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Jevons on trade unions.

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As we celebrate (or mourn) the new era of Work Choices, it is interesting to note that the whole of William Stanley Jevons book METHODS OF SOCIAL REFORM AND OTHER PAPERS (1883) is on line.

He had some interesting things to say about the role and function of the trade unions.

When I come to the third and usually the chief object which Unions have in view, namely, the regulation of the rate of wages, I feel I shall part company with the sympathies of most of you. The more I learn and think about the subject the more I am convinced that the attempt to regulate wages is injurious to the workmen immediately concerned in the majority of cases, and that in all cases it is thoroughly injurious to the welfare of the community. And if there is one conclusion we can draw from the history of past times, or from the uniform opinion of the best writers, it is that to interfere with the prices and rates at which men find it profitable to exchange with each other is hurtful and mistaken.

You may think it absurd that I should wish to see Union assisting in regulating the hours of labour, and many other circumstances concerning their welfare, and yet should wish them to desist from any interference in the still more important point, their wages. But that is just the point I want to bring out clearly; whether a man shall work eight or ten to twelve hours a day is in his own power to determine; but whether, when he does work, he shall fairly earn four or six or eight shillings a day, it is not within his own power to determine. It depends upon a multitude of circumstances entirely beyond his control. If he attempts to secure more than the free course of trade, and the skill of his own hands give him, he either fails ignominiously, or he only succeeds by depriving others of their fair earnings.

That I may be the more clear and distinct I will put my notions in the form of the following propositions:

Firstly. The supposed struggle with capitalists in which many Unions engage, for the purpose of raising wages, is not really a struggle of labour against capital, but of labour against labour—that is, of certain classes or sections of labourers against other classes or sections.

Secondly. It is a struggle in which only a few peculiarly situated trades can succeed in benefiting themselves.

Thirdly. Unions which succeed in maintaining a high rate of wages only succeed by PROTECTION—that is, by levying contributions from other classes of labourers and from the population in general.

Fourthly. Unionism as at present conducted tends therefore to aggravate the differences of wages between the several classes of operatives; it is an effort of some sections to raise themselves at the expense of others.

I feel sure you will not at first believe my statement that the struggle of the Unions is not with capitalists but with their fellow-workmen. Probably you imagine that when certain workmen. Probably you imagine that when certain workmen in a factory combine and get higher wages than before, the increase comes out of the excessive profits of the employer. But this is not the case. His loss, if any, will be very temporary, and he will indemnify himself by raising the price of his goods. It is the purchasers and consumers who will pay, and these comprehend the whole of the population.

Take the case of the building trades, and let us assume that their Unions obtain for them higher wages than they would otherwise gain, which from their peculiar circumstances is probably the case. Do you suppose the increase comes out of the pockets of master-builders and contractors? Certainly not. Before making a tender every contractor ascertains the cost of his materials and the amount of wages he will have to pay, and adds on the profit he thinks proper. Those pay the increase of wages who pay for the building; and, to make a long matter short, everyone who lives in a house pays a contribution in the form of increased rent to the class of operatives engaged in the building trades. The rich pay this tax in the building of their mansions. They can easily bear it; but it is the very poor who suffer, for they are to some extent compelled by it to live in unhealthy and degrading dwellings. You must know how much the condition of a family is influenced by the cleanliness and comfort of their dwelling. “As the home, so the people.” Accordingly a multitude of schemes have been proposed and partly carried out in London, Liverpool, and elsewhere, for rebuilding the unhealthy dwellings of the poorest classes. To this excellent movement the high cost of building is a great, if not at present an insuperable, obstacle. It is found almost impossible to make the new houses comfortable and wholesome, and yet to pay the current rate of interest on house property, without which the undertaking cannot be carried on but from charitable motives. If then the operatives of the building trades gain, it is at the expense mainly of multitudes of their fellow-countrymen who are retained in wretched unhealthy dwellings unworthy of the nineteenth century.

What is true of this example is more or less true of others. If the Printers’ and Compositors’ Unions, for instance, keep their wages at a higher level, the excess is paid in every newspaper and book, hindering the diffusion of knowledge. We have removed the advertisement and newspaper stamp, and paper duty, because they hindered the diffusion of knowledge, the proceeds of which at any rate went to the general purposes of the country, and yet you continue to pay a small tax to a body not exceeding in all about 30,000 men.

In the case of some trades, such as the iron trade or the coal trade, the effect of increased prices is even more injurious. Not only do consumers pay in the increased cost of coal or of iron goods, but even wages are affected. Coal and iron are materials of such universal importance that they cannot rise in price without diminishing the prosperity of many other trades. It is the cheapness of these materials which has greatly contributed to render Lancashire and Staffordshire the workshops of the world, and so far as colliers raise their own wages by combination, they do it by obstructing the very source and fountain-head of the prosperity of all other classes.

Unionism, then, is simply PROTECTION. Every Union which, by limiting the number of apprentices, by prohibiting labour below a certain rate of wages, or by any similar device, keeps the rate above what it would otherwise be, levies a little protective revenue of its own.

Perhaps you will reply that combination is equally open and lawful for all. Let all trades combine, and then they will all be benefited, and the increased wages must come out of the pockets of the capitalists. Nothing however could be more unfounded.

In the first place all trades have not equal opportunities for combination. Small close trades like those of Sheffield, carried on in one spot only, have the greatest facilities and must have the advantage over those which are scattered about in every part of the country.

Those who require special skill and apprenticeship, like compositors, will be more successful than those whose work is readily learned. The hatters are said to be very successful in their combinations; the tailors are less so, for very obvious reasons; while the shoemakers, who carry on their work in every street and in every part of the country, are hardly organised at all, so far as I am aware.

There is again this important difference between trades: some work for home trade only, like the building trade, and do not meet any foreign competition; others work for foreign consumers, and cannot raise their wages and prices without losing their customers.

It is pretty obvious, then, that all trades cannot enjoy equally the supposed advantages of combination, and that some, therefore, must gain by the loss of others. But even if all were equally able to combine, we should only come to the result that each trade would be trying to improve its position at the expense of every other trade, and none would experience any real benefit, but, instead of benefit, a great deal of loss. Unionists overlook the fact that wages are only worth what they will buy. You cannot live upon the gold or silver you get at the week’s end, and you must turn it into food and drink and clothing before it is of any use to you. How much you will get depends upon the price at which you can buy things as much as upon the amount of wages. Thus it is evident that if the prices of things are increased, the wages are so far of less benefit to the workman who receives them. And even supposing wages to be raised ten per cent., this would bring with it no advantage if prices were raised in the same degree.

One of the chief means by which the condition of the English people has been improved of late years has been the cheapening of manufactures and bread and a great variety of imported commodities. By taking off duties, by making trade free, and by increasing the productive powers of machinery, the comforts of life are placed within the reach of persons who could not before afford them. Even if wages in general were not much raised above what they were twenty or thirty years ago, more could be bought for the wages.

Unionists overlook all this. They look upon men as producers only, and imagine the dearer things are, the better people will be off. But we only produce that we may consume, and real prosperity consists in having a great abundance of cheap comforts which everyone can purchase. The cheaper things are the better we are off. You know and feel the advantages of cheap bread, and the hardship of dear bread. But you do not consider that every combination of workmen who can raise their own wages makes something dearer for other workmen, and that even if all could combine with equal ease they would only make all things dear, and hinder the production of the commodities upon which we live.

I apprehend that the notion which lies at the bottom of Unionism is this: That a man is bound to think, not only of himself, but of his fellow-workmen. The principles of Unionism condemn a man who accepts work at a less rate than the current wages, because he may be leading the way to a reduction of wages affecting hundreds or thousands of fellow-workmen. There can be no doubt that in one point of view this principle of looking to the advantage of the many rather than the one, is noble and disinterested; and I do not doubt that if the history of strikes and trade disputes were fully written, it would disclose as many instances of fidelity and heroism and the fearless encounter of hardship and even death as many a war described in history.

But the Unionist overlooks the fact that the cause to which he is so faithful, is only the cause of a small exclusive class; his triumph is the injury of a vastly greater number of his fellow-workmen, and regarded in this point of view, his cause is a narrow and selfish one, rather than a broad and disinterested one. The more I admire the perseverance, the self-forgetfulness, the endurance, abstinence, and a hundred other good qualities which English workmen often display during the conduct of a great trade dispute, the more sincerely do I regret that so many good qualities should be thrown away, or rather misused, in a cause which is too often a hurtful one to their fellow-men.


Written by Admin

March 27, 2006 at 9:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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