I wonder men in a factory town should ever have the courage to strike; it brings such woe and desolation upon them all. The first few days, the cessation from labor may be a relief and a pleasure to a large number – a holiday, although a dull and tedious holiday, like a Sunday without any of the alleviations of Sunday – Sunday without Sunday clothes, Sunday bells, Sunday church, Sunday walks and visits. A painful silence reigns in the town. People discover that the factory bell calling them to work, though often unwelcome, was not a hundredth part as disagreeable as the silence that now prevails. The huge mills stand gaunt and dead; there is no noise of machinery, no puff of steam, no faces at the windows.
By the end of the first week the novelty has passed, and the money of some of the improvident families is running low. All are upon short allowance, the problem being to prolong life at the minimum of expense. The man goes without his meat, the mother without her tea, the children without the trifling, inexpensive luxuries with which parental fondness usually treated them. Before the end of the second week a good many are hungry, and the workers begin to pine for employment. Their muscles are as hungry for exercise as their stomachs are for food. The provision dealers are more and more cautious about giving credit. The bank accounts, representing months or years of self-denying economy, begin to lessen rapidly, and careful fathers see that the bulwarks which they have painfully thrown up to defend their children against the wolf are crumbling away a hundred times faster than they were constructed. If the strike lasts a month, one half the population suffers every hour, and suffers more in mind than in body. Anxiety gnaws the soul. Men go about pale, gloomy, and despairing; women sit at home suffering even more acutely; until at last the situation becomes absolutely intolerable; and the strikers are fortunate indeed if they secure a small portion of the advance which they claimed.
Terrible as all this is, I am afraid we must admit that to just such miseries, sometimes rashly encountered, often heroically endured, the workingman owes a great part of the improvement in his condition which has taken place during the last seventy-five years. A strike is like war. It should be the last resort. It should never be undertaken except after long deliberation, and when every possible effort has been made to secure justice by other means. In many instances it is better to submit to a certain degree of injustice than resort to a means of redress which brings most suffering upon the least guilty.
Does the reader know how the industrial classes were treated in former times? Mr. George Adcroft, president of an important coöperative organization in England, began life as a coal miner. He has recently given to Mr. Holyoake, author of the „History of Coöperation,” some information about the habits and treatment of English miners only forty years ago: –
„They worked absolutely naked, and their daughters worked by their side. He and others were commonly compelled to work sixteen hours a day; and, from week’s end to week’s end, they never washed either hands or face. One Saturday night (he was then a lad of fifteen) he and others had worked till midnight, when there were still wagons at the pit’s mouth. They had at last refused to work any later. The foreman told the employer, who waited till they were drawn up to the mouth, and beat them with a stout whip as they came to the surface.”
So reports Mr. Holyoake, who could produce, if necessary, from the records of parliamentary investigations, many a ream of similar testimony. In truth, workingmen were scarcely regarded – nay, they were not regarded – as members of the human family. We find proof of this in the ancient laws of every country in Europe. In the reign of Edward VI. there was a law against idle workmen which shows how they were regarded. Any laboring man or servant loitering or living idly for the space of three days could be branded on the breast with the latter V (vagabond) and sentenced to be the slave of the person who arrested him for two years; and that person could „give him bread, water, or small drink, and refuse him meat, and cause him to work by beating, chaining, or otherwise.” If he should run away from this treatment, he could be branded on the face with a hot iron with the letter S, and was to be the slave of his master for life.
Nor does there appear to have been any radical improvement in the condition of the workingman until within the memory of men now alive. When Robert Owen made his celebrated journey in 1815 among the factory towns of Great Britain, for the purpose of collecting evidence about the employment of children in factories, he gathered facts which his son, who traveled with him, speaks of as being too terrible for belief.
„As a rule,” says that son (Robert Dale Owen), „we found children of ten years old worked regularly fourteen hours a day, with but half an hour’s interval for dinner, which was eaten in the factory…. Some mills were run fifteen, and in exceptional cases sixteen hours a day, with a single set of hands; and they did not scruple to employ children of both sexes from the age of eight…. Most of the overseers carried stout leather thongs, and we frequently saw even the youngest children severely beaten.”
This as recently as 1815! Mr. Holyoake himself remarks that, in his youth, he never heard one word which indicated a kindly or respectful feeling between employers and employed; and he speaks of the workshops and factories of those days as „charnel-houses of industry.” If there has been great improvement, it is due to these causes: The resistance of the operative class; their growth in self-respect, intelligence, and sobriety; and the humanity and wisdom of some employers of labor.
The reader has perhaps seen an article lately printed in several newspapers entitled: „Strikes and How to Prevent Them,” by John Smedley, a stocking manufacturer of Manchester, who employs about eleven hundred persons. He is at the head of an establishment founded about the time of the American Revolution by his grandfather; and during all this long period there has never been any strike, nor even any disagreement between the proprietors and the work-people.
„My ancestors’ idea was,” says Mr. Smedley, „that those who ride inside the coach should make those as comfortable as possible who are compelled, from the mere accident of birth, to ride outside.”
That is the secret of it. Mr. Smedley mentions some of their modes of proceeding, one of which is so excellent that I feel confident it will one day be generally adopted in large factories. A cotton or woolen mill usually begins work in this country at half-past six, and frequently the operatives live half an hour’s walk or ride from it. This obliges many of the operatives, especially family men and women, to be up soon after four in the morning, in order to get breakfast, and be at the mill in time. It is the breakfast which makes the difficulty here. The meal will usually be prepared in haste and eaten in haste; late risers will devour it with one eye on the clock; and of course it cannot be the happy, pleasant thing a breakfast ought to be. But in Mr. Smedley’s mill the people go to work at six without having had their breakfast. At eight the machinery stops, and all hands, after washing in a comfortable wash-room, assemble in what they call the dinner-house, built, furnished, and run by the proprietors. Here they find good coffee and tea for sale at two cents a pint, oatmeal porridge with syrup or milk at about ten cents a week; good bread and butter at cost.
In addition to these articles, the people bring whatever food they wish from home. The meal is enjoyed at clean, well-ordered tables. The employers keep in their service a male cook and female assistants, who will cook anything the people choose to bring. After breakfast, for fifteen minutes, the people knit, sew, converse, stroll out of doors, or amuse themselves in any way they choose. At half-past eight, the manager takes his stand at a desk in the great dinner-room, gives out a hymn, which the factory choir sings. Then he reads a passage from a suitable book, – sometimes from the Bible, sometimes from some other book. Then there is another hymn by the choir; after which all hands go to work, the machinery starting up again at nine.
There is similar accommodation for dinner, and at six work is over for the day. On Saturdays the mill is closed at half-past twelve, and the people have the whole afternoon for recreation. All the other rules and arrangements are in harmony with this exquisite breakfast scheme.
„We pay full wages,” adds Mr. Smedley, „the hands are smart and effective. No man ever loses a day from drunkenness, and rarely can a hand be tempted to leave us. We keep a supply of dry stockings for those women to put on who come from a distance and get their feet wet; and every overlooker has a stock of waterproof petticoats to lend the women going a distance on a wet night.”
I would like to cross the sea once more for the purpose of seeing John Smedley, and placing wreaths upon the tombs of his grandfather and father. He need not have told us that whenever he goes through the shops all the people recognize him, and that it is a pleasure to him to be so recognized.
„I wish,” he says, „I could make their lot easier, for, with all we can do, factory life is a hard one.”