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Remedies and Suggestions

The student of social problems who faces the misery of the lowest order of worker, and the sharp privation endured by many even of the better class, is apt, in the first fever of amazement and indignation, to feel that some instant force must be brought to bear, and justice secured, though the heavens fall. It is this sense of the struggle of humanity out of which have been born Utopias of every order, from the “Republic” of Plato to the dream in “Looking Backward.” Not one of these can be spared; and that they exist and find a following larger and larger, is the surest evidence of the soul at the bottom of each. But for those who take the question as a whole, who see how slow has been the process of evolution, and how impossible it is to hasten one step of the unfolding that humankind is still to know, it is the ethical side that comes uppermost, and that first demands consideration.

Taking the mass of the lowest order of workers at all points, the first aim of any effort intended for their benefit is to disentangle the individual from the mass. It is not charity that is to do this. “Homes” of every variety open their doors; but in all of them still lurks the suspicion of charity; and even when this has no active formulation in the worker’s mind, there is still the underlying sense of the essential injustice of withholding with one hand just pay, and with the other proffering a substitute, in a charity which is to reflect credit on the giver and demand gratitude from the receiver. Here and there this is recognized, and within a short time has been emphasized by a woman whose name is associated with the work of organized charities throughout the country,-Mrs. Josephine Shaw Lowell. It is doubtful if there is any woman in the country better fitted, by long experience and almost matchless common-sense, to speak authoritatively. She writes:-

“So far from assuming that the well-to-do portion of society have discharged all their obligations to men and God by supporting charitable institutions, I regard just this expenditure as one of the prime causes of the suffering and crime that exist in our midst.... I am inclined, in general, to look upon what is called charity as the insult added to the injury done to the mass of the people, by insufficient payment for work.”

Just pay, then, heads the list of remedies. The difficulty of fixing this is necessarily enormous, nor can it come at once; since education for not only the employer but the public as a whole is demanded. To bring this about is a slow process. It is a transition period in which we live. Material conditions born of phenomenal material progress have deadened the sense as to what constitutes real progress; and the working-woman of to-day contends not only with visible but invisible obstacles, the nature of which we are but just beginning to discern. Twenty years ago M. Paul Leroy-Beaulieu wrote of women wage-earners:-

“From the economic point of view, woman, who has next to no material force, and whose arms are advantageously replaced by the least machine, can have useful place and obtain a fair remuneration only by the development of the best qualities of her intelligence. It is the inexorable law of our civilization,-the principle and formula even of social progress,-that mechanical engines are to perform every operation of human labor which does not proceed directly from the mind. The hand of man is each day deprived of a portion of its original task; but this general gain is a loss for the particular, and for the classes whose only instrument of labor is a pair of feeble arms.”

Take the fact here stated, and add to it all that is implied in modern competitive conditions, and we see the true nature of the task that awaits us. To do away with this competition would not accomplish the end desired. To guide it and bring it into intelligent lines is part of the general education. Profit-sharing is an indispensable portion of the justice to be done; and this, too, implies education for both sides, and would go far toward lessening burdens. We cannot abolish the factory, but hours can be shortened; the labor of married women with young children forbidden, as well as that of children below a fixed age. Industrial education will prevent the possibility of another generation owning so many incompetent and untrained workers, and technical schools in general are already raising the standard and helping to secure the same end.

Our present methods mean waste in every direction, and trusts and syndicates have already demonstrated how much may be saved to the producer if intelligent combination can be brought about. Competition can never wholly be set aside, since within reasonable limits it is the spur of invention and a part of evolution itself. But if wise co-operation be once adopted, the enormous friction and waste of present methods ceases,-the waste of human life as well as of material.

One cheering token of progress is the increased discussion as to methods of training and the necessity of organization among women themselves. Ten years ago only a voice here and there suggested the need of either. In 1885, at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Miss Sarah Harland, lecturer on Mathematics at Newnham College, insisted that educated gentlewomen must have larger opportunity for paying work. The three qualifications in all work she stated to be: (1) Organization on a large scale; (2) Permanency; (3) Giving returns that will enable the salaries paid to compete with those of teachers.

She regarded dressmaking as the trade which could most readily organize and meet the other conditions specified, and millinery as the trade which would come next. Until such organization and its results have gradually altered present conditions, it will be true for all workers, on both sides of the sea, that not health alone but life itself are continuously endangered by the facts hedging about all labor. Dr. Stevens, the head of St. Luke’s Insane Asylum in London, in a paper read before the Social Science Association, said:-

“It may be stated with great confidence that a prolific cause for the rapid and extensive increase of insanity in this country is to be found in the unceasing toil and anxiety to which the working-classes are subjected, this cause developing the disease in the existing generation, or, what is quite as frequently the case, transmitting to the offspring idiocy, insanity, or some imperfectly developed sensorium or nervous system. The agitated, overworked, and harassed parent is not in a condition to transmit a healthy brain to his child."

Accepted as true in 1857, the words are not less so to-day, when cheap labor swarms, and the unemployed number their millions.

How best to combine and to what ends, is the lesson taught in every form of the new movement for organization among women. To learn how to work together and what power lies in combination, has been the lesson of all clubs. Among men it has counted as one of the chief educating forces, but for women every circumstance has fostered the distrust of each other which belongs to all undeveloped natures. For the lowest order of worker even, the “Working-Woman’s Journal,” published in London and the organ of the Working-Woman’s Protective Union, has for the last year recorded, from month to month, the gradual progress of the idea of combination, and the new hope it has brought to all who have gone into trades unions.

With us there has been equal need and equal ignorance of all that such combinations have to give. They mean arbitration rather than strikes, and the compelling of ignorant and unjust employers to consider the situation from other points of view than their own. They compel also the same attitude from men in the same trades, who often are as strong opponents of a better chance for their associates among women workers in the same branches, as the most prejudiced employer.

Six points are urged by the Working-Woman’s Society of New York, all in the lines indicated here. Its purposes and aims, as given in the prospectus, are as follows:-

1. To encourage women in the various trades to protect their mutual
interests by organization.

2. To use all possible means to enforce the existing laws relating to the protection of women and children in factories and shops, investigating all reported violations of such laws; also to promote, by all suitable means, further legislation in this direction.

3. To work for the abolition of tenement-house manufacture,
especially in the cigar and clothing trades.

4. To investigate all reported cases of cruel treatment on the part of employers and their managers to their women and children employees, in withholding money due, in imposing fines, or in docking wages without sufficient reason.

5. To found a labor bureau for the purpose of facilitating the
exchanging of labor between city and country, thus relieving the
over-crowded occupations now filled by women.

6. To publish a journal in the interests of working-women.

7. To secure equal pay for both sexes for equal work.

These points are the same as those made by the few clubs which have taken up the question of woman’s work and wages; but thus far only this society has formulated them definitely. Working-girls’ clubs, friendly societies, and guilds are giving to the worker new thoughts and new purposes. The Convention of Working-Girls’ Clubs held in New York in April, 1890, showed the wide-reaching influence they had attained, and the new ideals opening before the worker. It showed also with equal force the roused sense of responsibility toward them, and the eager interest and desire for their betterment in all ways. Where they themselves touched upon their needs, there were direct statements in the same line as many already quoted, which called for better pay, better conditions, shorter hours, and fewer fines.

Following the points given above came another presentation, the result of still further and long-continued investigation; and as the methods of the search and its results are practicable for all towns and cities where women are at work, the statement prepared for the Society is given in full:-

“We would call your attention to the condition of the women and children in the large retail houses in this city,-conditions which tend to injure both physically and morally, not only these women and children, but working-women in general. The general idea is that saleswomen are employed from eight A.M. to six P.M., but they are really engaged in the majority of stores for such a time as the firm requires them; which means in the Grand Street stores, until ten, eleven, and twelve o’clock on Saturday night all the year round, the Saturday half-holiday not being observed in summer; and in the majority of houses that stock must be arranged after six P.M., the time varying, according to season, from fifteen minutes to five hours, and this without supper or extra pay; thus compelling women and children to go long distances late at night, and rendering them liable to insult and immoral influences.

“Excessive fines are imposed in many stores,-fines varying from ten to thirty cents for ten minutes’ tardiness in the morning or lunch hour, and for all mistakes. Cases are known of girls who have been fined a full week’s pay at the end of the week. In one store the fines amounted to $3,000 in a year, and the sum was divided between the superintendent and timekeeper; and the superintendent was heard to charge the timekeeper with not being strict enough in his duties.

“Bad sanitary conditions, bad ventilation and toilet arrangements are common, and the sanitary laws are not observed. Children under age are employed at work far beyond their strength, often far into the night. The average wages do not exceed $4.50; and in one of our largest stores the average wage is $2.40, in another $2.90. The tendency in all stores is to secure the cheapest help; for this reason school-girls just graduated are much sought for, as they, having homes, can afford to work for less. But a large proportion of the saleswomen either pay board or help support a family; and how can this be done on $4.50 per week? The cheapest board in dark stuffy attics or tenement houses is $3.00, fuel and washing extra; and no woman can pay doctor’s bills and maintain a respectable appearance on what remains. How then does she live? There are two ways of answering: The story of a woman who worked in one of our large houses is one way. This woman earned $3.00 per week; she paid $1.50 for her room; her breakfast consisted of a cup of coffee; she had no lunch; she had but one meal a day. Many saleswomen must be in this condition. The other answer is that given by more than one employer, who when saleswomen complain of the low wages offered, reply: ’Oh, well, get yourself a gentleman friend; most of our girls have them.’ Not long since a member of our society received a letter from a salesman in a certain house which read thus: ’In the name of God cannot something be done for the saleswomen? I am a salesman in -, and I have walked in disguise at night upon certain streets to be accosted by girls in my own department,-girls whose salaries are so low it was impossible to live upon them.” A painter told us that in working in the houses of ill-repute in the vicinity of Twenty-third Street, he was astonished at the number of women whom he recognized as saleswomen in different stores who frequented these houses. But what are they to do? They are women without trade or profession, thrown upon their own resources, obliged to make a good appearance, and unable to do so and yet have sufficient food. We must all concede that virtue and honor in woman are natural, and very few women resort to such ways unless forced to do so; certainly not, when they yet have sufficient pride to wish to maintain the appearance of respectability. If men’s wages fall below a certain limit, they become tramps, thieves, and robbers; but woman’s wages have no limit, since she can always work for less than she can subsist upon, the paths of shame being open to her. And the beggarly pittance for which one class of women work becomes the standard of wages for all women, and throws them out upon the world, there to find a sure market. But we do not wish to insinuate, in stating these facts, that the majority of saleswomen resort to evil ways; on the contrary, they are the exception who do so. We know the majority of women prefer to suffer, and do suffer, rather than do so. But can we allow a few to fall? We of the Working-Women’s Society believe that we are so far our sisters’ keepers that we are responsible for their position.

“We believe that the payment and condition of those who work (through their employers) for us is our affair, and we have no right to remain in an ignorance that involves or may involve their misery. We believe we have no right, having obtained such knowledge, to refrain from seeking to remedy it, and urging all to assist us to do so.

“In this belief we call your attention to the proposed ‘Consumers’
League,’ the members of which shall pledge themselves to deal at
those stores where just conditions exist.

“We have gotten together a number of facts which we shall be glad to present to you with our estimate of a fair house, or one which under existing conditions is eligible to admission to a white list.”

Preceding this appeal and the public meetings which ensued, came, in 1890, the formation of the Consumers’ League, Mrs. Josephine Shaw Lowell its President. Quiet and inconspicuous as its work has been, the best retail mercantile houses in New York have accepted its prospectus as just, and stand now upon the “White List,” which numbers all merchants who seek to deal justly and fairly with their employees. “What constitutes a Fair House” expresses all the needs and formulates the most vital demands of the working-woman; and the results already accomplished speak for themselves. As a guide to other workers, it is given here in full:-

STANDARD OF A FAIR HOUSE.

+Wages.+

A fair house is one in which equal pay is given for work of equal value, irrespective of sex. In the departments where women only are employed, in which the minimum wages are six dollars per week for experienced adult workers, and fall in few instances below eight dollars.

In which wages are paid by the week.

In which fines, if imposed, are paid into a fund for the benefit of
the employees.

In which the minimum wages of cash-girls are two dollars per week,
with the same conditions regarding weekly payments and fines.

+Hours.+

A fair house is one in which the hours from eight A.M. to six P.M. (with three quarters of an hour for lunch) constitute the working-day, and a general half-holiday is given on one day of each week during at least two summer months.

In which a vacation of not less than one week is given with pay
during the summer season.

In which all over-time is compensated for.

+Physical Conditions.+

A fair house is one in which work, lunch, and retiring rooms are
apart from each other, and conform in all respects to the present
sanitary laws.

In which the present law regarding the providing of seats for
saleswomen is observed, and the use of seats permitted.

+Other Conditions.+

A fair house is one in which humane and considerate behavior toward
employees is the rule.

In which fidelity and length of service meet with the consideration
which is their due.

In which no children under fourteen years of age are employed.

+Membership.+

The condition of membership shall be the approval by signature of the object of the Consumers’ League; and all persons shall be eligible for membership excepting such as are engaged in the retail business in this city, either as employer or employee.

The members shall not be bound never to buy at other shops.

The names of the members of the Consumers’ League shall not be made
public.

Later, one of the ablest workers in this field, Mrs. Florence Kelley, formulated a basis for every society of working-women, as follows:

I. To bring out of the chaos of competition the order of
co-operation.

II. To organize all wages-earning women.

III. To disseminate the literature of labor and co-operation.

IV. To institute a label which shall enable the purchaser to
discriminate in favor of goods produced under healthful conditions.

. Abolition of child labor to the age of sixteen.

2. Compulsory education to the age of sixteen.

3. Prohibition of employment of minors more than eight hours daily.

4. Prohibition of employment of minors at dangerous occupations.

5. Appointment of women inspectors, one for every thousand women
and children employed.

6. Healthful conditions of work for women and children.

The foregoing to be obtained by legislation.

The following to be obtained by organization:-

1. Equal pay for equal work with men.

2. A minimal rate which will enable the least paid to live upon her
earnings.

A little later, the statement which follows, became necessary:-

“Certain abuses exist in the dry-goods houses affecting the well-being of the saleswomen and children employed, which we believe can be remedied. In fact, in different stores some of them have been remedied, which gives us courage to bring these matters to your attention.

“We find the hours are often excessive, and that these women and
children are not paid for over-time.

“We find that in many houses the saleswomen work under unwholesome
conditions; these comprise bad ventilation, unsanitary toilet
arrangements, and an indifference to considerations of decency.

“The wages, which are low, we find are often reduced by excessive
fines; that employers place a value on time lost that they fail to
give for service rendered.

“We find that numbers of children under age are employed for
excessive hours, and at work far beyond their strength.

“We find that long and faithful service does not meet with the
consideration that is its due; on the contrary, having served a
certain number of years is a reason for dismissal.

“Because of the foregoing low wages, the discouraging result of excessive fines, long hours, and unwholesome sanitary conditions, not only the physical system is injured, but-the result we most deplore, and of which we have incontrovertible proof-the tendency is to injure the moral well-being.

“We believe that to call attention to these evils is to go far
toward remedying them, and that the power to do this lies largely
in the hands of the purchasing classes.

“We think that ’the payment and condition of those who work-through their employers-for us, is our affair, and that we have no right to remain in ignorance of the conditions that involve or may involve their misery.’”

Two points still remain untouched, both of them vital elements in the just working of the social scheme,-profit-sharing, and a board of conciliation and arbitration for the adjustment of all difficulties between employer and employed.

For every detail bearing upon the education bound up in even the attempt at profit-sharing, as well as for the actual and successful results in this direction, the reader is referred to an excellent little monograph on the subject, “Sharing the Profits,” by Miss Mary Whiton Calkins, A.M., and for very full and elaborate treatment of the question, to the invaluable volume by N.P. Gilman, “Profit-Sharing between Employer and Employed.” In all cases where the experiment has had fair trial, it has resulted in a marked increase of interest in the work itself; an actual lessening of the cost of production, and of general wear and tear, because of this increased interest; and a far more friendly feeling between employer and employed. It is certain that justice requires immediate attention to every phase of this question, and that its adoption is the first step in the right direction.

For the second point, we have as yet in this country only an occasional attempt at arbitration, yet its need becomes more and more apparent with every fresh difficulty in the field of labor. A little volume by Mrs. Josephine Shaw Lowell, at the time of writing, going through the press, who has given much time to a study of the question, contains the latest results of English and French legislation, and of special action in this direction. Any history of the movement as a whole, hardly has place in these pages. It is sufficient to say that the system had practically no consideration till 1850, when the first Board of Arbitration was formed in England, owing its existence to the determined efforts of two men. Mr. Rupert Kettle, lawyer and judge, approached it from the legal side; Mr. Murdella, a manufacturer, and himself sprung from the working-classes, went straight “to the practical and moral end implied by the word ‘conciliation,’ ... both routes of this noble emulation converging, each affording strength to the common conclusions.”

The Nottingham lace manufacture, in which numbers of women and children as well as men are employed, has, for thirty years and more, been governed by a Board of Arbitration, the result being an end of strikes and all difficulties of like nature. If no more were accomplished than the bringing about a better understanding between employer and employed, it would mean much, since mutual suspicion and distrust rule for both. Organization among women, and the sense of mutual dependence given by it, lead naturally to the formation of a board able to judge dispassionately and disinterestedly of the questions naturally arising, many of which, however, are at once dissipated on the adoption of the system of profit-sharing.

The practical steps already taken sum up in the forms just given; and there remains only the question constantly asked as to the final effect upon wages of woman’s entrance into public life, this question usually shaping itself under three heads:-

1. Why are they in the field?

2. How does their work compare in efficiency with that of men?

3. What is likely to be the final effect on wage of their entrance into active life?

The first phase has already had full answer in the general survey of trades and their rise and growth. As to the second, personal observation, long continued and minute, added to the very full knowledge to be obtained from the reports of the various State bureaus of labor, goes to prove beyond question that, given the same grade of intelligence, the work of women is fully equal to that of men. Descending in the scale to untrained labor in all its forms, the woman is at times of less value than the man. The Knights of Labor, however, settled definitely that this was seldom the case, and in their constitution demanded equal pay for equal work. For both sexes machinery is more and more superseding the labor of each; and as women and children are quite capable of running much of it, this fact, of course, brings the general wage to their standard. This, added to various physiological and social reasons, makes woman often a less dependable worker than man, and tends to keep wages at a minimum.

As to the final effect on wages, I regard the whole aspect of things as purely transitional, and must answer from personal conviction in the matter.

The entire movement appears to me a part of the natural evolution from barbaric law and restriction, and a necessary demonstration of the spiritual equality of the sexes. I regard it also as the nurse and developer of many small virtues in which women are especially deficient,-punctuality, unvarying quality of work, a sense of business honor and of personal fidelity, each to all and all to each. But I cannot feel that it is a permanent state, or that when the essential has been accomplished women will have the same need or the same desire that now rules. I believe that wages must necessarily fluctuate and tend to the mere point of subsistence when either child labor or the lowest grade of woman’s labor exists, and that the only way out of the complications we face is in an alteration of ideals. Statistics and general reports show the demoralization of family life where such work goes on, and the fact that in the long run the workman loses rather than gains where his family share his labor.

The lowering of wage may be considered, then, as in one sense remedial, and the present state of things as in part the mere action of inevitable and inescapable law. But it is impossible to make this plain in present limits. Having passed through every stage of feeling,-sick pity, burning indignation, and tempestuous desire for instant action,-I have come at last to regard all as our education in justice and a demand for training in such wise as shall render unskilled labor more and more impossible. So long as it exists, however, I see no outlook but the fluctuating and uncertain wage, the natural result of the existence of the lowest order of workers.

For them as for us it is the development of the individual from the mass that is the chief end of any real civilization. No Utopias of any past or present can bring this at once.

“Each man to himself and each woman to herself, such is the word of
the past and the present, and the true word of immortality.”

“No one can acquire for another, not one;
No one can grow for another, not one.”

Despair might easily be the outcome of a first glance at these conditions; but the stir at all points is assurance of a better day to come.

Legislation can do much. The appointment of women inspectors, lately brought about for New York, is imperative at all points, since women will tell women the evils they would never mention to men. Law can also demand decent sanitary conditions, and affix a penalty for every violation. Beyond this, and the awakening of the public conscience as to what is owed the honest worker, little can be said. Enlightenment, a better chance at every point for the struggling mass,-that is the work for each and all of them, and for those who would aid the constant demand, and labor for justice in its largest sense and its most rigorous application. With justice on both sides, abuses die of pure inanition. The tenement-house system, every evil that hedges about special trades, every wrong born of cupidity and ignorance, and all base features of trade at its worst, end once for all, and we see the end and aim of the social life, whether for employer or employed.

A generation ago Mazzini wrote:-

“The human soul, not the body, should be the starting-point of all our efforts, since the body without the soul is only a carcass, whilst the soul, wherever it is found free and holy, is sure to mould for itself such a body as its wants and vocation require.”

It is this soul-moulding that is given chiefly into the hands of women. It is through them that the higher ideal of life, its purpose and its demands, is to be made known. No present scheme of general philanthropy can touch this need. It is growth in the human soul itself that will mean justice from the employer to each and every worker, and from the worker in equal measure to the employer; and this justice can be implanted in the child as certainly as many another virtue, into the knowledge and love of which we grow but slowly.

Never has deeper interest followed every movement for the understanding and bettering of conditions. Never was there stronger ground for hope that, in spite of the worst abuses existing, man’s will is to join hands at last with natural evolution toward higher forms. Faith and hope alike find their assurance in the increasing sense of the solidarity of human kind, and the spirit of brotherhood more and more discernible, which, as it grows, must end all oppression, conscious and unconscious. The old days of darkness are dying. Man knows at last that-

“Laying hands on another,
To coin his labor and sweat,
He goes in pawn to his victim
For eternal years in debt;”

and in knowing it, the first step is taken in the new life wherein all are brothers; and the law of love, slowly as it may work, ends forever the long conflict between employer and employed.