‘Over a Volcano’ by William E. Trautmann from International Socialist Review. Vol. 14 No. 3. September, 1913.
“Twenty thousand common laborers are needed in the Pittsburgh District!” “The Carnegie Steel Corporation is paying court fines to get prisoners released so that they can go to work in the mills.”
These, and similar, are the news items running through the newspaper nearly every day. There is a scarcity of labor, common, unskilled labor, but many mechanics and skilled toilers are in the peculiar position of looking for jobs. Many of them are compelled to take work as “common laborers.”
This need for common laborers may look very prosperous on the surface. Not in 38 years has there been such a situation in the Pittsburgh District. As work is plentiful, the job of hunting for men is on. Wages ought to be high and employment devoid of the rough features that are imposed upon the toilers when the streets are filled with idle men and women. Premiums are offered to employment agencies to get more workers, and in several mills the skilled mechanics cannot work full time because of this dearth of the “common herd” on the labor market.
It’s indeed a strange situation created by the capitalist process of production. The skilled mechanic has been gradually reduced or eliminated by the more skillful machines operated by semi-skilled or common laborers. With wages comparatively higher these former skilled workers have helped to bring about the conditions they now suffer under. They resisted being drawn into the mass of common unskilled toilers. They rebelled against being placed on the same level with the latter. In pursuit of a blind policy of trades unionism, they shut the doors in the organizations of glass, of iron and steel workers, and in many others, against the common laborers.
They neglected and sometimes deliberately refused to help in the education and organization of hundreds of thousands of common laborers, and scorned even the latter’s efforts to rise to a higher standard of living. This is now causing a reaction which the craftsmen bitterly resent. Slowly but surely great numbers of them sink into the mass that constitutes the low level, or thousands of them roam the country in the delusive hope that the days of “craftsmanship” are bound to return some time when some political party will turn backward the wheels of progress.
Now the time, the golden opportunity, has arrived when the common laborers, the unskilled toilers, can accomplish things. The law of supply and demand ought to operate automatically. The supply being so extraordinarily scarce, and the demand so keen and intense, wages ought to go up for these workers by leaps and by bounds.
But this has not always happened. The corporations prefer to pay premiums to employment agents. But they have not stimulated the increased needed supply by granting better wages and improved working conditions in general. It is with them a matter of policy to set that economic law aside if they can. They seem to know that the combined strength and united efforts of the aroused toilers would make them go a few points better than allowing that law of supply and demand to operate. They are therefore biding their time till the workers are able to force them.
A portion of these employers of labor, however, remember what great advantages will accrue if they can tie down the unrest by contracts with trades unions, being assured, of course, that minute compliance with all the terms of such contract will be looked after by the faithful servants of the National Civic Federation.
In a recently renewed agreement with the United Mine Workers in the Pittsburgh district it is stated that 15,000 mine laborers, for the first time, are going to share in the great achievements of the organization. They are granted an increase of 515 per cent in wages, and the operators benevolently agree to check the monthly dues from the pay envelope of these common laborers. This means absolute control over the actions of these toilers. It assures the mine owners that these thousands are enjoined from going out on strike during the life of that contract even though in other industries, wages of the unskilled workers may be raised from 10 to 20 per cent.
But the capitalists and their faithful are placing their hopes. of control over these workers on their experiences in the past. They could then rely upon the crafty leaders of labor to avert suspension of operation when it did not suit them. But the days of meek obedience to orders by the common laborers are passing by. The rank and file is restless. Despite the desperate efforts of the capitalists and their servants to clamp the lid tight on the rumbling volcano, the pressure. from the seat of discontent below will cause an eruption when the tension grows too strong. Industrial-socialist propaganda, more or less, is responsible for this state of affairs.
In the Westmoreland Mining District these lessons of a great propaganda are brought home to the workers, as well as to the capitalists. Unhampered by iron-clad trades agreements, thousands of South Slavish miners rebelled. They had scabbed during the last strike, that is true, but agitators of the South Slavish Socialist Federation have been pounding into their heads the doctrine of working class solidarity. They wanted to make good. And they ‘did. Consternation ran rampant among the mine owners. Increases ranging from 15 to 20 per cent in wages were “voluntarily” granted. These employers did not want the lid to be blown off from a smoldering volcano. They had no labor leaders to fix things by contracts, and they were compelled to recognize the growing demand of millions for better returns for the work they perform in the mines.
It is pitiful only to observe that the large mass of workers are not conscious as yet of the wonderful industrial advantage they occupy at this time. They could again make “Pittsburgh” a historic place in the battle of labor for more rights and better things. Here and there the rumblings of an impending industrial eruption can be heard. Usually small outbreaks are quickly pacified for fear the heaped-up discontent will result in an industrial conflict involving hundreds of thousands of men. Labor troubles of all kinds grow fast in the Pittsburgh District.
Jones & Laughlin, the steel corporation in which the William Taft family has its assets, quickly yielded an increase of 10 per cent to the common laborers, but only after hundreds of workers had started a stampede out of one of the departments. The situation was fraught with imminent danger that the tens of thousands employed in other departments, including the 8,000 employed by the same corporation in Aliquippa, would: be involved. Once the men break loose, there will be no halt. The employers only too keenly realize this.
In Homestead a repetition of an industrial conflict was feared when the workers in three departments walked out. Their demands were quickly granted.
The Steel Trust, in order to assure itself of “peace and prosperity,” would now comply with some of the recommendations of the Stanley Committee and introduce the three-shift system. But this they would only do with a corresponding reduction in wages, like the Wool Trust did in Lawrence.
But here in the Pittsburgh district this would require not less than 50,000 additional common workers. That would put the corporation still more at a disadvantage. The supply is not here now. They have their agents busy in Europe, but for reasons to be touched on in other articles, they cannot get the slaves to come over to the homes of the brave.
Seven hundred and fifty people from Slavonia, who were given work in the Braddock mills last week, to cover a shortage of over 3,000 common laborers, were taken directly from the steamer, after their arrival, and packed into the company houses in the midst of dark night. The corporations were afraid that these workers would be approached to join some organization before they got into the mills, and they feared they would refuse to accept work for 16 cents an hour, when there is such an agitation to wrest from the companies all that the workers are able to get by their combined efforts.
In McKees Rocks, in the plant of the notorious Pressed Steel Car Company, a 10 per cent increase in wages was granted immediately after the company officials learned that organization meetings addressed by socialist-industrialists had been held. But the company held out, immediately thereafter, to hundreds of the deluded workers the hope of making extra premiums by overtime work, Saturday afternoon and Sunday.
After the memorable strike of 1909, all these things were no longer permitted, as the worker were being organized. But this shortage of labor require the capitalists to make extra inducements to fill urgent orders. Much of our literature does not include the discussion of subjects closely related to the workers’ daily needs and final historic mission. Therefore ignorance on such industrial matters is liable to react on those who strive for the change of the system with all organized means available.
The Cigar Trust, seeing how the tobacco workers in the Pittsburgh District won strike after strike in some large factories, “voluntarily,” of course, increased the wages of its men for the first time, believing that thereby an outbreak of discontent would be averted.
All these phenomena combined demonstrate that the capitalists are very much alarmed. They attribute all these evil things to Socialist propaganda, and this is true as far as the agitation among the hundreds of thousands of aliens go. The North Slavish and South Slavish nationalities, and the Italians as well as Hungarians, form a veritable hotbed of revolutionary possibilities. They are ready to demand much. The capitalists feel it, too, and their peacemakers are kept busy. The large mass of Socialists are getting wise to the game. No longer has the labor aristocrat, represented in his craft union, and his walking delegate, the whiphand over the formerly despised common man. Their days are, fortunately for the labor movement, gone forever.
There will be foolish attempts to divert the activities of class conscious, militant workers from the industrial field of battle. The free speech fight here provoked by police and courts, with the backing of the corporations, sprung from the vain hope that thereby the industrial revolt would be ignored and energies wasted in other directions. But the great courage and determination of the advanced workers in these fights attracted the attention of the millions of industrial slaves. Despite all the vilification and abuse the common workers recognize in the industrial-socialists their only friends. When things start here in Pittsburgh, here where once over twenty-eight years ago a new labor organization was born when the old became too conservative, too corrupt and an instrument of re- action, here the workers, guided this time by the experience of the years, will set a mark on the work and progress of all revolutionary forces. They will march onward until industrial and political freedom is fully assured to all who toil.
The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v14n03-sep-1913-ISR-gog-ocr.pdf