Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
HOURS OF LABOR, Regulation of, by the State. Early in August, 1871, the engineers of Newcastle, England, formally put forward the demand that a day's work should consist of nine hours. The masters refused to yield. The workmen thereupon carried out their threat to desist from work; and a general strike ensued. Although efforts at conciliation were repeatedly made, the dispute continued to rage fiercely for many weeks. Various persons offered themselves as mediators, in the hope of suggesting some compromise. But compromise after compromise was unceremoniously rejected by the masters. Many circumstances combined to arouse strong and angry feelings. At the outset a bitter personal enmity had been excited by the workmen being told that the masters would not hold interviews with them, but that they must have their views represented by some legal adviser. Still more angry passions were aroused when the manufacturers attempted to replace the labor of which they had been deprived, by the importation of foreign workmen. Agents were dispatched to Belgium, Germany and other places to engage at remunerative wages artisans who had been accustomed to engineering work. The English workmen, on their side, put forth equally strenuous efforts to check this importation of labor. Strong appeals, based on international principles, were addressed to the continental workmen; they were entreated to be loyal to the cause of labor, and they were told that the employed would be always vanquished unless the laborers of different countries were not only ready to unite, but were also prepared to make some sacrifices for the common cause. In spite, however, of all these efforts the manufacturers obtained a considerable number of continental workmen. After their arrival, however, not a single moment was lost in bringing every possible kind of pressure to bear upon them to induce them to return. Occasionally the pressure assumed the form of threats of violence to any who might continue to work. Such threats, however, were exceptional; it was generally found that after the exact position of affairs had been explained to these foreign workmen, there was little difficulty in inducing them to return to their own countries if they were provided with the requisite funds. The funds required for this purpose were promptly procured by subscriptions raised among the artisans in every important centre of English industry. In consequence of these exertions the manufacturers gradually became convinced that it was hopeless for them to expect to keep their works open by substituting foreign for English labor. The alternative, therefore, which was presented to them was, either to suspend business or to grant the demands of those whom they employed. The adoption of the former course involved many formidable difficulties. It has been often remarked, that workmen, in the disputes which they have had with their employers, have very generally shown themselves to be extremely had tacticians. They have generally struck work in order to resist a decline in wages consequent upon dull trade. But when trade is dull the victory of the employer is almost insured, for at such a period it costs him little—in fact, it is often a positive advantage to him—temporarily to suspend his business. But, whether from accident or design, the Newcastle workmen commenced the nine hours movement at the very time above all others when they were most likely to obtain success. The engineering trade was in a state of unprecedented activity and prosperity; unusually large profits were being realized, and the order book of every manufacturer was filled with lucrative contracts. Victory, therefore, was virtually insured to the employed when they deprived the employer of an adequate supply of labor; for he had the strongest, possible inducement not to curtail, much less to suspend, his business at a time when it was exceptionally profitable, and when the non-fulfillment of extensive contracts would render him liable to extremely onerous fines. After a struggle, which was prolonged for fourteen weeks, the masters were compelled to succumb; and the demands put forward by the workmen were fully conceded to them. No sooner was the nine hours movement successful in the engineering trade at Newcastle, than similar demands were immediately put forward by workmen engaged in a great variety of trades in different parts of the country. The battle having been once fairly fought out, employers very generally adopted the wise and prudent conclusion that it was far better not to renew the contest. It therefore came to pass that in a few weeks, throughout no inconsiderable portion of the industry of England; the principle obtained practical recognition that nine hours was to be considered a day's work.
—I have thought it important to give this description of the nine hours movement in order to show that in the course of a few weeks the workmen, entirely relying on their own efforts, and without any resort to state intervention, secured a valuable concession for themselves, and introduced a most important social and economic reform. Having thus seen what was done without resorting to the state, let us proceed to inquire whether the workmen would have secured that which they desired more promptly and more efficiently if, instead of relying on their own efforts, and their own powers of organization, they had rested their hopes on state intervention. If the latter course had been adopted, I think there would be no difficulty in showing that the shortening of the hours of labor might have been either indefinitely postponed or might have been so prematurely and inconsiderately introduced that confusion would have been created, and more evil than good resulted. If the workmen throughout the country should have united they would at once have secured a predominance of power in the legislature. Let it be supposed that having gained this predominance they at once passed a law applying the nine hours principle to every employment throughout England. Such legislative interference constituted a part of the programme of the international; and as there is reason to believe that many who are generally opposed to the doctrines of socialism would support such a demand, the subject is evidently one of great practical importance.
—It will scarcely be denied by any one who has practical knowledge of trade, that various employments differ so greatly in the circumstances and conditions upon which they are carried on, that the general application of a rigid rule as to the length of a day's work would produce the most inconvenient and incongruous results. Some kinds of labor are, for instance, far more exhausting and injurious to health than others. Six hours spent in an imperfectly ventilated mine probably involve a greater amount of fatigue, and cause a greater strain upon the constitution, than ten hours passed in some out-door occupation, or in some delicate and skilled handicraft. Then again, in an industry such as agriculture, a day's work can not exceed a certain number of hours during the winter, whereas during a few weeks in the summer or autumn, when the harvest is gathered in, a considerable portion of the crop would often be lost if men were legally prohibited from working more than nine hours a day. In answer to these objections, it will probably be urged that the legislature might provide for the different circumstances of various employments; and that it is not proposed to fix an absolute limit of nine hours to the day's work, but simply to enact that all work done beyond this shall count as overtime, and be liberally paid for accordingly. With regard to the first of these pleas it is sufficient to remark that it would be necessary for legislatures to acquire an amount of administrative skill which they have never before shown any signs of possessing, in order to frame a measure which, while making proper allowance for the varying circumstances of different trades, would fix an appropriate limit to the day's work in each particular branch of industry. The second plea, however, is that upon which the advocates of a law for shortening the hours of labor chiefly rest their case. During the agitation that then took place throughout the country in favor of the nine hours movement, it was made perfectly clear that those who advocated the shortening of the day's work did not contemplate the passing of any enactment to forbid a man working beyond a specified time. It was evident that such a law would have been strongly resisted by the workmen who favored the nine hours movement. At Newcastle and other places they always showed great anxiety to secure a recognition of the principle that over-time was to be paid for upon a liberal scale. It certainly, however, seems to me that in thus sanctioning over-time, every argument which might be advanced in favor of regulating the hours of labor by state intervention falls to the ground. The law might be so easily evaded and ignored, that it would soon be regarded as a useless and ridiculous farce. Suppose, for instance, the legislature should say that in a certain trade, such as building, a day's work should consist of only nine hours. Employers and operatives who desired to continue work for a longer time would not have the slightest difficulty in doing so. They would simply have to consider each hour beyond the specified period as over-time, and the law would consequently be as completely inoperative as if it had never been passed.
—It may, however, be said, that the argument just advanced rests on the assumption that the employed are willing to work over-time, whereas it may be maintained that a law is needed for the protection of those who are coerced to work for an excessive number of hours. In the first place, there are many reasons which may make us feel incredulous about such coercion being resorted to; in the second place, it may be maintained that if workmen are thus coerced it is their own fault, because it has been frequently shown that they are perfectly well able to offer successful resistance if they choose to do so. It is impossible to have a more striking illustration of the power possessed by the workmen than is afforded by the completeness of the triumph which they obtained at Newcastle. Sometimes, however, it is urged that although workmen can not be forced to labor for an excessive number of hours, if they are resolutely resolved not to do so, yet it is maintained that there are some workmen who do not know what is good for themselves and their class; and that there are others who, if they do know it, have not the courage to act in a manner which is right. Consequently, state intervention is needed for those who are thus weak and erring. This is the old story; this is, in fact, what state interference generally comes to. Certain persons arrogate to themselves infallibility of judgment—assume that they know the precise course which ought to be adopted, and the exact thing which ought to be done by every human being; they consequently appeal to the state to give them the power to make each individual conform his life to the pattern which has been chosen by their faultless judgment. If these doctrines are sanctioned, and if these demands are conceded, individual liberty and freedom of action will cease to exist, and we shall have to submit to a thralldom more galling and more degrading than the worst form of political despotism. It will be impossible to foresee from day to day what we shall each one of us in private life be permitted to do and what we shall not be permitted to do. The state is not unfrequently spoken of as if it were a receptacle of the most perfect justice, the noblest benevolence, the most far-seeing sagacity, and the highest wisdom. The state, however, even in a country which possesses representative institutions, instead of being endowed with all these qualities of superhuman excellence, embodies nothing more than the fluctuating and shifting opinions which are held by the majority of a majority of the constituencies. The legislature can not have any claim to the possession of an amount of collective wisdom which enables it to form an unerring judgment as to the mode of life which ought to be followed by each individual. It can, in fact, scarcely be denied that law-making is carried on by persons who have not a greater amount of virtue, sagacity and wisdom than ordinarily falls to the lot of the average of their fellow-countrymen. Those, therefore, who are constantly appealing to the state to meddle in the affairs of private life, seem to forget that the carrying out of this policy virtually obliges people to surrender their freedom of action to a predominant majority, which can not be expected to possess higher qualities than the units of which it is made up.
—It is necessary to consider the subject from this point of view, in order adequately to appreciate the injustice which would be sanctioned if a law were passed fixing the length of the day's work, and if many other demands for state interference were conceded which are now being pressed with such frequency and urgency. Those who thus propose to enlarge the scope of state intervention are no doubt very confident in the belief that they know what is right, and they wish to call in the power of the law to coerce people into right doing. A teetotaller finds that he has derived great advantage from abstaining from all alcoholic drinks; and in order that others may participate in the advantage, he would like to see every one forced to do as he has done. It never seems to strike him that there can be any tyranny in resorting to state intervention; he, on the contrary, would think it was the most exalted kind of benevolence to force people to do that which he believes is certain to prove beneficial to them. Ideas exactly analogous to these prompted the most cruel religious persecutions of the middle ages. Those who persecuted were very confident that they knew which was the road that led to heaven. If they observed people persistently straying away, it seemed that it was justifiable to resort to any means to force them back into the right path. Bodily torments were not worth considering when it was a question between eternal happiness and eternal perdition. Such sentiments as these are not extinct; they have, in fact, lost little of their former vitality; they are constantly coming into activity in other forms and other aspects. As it has been in the past, so will it probably be in the future. Individual liberty will be constantly subject to attacks from various phases of fanaticism. We have not only to be on our guard against extreme socialists, but similar dangers may any day be brought upon us by well-intentioned philanthropists and mistaken enthusiasts. If it is urged that a man who is willing to work for ten or eleven hours a day should be permitted to do so, it will be thought sufficient to say in reply that it is evident such a man does not know what is good for himself, and that others who do know are performing an act of kindness if they debar him from pursuing a course which will prove injurious to him. If private life is to be thus interfered with, where is such interference to end? Analogous reasoning would lead to the conclusion that the state should decree the quantity of food and drink which a man should consume, the number of hours that he should be permitted to study, and the amount of exercise he should be allowed to take. Other forms of excess may be as injurious as over-work, and if it is right for the state to protect people against an undue amount of labor, might it not be legitimate to protect them against the evils resulting from undue eating and drinking, from over-fatigue and over study.
—It is, however, probable that motives very different from these actuate many who most earnestly appeal to the state to impose a legal limit upon the day's work. This particular movement may be, to a great extent, regarded as a revival of the old fallacy that the wages of labor can be regulated by law. Signs are not wanting to show that the opinion widely prevails, although it is rarely distinctly avowed, that if a law were passed reducing the day's work from ten hours to nine hours, as much would ultimately be paid for nine as for ten hours' labor. If, however, this should prove to be the case, then it would appear that the state has the power to regulate the remuneration of labor; it would consequently follow that wages depend upon legal enactments, and are not regulated by the recognized principles of economic science. I shall not attempt to argue the case by referring to such well known facts as that the English parliament for centuries tried to control the wages of labor, and that all the numberless statutes that were passed to effect this object signally failed. Neither shall I refer to the general principles of political economy to establish the conclusion that the wages of labor can not be controlled by the state. Such reasoning would not, in any way, affect the opinions of those who are most strongly in favor of the hours of labor being regulated by the state. According to their views the interposition of the state in this matter involves very different consequences, and is to be defended by very different arguments from any attempt which may be made to fix the rate of wages by act of parliament. The following may be considered a correct description of the opinions which are widely held on this subject. It is maintained that in many employments the day's work is a great deal too long, the strain upon the constitution is too severe, and physical strength is so much exhausted that a man is unable to labor hard during the whole time he is at work. It is therefore urged, that if the day's labor were shortened, as much or even more work would be done in the shorter as in the longer period; employers would, consequently, be able to pay at least as much for a day's work after its length had been thus shortened. Many facts can, no doubt, be adduced in support of this opinion. It can scarcely be denied that in some employments the hours of labor are habitually too long. Some very striking examples can be quoted to show that the shortening of the hours of labor confers a most important advantage both upon employers and employed. More work is done in less time, and the greater productiveness which is thus given to labor enables not only the wages of the workman but also the profits of the employer to be increased.
—Among many remarkable examples of the truth of this statement, it will be sufficient to refer to one case which is mentioned by Mr. Macdonnell, in his "Survey of Political Economy." He states, on the authority of M. Chevalier, that a manufacturer employing 4,000 hands reduced his spinners' time half an hour per day, and that this reduction, contrary to all expectation, was accompanied by an increase in production of one-twenty-fourth. An admission that this fact is typical of what would generally take place if the hours of labor were shortened, would undoubtedly afford a powerful inducement and strong justification to the workmen to extend throughout the country the movement which was commenced at Newcastle. Such an admission, however, does not, to my mind, supply any argument in favor of a resort being had to state intervention. It has been proved that the workmen can succeed when they have as good a case to urge as they had at Newcastle; and the masters would, in every instance, be compelled to yield, even were it not their interest to do so, when facts can be adduced to warrant the conclusion that the hours of labor prevalent in any particular trade are too long to secure the maximum of industrial efficiency. But the point on which I particularly desire to insist is this: Are not the circumstances peculiar to each trade best known to those who are engaged in it, and are they not, consequently, in a far better position to judge of the number of hours of labor appropriate to it than the heterogeneous assembly called the state?
—It must be also borne in mind that a grave risk is always associated with legislative interference with trade; it is simply a question of taking something from the pockets of the employer and adding it to the wages of the employed; unwise and misdirected meddling on the part of the state may so much impede industrial development as to bring ruin upon a trade, and thus masters and men will be involved in a common disaster. Formerly each country was, in its industrial position, far more isolated from its neighbors than at the present time. Inferior means of communication and prohibitory tariffs powerfully impeded commercial intercourse. As commercial relations between different countries have extended, a keen and closely contested competition has arisen between them in various branches of industry. The competition is, in fact, frequently so close that a country may often lose a trade if it is hampered with legislative restrictions which are not imposed upon it in other countries. At the present time it is difficult in many branches of industry for the English manufacturer to compete with the foreigner even in English markets. England can now scarcely hold her own in some trades in which she once had almost undisputed supremacy. When railways were first introduced, nearly every locomotive engine throughout Europe was of English manufacture. Not only do many continental countries now make their own engines, but it occasionally happens that foreign engines are to be found on English railways. There are, no doubt, many trades in the position just described; but when this is the case, it is obvious that a country may not only be driven from a foreign market, but may also find it impossible to retain a satisfactory position in the home market if restrictions are imposed upon her which either interfere with industrial efficiency, or artificially increase the cost of production. It must be perfectly obvious that the length of the day's work may be unduly reduced; in fact, the reduction may be carried so far as most seriously to impede industry. Encouraged by the success of the nine hours movement, it was said in certain quarters that there should be an agitation in favor of the day's work consisting of only eight hours. This was, in fact, one part of the programme of the international. If successful in an eight hours agitation, an agitation might commence in favor of fixing the day's work at seven or even at six hours. If, however, such restrictions were imposed in England, it can scarcely be doubted that industry would be placed in so unfavorable a position that it would be hopeless for England to attempt to compete with foreign countries. It might thus happen that not only her foreign trade would be sacrificed, but she would be undersold in her own markets (and so of other countries). It is not too much to say that her commercial prosperity would cease, and that a fatal blight would be thrown upon her industry. Employers would not continue business under such unfavorable conditions. If men were only permitted to work six or seven hours a day, machinery would be lying idle for so long a period that the returns yielded to its owner would be greatly reduced. The diminution in profits might be so serious that employers might think it to their interest to take their capital out of business, and their invest it in some other security or apply it to the carrying on of some industrial undertaking in a country which was not subjected to such legislative interference. The workmen might thus find that an undue limitation in the number of hours of labor had ruined many branches of industry, and had thus brought upon them the greatest disasters.
—In making these remarks I should much regret if it were thought that I did not most entirely sympathize with those who desire to see a great diminution in the excessive toil of so many workmen. There is nothing perhaps more to be regretted than the fact that extraordinary commercial prosperity and an unprecedented accumulation of wealth have hitherto done so little to shorten the workmen's hours of labor. As previously remarked, the undue length of time which men have been accustomed to work represents, so far as many branches of industry are concerned, a thoroughly mistaken policy. In many instances it is undeniable that men would not only get through more work, but would do it more efficiently, if they had more opportunity for mental cultivation and for healthful recreation. No small part of the intemperance which is laid to the charge of laborers is directly to be traced to excessive toil. When strength becomes exhausted, and the body is over-fatigued, there often arises an almost uncontrollable desire to resort to stimulants. Again, it is unreasonable to expect that the moral qualities in man's nature can be duly developed if life is passed in one unvarying round of monotonous work. We are constantly being reminded of the ennobling and elevating influence produced by contemplating the beauties of nature, by reflecting on the marvels which science unfolds, and by studying the triumphs of art and literature. Yet no inconsiderable portion of the toiling masses are reared in such ignorance, and surrounded from early childhood to old age by so much squalor and misery, that life could be to them scarcely more dreary or depressing if there were no literature, no science and no art, and if nature had no beauties to unfold. At a meeting held at Newcastle by some of the prominent advocates of the nine hours movement, artisans were encouraged to look forward to a time when the condition of laborers generally throughout England would be so much improved that they would have time for mental cultivation and various kinds of recreation; a hope was ever, expressed that the day might come when they and their families would be able to enjoy an annual holiday, gaining health and vigor either from the sea breeze or the mountain air. It is, however, particularly to be remarked, that those who shadowed forth these bright anticipations showed no tendency whatever to seek state intervention. The leaders of the nine hours movement at Newcastle, having won a great triumph, have just confidence in their own powers; they truly felt that what they had done might also be done by others, and they therefore objected to the demands for state interference, which were constantly put forward by the members of the international, and by many other workmen. The speeches, to which I have just referred, were delivered at a meeting of the members of a co-operative engineering company. This society had grown out of the nine hours dispute. The leaders of the movement having once learned the invaluable lesson of self-help, had the practical wisdom to see that the best way to emancipate themselves from what the international called the tyranny of capital, is not to indulge in idle declamation, nor to embark in schemes which are either impracticable or mischievous. They, on the contrary, came to the conclusion that if they wished to render themselves independent of capitalists they might do so by supplying the capital which their own industry requires. They had little difficulty in gathering together a sufficient amount of money to commence business on their own account. There is no reason why an establishment thus founded should not gain as great a commercial success as that which has been achieved by any private firm. Even if it should fail, there would be no grounds to feel discouraged. The experience which is obtained from failure often enables the road to be discovered which leads to future success.
Return to top