Saturday, August 29, 2009

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

by the Sandwichman

In the previous installment, Henry Fawcett chronicled the signal triumph of the 1871 Newcastle Engineers bitter 14-week long strike for a 9-hour day and remarked upon the unprecedented nature of that victory: "The artisans in no previous dispute between Capital and Labour have ever obtained so signal a triumph."

In addressing the productivity argument, though, Fawcett takes another tack, proclaiming: "...the masters would, in every instance, be compelled to yield..."
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 labour hard during the whole time he is at work. It is therefore urged that if the day's labour 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 be scarcely denied that in some employments the hours of labour are habitually too long. Some very striking examples can be quoted to show that the shortening of the hours of labour 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 labour enables not only the wages of the workmen, but also the profits of the employer, to be increased.

Amongst 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 4000 hands reduced his spinners' time one half-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 labour were shortened, would undoubtedly afford a powerful inducement and a 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 favour 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 labour prevalent in any particular trade are too long to secure the maximum of industrial efficiency.

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