I have stated my conviction that labor as a rule does not get a fair share of the wealth it helps to produce; further, why this must be the case so long as Nature endows mankind more lavishly with muscular than with mental force, and those with the superior capacity are not restrained in their dealings with workingmen by moral principle. I hardly need cite statistics and facts. Labor is slightly better off in solid and successful business enterprises than it is in those which are struggling to live ; but it is not, as a rule, better off to anything like the extent to which the enterprises are successful. Successful enterprises pay the market rate of wages and salaries about as others do ; and, indeed, any other course would be deemed unbusiness-like. To pay more than is necessary to get a certain service done is deemed contrary to business principles. The employer buys the cheapest labor (other things being equal) just as he buys the cheapest raw material (provided it is equally good), and just as he borrows capital at the lowest rates. An industrial system of this sort is bound to create poverty among the mass of men. Mr. Edward Atkinson has recently made an interesting analysis of the cost of running an average New England cotton-mill.1 His object is to show how slight a margin of profit enters into the selling price of each yard of manufactured cloth. The profit, he says, is only one third of a cent in a yard that sells for 6 1/4 cents. The number of working-people in the mill he puts at 950, working on the average for $300 a year each. The largest item in the expenses of the mill, next to that of the raw cotton, is that of wages, — $285,000 in all. The profit of the three mill-owners, over and above all expenses, insurance, taxes, and a liberal allowance for depreciation of the mill, he estimates at $60,000, or $20,000 each. I have pondered much over these figures. Out of this $60,000 profits1 he supposes that $22,000, or a little over a third, may be wasted " on fast horses, champagne, fancy farms, and that sort of thing." A good part of the remainder, he conjectures, will be turned into fresh capital. Who will say that this is a fair division of the product of the mill among those who joined to produce it ? — a little less than a quarter as much for the three owners as for all the 950 men, women, and children employed put together ! Or, to put it differently, one owner has sixty-six times as much as one of his employees ! I advocate no socialism ; I recognize the rights of the owners ; I admit they do much more than any of their employees, and are entitled to a much greater reward; but sixty-six times greater — it is impossible ! It cannot be denied that the owners might have made their employees partners in their prosperity, as they were partners in the labor of production, without any sensible loss to themselves. According to Mr. Atkinson's supposition, the owners could scarcely spend their income save by resorting to "fast horses, champagne, fancy farms, and that sort of thing." For my part, I cannot rid myself of the feeling that of a good part of this $22,000 spent in so questionable a. manner the workingmen and women and children of the mill were despoiled; that it was wrung from them simply because they were not in a position to demand it. I cannot rid myself of the feeling that these owners were fattening on the toil and blood of others as effectually as if they had been their slaves. "It was written in the bond," do you say ? Oh, yes ! the lives and liberties of slaves have been signed away "in the bond." But such bonds do not stand; before the white bar of justice they have not the weight of the paper they are written on, or of the cubic inches of air consumed in consenting to them. Free contract ? There is no free contract when on the one side is ability to live at one's leisure, and on the other no bread in the house unless work is instantly obtained.
1 The Margin of Profits. G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1887.
1 The term is loosely used by Mr. Atkinson, no doubt; technically it would be divided into interest on capital, wages of superintendence, and "profits," strictly so called.
Speaking in a large way, and making full allowance for the business enterprises that fail or that barely make their way, it is doubtful if labor has its rights in this country or in any other. Wherever self-interest has had its way unhindered by higher scruples, labor has almost always been imposed upon. In most ages of the world labor has been enslaved and virtually denied to have any rights which its owner was bound to respect. Where not literally enslaved it has been treated as an attachment to the soil, and sold as if a part of it. And though the workingman in modern civilized countries is rarely either a slave or a serf, he is at the mercy of the market, and may sometimes be purchased as cheaply as in the days of slavery or serfdom, if not more so. The abolition of slavery, it is said, is no longer regretted at the South ; and a remark made to me not long ago by a Southern gentleman suggests a reason why. He said in substance that the free negro was, after all, cheaper than the slave, since formerly the master was obliged to care for his slave all the year round, and to provide food and shelter for him in old age, while now wages have only to be paid to the negro while he is at work, and during slack times or in old age he may be left to his own resources.
How little do we seem sometimes to have advanced on the days of Homer, one thousand years before Christ, when the type of the abjectest misery was not the slave, but the free laborer !1 We have a better thought of the laborer now, but we have not created for him a much better condition; and it is the contrast between our thoughts — which are coming to be his thoughts too — and his condition which makes " the rub," the sore and grievous problem of the present time. The laborer feels himself a man, but he is still treated like a thing, a commodity. He believes in brotherhood, or at least he hears of it; but he fails to experience it. The only brotherhood he knows anything of is that of the " Union," and the only thing beyond that which is apt to seem practicable to him is the brotherhood of all workers against the forces arrayed to keep them down.2