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A CLEARING-HOUSE FOR LABOR
BY DON D. LESCOHIER
degenerated into inefficient, irresponsible, migratory laborers — tens of thou,
We lack labor. The railroads are sands of them into almost unemploycrippled for want of it. The farmers able ‘bums.' hesitate to plant seed for fear they can- Labor is not scarce in America, so not get labor for the harvest. Factories, far as quantity is concerned. I quespublic utilities, ammunition factories, tion the probability of any quantitashipyards, send up a cry for men.. tive shortage of labor during the war. Strangely enough, tens of thousands If such shortages should occur, potenof men walk the streets of our cities in tial supplies of female and minor labor idleness in the midst of the labor short- will fill up the gap. But labor of qualage. Appeals to patriotism apparently ity is scarce in every manual occupago unheeded. High wages, instead of tion — in agriculture, mining, forestattracting them into steady employ- ry, manufactures, transportation; and ment, lead only to more frequent peri- there is no reservoir from which that ods of idleness. They profiteer in the quality shortage can be relieved. Our nation's day of stress as willingly as hope for relief rests solely in such momany of their employers. Neither im- bilization as will place the existing pairment of our military efficiency nor skilled labor where it will do the most the sufferings of millions who lack the good, in subdivision and specialization necessities of life move them. What is of tasks so that partly skilled persons the explanation? Why this anomaly? may be able to perform them, and in Why a labor surplus in the face of a intensive training of promising young labor shortage?
workers for such work as they can be An explanation which at least points prepared for during the emergency. to one important cause of the phenom- One of the most striking phases of enon is this: labor is standing idle dur- the labor shortage is the scarcity of ing a labor shortage because an unor- good common labor. Any one knows ganized labor market has impaired the that an employer who needs a machinefficiency and morale of hundreds of ist cannot use a casual laborer. It is thousands of workers. Men have be- not difficult to realize that a farmer come accustomed to idleness, unaccus- who needs a dairyman cannot use a tomed to sustained efforts. Irregular- harvest-hand. But many people do ity of employment, migration from not yet appreciate the fact that there industry to industry, the cheap lodging- are different classes or types of comhouse, the saloon, pawnshop, brothel, mon laborers, just as there are differmunicipal police court, and lack of ent classes of mechanics. Degrees of continuing responsibilities have done reliability, intelligence, steadiness, and
, their deadly work. Men who started physical efficiency are of just as great
. out with ambition and promise have importance among common laborers as degrees of skill among mechanics; and One of the principal reasons why the presence or absence of these quali- uncounted thousands of American laties means the presence or absence of borers are of such low quality that ability to earn wages.
employers do not want to give them The shortage of competent Amer- standing-room,' and prefer the immiican labor is not simply a war shortage. grants, is a disorganized labor market. A considerable portion of our skilled Erroneous labor policies stimulate lalabor-supply has always come from bor turnover and labor migration, and Europe, and a relative decline in the result in a progressive deterioration of emigration of skilled laborers to Amer- the laborer. We educate them for inica has been the mainspring of our efficiency instead of efficiency, and train interest in industrial education in re- them in shifting instead of in sticking; cent years. Every one familiar with the we discourage self-respect, encourage labor market has known likewise that thriftlessness, and compel continuous the Italian and Slavic immigrants from movement. If we had set ourselves to southeastern Europe have furnished us devise ways and means of destroying with our principal supply of common the efficiency of American labor, we laborers during the past two genera- could not have chosen methods better tions, and that American common la- suited to our purpose than the condiborers have been, on the whole, of de- tions characterizing our present labor clining value.
market. Constant labor turnover and The shortage is no new one. But constant labor migration will demorEurope has heretofore protected us alize a working force as rapidly as it against the pressure of our lack. The can be accomplished. war, with its stoppage of immigration, I am not ignorant of the fact that contemporaneous with a sharp increase many personal causes contribute heav. in the demand for American products, ily to labor inefficiency. No man can raw and manufactured, suddenly made watch the flow of migratory labor the shortage acute. It twisted the through any distributing point, like tourniquet. We suddenly became con- Minneapolis, without witnessing tragescious that we were no more independ- dies of drink, of drugs, of feebleminded. ent of Europe's birth-rate than we were ness, of bad home training, of defective of her dyes. We need labor now. After education, and of moral failure, that the war, when millions of Europeans wring his heart. But contact with tens will have died in arms or been crippled of thousands of laborers of every type in action, will immigration relieve our and description has forced the conclushortage again? If it would, is it sane sion upon me that the moral failure of public policy to permit conditions to a very large percentage of these men is continue which destroy the efficiency the result of the industrial and social of hundreds of thousands of men, sim- conditions that surround them rather ply because we can find others to take than of initial viciousness on their part. their places? Will a nation that is will. Initial personal fault accounts for some ing, if necessary, to lay down the lives of them. But economic conditions beof millions of men and billions of treas- yond their control or understanding ure to make the world safe for democ- account for more. They are victims racy'allow social arrangements to con- of drink, vice, drugs, and women, largetinue which condemn whole armies of ly because the nature of their work men to economic inefficiency and moral prevents a normal home life, normal deterioration?
community life, normal citizenship.
You are familiar with common la- job, who remained steadily on the job. borers. You see them daily, standing They were a part of that plant. But on street corners, riding in street cars, more than that, they were heads of sweating in excavations, loafing at sa- families, citizens of Oshkosh, integral loon or pool-room doors. You have parts of the economic, political, and soprobably hired them at one time or cial life of the nation. another. You may have shared their Here is the first and highest type of life. But have you ever really become the common laborer: the man who is acquainted with them? Do you know a part of an industry, who has an occu· where the common laborer comes from, pation, who is a citizen in a commun
what his experiences are, what becomes ity, is the father of a family, perhaps a of him, what his types are? Or is he member of a lodge, a club, or a church. one of those commonplace experiences You find this man by the million in that you are so familiar with that you our industrial and social life. He runs do not really know anything about the bulk of our simpler machinery, him? You know that there are more operates our street cars, furnishes our than a dozen different kinds of machin- watchmen, janitors, and a thousand ists, and that different kinds of carpen- other kinds of steady help. Upon his ters have different types of skill which shoulders rests a heavy portion of our bring varying rates of pay.
social fabric. He represents no social realize also that there are at least five problem so long as he can maintain distinct classes of common laborers, this status — except the problem of an varying in skill, in the kinds of work income inadequate to provide his famthey follow, in productive capacity, in ily with a safe subsistence and a deearning power, in social significance? pendable future. Probably four out of
every ten workmen are found in this
But this is not the only type of I was in a gas-retort house one night a
common laborer who is a permanent in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. It was the hour factor in the life of the community. A for drawing the coke and recharging second important type is the man the retorts. Three stokers opened the who works irregularly, who has a conlittle retort doors and drew the red-hot tinuous succession of employers. He coke out on the floor. Then, standing works for a while for contractor Jones, twelve or fifteen feet away from the then for Smith, then for Brown. He red-hot open retorts they threw from gets a temporary job in a factory, then four to six hundred pounds of coal, with in a brickyard, and next in an excava
а scoop shovels, into openings twenty- tion. At his best he is a man with a one inches wide and fourteen inches family — struggling for existence. His high, and filled nine retorts without wife commonly assists in the bitter letting a single piece of coal fall on struggle by keeping boarders, or by dothe floor. They were common laborers. ing washing or sewing; his children are They worked twelve hours a day and found at the work-bench as early as the seven days a week. Their job consisted law allows, and high-school education simply in drawing coke, cleaning re- is not a thing that his family can think torts, and shoveling coal into the re- about. In a somewhat lower variation torts. But they had the skill of men of the type we find this family interwho had thoroughly learned a job, who mittently on the rolls of the charities, had developed an expert skill in that whenever two or three weeks of con
tinuous unemployment, a sickness or and as it looks ahead it sees a prospect other slight calamity assails them. In of steady income and of continuing a third variation we find a single man self-support. It has a certain sense of living in cheap boarding houses and assurance, of confidence, of hope. generally deteriorating steadily under The
which works at a succesthe influence of drink and irregular sion of jobs, on the contrary, continu
, habits. The struggle for existence of ally hears the wolf's claws scratching the married man of this last class is on the door. They live in constant unharder, more bitter — but he has more certainty, constant fear. They have no to fight for.
more assurance of continuing income, The distinction between this general no solid basis for hope, no opportunity group of laborers and the one first de- to get a few dollars in the bank, no scribed is found in the relative steadi- justification in starting to buy a home. ness of the first group's employment. They are living from hand to mouth, and the relative unsteadiness of the and never know at what moment the second's. One works for the same em- hand may be empty. Their self-respect ployer for considerable periods of time; and honesty are always under the strain the other changes employers frequent- of fear; their working efficiency is dely. Individuals of the first group fre- teriorated by a continual change of quently pass into the second group, jobs that makes it impossible for them when they lose their steady jobs and ever to attain efficiency at any. They are unable to get others. Individuals of are, by force of necessity, jacks of all the second group sometimes pass into trades and masters of none, and after the first group by fortunately drop- they pass thirty-five and their strength ping into a steady job.
begins to wane, the effects of underTo some this may seem a flimsy basis nourishment and the declining courage for classification. It seems somewhat that accompanies a life of fear, all bring vague, leaving a middle ground, a twi- a steadily declining efficiency. light zone, where a considerable num- The 'professional casual' is a third ber of people lie in either group, or distinct type of resident laborer. He is both, or sometimes in one and some- a distinctly lower type than either of times in the other. But it at least has the others, but recruited from their the merit of conforming to life, and it ranks. Every employment office is familcalls attention to two types whose life iar with this type. Any city with three experiences differ considerably. The hundred thousand people will have permembers of the group with steady em- haps three or four hundred well-known ployment are never far from destitu- individuals. Some of them are steady tion. They are poor, very poor. They patrons of the state or municipal offices, have a hard time to make ends meet. some of the Salvation Army, some of They commonly have to take their the charities. Others hang around sachildren out of school by the time that loons, hotels, settlement houses. Indithey are sixteen years of age. A period viduals of the type can be found in of unemployment, a bad sickness, or almost every country town and rural other misfortune, will quickly bring community. They are a distinct social them to the point where they must group. have help. But ordinarily they are At some times, especially in the winmaking ends meet. The wife or chil- ter, the employment office finds among dren may have to earn part of the liv. them laborers and mechanics who oring, but the family is self-supporting, dinarily work steadily but who are
temporarily unable to get work and are no effort to support, never working if taking odd jobs to carry them along. they can get some one else to feed them. For instance, our office carried a ma- Others do not know in the morning chine operator with a wife and family where they will lay their head at night. for about four months at odd jobs, They live permanently in the city, but until he was able to get a steady job. have no residence. Some of them are He has now been working steadily ever moral failures, some defectives. since last September in a machine-shop. When we turn to the group of casBut these are not casual workers. They uals who are older their explanation is do not belong to the type. They are do- even more complex. Many are moral ing casual work only temporarily, and failures, mental defectives, or physthey neither live the life, nor think the ical unfits, as already described. Oththoughts, nor have the point of view ers are the residuum of our labor marof the true casual.
ket. Starting out as common laborers The casual never seeks more than a twenty years before, they were for a day's work. He lives strictly to the time steady workmen; then they berule, one day at a time. If you ask him came subject to irregular employment, why he does not take a steady job, he either because of industrial conditions, will tell you that he would like to, but or because of drink or a taste for travelthat he has n't money enough to en- ing. Gradually they became more and able him to live until pay-day, and no more irregular in their working and life one will give him credit. If you offer habits, and crystallized into casuals to advance his board until pay-day, he living from day to day and hand to will accept your offer and accept the mouth, without self-respect or ambijob you offer him, but he will not show tion. They are almost parasites in the up on the job, or else will quit at the body politic. end of the first day. He has acquired a Not all common laborers are resistandard or scale of work and life that dents of a community, however. Intermakes it almost impossible for him to mingling with the resident laborers we restore himself to steady employment. find a multitude of men who are conHe lacks the will-power, self-control, tinually wandering from place to place: ambition, and habits of industry which to-day working in a factory in Minare essential to it.
neapolis; a month from now on a con'The causes which produce the casual struction job in Des Moines; later,
many. A striking number of them bobbing up on a dam job in Wisconsin; are young. In general, these seem to be migrating to the harvest fields in the defective - defective in those mental fall, and then to the woods, to contraits which are the basis of industry struction work, or to some factory job and ambition, and in the sense of re- for the winter. These men too reveal sponsibility; defective in moral stam- distinct sub-groupings. We find among ina or training, and addicted to drugsthem temporary migrants, skilled midrink, and vice; or defective physically grants, common laborers, and tramps. and unable to do steady, hard work. The temporary migrant is found parAbsence of the moral ideas and mo- ticularly in agriculture and contracttives which cause most of us to work is ing. Many farmers, farm-hands, and probably more important in explain city men, who are permanent residents ing these younger casuals than any of some community for the bulk of the other one explanation. Some of them year, go to the harvest fields in the fall. have families which they make little or Many carpenters, painters, and other