The Personal Factor in the Labor Problem

Hayes Robbins in Atlantic Monthly August 1 1907

The Personal Factor in the Labor Problem

Hayes Robbins in Atlantic Monthly August 1 1907

The Personal Factor in the Labor Problem


Hayes Robbins in Atlantic Monthly

WE are often reminded that the relations between employer and employe to-day are not directly between the head of the corporation and every individual workman; and that in the main is true. But this seems to be regarded as fatal to the whole idea of personal relations; and that, emphatically, is not true. A personal relation of some sort necessarily exists between every workman and some official next above him, at whatever point in the service; it may be the dirt shoveler and the gang boss ; it may be the shoe worker and the shop foreman ; it may be the local manager and the general manager. Personal contact has not been abolished, it cannot be; but the point of contact has been changed. Where it was formerly directly between master and man, now it is usually between the workman and his foreman. This means that the foreman question is to-day one of the most vital points in our whole scheme of industrial relation.

But the foreman, too often, has been drilled in the idea that all that is expected of him is to extract from his machinery and operatives the maximum output at minimum cost; that is the test of his efficiency. The system of cross-checking, setting off one workroom or division of the business against another, has intensified this pursuit of one special kind of results. Not many officers of large corporations, it is safe to say, often think of the superintendent or foreman as the man who has taken the place of the old-system employer in his direct contact with the wage-earner. Still fewer realize the significance of the fact. If it could be understood, and become the regular corporation practice, that it is as much a part of what is expected of the foreman that he get along on a just and friendly basis with the men under him, and that a good record in this respect will count to the credit of his department as

well as his tally sheet of immediate profits, we might see a very impressive difference in the general state of feeling between the employing and the labor groups in this country.

This is by no means simply a question of sentiment. Permanently good relations with the labor force are in the long run more economical—better policy from a strictly business standpoint—than an ordinary spurt of profits in some department for a few successive periods, followed by a growing indifference and studied “soldiering” on the part of the men, or perhaps a disastrous strike, wiping out all that has been gained, or more. The foreman is the key to this situation, but the employer selects the foreman and shapes the general policy.

In other words, the duty of the executive head to-day, where he cannot meet the whole force individually and continuously, must be to impress his own wise and broadminded policy —assuming it to be such—upon those in positions of delegated authority, who have now come to occupy the immediate relation to the mass of the workers.

The president of a large concern manufacturing a certain kind of metal fixtures told me, at the close of a recent conference with a labor committee, that in one of his western factories he had employed at one time a foreman whose invariable greeting to the men, as he went about overseeing the work, was a string of abusive profanity. Whenever he came in sight, the operatives worked at top speed; as soon as he was gone they systematically and cheerfully loafed. Later, a new foreman was put in—a quiet, practical man, of decision and firmness, but by nature a leader rather than driver of men. Since his advent a product has been coming from that factory ranging from a quarter to even a half larger than it was possible to squeeze out under his blatherskite

predecessor. The gain represented the economic value of a different personality. Specific instances of similar experience might be multiplied.

The notion is quite too prevalent that the workingman is primarily an “economic problem” ; that he ought to realize this and conduct himself with mechanical regularity and impersonal uniformity as a fractional unit of labor power. We shall never make any headway under that doctrine. The workingman is first of all a human being. The purchase of his labor is only in a limited sense to be compared to the purchase of a commodity, and cannot be treated in the same way. As Dr. Abbott has suggested, in the sale of sugar or flour the personal relation of mutual confidence need enter only once, at the time of the exchange ; but where you are buying labor the laborer goes with the labor, and the personal relation of confidence and responsibility must be there all the time, from day to day and week to week, or somebody is cheated. Therefore, whatever method of getting along together is adopted, it must count with personal qualities as an essential part of the relation.

When it first became a part of mÿ duty to come in constant and direct contact with employers and tradeunion men, it was with little comprehension of the intensely human elements that persist, however the industrial environment changes. For example, it was a cause of much surprise to hear a very active business agent—“walking delegate” if you like ---in telling the story of a labor trouble he had been handling and upon which a good deal depended, remark that he couldn’t follow it up, on a certain day, because it was his last chance to buy Christmas presents for the babies. Previously looked upon as a sort of impersonal economic automaton, he suddenly became understandable in the light of what he really is—simply an honest, somewhat narrow, tenderhearted, pugnacious, jolly good fellow.

I have seen a prominent officer of one of the most ironclad labor organizations in the country walk the floor,

during one of many conversations, and outline with an eloquence of the heart, depth of conviction, and earnestness approaching tears, his alarm over—what? The irresistible domination of soulless capital? Not at all. The deadly menace of the socialist propaganda to the cause of religion, as he saw it operating in his own craft.

The undercurrent of instincts and aspirations of which these are but chance illustrations, needing not to be multiplied because so common, runs deep and strong through the lives of us all, whatever our status in the industrial scale ; and it suggests this further fact: The things that divide us are seen, but are temporal ; the things that unite us may often be unseen, but are eternal.

One interesting illustration with which I happen to be somewhat familiar, of the personal factor in practical operation, is the labor policy of the Boston and Maine Railroad. It presents no sensational or artificial features, and rarely comes into public notice—a fact which of itself is more convincing to the seeker after employment methods of solid and universal value than the spectacular advertising sometimes given to a certain type of paternalistic “social betterment” experiments, successful perhaps under peculiar conditions, but of limited significance with reference to the industrial problem as a whole.

The secret of the long-standing good relations with labor on the railroad referred to is the influence, conscious or unconscious, or personality, beginning at the top, and working itself out in policies which distinctly reckon with the personal factor all along the line. Lucius Tuttle is of the type of industrial manager, happily becoming more numerous, whose characteristic attitude is that of frank and cordial recognition of the contribution made by the employes to the prosperity of the enterprise. Asking and expecting the confidence of the rank-and file, the established policy is to show confidence in return, whether in the routine of management or in the discussion of working conditions with

committees representing the men. Results justify the belief that, whether employers or wage-earners, men wish to be trusted, and in the great majority of cases will respond loyally under a relationship based on that principle.

The responsibility of superintendents and foremen for good relations with the employes is emphasized and reinforced by a well-understood right of appeal, under reasonable specified conditions. Injured employes, on numerous occasions, have been granted ample leaves of absence, with pay, and given suitable employment when able to work again, instead of being ignored until legal steps were taken, compelling some kind of settlement.

The feeling is very general among the twenty-five thousand employes that every man has a “friend at the top.” And the moral effect of this feeling is not confined to the railroad world. It is a common remark among leading labor men in many other trades, “If all employers were like that, there would be mighty little trouble.”

This opinion on their part does not spring from any notion that the corporation in question invariably grants whatever demands are made. Not at all. It is the result of well-verified conviction, based on year-in and yearout experience, that the disposition is to treat all fairly, to do the best that business conditions will reasonably permit, to give free and unprejudiced hearing to requests and grievances, and to discuss these matters, whether presented directly by the men concerned or by their chosen representatives, in a businesslike way, respecting the rights and feelings of the other party.

This is not an isolated illustration; but it is a very good practical example of the pervasive power of the personal factor, as a radiating force, vitalizing and humanizing the employment relations with a great army of workingmen, under the very conditions, be it noted, which we are asked to believe render the possibility of anything of the kind mythical and visionary.

It should be remembered that the personal factor can be made as powerful for harm as for good. Cases have

come to my knowledge where labor leaders who have fought down strike resolutions in their unions, in favor of first seeking conferences with the employer, have gone into such conferences when arranged, and returned the strongest advocates of the strike they originally opposed ; this because of the humiliation they had been compelled to undergo in the manner of their reception by the employer concerned. The factors of pride or selfrespect, in the one case, of boorish intolerance in the other—purely personal elements—played a larger part in the result than the industrial issues involved.

On the other hand, similar testimony could be borne with respect to certain employers—and I have no reason to suppose them isolated examples —men of the broadest sympathies, distinctly just-minded and humane, who have grown into a well-nigh settled distrust and dislike of trade unions, not by reason of preconceived prejudice or theoretical objection to organization of workingmen, or to the principles of economic and social improvement for which the labor movement stands, but chiefly through the cumulative effect of a succession of exasperating experiences with arbitrary policies, sometimes brutal methods, and offensively domineering individuals appearing in behalf of labor in various controversies coming up for adjustment.

Could there be any greater indication of the importance of looking out for the right kind of personal qualities, whether in the selection of leaders by the unions, or in the choice of industrial managers on the part of capital ? Could the need be clearer of considering in either case the ability to meet and deal tactfully, intelligently, and reasonably with men, as men, and not as abstract representatives of blind forces ?

That the tendency in this respect is improving there can be no doubt, and one ' of the signs of it, on the labor side, is the growing determination of union officials to compel obedience to their contracts with employers. This was confirmed by the printing

pressmen when the strike of the typographical union began, in January, 1906; and John Mitchell’s refusal to let the soft-coal miners join the great strike of 1902, because their agreements with the operators had not expired, is not yet ancient history. The action of the locomotive engineers, and street railway employes, in repudiating their local unions in New York for violation of contracts, in the subway strike of 1905, was followed only last summer by that of the trainmen’s organization in ordering its striking “local” switchmen in New Haven to return to work, on penalty of having their places filled by the Brotherhood itself. In the shoe trade, if a local union breaks its contract, it is the policy of the national body to fill the places of the strikers.

But here, again, is the point. Contracts amount to nothing without men, of the necessary courage and honor to enforce them. Whatever of business stability and prosperity may be at stake in the case hangs upon the extent to which these personal qualities stand behind the bond.

There is an unfortunate policy into which some employers have been led, at times, partly as an unconscious result of the notion that personal relations are a thing of the past, partly for more purely practical reasons. A grievance arises in a factory where it would not be feasible for the entire force to appear at headquarters, in person, and therefore one of the number, or perhaps a committee, waits on the foreman or proprietor. A little later these committeemen find themselves discharged; their services have suddenly become unsatisfactory. In other cases, perhaps, when the employe or his representative seeks an interview, he is either refused outright or told that the matter is in the hands of Mr. So-and-So, who has full charge of his department, and cannot be interferred with lest good discipline be undermined. Mr. So-andSo, in turn, announces that he is carrying out the general policy of the company and has no power to make special exceptions.

These practices are not so common

to-day as a few years ago, but they have helped breed among many workingmen the notion that a corporation is a kind of economic shell-game, the trick being to find the man higher up or farther down—now you see him and now you don’t ! Such methods, however, are not an essential part of the corporate form of organization in any sense; they indicate either lack of good executive management in fixing real responsibility, or, in some cases perhaps, an express intention of using the machinery of the corporation to shift that responsibility.

But this possibility of discharge, as a result of presenting a complaint, is one of the chief reasons why labor unions have made so much of the right to send in their business agents— somebody not in the employer’s power —to make appeal in their behalf. It is their device for opening up a new channel of personal contact when the old is virtually closed.

As a matter of fact, most of the severest labor difficulties throughout the country to-day are settled, when settled at all,-through the efforts, of men on the labor side who are not employes of the firms or companies affected. The district or national leaders of the labor bodies involved are usually men of larger calibre and experience than those directly concerned in the contest, and have too much at stake to assume unnecessary risks. They are often the best able to handle a troublesome situation intelligently and reasonably, yet their efforts would be useless if all employers took the position of refusing to meet or discuss the matters at issue with any except strictly their own employes.

For example, the threatened teamsters’ strike in Boston in 1906, which had passed entirely beyond the control of the teamsters’ own representatives, was finally prevented by the efforts of a cigarmaker and a horseshoer. The longshoremen’s strike, later in the year, was settled by a freight handler, a horseshoer, and a furniture mover, one longshoreman serving with them, but taking little or no active part. Had the employers

refused to see these men, who happened to be entrusted with authority to negotiate for the workingmen concerned, possessed their confidence, and were especially well qualified by temperament and experience for the difficult and delicate task in hand, situations would have developed, without the least doubt, full of the most serious consequences to the commerial interests of the city.

In fact, if an attitude of non-communication with any except employes were logically carried out and adhered to by employers as a whole, it would nullify and render useless any and all efforts,, public or private, of conciliation boards, citizens’ committees, business acquaintances or associates, or of any outside interests whatever, to assist in preventing or settling industrial contests, no matter how seriously the public convenience or welfare might be affected, and no matter how much to the advantage of the employer himself such efforts might prove to be.

Unless the privilege of stating complaints and discussing the possibilities of improvement is accorded to workingmen, directly or by representatives of their own choosing, no recourse is left them for making an impression upon employing interests but the strike, boycott, or similar arbitrary measures.. This right of conference is the safety valve whereby the labor steam inside the capitalist boiler finds its necessary vent without blowing up the boiler.

Very likely this may suggest the criticism : “But here is no final solution ; you may have all the personal conferences and discussion you please, but how are you going to abolish the points at issue themselves?”

I would disclaim any intention of leading up to a “grand panacea.” The universal cure-all idea has been very much overworked. It may be that to abolish all possible grounds of disageement between people would mean the end of all progress. Up to a certain point, differences are our salvation from deadly monotony and stagnation. They have been known to occur even in the sacred precincts of the family, in the church, in social

life, and in our civic relations; yet all these institutions most unreasonably survive and jog along. There will always be crabs in the sea; but the sea rolls on. The business world is not in a hopelessly doomed class by itself, by reason of being subject to jar§, and having its own peculiar conflicts of interests and desires. It is but one part of the common experience of life. Because progress still involves too much friction, and perfection is remote, it is no sign that everything is going to smash. As Graham Taylor pithily states it, if the industrial classes cannot get along together, neither can they get along apart. The high church of Economic Law allows no such divorce.

Strikes and lockouts will hardly disappear this year or this generation. As methods of doing business change, as the general wealth production of the community varies from decade to decade, there must come times of readjustment of the portions of that product which go to the various factors that create it. As men’s ideas of living change, the terms and conditions upon which they will work for wages or employ others for wages must inevitably change also. These things are all a part of the advance of civilization, and the differences they imply are such as change and betterment always compel, in whatever department of life. But if we can more and more bring the personal equation to bear—the influences of good will, fairmindedness, and willingness to discuss frankly the facts and reasons for positions taken, on either side—we shall have gone very far to reduce, perhaps almost remove, the really serious friction of this process.

That it is vitally important to bring just these influenses to bear, let no serious thinker on present-day social economic conditions doubt. There is, in fact, a larger aspect of this whole matter than simply the settling of labor troubles peaceably. Many observers have been much disturbed in recent years by the frequent signs of a spirit of bitterness, distrust, and resentment among workingmen. It is regarded as the foremuttering of

stormy weather in our industrial and political affairs, and, whether the alarm has adequate cause in all respects or not, it would be folly to ignore the grave possibilities. Most often these tendencies are charged to underlying envy among the millions of the poor, intense resentment over the idiotic waste of wealth by some of the idle rich, and the too frequent exhibitions of greed and dishonor in high places.

All these things have their influence, and it is likely to be an increasing influence so long as these evils persist; but there is something else. A tremendous part is played by certain factors, much less spectacular, but also much closer to the daily lives of the great wage-earning group. It may be surprising at first, but not so after working close to the facts for a time, how much the question of what consideration workingmen receive as men, under the general policy of those employing them* has to do with their general state of mind, the opinions they hold, their general outlook upon life. For it is this that fills up the major part of a workingman’s life. It is a narrow life at best ; and the immediate conditions and environments of toil, and general relations with his own employer, convey to the average wage-earner’s mind a concrete impression of the justice or injustice of the industrial order under which he lives. The nature of these relations, as a rule, counts more with him than the question whether his employer is a wealthy officer of a corporation, a small shop-

keeper, or a petty contractor with a dozen hands.

A more intelligent and far-sighted appreciation of these facts, in practice, is perhaps the most effective safeguard against a series of radical socialistic experiments, which, if they do come, will spring quite as much from a rankling personal sense of injustice and desire for retaliation as from any reasoned-out conviction of the economic merits of the various nostrums proposed. Workingmen are not greatly impressed by lectures, tracts, editorials, and elaborate statistics showing the folly of this or that radical scheme. If they favor the radical scheme, it is very often as a club to compel attention to their demand for things nearer home, that they really want and intimately know about. They are interested in a general way, some pro and some con, in the discussion of radical propositions, as citizens ; but they are directly and intensely interested in the labor and wages phase of their situation, in a specific way, as employes.

Let it be practically demonstrated that the door to reasonable progress, and just, businesslike personal relations between employers and employes, or those representing them at the various points of contact, is not closed under our modern system, and one of the most embittering motives of agitation for social and industrial disruption in very greatly lessened. In other words, our need is not so much to discover brand new patented “systems,” or guaranteed panaceas, as it is to rediscover each other.