus arbitrarily reduced. While teachers were released from their ill-paid work, they were loudly called for by the federal Government to enter its bettctrpaid service in many occupations. This has been a process of continued depletion of the teaching profession.

It has been generally assumed, that our public schools need not suffer from withdrawal of teachers as the schools in other belligerent nations have done, because our teaching force is so much more largely composed of women. The facts give, however, little support to this assumption. For women teachers are called upon for many varieties of clerical service.

Although we have not yet suffered the losses by death, disease and mutilation, which have reduced the working class in the other nations, the labor movement suffers here in ways of its own. Besides the accustomed obstacles to maintaining powerful unions--the difference of language, religion and nationality--the war changes have brought new pressure, have given new significance to divergence of age, sex, and color. The usual difficulties of the labor organizations are enormously increased by_the influx into industry of Negroes previously rural, of women not hitherto employed outside the home and the schoolroom, and of children urged prematurely into wageearning in the name of patriotism.

The drive against popular education has taken five distinct forms: a) stopping the building of schools by cities; b) withdrawing teachers for federal government work in the departments and in connection with the draft; c) withdrawing boys from attendance at high schools for agriculture and for industrial work; d) attempting to relax or abolish the state child labor and compulsory school attendance laws; e) relaxing enforcement where reactionary legislation was successfully opposed. This process of relaxing the children's safeguards has been carried on by state, county and city school authorities in varying degrees, as well as by employers' organizations.

In defense of the rights of the children, there has been one long struggle of which the outcome is still uncertain. In 1916, Congress passed and the President signed the federal childlabor bill, to takeeffect September 1, 1917. This prohibits the shipment in interstate and foreign commerce of products of all mills, factories, workshops, canneries, mines and quarries in which children below the age of 14 years are employed, or children below the age of 16 years are permitted to work more than eight hours. Admirably enforced by the federal Children's Bureau, this new measure is the means of stimulating state and local authorities to register births and to issue proper "working papers" to children of legal working age.

Before the date for its enforcement arrived, however, an injunction suit was begun by representatives of the cotton manufacturing industry to stop the work of the Child Labor Division of the Children's Bureau. The suit was begun in Western North Carolina. The federal judge of that district held the new statute unconstitutional and enjoined its enforcement. This injunction is in effect, however, only as to that district. Purchasers in other parts of the country buying goods made in Western North Carolina, under the injunction, require manufacturers there to furnish the guaranty (required by the statute) that no child has participated in the production of the goods before its 14th birthday or longer than eight hours in a day below the age of 16 years. In order to sell their goods, North Carolina manufacturers are, therefore, obeying the child labor law just as though they had never obtained an injunction against it. The case has been expedited and argument as to the constitutionality of the law will be heard by the Supreme Court of the United States at the April term. For the sake of the children, it is greatly to be hoped, that the court of last resort may not find this new law unconstitutional.

The federal child labor law is the first attempt of Congress to place children in all the 48 states on an equality, even to the limited extent that ail alike must be free from factory work and mining until they are 14 years old, and from the strain of a workday longer than eight hours in twenty-four to the age of 16 years. Before that, we had had children of the first class in the Northwest Pacific States where cotton mills and sweatshops have not yet appeared. Children of the second class in the Middle and Northeastern States profited by compulsory education and child labor laws of varying degrees of insufficiency; while in the South with its cotton and tobacco, the boys and girls were largely outside the law. They were children of the third class. They had no right to childhood.

The Will of the People

The contest over the federal child labor law is the current exemplification of the failure of the working class in the United States to enforce its demand that legislation shall express the will of the people. At present any statute that intrrferes with the unlimited freedom of adults to work as many hours as may suit the convenience of the employers, must be clearly a health measure if the courts are to let it stand. More than this, it must indicate in its title and text that it is a health measure. And it must appear to the highest court to be one.

On this subject the powers of the legislatures depend utterly upon the interpretation by the court of the idea expressed in the words "health" and "welfare", and upon the skill, with which the argument is presented to the court that the statute involved is really adapted to promote the public health. The mere fact, that a law is economically necessary or desirable, cannot be considered, if there is interference with the freedom of adults to contract.

On the Pacific Coast, where women vote and where manufacture on a large scale has not yet developed, we see state minimum wage boards at work, and women's wage rates increased by their action to keep up with the increased cost of living. In New York State, the minimum wage bill is again before the legislature, and the new voters are lined up behind it. The result is still in doubt.

The labor press usually contents itself with criticism of a special decision or of a particular court. In a few of our states only, and those all in the Far West, local and state courts including the highest are all subject to recall by the voters. Citizens of these states are firmly convinced, that the existence of the recall goes far towards explaining the circumstance that courts in those parts of the country do not so frequently hold labor statutes void as courts elsewhere. They say that the will of the people must express itself not only in labor organizations and agreements, in statutes and the nomination and election of officials. They make their courts aware that the will of the people is a continuing force as capable of unmaking as of making the judges. They believe that this inclines the courts to treat with respect labor statutes enacted by means of the referendum.

Wartime Conditions affecting Consumers

Our American labor movement as such does not interest itself in its power over consumption. We have never developed any large co-operative distribution. We have allowed most of our sources of fuel to be given to private owners before our eyes. Here is one opportunity to save for the public one of our extensive and precious resources in wartime.

One single example among thousands illustrates what the fuel shortage has meant to city workers. In January, 1918, a visiting nurse in New York City, was called into a tenement home to try to save the life of a little child that appeared to be dying of cold in its crib. After days of effort, the little patient's life was safe. But, meanwhile, the nurse was present when the child's father was brought home, having died of exhaustion and cold in the zero weather, while seeking from place to place for coal wherewith to keep his baby warm.

This occurred in the richest city, of the richest nation on the planet, in the country most lavishly endowed with coal dr posits and with flowing water. It occurred primarily because we have always wasted, and are now more profligately than ever wasting our coal and our water. People suffered·and died in New York City in January, 1918, for want of coal for heating, which was blocked on railroad tracks, by trains of coal intended for generating power at the place where used.

It is one of the objects of this paper to suggest from the point of view of the workers as consumers:--

a. The desirability of using our water power in every possible way to eke out our coal supply, in order that our people may not suffer avoidable hardship;

b.The desirability of establishing a unified federal system for distributing power both from our water sources and from the mouth of the mine, in order that, we may avoid such chaos and losses, as we have suffered under the competitive management of the railroads and mines;

c. The need of an immediate official study of the relation of our coal and our waterresources, similar to the study of England's coal resources recently issued by the Sub-Committee of the Munitions Committee of the English Parliament of which Lord Haldane was chairman and signed the report.

The third proposal is especially urgent because we have as yet no means of forming an enlightened and compelling popular opinion.

The American people have, at the present moment, no readily accessible fund of popular knowledge as to the location of the coal area in relation to potential sources of water power. We need facts on such essential points as these geographical relations, and as the possible use of navigable rivers for waterways and for sources of power (as the Rhine is used at Rheinfelden). The public cannot get by volunteer surveys outhentic information of the possibilities of nation-wide flood regulation in connection with power generation; or of the possible use of coal to eke out irregularities of flow or drought.

For want of needed facts on these and other elements of the problem of transmitting power without the use of coal cars, the public mind is easily befogged by the threat that the beauty of whole great regions of scenery--which is now a precious part of the national treasure--may be destroyed in the process of impounding water for power generation. So much prejudice can be created by these threats as greatly to delay that prompt action which is now more urgently needed than ever before.

We have no trustworthy data readily accessible as to the length of possible transmission of power, the estimated unavoidable loss and waste in transmission, or the cost of copper for wire compared with the cost of wages, trackage, cars, and motive power for the conveyance of coal by railways.

For dwellers on the Atlantic seaboard and in the northern part of the Mississippi Valley durii~g the present winter, it is needless to dwell on the disadvantages of our present methods of dealing with coal, and wasting water power. Life, limbs, health, industrial productivity, and in some measure the effectiveness of the national effort for the war, have all been in varying degree sacrificed to deferred treatment of our native resources of heat and power yielding agencies.

While there are areas in which by reason of climate and location people have hitherto suffered little in any conscious way from these forms of waste, unconsciously they, like all the world have paid in the price of the goods they consume, accepting the rising cost of living as an incident of the war and inquiring no farther.

The whole people are, in fact, deeply interested whether they are awake to its immediate importance or not, in prompt action by the Government in this field.

In the absence of needed technical data there are certain obvious facts, which are not at present receiving the popular consideration necessary if anysteps are to be taken towards minimizing in future years the dire experience of this winter. Some of these obvious facts follow:--

The present method of getting power by transporting coal, wastes life and limb of employees who move the trains.

While we have no adequate figures as to the losses, that they are serious is a matter of common knowledge. Accidents are notoriously numerous in breaking up and making up coal trains, and in the whole shifting process incidental thereto.

Loss of life and industrial injuries to employees in this setvice are not made public as collisions and all spectacular injuries to passengers in transit tend to become public through the daily press. But records of workmen's compensation commissions are enlightening to students.

Similar injuries to travelers are caused especially where single track roads are used by passenger, freight and coal trains. It is only on exceptional roads, such as the four track stretches from New York City to Buffalo and Philadelphia to Pittsburgi that this danger of collisions, because of the presence of slow and clumsy coal trains is wholly eliminated; and on the limited number of coal roads in the North Atlantic States, (chiefly Pennsylvania) which are, as their name implies, not in the general transportation business.

Out present method wastes time because quick trains are delayed by coal train wrecks. Every commercial traveler knows that this is a commonplace experience of American railway travel. At all times coal trains are proverbially the slowest. They reduce the number and the running time of other kinds of trains. Perishable freight, such as refrigerated meat, fruit and vegetables, is delayed and spoiled in transit by coal cars blocking the rails. This aspect of the waste of time has amounted to a national calamity during the past six months.

To symbolize the waste of beauty, and of the joy of living, incident to our present use of coal for power, it is only necessary to mention Pittsburg, Chicago and, in less vivid illustration, Cleveland in this country. Most convincing of all is the vision of London, England. On the other hand, abundant supplies of electric power would enable us to keep cities cooler in summer; to do away, for instance, with the numberless fires now used in July and August for generating power for elevators in the torrid days common in the cities of the Atlantic seabord.

Waste of man power is vastly larger than appears at first glance, and second to it in importance, the waste of vehicles. It is only necessary to enumerate locomotive engineers and men who move coal trains; captains and crews of coal schooners; captains, engineers, stokers of tugs and barges in coastwise and lake transportation; chauffeurs of coal trucks, drivers of horse-drawn coalcarts. To these must be added all the men who load and unload at the mine mouth, at the ship, at the coal yard, and finally at the place of delivery, besides engineers and furnacemen in the innumerable scattered plants where power is finally generated at the point of use.

Further wastes involved in carrying power coal to its place Of use bycars instead of wire include tracks, cars, engines, boats, barges, tugs, trucks and carts. Thelast named two vehicles are a great nuisance in winter in snow-filled city streets in the Northern cities where chronic congestion of traffic is aggravated by delays incident to unloading coal trucks and picking up fallen horses.

Real estate used as coal yards is wasted. If coal in cities were used for heating only and for eking out hydro-electric power, great areas of water front could be set free for better uses.

Because all the ramifications of waste cannot be abolished outright, parts of the country being beyond the reach both of transmission of power from the mine mouth and of hyd·oelectric power, the point is to reduce the waste to a minimum, leaving the tracks free so far as practicable for transporting heating coal, food and other essentials.

Millions of horse-power are at all times wasting undeveloped in our streams. At recurring intervals floods waste lives and interrupt food production, sometimes doing permanent injury to great agricultural areas. By engineering measures of prevention, control and water storage, our floods could in large measure be saved for power production. These are no longer unsolved problems or insuperable difficulties.

Without a unified federal plan there will, however, inevital;ly occur in the new field of power production the same chaos that we have suffered in the struggle of privately owned railroads against all development of our water ways. The monopolist sellers of coal power will have the same incentive for deliberately choking of~ the future development and use of water power. An exception to the general choking practice is the use of power from the Great Falls of the Missouri in Montana by the St. Paul railroad. The exception is, however, so unique as to prove the rule.