Friday, September 7, 2012

Labor Day Continued

To continue our discussion on workers...

Every modern nation undergoes an industrial revolution as it enters into the competitive world of manufacture and trade.  One of the first industries to be transformed is the textile industry.  First with  water power for mills, then power looms, textile production goes from the home and small workshops to the first factory systems. When other crafts follow, the machine age has begun. Now, when a country moves from an agri-economy to an industrial one, it is greeted as a sign of coming prosperity and modernization.  That was not always the case.  For example, in England there was great controversy with opponents decrying the machines as the enemy of workers, taking their jobs and producing inferior goods.  (Sounds a bit like today)  One institution that has long praised the worker, whether the craftsman in his workshop or the factory worker on the assembly line is the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Their premise, which was and still is illustrated by examples of workmanship, has been that there can be good and poor quality in machine-made goods, just as there are good and poor examples of hand-crafted products. While workers may be replaced by machines, new jobs are formed.  New workers are needed to manufacture the machines themselves and well as maintain them.  More production means more sorting, packaging, distribution and advertising. Change is not always easy, but inevitable.

Where there are advantages, there are also abuses.  Dickens' stories of Victorian life, so  depressing,  were, I think, an understatement.  Thousands of people descended upon the cities seeking employment.  In no way were these cities in a position to sustain even the poorest quality of life for all.
The factory conditions were appalling and the treatment of the workers even worse.  Why?  EXPECTATIONS!  The cost to furnish, even a small workshop-factory with the new machinery was   enormous.  Investors EXPECTED a return on their monies, a big return, and they EXPECTED the managers and supervisors to produce. In turn, the supervisors could only satisfy if they hired as many workers as possible for the lowest of wages, kept long working hours and ignored concerns of health and safety for the workers.  The question is why did the workers stay?  They were not slaves, nor serfs.  They were free to return to their rural life and raise turnips!  EXPECTATIONS!
Some felt that if they worked diligently, they may, someday ,be promoted and earn more (right!).  Some believed that if they, their wife and children all worked night and day they could collectively save a few pennies and eventually have a better life (Some of us believe we will win Megabucks with a $1 ticket).
The majority were just stuck, downbeatened and barely surviving with no hope of anything better.

By uniting in trade and workers unions and cooperatives, workers had strength in numbers and demanded reforms.  This also was a double edged sword. The manufacturers violently opposed this system, the unions, in turn, proposed strikes and slowdowns with violence toward non-union member workers. While management grudgingly accepted the unions' role the power of the unions and their leaders was immense. Graft, political influences, and criminal associations were not unheard of.  Reforms, for both union and non-union workers,  came with legislation.  Labor laws reduced the hours workers were forced to perform and minimum wages demanded a more uniform pay scale.  There was legislation against child labor and and compensation for workers injured on the job.  Agencies were set up to inspect factories and ensure safe working conditions.

But today, there are still mining disasters, oil-rig explosions and worker injuries due to faulty and poorly maintained equipment.  There remains the problems of human trafficking and child labor issues.  Think coffee, chocolate and high-priced sneakers. 

To paraphrase an economic principle “ where there is demand, there will be someone to supply”.  But at what cost?

No comments:

Post a Comment