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Industrial Problem

( Originally Published Late 1800's )

But while we recount with pleasure and pride the material progress of recent years, the muttering thunders of an approaching storm are in the distance. An undertone of discontent rises all along the avenues of labor, swelling upward in most discordant strains to drown the glories of our national symphony. In the lands where this most rapid advance has been made, there is wide-spread depression in trade, and consequent dissatisfaction among the people. This discontent now and then breaks into open violence, and we hear with dread of strikes and lockouts, fire, smoke, violence and death. The great increase in population, large immigration from Europe, amounting in four years to more than two millions of people, overcrowding of cities, increase in manufactories, rapid absorption of public lands, consolidation of wealth, importation of contract labor and a number of other causes are reproducing here many of the social and economic conditions of the lands over the sea. In the very midst of great wealth, with powers of production unsurpassed, with material success unparalleled, there is still great depression in trade and commerce. In this land of plenty we find the home of want. At times three hundred thousand workers out of employment, upon whose labor more than a million women and children depend for food and shelter. In addition to those who can find no employment more than a million workers are forced to work on half time and fight hunger from their door as best as they may. This great army stands and waits in vain for an opportunity to earn by honest toil the necessaries of life. Many who have employment are forced to accept a rate of wages that yields a bare subsistence. The gap that divides the rich and the poor grows continually wider and the remedies thus far used only serve to render more hopeless the condition of the laborer and the family dependent upon him.

The question is alike industrial, social and moral. It does not concern the capitalist nor the wage-worker exclusively, nor does it concern one more than the other ; but the whole body of society as well as the state itself. It involves great questions of social and moral evil in the presence of which the individual interests of both labor and capital melt into insignificance. In the first place, it is not the part of wisdom to sit still and hope that social and industrial questions will adjust themselves without giving man any concern. Remedies for great evils follow effort and preparation. We have advanced sufficiently under the inspiration of liberty and knowledge to know that our industrial system should be on a better basis. It is time to wake up to the fact that burdens rest upon the wage-worker which should be removed.

In all reforms, fair discussion and candid admission of the wrong has been the first step, and conscientious effort to right the wrong the next. The advocates of the abolition of slavery did not know how to bring about what they desired, but a way was found. It took more than fifty centuries of effort to reduce to writing, in a form that meant something, the simple truth that " all men are created free and equal," and it took a great war to confirm this simple assertion. So, too, a way will at last be found to secure to labor-ers a fair share of the wealth which their efforts produce.

In this country, wages have advanced during the last twenty-five years. But, at the same time, the wants to he satisfied, in order to support life on the same relative basis as before, have also increased. And this is right ; it would be a violence to human nature if it were not so. As the world grows in the power of production, man ought to grow in taste and needs. His desire for a larger and higher state of existence does grow, and ought to grow as fast as the means of satisfying that desire. Hence, at all times, the question is, do laborers get a fair relative proportion of what is produced ? Do they receive pay ac-cording to a scale of wages that increases relatively to the increase of wealth and productive capacity of the country? If not, then the laborer has a right to complain. In this land, where more intelligent and, therefore, more efficient labor than is found elsewhere receives comparatively high wages, workers of the lower grades of intelligence and skill are denied their share of the benefits of a higher civilization, if they have to compete, not only with the pauper labor of Europe, but with the imported contract labor. Probally the greatest danger which now threatens the American state is this immigration of pauper labor from Europe. In large bands they arrive at New York daily. They seek employment at lower wages than American labor, and get it. They begin the process of becoming Americanized by displacing American workers with families depending upon them for daily bread. The real foe to American labor is not the gilded millionaire, but the diseased and drunken pauper from over the sea. It is he that has displaced the native worker ; it is he that has brought down wages and degraded our whole industrial system.

A number of causes have been at work to produce this condition of unemployed labor. One of them is the foolish notion which we have entertained that the resources of this country are inexhaustible. Another is a policy of crowding every market with cheap and shoddy products, utterly useless to the consumer. Another is the doubtful expedient of protection, that has stimulated some branches of manufacture and trade to the verge of ruin. But the most important cause of all is the importation of the foreign laborer to displace the American and reduce the price of hand labor to a miserable pittance that will not support the laborer in comfort. The industrial problem, then, fairly stated is this: Labor is being systematically de-graded and ruined by overproduction and the vast in-flux of foreign labor to our shores. The social problem fairly stated is this : Through mistaken notions in regard to the relations of labor and capital, society is drifting into cliques and classes of discontented men, more or less at war with each other. The moral problem fairly stated is : The laboring classes are being depraved by vice and incompetence. Competition and low wages have taken away the main incentive to excellence, and physical appetite has taken the place of self-culture and self-respect. These three are ugly questions, and the prevailing discontent does not promise well for the future. If we did not believe that the era of commercial progress was just merging into an era of moral and intellectual activity such as the world has never seen, there would be little hope along the dark horizon of recent events. But these ugly questions will find their solution. The American people will some day learn economy. The dissemination of learning and religion will in the end give peace, and the Twentieth Century, as we have said, bids fair to be an epoch of happiness.

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