Almost Altogether Machinery

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After The Deluge Almost Altogether Machinery
written by Robert Morrison MacIver
The Technical Work of a Little Theatre
From The Canadian Forum, January 1921, p. 106



"Almost Altogether Machinery"

The brief career of the Interchurch World Movement may be said to have ended with the publication of its famous Report on the Steel Strike of 1919 now issued in book form by Harcourt, Brace and Howe. Why the ambitious plans of the American churches for world wide co-operation broke down belongs to another part of our social history, but during its short life it did one significant and abiding and, from the standpoint of the Church, novel thing. While the great steel strike between the United States Steel Corporation and its employees was going on and conflicting accounts of the issues were being given to the public, the Interchurch World Movement appointed a Commission of Inquiry to get at the facts. The result is a report which to those readers who accepted the dominant view as to the strike and the strikers must come as a startling revelation.

In spite of, sometimes because of, all our organs of publicity the truth concerning many issues arrives too late. If only it had been possible, in the fall of 1919, to have had this damning indictment of the conditions among the steel workers published as broadcast as were the wild accusations of their "Bolshevism," it is scarcely credible that public opinion would not have rallied to their side, and the strike might have ended in success instead of failure. One can scarcely doubt that public sentiment would have been different if the following facts, now indubitably proved, had then been generally known:

(a) That about half of the employees in iron and steel manufacturing plants in the steel industry of the U.S. were working the 12-hour day, that less than one quarter of them worked less than 60 hours per week, that many of these workers were subjected to the "long turn" of 18 or 24 hours once or twice a month, that very many of them worked a seven-day week, and that the Corporation had increased, in spite of its protestations to the contrary, the length of the working-day during the last decade;

{b) That in spite of these prodigious hours the bulk of unskilled steel labour "earned less than enough for the average family's minimum subsistence," and the bulk of semi-skilled steel labour "less than enough for the average family's minimum comfort," in terms of the level for minimum subsistence and minimum comfort set by government experts in the United States, and that these wage-rates were maintained in a period of extraordinary prosperity for the steel industry, as shown for example by the enormous increase in the "undivided surplus" of the Steel Corporation.

These facts are clearly proved by the investigations on which this report is based. The report has the ring of truth. Its members, representative of the leading churches of America, had no natural bias [p. 107] against the Steel Trust. They were assisted by the Bureau of Industrial Research of New York City. They give in full the evidence on which their conclusions were based. The writer has carefully examined this evidence and sees no possible ground for challenging the conclusions.

The immediate cause of the strike was the refusal of the Steel Corporation to confer with the organized steel workers in respect of their grievances. Mr. Gary, the President of the Corporation, refused to meet Mr. Gompers or Mr. Fitzpatrick. No pressure, not even that of the White House, could induce Mr. Gary to recognise unionism. Mr. Gary was the chief autocrat of that financial group which controlled the Corporation, and behind him lay the whole financial machinery of Wall Street which dominated railroads and banks and newspapers and city governments, as well as the lives and wages of millions of the common people. Why should he capitulate to a crowd of "hunkies" and "Bolshevists?" Events showed that there was no necessity.

Events also showed the power of the Steel Trust. The true issues were never known to the general public. Press and pulpit were supplied with one-sided "information." The force of the law was exerted to crush the strike. Men were arrested without warrants. Tools of the Corporation were made deputy sheriffs. Public officials, including magistrates and police authorities, were frequently in the Pittsburg region servants of the company. In Pennsylvania the rights of free speech and assemblage were abrogated. The "under-cover men" of the Corporation were naming strike leaders as "radicals" and the Federal Department of Justice was rounding them up. It is an amazing picture, to which one must go for comparison to the worst cases in England in the early decades of the 19th century. But in the England of to-day such a state of affairs would be utterly inconceivable. The U.S. Steel Corporation may be the last word in methods of financial control, but its position in respect of labour belongs to industrial antiquity.

Another picture stands out in the report, that of the great steel magnate, Judge Gary. His own evidence is characteristic. He justifies the 12-hour day on the ground that "the men wanted it," for Mr. Gary believes in the profession of democracy. Doubtless the men would prefer to work 12 hours a day if it meant a living wage rather than work 8 hours and starve, but the alternatives are unnecessary. He declared that "no basic industry in the world pays higher wages," and begins his recital of wage-rates with "Rollers, $32.56 a day.' One roller, it turned out, actually received that sum, one out of the 260,000 employees of the Corporation, but it also turned out that on the basis of hours, the average earnings of common labour were lower in steel than in any other of the principal industries in the Pittsburg region. He denies before the Senate Committee that the Corporation discharges men for unionism, but investigation showed an elaborate system of espionage and black-listing. This is the shifty autocrat whose mouth is full of the watch-words of liberty, duty and "Americanism." Of course he is fighting for a "sacred principle" something "higher than the U.S. Steel Corporation." All autocrats do.

Observe also the invincible egotism of his type of "self-made man." "Nowadays," he declares, "none of these men, with very few exceptions, perform manual labour as I used to perform it, on the farm, neither in hours, nor in actual physical exertion. It is practically all done everywhere by machinery and the boy who opens the door, I think, touches a button and the door opens. And this work of adjusting the heavy iron ingots is done by the pulling of a lever. It is largely machinery, almost altogether machinery." Alongside this statement the investigators offer corrective examples of what work in the steel mills means. But to Judge Gary it is, in a profounder sense, "almost altogether machinery." The 12-hour day worker is a machine. What can he do but work and eat and sleep? He has no family life, no interests, no recreations. "His one reaction is 'What the Hell!' — the universal text accompanying the 12-hour day." But in far-away Wall Street the complaints of Braddock and Wheeling and Youngstown are "a tale of little meaning, though the words are strong."

The strike failed. What part in the failure was played by the use of strike-breakers, particularly negroes, what by intimidation economic and political, what by the narrow selfishness of some sections of the A. F. of L., cannot here be considered. The strike failed, and the 300,000 went back to work as of old. Bolshevism received another blow. Americanism was saved, and Judge Gary successfully maintained the sacred principle which was "higher than the U.S. Steel Corporation."

R. M. MacIver.