V THE INDIGNITY OF LABOR

From World War I Document Archive
Revision as of 15:23, 18 September 2008 by Hirgen (Talk | contribs)
(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)
Jump to: navigation, search
V

THE INDIGNITY OF LABOR



I ONCE heard Mr. Ramsay MacDonald hold forth on the, glories of the ideal socialistic state. In a spirit of exalted prophecy he told how in that state there would be no tyranny, no strife, no crime, no private property. Men would no longer work for sordid gain, but for the sheer joy of labor. "Do you believe that?" shouted a man in the audience. "Of course he does!" cried a little old man just in front of me. "Haven't I done it all my life?" But the majority of the audience were with the doubter. To them the idea of working for sheer joy was incomprehensible. They worked because they had to; because they would starve if they did not. If you examine the speeches and writings of men more truly representative of labor than Mr. MacDonald you will find that this is their idea too. They have little to say of the dignity of labor, and much about its indignity. Their ideal is not the apotheosis of work, but its reduction and more even distribution. All men must share the burden, that all may taste the joy of relaxation. A minimum of work and a maximum of leisure, that is the ideal of the laborer.



This is a point of view which one can very easily understand; yet I venture to think that there is nothing inherently bad in labor---and by labor I mean manual labor. To a man who has suffered from an excess of leisure, and who knows the terrors of boredom, manual labor, performed under wholesome conditions, is a delight. I once went for six months to the Australian bush. To rise early, to spend the day in the open air wielding an axe, or to spend it at the bottom of a forty-foot well with a bar and shovel, to come back in the evening hungry and thirsty and tired, was one of the best experiences that have ever come my way. I not only felt fit in body and wholesome in mind, I had a feeling of self-respect such as has never come from the manipulation of a typewriter. I felt that I had justified my manhood, and experienced the dignity of labor. Personally I feel convinced that labor is good, and that a working day of less than eight hours would be bad for the nation, and would only increase discontent.



If I am right we must seek the root of the indignity of labor, not in labor itself, but in the conditions under which it is performed. These conditions are, one must admit, often very bad. However much improvement there may have been in the last few years, hours are still often too long, the atmosphere tainted, and the relations between employers and employed, and between the workers themselves, permeated with mutual suspicion and dislike. It is this last aspect of the problem that I want to discuss in the present article, because it is one which at first sight seems capable of improvement as a result of the war. At the present moment I suppose that nearly all employers of labor who are of military age and bodily fitness are holding commissions in the Army. Similarly nearly all their employees who are eligible are in the ranks of the Army. Yet in their new rôles as officer and private none of the old suspicion and dislike appears to survive. In the Army the relations between officers and men are, as a rule, excellent. Is it too much to hope that when the war is over, and both go back to their former positions, these good relations may in many cases survive?



I have no right to lay down the law about the relations of employers or employed. I belong to neither category. I have no experience of the inner workings of an industrial concern. I have no idea of apportioning praise and blame. I only judge from what my friends---and I have friends among both classes---tell me. Often and often I have heard my employer friends denounce the workingman. They say that he has no sense of honor, no conception of the meaning of a contract, no gratitude, no loyalty. If an employer arranges to give his men, in addition to their wages, a share in the profits of the business, they will pocket their bonus without a "thank you" in the fat years, and in the lean years they will desert him without a thought. No matter how generously an employer treats his workmen., if there is a strike they will not be left out of it. It does not pay to treat men well. If there is any chance of shirking, defrauding, or doing shoddy work without being brought to book, the workman will take it. So say the employers. I know nothing but what I am told. On the other hand, workmen always seem to suspect their employer of trying to get more out of them than he is paying for. If he can get work done for less than the standard wage, he will. If he can make one man do two men's work for one man's money, he will. If in a bumper year he makes big profits, the workers see nothing of them except what they earn by overtime. If a lean year follows, hands are dismissed ruthlessly without any regard to the length or fidelity of their service, or their chance of obtaining work elsewhere; and the whole business is reorganized with a view to extracting yet more work out of those whose services are retained. So say my workmen friends. Moreover, so far as I can judge, the relations between the workers themselves seem to be tainted with the same poison. They eye each other with suspicion, accuse each other on the slightest provocation with trying to curry favor with the foreman or the "boss" at the expense of their mates, and of prejudicing the interests of the latter by accepting less than a fair wage, or by doing more than a fair day's work. It is only when the workmen are banded together in a defensive alliance against their masters, and the wages to be accepted and the amount of work to be done by each man strictly laid down, that there is even the appearance of cordiality between man and man; and even then the league is always on the lookout for treachery. I may be quite wrong, but such are my impressions of the spirit obtaining in industrial life. And if these impressions are correct, and if this atmosphere of mutual suspicion and mistrust does exist, it seems quite adequate to account for the workman's hatred of labor, and his denial of its inherent dignity.



In speaking of the Army I feel far more confident, for I have known it both as a private and N.C.O. and as an officer.



I have no hesitation in saying that in the vast majority of cases the relations between officers and men are quite extraordinarily good. In the average company or platoon the officer is proud of his men, and the men reciprocate the feeling. The men do their work cheerfully, and are content. Of course they grumble. Who doesn't? But there is no bitterness or mistrust. The men trust their officers and the officers trust their men, to an extent which I fancy has no parallel in civil life.



It is not easy to say why this should be so. The work of the soldier is not interesting. For the most part his training consists of long monotonous hours of drill and physical training, varied by spells of menial drudgery and hard, unskilled navvying. His pay, though not so little as it sounds, is considerably less than he would be likely to earn in civil life. The accommodation and food are of the roughest.



Although the work is healthy and there is no anxiety in the life, these facts do not in themselves account for the good spirit that prevails, for in cases where officers fail to gain the confidence of their men the men hate the life with a bitter loathing, and will take big risks to escape from it. I feel pretty sure that as a matter of fact the comparative contentment of most soldiers is mainly due to the persistence of a traditional good feeling between officers and men, just as with less confidence I believe that the discontent that seems to prevail in industrial life is due to the survival of a bad tradition.



When one comes to study the subject more deeply one is immediately struck by the fact that it is not easy-going laxity on the part of an officer that produces a spirit of contentment among the men. Rather the reverse is the case. It is more often the strict officer, who knows his work and sets a high standard, that is the popular commander of a self-satisfied unit. Under a slack officer the men never know quite what is expected of them. One day on parade they will pass muster. On the next, for no greater slovenliness, they will be dropped on. Unconsciously their aim becomes, not to do their best, but to do the least that will save them from punishment. In such a unit as this there is no self-respect, no confidence. The men work unwillingly, despise and dislike their officer, and quarrel among themselves. On the other hand, where an officer is strict the men know exactly where they are. They know what is expected of them, and they know the results of negligence. They aim high, and the knowledge that they are doing so increases their self-respect and contentment. They are pleased with their officer and pleased with themselves. There is esprit de corps. In such a unit you will find the nearest approach that I know to Mr. Ramsay MacDonald's ideal of work well done for the sheer joy and pride of it.



Of course when I speak of a strict officer I do not mean a mere meticulous martinet. There are officers whose strictness amounts to positive hostility towards their men, and what a man sows that shall he reap. The sort of strictness that I mean is that of the officer who believes in himself and his men, and who for that reason will be content with nothing but the highest efficiency. Such an officer is never hostile to his men. Even when he is most severe it is only because he cannot bear that his men should do themselves less than justice. The men know it. They recognize that it is not his own credit that he is seeking, but their common glory. It is his company, but it is also theirs, of whose honor he is so jealous. Such officers are common in the British Army; in fact I think it would be true to say that the average officer sets a high standard both for his men and for himself, and that he seldom fails to secure their loyal co-operation in attaining to it.



These are the facts, or what appear to me to be the facts. Now we come back to our question. Is there any chance that, when the war is over and officers become employers, and privates employed, these good relations between them will be reproduced in industrial life? I know what Mr. MacDonald would say. He would point out that in the Army there is no competition, only emulation; that officers are salaried officials of the State, and privates the employees of the State; that all work in the Army is done for the common weal, and that the scale of remuneration is fixed; that no man can be discharged (this is almost literally true now), and that all punishment is due to the law of the State. Reproduce these conditions in industrial life, and you have Socialism, and, according to Mr. MacDonald, the Utopian era dawns. Regretfully I dissent. I doubt whether it would be possible to run the socialistic State on aristocratic lines, or to reproduce the "public school tradition," which whatever its limitations does place honor, discipline, and public spirit in the forefront of the virtues. Without this tradition I very much question whether it would be possible to eliminate corruption to anything like the same extent as has been done in the Army. Moreover, I very much question whether the average man would consent to give up his individuality permanently to the extent that he has done in this national crisis. In the dull times of peace his sense of the dramatic would fail him.



I fear that we must face the fact that when the war is over competition will continue to exert its ruthless pressure on employers, and through them on the employed. Labor will still have to combine against capital for self-defense. But it is legitimate to hope that here and there a better spirit will prevail. Here and there an employer will have learnt a better way of handling men, and will be able to inspire them with respect and loyalty, and to make them feel that they are more than servants of the firm---rather partners, jointly responsible for its credit, and participating in its successes. And he will succeed where others before him have failed, because the workers, too, will have learnt a better day of work. They will have learnt that loyalty does not demean a man, and that not every olive branch need be mistrusted. And finally, in the firms where these good relations between master and men are realized, there will also be comradeship between man and man, such as we have known in the Army, and the indignity of labor shall have been done away with.


Return to A Student in Arms
Personal tools
Namespaces
Variants
Actions
Navigation
Toolbox