Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Trades Unions

In the last number of the Fortnightly Review is to be found a paper by Mr. Frederic Harrison on the good and evil of trades unionism, which is as well worth reading--and that is saying much --as that gentleman's essays usually are. It contains information on the subject which will no doubt be entirely new to many of its readers, and it makes that information the text of a variety of arguments, with some of which we do not agree, but which are of the highest interest, deserve careful attention, and are stated in a manner which leaves little to be desired-- if we except a rather cold tone. In one or two passages Mr. Harrison appears to us to allow the warmth of his feelings to confuse an excellent understanding and a thoroughly candid disposition.

With a great part of the article we cordially agree. Its title is rather deceptive, for it says of the evil of trades unions only a very few words, whereas many pages are devoted to a statement of their good effects. That they have good effects we think it impossible for any candid person to deny, and we cannot understand how any one can doubt it who takes the political economist's view of the relations of wages and capital. It is self-evident that if men unite they will be able to make a better bargain with their employers than if they are entirely isolated, and so long as they do not intimidate their fellow-workmen, or commit acts of violence against them or against their employers, it would be absurd to blame them for uniting. It is obvious also that, to say nothing of collateral advantages, permanent associations for this purpose will be more effective, more experienced, better instructed, and in every respect more available than occasional ones. All this Mr. Harrison very clearly sets forth, and he also disposes in a satisfactory way of the charges often brought against the trades unions of being under the control of professional agitators who are the wire-pullers of the whole business, whilst the mass of the workmen are mere tools and dupes. Those who are in the habit of using or being much influenced by such language should read Mr. Harrison’s account of the organization of the unions, of the position which the officers hold in them, of the way in which they are elected, and of the zeal which the individual members show in their support.

Again, the object which, as Mr. Harrison says, the unions propose to themselves appears to us perfectly legitimate if it can be obtained and within certain limits. He says that the workmen wish to render their position secure, and to have nothing, or as little as possible, to do with the fluctuations of the market, which it is the business of the employer to understand and to provide for. Their object, he says, is to keep wages at a uniform level at least for considerable periods of time-- though he admits that in the long run they "must be accommodated to profits"--and to diminish the number of hours of work. If workmen really are in a position to impose such terms on their employers--if they can say, and make it good, We will not work more than nine hours a say, and we will have so many shillings a week all the year round, and if you don't like these terms you may shut up your shop-- no one can blame them. If a painter could command £10,000 for every picture he painted, he would be a fool to take less: and if he chose to commute this advantage for the occupation of a fine house and park, in which he contracted with his employers to paint for their benefit five hours a day, with three months' holiday in the year, that would be entirely his affair. We wonder, however, greatly that the stronger, more expert, and ambitious workmen should like such a bargain, and should be content to forfeit their chance of saving, and so rising in life, which they might get by working over-time; and we should say that if they, as a body, refused to be bound by the convenience of the inferior class, treated them and their rules as their enemies, and combined against them, they would act very sensibly, and would be able to get, and probably would get, better terms from the masters than if they cast in their lot with the others. Still there is no accounting for tastes, and if on the whole the terms described by Mr. Harrison are those on which the mass of the workmen deliberately wish to work, it is impossible to say that there is anything either illegal or positively immoral in their insisting on them. It appears to us a lazy unenterprising way of looking at things which we should not have expected to find in Englishmen; but it is very difficult for people in one state of circumstances to enter into the feelings of men who are otherwise situated, and so long as no recognized rule of law or morals is broken it is as foolish to quarrel with, or condemn your neighbour's taste, as to quarrel with or condemn his looks.

We think Mr. Harrison’s general line of argument so far in the main sound, though he falls, we think, into some mistakes. For instance, he says, "the sums absurdly calculated as 'lost' in a strike are usually not lost at all." That they may be usefully sacrificed is possible, but surely if a man puddles iron for six months only, instead of twelve, for whatever reason, there is so much less iron puddled at the end of the year than there otherwise would have been, and the value of what would have been produced has been just as much sacrificed, wisely or not, as if the beef and bread for which it might have been exchanged had been thrown into the sea. The world is poorer by that amount.

This, however, is a small matter. The essence of Mr. Harrison’s article, the really remarkable part of it, lies in the doctrine which he teaches about the relation between capital and labour. He denies that labour is, or rather that it ought to be, the subject of sale at all. He says, "We come, in fact, to the root of the matter. The labourer HAS NOT GOT A THING TO SELL" (sic). "The labour market, as it is called by an unhappy figure, is, "in reality, totally unlike the produce market." Mr. Harrison then points out the distinction between sales of labour and sales of commodities, which, according to him, are three in number. First, he says, "Every seller of wares, even a hawker, has by the hypothesis a stock, a realized store, a portable, visible thing--a commodity. If he were in need of immediate support-that is wages-he would not be a seller or trader at all. The trader is necessarily relieved of all immediate, and certainly of all physical, pressure of want." This is a wonderful statement. Did Mr. Harrison ever see a costermonger? Is he not in need of immediate support, or relieved from all immediate or physical pressure? Again, has a broker who sells shares for the account "a realized store, a portable, visible thing-a commodity," and is not he a trader?

Secondly, "In most cases the seller of a commodity can send it or carry it about from place to place and market to market with perfect ease." Thus he has "a true market." A labourer has no true market, "There is but one true labour market, where the negro slave is sold like a horse," and there the contract is with the slave-owner. These statements are equally wonderful. In numberless cases the cost of transport is so far from being a matter of perfect ease that it is the chief element in the price. Besides, a small shopkeeper in a country village has quite as restricted a market as the labourers in that village. He cannot carry about his coals or groceries to look for customers as they look for work. "But the labourer has no market." Did Mr. Harrison ever see or hear of a statute fair. Labour is bought and sold there, and has a market price precisely as in the slave market, except that the servant is the contractor.

“Thirdly" (and this is the important point), "the labourer" has not got a commodity to sell, because what he seeks to "do is not to exchange products, but to combine to produce." A commodity is an advantage-something profitable or desirable. Is not the assistance of a skilled person in the art of production an advantage, a thing profitable or desirable? That it is not ponderable or tangible is a circumstance which it possesses in common with every other form of force. Professor Tyndall could tell Mr. Harrison precisely what quantity of heat would be the equivalent of the power which a contractor buys from a navvy per day, and in a manufacturing town he might learn to a farthing what the price of that amount of heat in the shape of steam-power would be. Where is the difference between the power which works a loom and the power which raises and drops a pickaxe for the purposes of Mr. Harrison’s distinction?

Not only is each of these statements fallacious in point of fact, but the inference founded on them is unsound, and not one of them touches the essential point of the matter. The inference is that as labour is not a saleable commodity it ought not to be treated as if it were. "Applied to this noble and intimate relation of life--this grand institution of society--the language of the market or of barter is a cruel and senseless cant. Nor will any sound condition of labour exist until the captains of industry come to feel themselves to be life-long fellow-soldiers with the lowest fighter in the battle of industry, and have ceased to speak of themselves as speculators.”

This conclusion, we say, is unsound, unless Mr. Harrison means to say that the institution of private property is a bad one; that men ought not to be permitted to make such bargains for the sale of labour, amongst other things, as they think proper, but ought to be compelled by law to work for the common good, in a certain way and upon certain terms.  If he does not mean this, we think he has no real meaning at all.  We will try to make this point plain.

Our proposition is, that so long as the institutions of private property and personal freedom exist, all contracts of hiring and service will be sales of labour for wages, and as such they will be regulated by the principles which regulate all other sales.  The labour market will be a market just as the corn market is.  A right means a power secured by law to its possessor.  The right of private property means that certain persons have absolute dominion over certain things which are not to be meddled with without their consent.  The right of personal freedom means that every man may do as he likes with his own body, certain obvious exceptions excepted.  A contract is an arrangement between two parties enforceable by law, by which one transfers the other certain rights for a consideration which the transferor considers adequate.  This being so, where is the difference between the contract of hiring and service and a contract for the sale of goods?  In each case value is given on each side, and a transfer of rights takes place.  In the one case the rights transferred are proprietary rights over a thing, in the other case they are a part of a man’s right of personal freedom.  If I engage to carry your portmanteau to a cab for sixpence, I part with the right which I possessed before to do what I liked with my own limbs for that time, and engage them in a particular way.  I sell you so much force applied in a particular direction.  In what does a sale of power of this kind differ from a sale of goods?  No one of Mr. Harrison’s distinctions points to anything more than a most superficial accidental difference.  The person hired may be himself a richer man than the hirer.  A criminal sells his bed to hire an attorney to defend him.  Is the attorney necessarily “in want of immediate support?”  A barrister goes to circuit perhaps for years before he gets a brief.  Is he unable to “carry about” his skill and knowledge “from place to place?”  An artist paints a picture on commission.  Does he “combine to produce?” The essence of sales of labour and sales of goods is thus identically the same.  Each is a transfer of rights for a valuable consideration; and it is impossible to suggest any sort of real distinction between the two.  All the distinctions which it is attempted to set up are founded upon the accidental circumstance of the parties to the contract being richer or poorer, more or less powerful, more or less skillful.

Not only is this so, but given our postulate, it always must be so.  How are you to get a man’s labour from him except by his own consent obtained by some inducement?  And this is a contract described in other words.  Send a policeman to bring a man by the collar, and a slave driver to make him work, and you have got rid of contracts of sale at the expense of the principle of personal liberty.  Send a requisition to the employer compelling him to invest so much capital in such a concern, and you have got rid again of the principle of contract, but you have sacrificed the principle of private property.  So long as the other party consents to work and the other to employ, and so long as their consent is caused by some consideration which satisfies their mind, you have a contract, or, in other words, a sale, and the question then is as to the terms of it, and these terms can be influenced only by considerations of interest or generousity on the one side and the other.

The attempts which writers like Mr. Harrison make to eliminate the principle of sale from contracts of hiring and service are just like the efforts of Roman Catholics to get rid of the principle of private judgment.  In the one case you protest against contracts and always end in making or trying to make an alteration in the terms of existing contracts.  In the other case you protest against private judgment, and end by giving reasons why A. B. should privately judge that his priest is infallible.

Pall Mall Gazette, November 21, 1865.

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