R2884-311 The Impending Industrial Crisis

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JOHN SWINTON, widely known as a writer upon labor conditions and prospects, sums up his recent cogitations in an article in the New York Herald. We make some quotations that will be of interest to all who have read Millennial Dawn Vol. IV. He says, under the above caption:

“We may have stormy times in our country before the twentieth century has gone far. We may see some apocalyptic illustrations of the workings of that industrial Revolution which is now transforming our body politic into “something new and strange” and which is bringing about organic changes in our Republic, our Commonwealth, and our social system, by means both visible and invisible, through agencies containing the ‘promise and potency’ of a kind of development not to be foreseen. We may yet see that gigantic modern power called Capital and those immeasurable latter day forces grouped under the name of Labor engaged in performances of large interest and concern to the American people.

“Already there are signs and omens not to be disregarded, and more of them are coming in sight all the time, as we whirl along.

“There are other things than the great labor revolts of our time, so numerous, so continuous, so disquieting and so portentous, which prompt me to write these words.

“Those of the readers of the Herald who can recall the years that immediately preceded the election of Mr. Lincoln will be able here to make comparisons of a suggestive character. They do not need to be told in how far the passions, the contentions and the menaces of that portentous period resemble those that have come into existence of late years through the discord between the great wielders of capital and the millions of workers for wages, and through the ceaseless strain of both parties in the strenuous struggle. As forty years ago each party declared that it would ‘never submit or yield,’ so now again the defiant words are heard in the contentious camps.

“But I shall refrain from further suggestions in this line, as I recall the passions and the events that stirred our country forty or more years ago and that led up to the other years, never to be forgotten. Let warning be taken while yet it may. And let it be said of the present writer in days to come that he was an ‘alarmist’ at the opening of the twentieth century, as was another man in the year 1859, when he wrote ‘The Impending Crisis,’ a crisis for slavery which came so unexpectedly in less than two years after Mr. Helper’s book was printed.

“The magnitude of the labor revolts that have broken out within a year has never been paralleled in any other time or country. I need not speak of those of the many building trades, the coal miners, the machinists, the San Francisco unions, the factory hands, the clothiers, the steel workers, or a hundred lesser industries. By the estimate of an expert, who has kept count as nearly as possible, it would seem that not far from a million wage workers have ‘gone on strike’ during the last twelve-month; and

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this, of course, signifies that a much greater number of other people have been disturbed or have suffered in consequence.

“No wonder that a foreign writer, in reviewing the situation, gives his essay such a headline as ‘The Industrial Anarchy in the United States.’ The importance, the gravity, the passionateness and the significance of some of the strikes have been very great. They have affected business, trade, Wall street, the markets, politics, and the daily life and welfare of large masses of our people. They have brought heavy losses to many of the parties concerned in them; they have rent many schemes and crippled many enterprises; they have caused bankruptcies; they have been the source of woes unnumbered; they have wrecked lives and broken hearts; have sent men and women to the poorhouse, the madhouse and the graveyard. …

“Notwithstanding the magnitude and the multitude of the convulsing strikes, it is altogether likely that they will become yet greater, more numerous and more convulsing as the industrial and financial powers advance in their development. The forces now in operation by which they are promoted are very sure to increase in strength and momentum as time goes on. A generation ago but a few hundred men used to take part in a strike; some time afterward thousands of men would go out on strike; nowadays hundreds of thousands of men join in a strike, and, moreover, a score of different trades in as many States sometimes ‘back up’ one trade during a strike, while the great body of organized workers sympathize with the strikers, even if they do not always enter into a ‘sympathetic strike.’ Looking at the

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growth of labor unionism everywhere, and in nearly all industries, it is not difficult to make forecasts, applicable to the years that are not far off.

“The domination of unlicensed capitalism and the existence of labor unionism are at stake in these contests.

“It is to be remarked here that the many and great strikes of recent times have been almost wholly free from violence or riotous conduct on the part of the workmen, though the militia have sometimes been called out in the name of the law, as at Buffalo and Troy. The strikes may be properly characterized as ‘peaceful revolts.’ Passion has run high in some cases at times, but self-restraint has kept it within safe bounds. Every organization, when its members go on strike, always declares that its desire is to secure success in a peaceful and orderly manner; and there can be no doubt that this desire is sincere, for its sincerity has been made manifest by circumstances beyond enumeration. Any suggestion of offering resistance to law is sure to be denounced, as are any unlawful means of gaining an object. Were this otherwise the formidable labor revolts of our day would be a terror indeed.


“A short time ago, however, when the great strike of the steel workers got under headway, the Herald startled the country by printing a despatch from West Virginia that the first military company ever formed by a labor union had been organized at Wheeling by Crescent Lodge, Amalgamated Association. Here, at last, it looked as if there were occasion for both alarm and amazement. One seemed to catch sight of armed and uniformed hordes of steel workers in full array, stalwart men, twice a hundred thousand of them, three times stronger than the regular army of the United States. It is true that the report, after telling that the labor soldiers were ‘not to be in any way under the control of the State,’ said that they were organized only for self-defence and the protection of property; but that could hardly be regarded as consoling by those people who hold their property under the protection of the State which the Amalgamated Military Company had refused to recognize. There seemed to be something like amalgamated humor in the Crescent report from Wheeling. But soon after the appearance of the first despatch the Herald printed another, which gave the information that, on account of the excitement created by the first report, Crescent Lodge had resolved to postpone the organization of the military company till the steel strike was ended.

“The interest in the original report, however, has not been diminished, for it is now known that the Crescent Lodge, at Wheeling, is not the only one that has taken the subject under consideration, and that other labor organizations in different parts of the country have done likewise. They claim that the ‘right of the people to keep and bear arms’ is guaranteed by the constitution, and that, as the working-men are the ‘bone and sinew of the country,’ the constitutional right cannot be denied to them.

“It would be foolishness to ignore such things, since the publication of the startling Wheeling despatch in the Herald. The news, however, does not convey a menace to any man’s rights. It is quite undisturbing; not at all dangerous in a democratic republic.

“The members of workingmen’s organizations are often trained and disciplined to some extent, after the manner of the militia, as may be seen on Labor Day. They drill for their parades; they are proud of their appearance on the march; they follow their flags; they pay honor to the union that makes the best show, and they are also to have experience in athletic exercises.

“At this point it may be mentioned that a good number of trade unions, especially of those in the Western States, have recently prohibited their members from joining the regular State militia, under pain of expulsion, and the reason given for this action is that the State troops are used ‘in the interest of capitalism,’ against the labor element, and in the suppression of justifiable strikes. It is a fact, nevertheless, that, at least in Pennsylvania and Illinois, the State militia have, on several occasions, suffered from the charge of being unduly sympathetic with labor in the case of a strike. …

“Before closing my remarks, I would make note of one thing that undoubtedly has an influence in disturbing the mind of the commonalty in these times. I refer to the oft repeated public reports of

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the stupendous incomes of certain great trusts, flamboyant millionaires, banking institutions, big corporations, stock speculators, market riggers and indescribables. To go no further back than the current month, we have had in August such figures of the dividends of the Standard Oil Company, and the revenues of the billion dollar Steel Trust, and the ‘earnings’ of at least one of our banks, and the incomes of some of our heavy investors or operators; such figures, I repeat, as might well ‘make humanity stagger’ and cause Croesus to take to the woods.

“To the ordinary mind, these reports, even when trustworthy or official, are inexplicable, incomprehensible and bewildering. Never before, in all time, did the golden stream, the millions and the billions, roll so rapidly as now, rolling into treasuries so vast that they could not be compassed in a day’s march by all the labor unions in America. The ordinary mind is apt to become excited in reading about them every day, and to ask why it is necessary to cut down anybody’s wages, even if he gets two or three dollars a day, and joins a union to keep them up.

“The news of the latest dividend of the billion dollar Trust was printed simultaneously with other news of strikes, more strikes, and yet other strikes. Can any one be surprised that even thoughtless people are led to indulge in thinking?

“I am asked to make a guess as to the outcome of all these big passionate and ominous labor revolts, which are constantly growing in magnitude, momentum and force. I can’t do it. I cannot see how they are to be prevented or put down without a change of circumstances so great as to be unthinkable, or without a change in bodies of men who are beyond reason, or without some kind of change in the relation between capital and labor. It is possible that there may be something in the theory of ‘spontaneous generation,’ and that it will work out all right in the end, regardless of the lesser movements of either of the belligerents. I can’t tell, nor can Mr. Morgan. It would certainly be bad business to use the regular army or the State militia against masses of men striking for life. It would certainly be poor policy to carry ‘government by injunction’ further than it can be enforced. It is surely folly to abuse and threaten organized labor in the interest of organized capital at periods of storm and stress consequent upon an industrial and social transformation, when our country is passing out of the old into the new and the unknown.”


— October 1, 1901 —