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keeping wages low, as the famous Statute of Labourers was passed by a legislature of employers, to prevent the labouring class, when its numbers had been thinned by a pestilence, from taking advantage of the diminished competition to obtain higher wages. Such laws exhibit the infernal spirit of the slave master, when to retain the working classes in avowed slavery has ceased to be practicable.
If it were possible for the working classes, by combining among themselves, to raise or keep up the general rate of wages, it needs hardly be said that this would be a thing not to be punished, but to be welcomed and rejoiced at. Unfortunately the effect is quite beyond attainment by such means. The multitudes who compose the working class are too numerous and too widely scattered to combine at all, much more to combine effectually. If they could do so, they might doubtless succeed in diminishing the hours of labour, and obtaining the same wages for less work. They would also have a limited power of obtaining, by combination, an increase of general wages at the expense of profits. But the limits of this power are narrow; and were they to attempt to strain it beyond those limits, this could only be accomplished by keeping a part of their number permanently out of employment.1 As support from public charity would of course be refused to those who could get work and would not accept it, they would be thrown for support upon the trade union of which they were members; and the workpeople collectively would be no better off than before, having to support the same numbers out of the same aggregate wages. In this way, however, the class would have its attention forcibly drawn to the fact of a superfluity of numbers, and to the necessity, if they would have high wages, of proportioning the supply of labour to the demand.
Combinations to keep up wages are sometimes successful, in trades where the workpeople are few in number, and collected in a small number of local centres. It is questionable if combinations ever had the smallest effect on the permanent remuneration of spinners or weavers; I but the journeymen type-founders, by a close combination, are able, it is said, to keep up a rate of wages much beyond that which is usual in employments of equal hardness
1 [This and the preceding sentence replaced, but not until the 7th ed (1871), the following sentence of the original (1848) text: " But if they aimed at obtaining actually higher wages than the rate fixed by demand and supply —the rate which distributes the whole circulating capital of the country among the entire working population—this could only be accomplished by keeping part of their number permanently out of employment."]
and skill; and even the tailors, a much more numerous class, are understood to have had, to some extent, a similar success. A rise of wages, thus confined to particular employments, is not (like a rise of general wages) defrayed from profits, but raises the value and price of the particular article, and falls on the consumer; the capitalist who produces the commodity being only injured in so far as the high price tends to narrow the market; and not even then, unless it does so in a greater ratio than that of the rise of price: for though, at higher wages, he employs, with a given capital, fewer workpeople, and obtains less of the commodity, yet if he can sell the whole of this diminished quantity at the higher price, his profits are as great as before.
This partial rise of wages, if not gained at the expense of the remainder of the working class, ought not to be regarded as an evil.1 The consumer, indeed, must pay for it; but cheapness of goods is desirable only when the cause of it is that their production costs little labour, and not when occasioned by that labour's being ill remunerated. It may appear, indeed, at first sight, that the high wages of the type-founders (for example) are obtained at the general cost of the labouring class. This high remuneration either causes fewer persons to find employment in the trade, or if not, must lead to the investment of more capital in it, at the expense of other trades: in the first case, it throws an additional number of labourers on the general market; in the second, it withdraws from that market a portion of the demand: effects, both of which are injurious to the working classes. Such, indeed, would really be the result of a successful combination in a particular trade or trades, for some time after its formation; but when it is a permanent thing, the principles so often insisted upon in this treatise, show that it can have no such effect. The habitual earnings of the working classes at large can be effected by nothing but the habitual requirements of the labouring people: these indeed may be altered, but while they remain the same, wages never fall permanently below the standaid of these requirements, and do not long remain above that standard. If there had been no combinations in particular trades, and the wages of those trades had never been kept above the common level, there is no reason to suppose that the common level would have been at all higher than it now is. There would merely have been a greater number of people altogether, and a smaller number of exceptions to the ordinary low rate of wages.
1 [So since 3rd ed. (1852). Originally: "ought to be regarded as a benefit."]
1If> therefore, no improvement were to be hoped for in the general circumstances of the working classes, the success of a portion of them, however small, in keeping their wages by combination above the market rate, would be wholly a matter of satisfaction. But when the elevation of the character and condition of the entire body has at last become a thing not beyond the reach of rational effort, it is time that the better paid classes of skilled artisans should seek their own advantage in common with, and not by the exclusion of, their fellow-labourers. While they continue to fix their hopes on hedging themselves in against competition, and protecting their own wages by shutting out others from access to their employment, nothing better can be expected from them than that total absence of any large and generous aims, that almost open disregard of all other objects than high wages and little work for their own small body, which were so deplorably evident in the proceedings and manifestoes of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers during their quarrel with their employers. Success, even if attainable, in raising up a protected class of working people, would now be a hindrance, instead of a help, to the emancipation of the working classes at large.
But though combinations to keep up wages are seldom effectual, and when effectual, are, for the reasons which I have assigned, seldom desirable, the right of making the attempt is one which cannot be refused to any portion of the working population without great injustice, or without the probability of fatally misleading them respecting the circumstances which determine their condition. So long as combinations to raise wages were prohibited by law, the law appeared to the operatives to be the real cause of the low wages which there was no denying that it had done its best to produce. Experience of strikes has been the best teacher of the labouring classes on the subject of the relation between wages and the demand and supply of labour: and it is most important that this course of instruction should not be disturbed.
- It is a great error to condemn, per seand absolutely, either trade unions or the collective action of strikes. Even assuming that a
1 [This and the following paragraph were added in the 3rd ed. (1852); and the sentence of the original text, "Combinations to keep up wages are therefore not only permissible but useful, wherever really calculated to have that effect," was removed at this point.]
2 [This paragraph was added in the 5th ed. (1862). The second sentence, however, then ran: "I grant that a strike is wrong whenever it is foolish, and it is foolish whenever it attempts to raise wages above that market rate which is rendered possible by supply and demand. But demand and supply are not physical agencies,'' &c. The present text dates from the 7th ed. (1871).] strike must inevitably fail whenever it attempts to raise wages above that market rate which is fixed by the demand and supply; demand and supply are not physical agencies, which thrust a given amount of wages into a labourer's hand without the participation of his own will and actions. The market rate is not fixed for him by some self-acting instrument, but is the result of bargaining between human beings—of what Adam Smith calls "the higgling of the market;" and those who do not " higgle " will long continue to pay, even over a counter, more than the market price for their purchases. Still more might poor labourers who have to do with rich employers remain long without the amount of wages which the demand for their labour would justify, unless, in vernacular phrase, they stood out for it: and how can they stand out for terms without organized concert? What chance would any labourer have who struck singly for an advance of wages? How could he even know whether the state of the market admitted of a rise, except by consultation with his fellows, naturally leading to concerted action? I do not hesitate to say that associations of labourers, of a nature similar to trade unions, far from being a hindrance to a free market for labour, are the necessary instrumentality of that free market; the indispensable means of enabling the sellers of labour to take due care of their own interests under a system of competition. There is an ulterior consideration of much importance, to which attention was for the first time drawn by Professor Fawcett, in an article in the Westminster Review. Experience has at length enabled the more intelligent trades to take a tolerably correct measure of the circumstances on which the success of a strike for an advance of wages depends. The workmen are now nearly as well informed as the master of the state of the market for his commodities; they can calculate his gains and his expenses, they know when his trade is or is not prosperous, and only when it is, are they ever again likely to strike for higher wages; which wages their known readiness to strike makes their employers for the most part willing, in that case, to concede. The tendency, therefore, of this state of things is to make a rise of wages in any particular trade usually consequent upon a rise of profits, which, as Mr. Fawcett observes, is a commencement of that regular participation of the labourers in the profits derived from their labour, every tendency to which, for the reasons stated in a previous chapter,* it is so important to encourage, since to it we have chiefly to look for any radical improvement in the social and economical relations * Supra, book v. chap. vii.
between labour and capital. Strikes, therefore, and the trade societies which render strikes possible, are for these various reasons not a mischievous, but on the contrary, a valuable part of the existing machinery of society.
It is, however, an indispensable condition of tolerating combinations, that they should be voluntary. No severity, necessary to the purpose, is too great to be employed against attempts to compel workmen to join a union, or take part in a strike by threats or violence. Mere moral compulsion, by the expression of opinion, the law ought not to interfere with; it belongs to more enlightened opinion to restrain it, by rectifying the moral sentiments of the people. Other questions arise when the combination, being voluntary, proposes to itself objects really contrary to the public good. High wages and short hours are generally good objects, or, at all events, may be so :l but in many trade unions, it is among the rules that there shall be no task work, or no difference of pay between the most expert workmen and the most unskilful, or that no member of the union shall earn more than a certain sum per week, in order that there may be more employment for the rest; 2 and the abolition of piece work, under more or less of modification, held a conspicuous place among the demands of the Amalgamated Society. These are combinations to effect objects which are pernicious. Their success, even when only partial, is a public mischief; and were it complete, would be equal in magnitude to almost any of the evils arising from bad economical legislation. Hardly anything worse can be said of the worst laws on the subject of industry and its remuneration, consistent with thepersonal freedom of the labourer, than that they place the energetic and the idle, the skilful and the incompetent, on a level: and this, in so far as it is in itself possible, it is the direct tendency 3 of the regulations of these unions to do. 4 It does not, however, follow as a consequence that the law would
1 [At this point the following passage of the original text was omitted from the 3rd ed. (1852): " and a limitation of the number of persons in employment may be a necessary condition of these. Combinations, therefore, not to work for less than certain wages, or for more than a certain number of hours, or even not to work for a master who employs more than a certain number of apprentices, are, when voluntary on the part of all who engage in them, not only unexceptionable, but would be desirable, were it not that they almost always fail of their effect.5']
2 [This sentence was inserted in the 3rd ed.]
3 [So since the 5th ed. (1862). In the earlier editions: "avowed object."]
4 [The rest of this paragraph dates from the 3rd ed. The first edition (1848) read: " Every society which exacts from its members obedience to rules of this description, and endeavours to enforce compliance with them on