THE LABOUR QUESTION IN AMERICA.
IT would be a strange instance of the irony of fate if the labour question became first of all acute in the United States, but that is by no means outside the possibilities. The popular English notion that there can be no such question in America. because there is land sufficient for all men is though accurate as a theory entirely at variance with the facts. There are millions of freeholders, no doubt some of them prosperous and all independent, though often-careworn and overworked, but there are also millions who will not go on to the land, who prefer work for wages, and who in times of depres- sion suffer terribly. There has been such a time of depression for the past two years, and it may be doubted whether there is any country in the world where the "submerged tenth" endures more misery, aggravated no doubt by a special consciousness, than in the United States. All philanthropic Americans admit that the lot of the very poor in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other great cities, is worse than in London or Paris, and when trade falls off, as it has done lately, the misery ex- tends to the country towns, and even to the villages. There are believed to be more than a million persons out of employ,—Mr. Stead in the Review of Reviews says, four millions, but perhaps he counts those dependent on the workers,—and their lot is indeed pitiable. Positive starvation is infrequent, but their food is wretched, and as Dr. Alvan H. Doty, chief of the Bureau of Contagious Diseases affirms, unhealthy ; their clothing is insufficient for winter and their lodging often worse, especially in tene- ment houses, than the lodgings of the very poor in Paris or Berlin. The consequence is that the struggle for work is almost a warfare, that wages in certain departments can be and are driven down, and that the struggle between labour and capital assumes a certain aspect of ferocity. Socialism spreads fast, strikes multiply, and in the trades into which foreigners enter, the strikes constantly assume the aspect of petty civil wars. In the coal and iron mining districts, the respectable citizens called out to maintain order are attacked by the strikers hand to hand, and occasionally, before a compromise is arrived at, the list of the killed and wounded rivals that of some skirmish in a great war. Here and there the contest assumes even worse proportions. The silver-mine owners have suffered great losses from the fall in the value of that metal ; there have been bitter disputes in Colorado over wages ; and in one or two places—we write on the evidence of letters before us—the strikers, unable to obtain supplies, have ravaged districts like banditti, and the citizens have been compelled to turn out in parties, many hundreds trong, to defend elementary order with rifles and revolvers.
The march of the miserable on Washington, of which we wrote some weeks ago, was only one evidence of the strain which exists, and although the march failed, the "armies" being defeated by the vast distances to be traversed, and the difficulty of obtaining food when cross- ing the hill ranges, the accounts now pouring into London• indicate diet the movement was a most serious social symptom. We have three accounts before us, one a. collec- tion of facts made by Mr. Stead, in the Review of Reviews, and though pictorial, not so exaggerative as his writing sometimes is ; another in the North American Review, quiet and thoughtful, but at bottom hostile to the move- ment; and a third, scattered through a file of the Out- look, an admirably temperate and competent religious paper, intent, as too many religious papers are not, on putting all subjects under white light. They all agree that the movement was spontaneous, and arose in at least fwe States at once, that the Eve "armies," or rather regi- ments, for they never reached their expected strength, were composed of tramps and real workers out of employ, that they all put forward the same idea that the National Government could and must find them work, and that they all showed rare capacity of endurance. Professor Hourwick, of Chicago—will some American who knows the history of his State, explain the extraordinary diver- gence of American family names from the English and Irish types P—cross-examined three hundred of the marchers, and gives the following as the result. Two- thirds were English-speaking men, averaging thirty years old :— " Of 262 industrials, 181 were skilled mechanics, representing 70 trades; 74 were unskilled, and 7 were tradesmen. The fourth
were Union men. Of the skilled mechanics, 70 were Unionists, and 111 outside Unions. Their average wage when at work was— Unionists, 10s. per day; non-Unionist mechanics, 7s.; unskilled labourers, 6s.
"Of 115 questioned as to education, only 2 were badly educated. They averaged seven years of school life; 26 had attended high schools, business and professional colleges, academies, and uni- versities.
" One half the non-Chicagoan industrials were married, and had left their families in search of work. One-fourth of 261 had been helped through the winter by charity. The average duration of lack of employment was five months. Two-thirds of them had saved enough to tide them over this period, but their savings were spent. Only five or six appeared to be of question- able character."
Superintendent Byrne, of the New York Police, is much less favourable ; but he seems to have made no personal inquiry, and the accounts all agree that, except as regards means of locomotion, the " armies " committed no outrages. They did steal trains, and we suspect pressure was used to obtain the loan of waggons ; but there outrage ceased, as indeed is clear from the fact that the armies were not shot down. Americans are not scrupulous under such circumstances ; and if the farmers of any district had been fairly roused, they, being most of them drilled and all armed, would have made short work of the intruders. The "armies," in fact, were mixed crowds kept in fair order by the leaders ; horribly dirty ; very ill-clothed ; scarcely fed ; and of course without decent lodging, whom a common impulse, derived from misery, had started from the Pacific States and Ohio to try to march to Washington, and there,—well, we think, on a careful perusal of the evidence, that they meant to petition Congress, or coerce Congress, according to their strength. As far as we see, their leaders admit this, and at all events we are unable to believe in their innocence of any such design. As the affair turned out, they were quite quiet, and went to prison for trampling on grass not belonging to them more submissively than Oxford students would have done ; but we fancy that the Government and the police were right, and that if they bad gathered up the numbers they hoped, and if their demands had been refused, as they must have been refused, there would have been a very ugly rush on the Capitol. The leaders differed greatly, but one at least contemplated the possibility of bloodshed without shrink- ing, and a crowd which had travelled so far, desperate with misery and disappointment, would not have been merciful. As it was, the Government had little trouble ; but of the depth of the alarm there is ample evidence in the precautions taken, in the use of the United States troops, and in the sudden and surprised outcry of the entire Press of the Union.
And this brings us to the most serious and perplexing question of all, whether the citizens generally sympa- thised at all with the movement. Mr. Stead thinks they did ; other, perhaps better, at all events more American, authorities, think they did not, but the evidence points to a mixed condition of feeling. In what we English call America, which means pretty much the six States of New England, plus New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington,. it may be fairly said the movement was universally con- demned, and would, if needful, have been trampled out by force. In the West there was more doubt, and in the Far West and on the Pacific slope, though the better class, were hostile, there was among labourers much sympathy, the Knights of Labour even occa- sionally threatening the railway companies on their be- half. Three Governors, those of Colorado, Texas, and Kansas, were in favour of the marchers, even going the length of issuing proclamations, promising not to interfere with them, and, we take it, the whole body of "Populists," the farmers with a craze about State aid, were more or less inclined to wish the movement success. Indeed, a most formidable and significant feature in the affair was a certain resemblance between the demands of the five " Armies " and those of the Populists. Both make the extinction of "interest-bearing bonds" the central pivot of their demands, that is, they want the interest paid on a bond to be counted as part repayment of the principal,. —one of the oddest compromises between repudiation and the Eighth Commandment -we ever remember to have heard of. They would keep a contract as to principal, while repudiating it as to interest. The remaining Coxeyite idea was that the nation, considering itself at war with poverty, should borrow £100,000,000 sterling, lend the money to the depressed States without interest, and order it. to be spent in cutting or renewing good roads,—the old European Socialist scheme of relief by labour. The plan, except as a momentary device to meet some passing misery, such as the cotton famine brought upon Lancashire, is a mad one, if only because the roads, when made, can only be kept up by heavy taxation ; but the eager and general way in which it was adopted points to a melancholy truth. America already wants a Poor-law, and may hereafter want one with the greatest urgency. Her possession of boundless land has in no degree preserved her from the European curse that a residuum of the population lives in extreme poverty, rendered more unbearable by the general diffusion of comfort. Her . Republicanism has not saved her from the European neces- sity for an occasional use of regular troops in suppressing social outbreaks. And her institutions, as a whole, have no more solved the "social question,"—that is, have no more established equality of comfort and opportunity among all men than have those of any European Monarchy. The success may come, though for ourselves—who believe that the poor will never cease out of the land—we do not think it will, but for the present the Great Republic pre- sents the extremes of wealth and poverty ; she is harassed by frequent and dangerous social conflicts, in which the rifle is more used than in Europe; and she works through a legislative mechanism which for delay and apparent in- ability to execute its own will, has few parallels among older States. She cannot get to the end of a currency trouble, or reform a tariff. England was just as slow, we entirely admit, over her Free-trade dispute, which occupied eight years, and is just as incompetent to over- come her currency muddle in India ; but then the assump- tion is that a Republic can do what a Monarchy cannot. It does not seem so.