CHAPTER XIV. THE RISE OF THE WAGE EARNER
At the present time, when most of these demands have been met in one degree or another, it is difficult to see why there should have been delay and contention in agreeing to a program which, so far as it deals with labor problems pure and simple, appears both modest and reasonable. But the state of mind of a large fraction of the nation was not in accord with ambitions which doubtless seemed excessively radical. Fundamentally a great portion of the propertied classes held a low estimate of the value and rights of the laboring people, as well as of the possibilities of their development, and feared that evil results would follow from attempts to improve their condition. The employment of children in factories, it was thought, would inculcate in them the needed habits of industry, and the reduction of the working hours would merely provide time which would be spent in the acquirement of vicious practices. If, in addition, the employers opposed such changes as the abolition of child labor and the reduction of the working day to eight hours on the ground of the financial sacrifice which seemed to be involved, their attitude was in keeping with the ruthless exploitation of the human resources of the country which was common during this period. It should be remembered, too, that the lofty conception which most Americans held of the opportunities and customs of their country stood in the way of a frank study of conditions and an equally frank admission of abuses. For decades we had reiterated that America was the land of opportunity, that economic, political and social equality were the foundations of American life and that the American workingman was the best fed and the best clothed workingman in the world. In the face of this view of industrial affairs it was difficult to be alert to manifold abuses and needed reforms. To one holding this view of affairs - and it was a common view - the laborer who demanded better conditions was unreasonable and unappreciative of how "well off" he was. Hence the blame for the labor unrest was frequently laid on the foreigner, who was supposed to bring to America the opposition to government which had been fostered in him by less democratic institutions abroad. Undoubtedly immigration greatly complicated industrial conditions, as has been indicated, yet essentially the labor question arose from the upward progress of a class in American society and was as inevitable, foreigner or no foreigner, as the coming of a new century.
Two illustrations will throw light upon some of the demands which the wage earners frequently presented. Writing in August, 1886, Andrew Carnegie, the prominent steel manufacturer, discussed the proper length of the working day. Every ton of pig-iron made in the world, with the exception of that made in two establishments, he asserted, was made by men working twelve hours a day, with neither holiday nor Sunday the year round. Every two weeks it was the practice to change the day workers to the night shift and at that time the men labored twenty-four hours consecutively. Moreover, twelve to fifteen hours constituted a day's work in many other industries. Working hours for women and children had almost equally slight reference to their physical well-being.
The "truck-system" was a less widespread abuse, but one that caused serious trouble at certain points. Under this plan, a corporation keeps a store at which employees are expected to trade, or are sometimes forced to do so. Obviously such a store might be operated to the great benefit of the workman and without loss to the employer, but the temptation to make an unfair profit and to keep the laborer always in debt to the company was very great. A congressional committee which investigated conditions in Pennsylvania in 1888 found that prices charged in company stores ran from ten per cent. to 160 per cent. higher than prices in other stores in the vicinity, and that a workman was more likely to keep his position if he traded with the company.
The most insistent cause of industrial conflict was the question of wages. Forty-one per cent. of all the strikes between 1881 and 1900 were for more pay; twenty-six per cent., for shorter hours. Between the close of the war and the early nineties, industrial prosperity was widespread except for the period of prostration following 1873 and the less important depression of 1884. Not unnaturally the laborer desired to have a larger share of the product of his work. The individual, however, was impotent before a great corporation, when the wage-scale was being determined; hence workmen found it advantageous to combine and bargain collectively with their employer, in the expectation that he would hesitate to risk the loss of all his laboring force, whereas the loss of one or a few would be a matter of indifference.