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Labor Unions And Arbitration

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THE first part of the following paper on the subject of " Labor and Arbitration " was written at the request of the late Henry C. Bowen, editor of The Independent, several years ago; and as similar conditions still exist in the field of labor, and similar troubles constantly arise between employer and employs, the observations and comments herein are as applicable to the present as they were to the past. " It seems to me that in all differences of opinion on the question of wages or remuneration for labor, between employer and employed, arbitration should be tried in the first instance for all it is worth. There may be nothing to arbitrate, but no matter for that; it will satisfy public opinion, and, in my opinion, is the best medium for throwing oil on the troubled waters. " If it were a rule recognized by both employers and employed to exhaust all the possibilities of arbitration with becoming patience and mutual forbearance, before ordering a strike or lockout, I believe there would not be half the number of either that have been experienced during the last few years. The United States Strike Commission, in its reports on the Chicago strikes, briefly propounded two courses of action which it recommended to the American Railway Union, and which if followed out to their ultimate consequences would, I believe, be instrumental in preventing more than half the ordinary troubles: " 'First - To take a position against all strikes, except as a last resort for unbearable grievances, and to seek the more rational methods of concilation and arbitration. To this object the power of public opinion would lend aid to an extent not now appreciated. "'Second: -Conservative leadership, legal status, and the education of members (of trades, unions) in governmental matters, with the principle in view that in this country nothing can accomplish permanent protection and final redress of wrongs for labor as an entirety except conservative progress, lawful conduct, and wise laws enacted and sustained by the public opinion of its rulers - the people.' "Prior to the accomplishment of all that these two comprehensive paragraphs embrace, more than one campaign of education will be necessary. In fact it will require years of steady and persevering educational drill to arrive at the ideal of this commission; but it is the only sure road to success, and though it will involve much weary plodding, the goal once attained, the fatigue and hardship endured will be amply rewarded. "Wherever this method of arbitration has had a fair trial, it has worked like a charm. The Stock Exchange affords one of the best examples of its talismanic power. Misunderstandings are settled by this association without expense, sometimes in a few minutes or a few hours, that would drag their weary length along from one to two or three years, at great expense and incalculable vexation, if they were taken into a court of law. I am therefore in favor of arbitration, not only in labor disputes, but in others where criminal proceedings are not an absolute necessity. "If all labor unions were the same in practice as most of them are in theory, they would be among the most beneficent institutions of the country. In proof of this I will quote a sentence or two from the constitution of one of them: - "' The order, while pledged to conservative methods, will protect the humblest of its members in every right he can justly claim, but no intemperate demand or unreasonable propositions will be entertained. Corporations will not be permitted to treat the organization better than the organization will treat them. A high sense of honor must be the animating spirit, and even-handed justice the end sought to be obtained, that the service may be incalculably improved and that the necessity for strike and lockout, boycott and black list, alike disastrous to employer and employed, and a perpetual menace to the welfare of the public, will forever disappear.' "These are noble sentiments, clothed in appropriate words and earnestly meant; but it is noteworthy that in the same constitution there is not a word to be found imposing punishment or any kind of discipline for infringement or violation of these sentiments by the members themselves. This the commission very properly designates ' a grievous omission,' and unfortunately, such omissions are frequent, and will be so until a more thorough education in the science of economics shall correct them. " I am now called upon to answer the question, - Should associations of employers organize to meet the demands made by the labor unions? It is difficult to answer this question in full without many qualifications, but it would seem, if any considerable number of labor associations are united, that, unless the employers are also similarly united, the principle of arbitration could not be placed on an equitable basis or have a fair trial. In the case of managers of railroads there is a special difficulty about this. They are not authorized, it seems, by their charters, to form corporations or associations to fix rates for services and wages. Such privileges, it appears, must emanate from the same power that granted the charters. " The most important question connected with unions and strikes, however, was developed in its most glaring monstrosity in the Brooklyn trolley strike. There the poor public were for weeks the innocent victims of the quarrel which they had no hand in provoking, and were exposed to exhausting fatigue and the inclemency of the weather, from which, no doubt, many died, while there were several outbreaks of riot and consequent bloodshed. Such distress, disgrace, and violence might have been averted by timely arbitration. " The term ' compulsory arbitration' is frequently used, but that seems to be a misnomer, as compulsion and arbitration are contradictions in terms; but the blame for refusal to arbitrate should be placed and punished in some manner. "In conclusion I would say, without partiality to either employer or employed, never say 'there is nothing to arbitrate,' until the committee appointed for that purpose shall render its decision." Since the events to which the foregoing observations refer, I think great progress has been made toward a mutual understanding between employer and employed on the subjects of labor and wages, but much yet remains to be done. There is a manifest disposition on the part of wage earners to become more of an organized power in politics and to free themselves from the thraldom of the political "bosses." The greater headway they make in this kind of reform, the nearer will they be to the goal of their main purpose, which is to settle the question of wages upon an equitable basis, by virtue of which the capitalist may not oppress the wage earner by pushing him as near to the starvation point as possible; nor, on the contrary, may the wage earner insist upon remuneration which would reduce the capital below the point of living profits with sufficient surplus to preserve intact the capital from which the wage fund emanates, and without which wages and employment would be impossible, and bankruptcy the eventual fate of the capitalist. I know this is a very difficult point to settle, as was amply demonstrated in the Carnegie strike and other troubles of a similar character, each side holding different opinions on a subject that should be easily demonstrated by the simple rules of arithmetic. The great trouble is that the representatives of both labor and capital are prone to regard the matter too much from their own respective points of view. Neither party seems to have the capacity to imagine itself in the other's place, and when it does sometimes actually get there, it seldom, if ever, gives any better satisfaction than its predecessor. Workmen and artisans will, I believe, generally testify to the fact than the workman or the artisan who happens to become a capitalist and an employer is the hardest kind of man to get along with, the most exacting, the most tyrannical, the least lenient to the faults and shortcomings of his workmen, and the man who is readiest to grind them down in wages just as close to the starvation point as they can possibly endure. He is a man, also, most ready to discharge them on the least symptom of dissatisfaction on their part, even if he has to supply their places with men less efficient, but more servile and subordinate. He conveniently forgets or ignores his record when he was a laborer himself, and was perhaps one of the loudest declaimers against the despotism of the capitalists and employers. The experience of the workman with trades-union " bosses " is similar. There are of course many employers and "bosses" who have risen from the ranks, far removed from any of these contemptible feelings and practices; but the class above described abounds more largely than superficial observers imagine, and they have a wretched tendency to keep the workman down, and to crush him every time he attempts to rise a little higher. Therefore, if the laboring men are to ameliorate their condition to any great extent, they must begin by reforming themselves. A partial cure for the evils, thus apparently now inherent in the position of employer and the office of "boss," would be found in a more extensive system of cooperation, under which the workmen would each be employer and employed, capitalist and wage earner in one. There would be no boss authority except that delegated by the workmen themselves, and nobody to blame but themselves either for low wages or bad treatment. If a whole nation can hold together and be prosperous, organized on the principle of cooperation, and if the component parts of a nation, such as the various states, counties, and municipalities, can successfully organize on similar principle and similar lines, it would seem to follow logically that any number of sovereign citizens of such a country should be competent to organize themselves in a similar fashion for an object even more closely connected with their welfare than citizenship; namely, the means of making life comfortable, enjoyable, and worth living, rather than a disagreeable burden, and a perpetual struggle for a poor livelihood.

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