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Letters from Missouri
The Goose and the Golden Eggs

Sir: We have been greatly stirred these last months by announcements that because of the European war the United States would shortly capture the trade of the world. Our Chamber of Commerce has created a Foreign Trade section, and we have adopted resolutions urging the rehabilitation of our merchant marine. We are not much disturbed to hear that the LaFollette bill is going to but American shipping entirely out of business. In explanation we are told that both the House and the Senate are supposed to have indulged in the national sport of passing the buck, hoping that the bill would receive Mr. Wilson’s veto. But it didn’t, and everybody seems to be getting very excited about it all.

Somehow it appears to us, with our perspective—perhaps it is our ignorance instead—that a great many of our most popular writers have failed to read either the bill itself or the ingenious memorandum presented to Congress by Senator LaFollette on behalf of Mr. Furuseth and his fellow representative of the Seaman’s Union. Of the two the latter document is the more illuminating. It is not so technical, and almost smells of the sea.

Mr. Fursueth pleads for the adoption of the bill which he is supposed to have written and which Senator LaFollette introduced. He aims to accomplish two things: to improve the standards of living for American sailormen, and to assure the safety of life at sea. He claims that the cost of running a ship depends not upon the flag she flies, but upon the port where she engages her crew. He recognizes that his bill may make it impossible for American ship-owners profitably to operate their vessels in competition with foreigners. He therefore proposes in effect to facilitate desertion from visiting vessels, on the theory that foreign owners, by being forced to ship crews in American ports, will be obliged to offer the equivalent of American wages. Thus the cost of operating foreign-owned craft will be increased, and, Q.E.D., vessels flying the American flag and subject to our navigation laws will be able to drive them from the ocean. To bring this about it may be necessary to abrogate some twenty treaties or so, but that is a matter of comparative unimportance.

Mr. Fursueth’s contentions about upbuilding our merchant marine have already been answered. From all sides we hear that steamers which, despite the handicap of our navigation laws, are still flying the American flag, will, because of the LaFollette bill, shortly be transferred to British registry. But here again Mr. Fursueth hopes to catch them. He knows that foreign vessels and American-owned ships under foreign flags will continue to enter and clear from American ports. Perhaps it didn’t occur to him that thanks to the provisions of the Seaman’s act those who do come and go will certainly charge higher freight rates for carrying goods from our seaboard, and that all will be inclined, as far as possible, to seek their cargoes elsewhere. This will mean that as far as the cost of transportation is concerned, American industry will be handicapped in competing for the markets of the world. American labor must necessarily be affected. This may not have entered into the calculations of those who supported this measure.

Safety at sea, however, is to be assured because seventy-five per cent of all crews must understand the orders of their officers, and because it is stipulated that a certain percentage of the deck force shall be qualified able seamen. In addition the memorandum urges, and the bill provides for, a stated number of lifeboats, life rafts and other appliances.

Aside from an interest in battleships and cruisers christened after neighboring states and cities, our naval experience has been limited to trips on the River and an occasional journey on the water-wagon. Yet somehow we can’t help feeling that this bill is not going to do the trick. It is all very well to insist that there shall be a certain number of lifeboats and able seamen. But if desertion is made easy, won’t there be danger from the lack of discipline and team play? Even a hand-picked crew is not altogether satisfactory if the picking be done every time a steamer crosses the ocean. The purposes of the bill may be admirable. This we do not doubt. And we believe that something should be done to accomplish the very ends it has in view. But Mr. Fursueth, to our rural minds, has not found the answer.

We confess a little diffidence in offering our solution. It rather seems to us that we’d better not try to tell the whole world just where it gets off. Frankly we are for an experiment in government-owned American ships, with trained and disciplined crews, offered by graduates of the Naval Academy or some maritime school to be created. By enlisting the men in a regular merchant service, the lack of crew drills which caused such loss of life on the Titanic and the Lusitania could be avoided. Such a fleet would cost a good deal to operate, but it would be effective, and some people we know would rather pay a little more and travel on ships manned in this way than take chances with miscellaneous crews under a foreign flag. Such a plan would at least keep us from interfering with other peoples’ shipping business, while giving better living conditions and assuring the safety at sea which Mr. Fursueth desires. We confess, however, that while this looks after the passenger trade, we haven’t quite thought out the freight problem.

But we don’t believe that Mr. Fursueth has paid much attention to our foreign trade either. Perhaps American labor as well as American capital will do a little thinking along this line. It ought to, and so should Mr. Fursueth and Senator LaFollette. It is just as well that they should count the cost of measures like their Seaman’s bill. Their humanitarian purpose should be applauded, but somehow we think that the whole problem needs a little more serious study from all its angles. Up to the present time the vital issues have not been made clear, to us at any rate. We like to listen to the Big Idea. But in doing so, Senator LaFollette and Mr. Fursueth and all the rest of us are now and then apt to be more intent on investigating the goose than in safeguarding the egg crop.


The Basis for a New Protocol

Sir: Before the termination of the protocol in the New York garment trades, the commendation bestowed upon the manufacturers by impartial observers was generous and unstinted. The record of five years of good faith and sacrifice is now open for critical and fair examination.

What were the business reasons that led to the termination of the protocol—quite apart from the justifiable occasion for its termination? Are these reasons latent in the other protocols?

The report of the Industrial Council of Great Britain shows that it is the unanimous opinion of leading employers and trade unionists, as the result of wide and varied practical experience in collective bargaining, that if a considerable number of employers or workers are outside the “protocol” the thing is bound to break down. The cloak industry is not a “capitalistic” industry in the usually accepted meaning of this term; only a few hundred dollars are required to organize a shop. A worker or foreman, having saved the necessary amount, engages in business, and makes up his staff of workers from relatives or friends, immigrants who work under any and all conditions, only too ready to accept employment below union standards. This so-called “social” shop the union is unable to control. The union officials naturally prefer the easier work of enforcing conditions in the larger shop units. In the “social” shop everything is easy. The boss gets along with his people and there are no “grievances.” The small shops increase in number; new employers spring up over night. And the cost of manufacturing tells the tale to the Association employer. The difference in cost of labor cannot be accounted for by the difference in piece prices. It is made up by the opportunity in the “social” shop to work people longer hours, Saturday afternoons, holidays, to cut by piece instead of upon a week-work basis, to press by piece, and to do many other things forbidden by the protocol, and impossible in the Association shop. If the enforcement of sanitary standards were dependent upon “paper agreements” instead of upon regular, impartial investigation, how far would sanitary standards have been improved?

The problem is not one of establishing new standards, or standardizing piece prices, as some of THE NEW REPUBLIC contributors seem to think. It is the problem of enforcing standards already fixed and agreed upon.

Suppose you were a member of the Protective Association, having given up energy to strengthen the union for a better joint work with the Association in uplifting the industry. Suppose these “social” shop employers had organized a rival association. Suppose the newspapers reported that the union was working under another agreement with this Association, and suppose that the union, admitting that there would be a distinct breach of good faith on its part if the facts were true, denied the allegation. Then suppose that three or four years later you found unmistakable and official confirmation of the existence of such a working agreement. Would you feel that the union was cooperating with your organization? 

That is precisely our situation. Our Association, through the “preferential union shop,” was strengthening the union, while the union was working upon plans that made for the Association’s injury. The Association was at peace with the union, but the union was at war with the Association. The social reformer has regarded the protocol not merely as a peace document, but as a method for improving industry by joint control. So has the enlightened manufacturer. On the other hand, the radical socialist regards it as an additional weapon with which to hit the employer. The political unionist is interested in large numbers, in strengthening the union as a political factor. The enlightened employer is interested in increasing the efficiency of individual men. Here is a conflict, which sooner or later must come to the surface. 

It is the real meaning of the “discharge” issue. Your contributors think the matter of discharge can be easily explained upon the theory that the employers want an unlimited right to discharge in order to have the whip-hand over price committees. The matter is not so simple. The cases where the power of discharge was actually used against price committeemen during the five years were negligibly small. The records show that in all meritorious cases the Association protected the union. Discharges because of activity upon price committees are discharges for “union activity” and have always been so treated. Full review of the facts in all such cases was freely conceded by the employers. 

The fact is that a large influx of workers from other industries followed the establishment of the protocol, due to the higher rates of wages established in this industry as compared with the men’s clothing and other kindred industries. Now the union puts forth the broad claim that no matter how these men have been brought into the industry, the industry at large must care for them. This is its social plea. It is, from the union viewpoint, good organization politics—“a permanent job for everybody who belongs to the union.” This theory, however, is not workable in an industry in which so large an influx of casual and untrained workers takes place continually. New York City is the chief port of immigration, and every ship in normal times brings new recruits. In addition, this industry is a highly seasonal industry. Although greater regularity of employment is desirable for the employer as well as for the workers and the public, up to the present time the employers’ proposals insuring greater regularity of employment have all been rejected by the union. The writer regards the proposals put forward by the manufacturers as the most advanced socially ever submitted by an employers’ association to a union. The workers are to-day, for lack of agreement between the parties, all “employees at will,” that is, their term of employment is without definite time and every worker is, as the union repeatedly claims, free to leave his job at any time. This point of view was accepted only recently by the arbitrator under the Philadelphia cloak protocol, and we understood was endorsed by our own Board of Arbitration.

The union’s insistence upon “equal distribution of work” brought our situation to a head. This claim, in brief, means that no matter how little work there may be in a shop, all workers, old, new, regular, casual, or otherwise, must share in it equally, and the employer may not offer regular or longer employment to any. Of course, the result is that all standards of efficiency and discipline in the shop go to smash. It means that no employee can be discharged—though he may leave of his own accord at any time, even at the peak of the season—without a “review”; and on such review, if it be not shown by affirmative proof that he had committed some offense or was utterly incompetent, he would be reinstated. This is the point of conflict. The employer is only too glad to pick out and keep efficient men from season to season, but he insists that he has the right to pick out the men whom he is to keep and that the protocol guaranteed that freedom of selection to him. (Paragraph XIV.)

It is this clash of conflicting social theories underlying the “discharge” and “equal distribution of work” issues that makes for real alarm. Under it the machinery of the protocol broke down, as any machinery will break down under such a strain. The employers genuinely believe that in resisting these inroads, insisting upon efficiency in shop operation and offering greater length of service to the efficient, they are making a national fight for principle, quite as sound and fundamentally the same as the successful fight in 1910 against the “closed shop.” If the employers are mistaken in their view, they must be convinced. May the writer observe that impugning their motives will not have the effect of correcting their judgment?

The writer hopes a new protocol will be made. But he doubts whether it will come about. The union is obstinate, and the representatives of the public in the situation have been unable to avert the crisis. If the employers are right, this inroad upon industry must be stopped. They are not frightened at the prospect either of shop strikes or general strikes. These are less costly than the destruction permanently of the industry through the propaganda now under way. The union cannot indulge in the luxury of general strikes every year, and the employer who treats his efficient crew fairly, pays the wages higher than the revealing standards, and regards them as human beings, has nothing to fear from the union. On the other hands, if he is to aid again in carrying the load of an entire industry upon his shoulders, he has the right to ask that the union be put upon a basis that will make cooperative, constructive effort practicable.


This article originally ran in the July 3, 1915, issue of the magazine.