THAT man should earn his bread by the sweat of his brow is a dictum of the Scriptures that has been pretty well abolished in America, where, in the main, he now acquires, not bread, but canned goods and package foods, by the oil on a machine. Mr. Thomas A. Edison is on record as saying that the machine does not begin to do what it should for the relief of man from toil. He hopes to have machines doing everything needful before long, giving man a chance to be one hundred per cent sociable. It may not be a dream.
Coincident with this utterance on the part of the eminent inventor, the American Federation of Labor has announced its purpose to bring about a five-day week in organized industry. That is to say, a working period of forty hours per man out of the one hundred and sixty- eight that comprise the week. That would mean less than two full days of time, with one hundred and twenty-eight hours left for recreation, the uplift, and slumber.
The basis of this demand is that machinery has so advanced output as to make it economically possible for man to acquire a further period of respite. Mr. Henry Ford added emphasis to the point by announcing a five-day week in his works. This move was made while the delegates were gathered at Detroit, and helped frame the new policy. Mr. Ford’s factories, it should be stated, are non-union. The difference between Ford and the Federation is that he proposes to pay for five days’ work. The Federation wants pay for six, though exerting itself but five. Here is where the crux lies.
Probably there are lines of industry that would lose but little if the five-day week went into full effect. These are those where the forty-four-hour week is in effect. The forty-four-hour week was the outcome of the Saturday half-holiday
inaugurated in New York about forty years ago. This was a summertime concession that has come to cover most establishments, in cities at least, all the year round.
Employers have generally found the four hours of Saturday wasted. The men do little more than start and stop their machines. For a time this was overcome by making up for the half-day lost by extra time worked during the week. This disappeared with the arrival of the forty-four-hour scale.
William Green, the head of the American Federation of Labor, is a sensible man. He says the men can speed up enough during the five full days to earn pay for the sixth, so that the advantage can be enjoyed without curtailment of income. This is undoubtedly correct if men can be brought to do it. There is the rub.
That there is ample room for increased exertion without hardship is beyond dispute. So great a part of production is due to machinery that workmen in many instances are mere watchers, or, at the most, feeders, of these devices. In the printing trade even feeders are dispensed with by the use of automatic devices. In paper making the pulpwood grinders are fed from hoppers, which can be automatically operated. The conveyor has stepped in to relieve the shovel and pitchfork quite generally. Mr. Edison is undoubtedly correct in his assumption that mechanical devices can be contrived that will do even more. Those who frequent factories can observe that not more than forty per cent of the worker’s time is productively employed. It is easy to idle at tasks unless the chain system used by Henry Ford is in operation. This sundry visitors at his plant representing the Federation have termed slavery. They describe the method as one of endless monotony,
from which men flee after a couple of years. Probably there is some truth in this. The thinkless thrusting of bolts into holes all day long cannot be a very refreshing occupation.
The discussion so far is, however, confined only to the attitude of organized labor and mass-production factories. These two have become a sort of privileged class enjoying benefits denied others, and that could not be universally beneficial unless all classes of workers and producers were included in the scheme. Organized labor and organized industry profit by the unrelieved toil of the farmer and the unorganized workers generally. These include the vast bulk of our people and, in particular, the farmers. All wealth coming from the soil or the sea, farmers, miners, and fishermen have to provide the base upon which all others stand.
These three classes care for all the others, either in the low price at which they furnish food and raw materials or in the high prices they pay for finished articles and prepared sustenance. All have to buy back the bulk of what they sell in its improved form, providing always the material to be embellished, made useful, and enhanced in value. So, while it sounds easy to cut down hours and increase pay, the question rises as to how much more the heavily laden backs can carry. Mr. Ford denounces the farmer as archaic. He would do away with him as such, employ machinery, produce more food, such as milk, synthetically, and do away with what he seems to regard as the cumbersome processes of nature. This calls for an industrial revolution too great to be brought about in time to synchronize with Mr. Green’s movement. The merits of the suggestion do not need to be discussed.
The whole problem is’ ne of proportion. Yet it is not entirely one for the United States. We are competing in world markets with German trade- unionists who are willingly working twelve hours a day six days in the week. France and Italy are also busy in the same field, working far harder and more faithfully than we in America. These factors cannot be ignored. The competitive principle is ruthless and takes small heed of obstacles or artificialities.
We are now working under the highest tariff ever known, with shorter hours than the rest of the world, higher wages, and higher rates of transportation. Earning power is being capitalized to the nth degree. Our load is cumulating, yet it is proposed to lighten it by doing less, because, despite his belief, Mr. Green gives no assurances. He does not know whether men will do as much in forty hours as they do in forty-four. That they could is already admitted.
It can be safely said, however, that we are still some way off from the dolce jar niente, the “sweet do-nothingness” of the Italians. Americans do not like to loaf. However tempting the extra day may appear, it will be found in practice that the average man, if it comes, will turn it to some sort of account. The twelve-hour day was industrial slavery. The ten-hour merely mitigation. The eight-hour was sensible and salutary. But it is possible to come to the vanishing-point.
To repeat, the question before the country is how far it can care for the two privileged classes at present involved without an economic overload too great to carry. Will it not give workers more time in which to compete with the farmer and the fisherman, to the disadvantage of both, while these are still compelled to support the privileged ones in the style to which they are accustomed? “We must maintain our standard of living,” asserts organized labor. Yes. But how are the unorganized going to maintain theirs?
Source: The Outlook – Nove 3, 1926