Friday, August 28, 2009

Fawcett: "The Regulation of the Hours of Labour by the State" (abridged) I

by the Sandwichman

The 1958 article by Mark Blaug on "The Classical Economists and the Factory Acts" brought Henry Fawcett's fascinating (and contradictory) 1872 analysis of "The Regulation of the Hours of Labour by the State" to the Sandwichman's attention. Fawcett makes some compelling arguments against state intervention in setting of hours but in the course of doing so appears to strongly uphold collective action by trade unions and the argument that long hours of work are injurious both to productivity and to the well being of the workers.

Nevertheless, Fawcett's apparent enthusiasm for collective self-reliance is marred by a glaring contradiction. In the selection presented below, Fawcett introduces the topic by remarking on the unprecedented nature of the worker's victory in Newcastle. In a latter selection, dealing with productivity, Fawcett claims the (unprecedented) Newcastle victory proves the inevitability of success for workers' struggles to reduce the hours of work. The Sandwichman has amended the paragraphing of these selections and omitted long sections presenting commercial and libertarian objections to state regulation.

"The artisans in no previous dispute between Capital and Labour have ever obtained so signal a triumph."
Early in August, 1871, the engineers of Newcastle 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 labour of which they had been deprived, by the importation of foreign workmen. Agents were despatched 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 labour. Strong appeals based on international principles were addressed to the continental workmen; they were entreated to be loyal to the cause of labour, and they were told that the employed would be always vanquished unless the labourers 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 labour. 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 bad 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 realised, and the order book of every manufacturer was filled with lucrative contracts. Victory therefore was virtually ensured to the employed when they deprived the employer of an adequate supply of labour; 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-fulfilment 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 has therefore come to pass that in a few weeks, throughout no inconsiderable portion of the industry of the country, the principle has obtained practical recognition that nine hours is 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, have secured a valuable concession for themselves, and have introduced a most important social and economic reform. Having thus seen what has been 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 will be little difficulty in showing that the shortening of the hours of labour might be either indefinitely postponed or might be so prematurely and inconsiderately introduced that confusion would be created and more evil than good would result.

If the workmen throughout the country should unite they would at once secure a predominance of power in the legislature. Let it be supposed that having gained this predominance they should at once pass a law applying the Nine Hours' principle to every employment throughout the country. As explained in a previous essay, such legislative interference constitutes 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 at the present time.

No comments: