by William H. Benson
August 31, 2000
A hundred years ago management and labor fought a bitter war. The workers struggled for a measure of collective power to ease their individual burdens. They wanted safer and better working conditions, a shorter working day, the right to strike, and the right to create unions which could then collectively bargain for the individual members.
On the other hand the robber barons–Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and the other owners of industrial America, feared a loss of their power. Motivated by a prejudicial fear, management feared the foreigners who had just recently immigrated into the United States and had assumed the industrial jobs available. After the Haymarket Square riot in Chicago in 1893, management was convinced that anarchists and communists had infiltrated the labor movement.
This internal war unleashed extreme emotions and deep suspicions on both sides; a flood of wild charges and counter charges erupted. And it was a brutal war. Strikes quickly deteriorated into aggressive battles. Many strikers were killed, and many others were wounded. The casualties were far in excess of those experienced in England or France or Germany.
A hundred years removed from the labor strife, we can safely conclude that labor won that war. Management eventually and over time relented and yielded to the workers. Labor achieved most of their goals. When the dust settled, people realized that management’s fears proved to be largely unfounded. Civilization did not end. The United States did not revert to anarchy nor communism. Nothing disastrous happened. In fact, productivity actually multiplied. The war ended with scarcely a whimper.
Today management faces other problems, such as finding quality workers–those educated and trainable with good attitudes towards work. For jobs are one of the measures of the success of any society. When there is not enough work for everybody who wants to work, there are problems; and there are also problems when there is work enough but not reward enough.
On the other hand, the workers, especially those with ambition, are constantly and justifiably pursuing better and better jobs, for work is not the curse, but drudgery is.
I know it is a rhetorical question, but consider this. Throughout the history of humanity, how many millions of men and women have been completely ill-suited for the jobs that they were forced into doing. Surely among the workers of those Egyptian pyramids five millennium ago, there were men or women who would have preferred intellectual or office work, but unfortunately they never were given the chance.
And how many since have groaned under boring and mentally-dulling physical work throughout their entire lifetimes when they would have thrived if thrown even a handful of mental challenges? Or, for that matter, who has clung to the office or to the classroom when clearly their talent was working with their hands in the garage or the shop? This all means “choice”. It means matching human talent and natural-given ability with the job and approaches what Jefferson called “the pursuit of happiness”.
Some time ago James Michener wrote, “For in American life, the average person can expect to work in three radically different fields before he retires. The trained lawyer is dragged into a business reorganization and winds up a college president. The engineer uses his slide rule for a short time, finds himself a sales expert and ends his career in labor relations. The schoolteacher becomes a principal and later on heads the town’s car dealership. . . . Adults who are unwilling to reeducate themselves periodically are doomed to mediocrity.”
Teddy Roosevelt said, “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” And Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote, “The right to work, I had assumed, was the most precious liberty that man possesses.”
And so we pause and reflect on Labor Day, and think about a war fought a hundred years ago; labor won that war, but nobody really lost.