NOTHING is plainer at the present day than that the feelings of men are strongly stirred on the Labor question. In the discussion of it there is apt to be more heat than light. Those who do not range themselves on one side or the other are liable to be harshly handled. Men who cannot subscribe to the orthodox political economy are berated as sentimentalists. On the other hand, I have heard it urged that the time is gone by for discussion when men are suffering, and women and children are starving; there must be action, it was said, and action was identified with using violence against capitalists and the civil authorities ! There is no sane man who does not believe in action in regard to this matter; but the question is, how to act, with reason or without it ? One might better fold his arms and do nothing, than to take such action as would make ten starving men where there is now one. We need more reason, more consideration, more humanity all around in dealing with the great problems of society. We should try to do equal justice to varying points of view.
I hardly know of a more striking instance of the lack of this ethical spirit than the claim sometimes made for workingmen that they are the producers of all wealth, and hence that the wealth of the community belongs to them. Aggressive as what is called "capital" sometimes is, it never makes so sweeping a claim as this for itself. Let me illustrate. Suppose a workingman has saved enough to pay for the erection of a modest dwelling. He must himself continue to work, however, and therefore he hires other persons to excavate the cellar and lay the foundations and build the house. Let us suppose that these hired men do all the work, that not a shovelful of earth is thrown by the man himself, or a stone or brick laid or a nail driven by him. The hired men build the house: do they therefore own it ? I cannot imagine any one seriously saying so. Yet it would be just as true to say so as to say that because workingmen have built the railroads of the country, therefore they own them; or because they have done all the physical work in manufacturing boots and shoes, or cotton cloths, or reaping-machines, therefore the total product is their rightful property. Any one who will reflect for a moment will see that in most cases there are three factors in business enterprise : first, the labor; second, the direction and superintendence of the labor; and third, the providing of the materials on which the labor expends itself, and perhaps the shelter under which the labor is performed, and the machinery or tools by means of which it works. All these factors may be united in the same hands. Labor may superintend itself, and find the market for its own products; it may own its own materials, its tools or machinery, and the necessary shelter. This is the case in all strictly co-operative enterprises. There is absolutely nothing in our laws or customs, or in the accepted teachings of political economy, to hinder all industry being organized in this manner, thus doing away with all necessity for separate employers and capitalists. Under such circumstances labor would have, and would be entitled to have, the total value of its product to itself. Not a cent of profits or of interest would have to be paid; all that is ordinarily called profits and interest would then be a part of labor's reward. Moreover, since profits, interest, and wages would in such a case all go to the same persons, such co-operative enterprises could afford to work for lower profits and interest than can business enterprises as ordinarily conducted at present, and could successfully compete with them. Why, then, is industry not so organized at present ? It is in a few cases : why not in all ? The answer is apparent. The hindrances are not external, but internal. Labor is not ordinarily able to superintend itself, and to find the market for its products. It does not ordinarily own the materials on which it must work, nor the machinery nor the shelter it stands in need of. Some one else must supply these desiderata. Instead of one person or set of persons doing all, two, and often three, sets of persons are necessary. The workman, the employer, and the capitalist often join hands together and become partners in a common enterprise. No one of them would be employed unless he were needed; and, in simple equity, each one is entitled to some recompense for his services. It is preposterous, it does violence to every sentiment of right, to say that the whole product belongs to the workmen, when the employer and the capitalist are equally necessary factors in the enterprise.
The rights of labor do not, then, involve the ordinary socialistic claim. The legitimate demand of labor is simply that it shall have a fair share of what it helps to produce. I do not say a fair share of what it produces, for it is entitled to all it produces ; but in the complex system of modern industry labor is but a factor, and so I say a fair share of what it helps to produce. When a shoemaker makes a pair of shoes in his own shop, out of his own material and with his own tools, he is entitled to the whole value of the shoes ; but when he works in a factory which is not his, with leather and machinery that some one else has provided, it would be simple robbery for him to claim the entire value of the pair of shoes for himself. A fair share of what the work-ingmen help to produce,this is all that in equity they can ask for.
But do they not have a fair share now ? I do not think they do ; and here, to my mind, lies the real gist of the labor question. I am far from wishing to bring any railing accusations against employers or against society. Every one as he grows in years, if he gains new points of view at the same time, must feel increasingly how deep and wide and many-sided the labor question is. Almost always we incline to leave some factor out of the account, not because we mean to do so, but because our minds are not able to take account of everything at once. I do not forget, for example, that workingmen cannot have more out of the wealth they help to create than that wealth amounts to. Workingmen are all too apt to think that if they are busy at work, money is being made somewhere, and probably a great deal of it; they are apt to think that their employers, simply because they are employers, are making profits, and most likely large profits. But this by no means follows. No one goes into business for himself without the hope of profits ; but that many do not realize this hope to any great extent is shown by the fact that after a time they go out of business no better off, and perhaps worse off, than when they went in. What does the large per cent of failures in the business world mean but that in these cases no profits at all have been realized? Ninety per cent and more of business enterprises, it is said, so fail. It is impossible to speak of the rights of labor to higher remuneration in a business that is barely paying its way, and may at any time be obliged to suspend; the enforced claim to higher remuneration in such a case might cause a suspension. Two years ago I read of a strike for higher wages among the compositors of a New Jersey newspaper. The paper was not a success, and the proprietor showed his books to the working-men ; he even offered to give the paper over into their hands for three months, they to receive all the profits. They refused the offer, and insisted on their terms, and the second day the paper ceased to appear.1 It is plain that the compositors had no idea of the embarrassments of their employer, and that they did as much injury to themselves as to him by their foolish conduct. I know a printer in Chicago who says he would be glad to make as much as his foreman. It is difficult to get statistics bearing on this point, but the Massachusetts Labor Bureau Report of 1883 showed that while some business enterprises in that State were making large profits, thirty-two per cent out of 2440, in regard to which information was obtained, made none at all, the value of the product being only sufficient to meet the running expenses and to pay the current rate of interest on the capital invested. Where an employer is making no profits, how can his workmen expect to have higher wages than those they actually receive ? It is, in truth, a superstition to suppose that wages can be raised to any extent, provided the workingmen are only sufficiently united and determined therefor. Wages must stop considerably short of the value of the articles produced, that is, enough short to give fair compensation to the employer for his oversight and direction, and to the capitalist for the use of his capital.
1 See The Nation, May 6, 1886.