Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone is not enough to produce widely shared prosperity.
Home Essential Documents Themes All Documents Authors Glossary Links Contact Us



Henry George: The Condition of Labor — An Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII in response to Rerum Novarum (1891)

As to working-men’s associations, what your Holiness seems to contemplate is the formation and encouragement of societies akin to the Catholic sodalities, and to the friendly and beneficial societies, like the Odd Fellows, which have had a large extension in English-speaking countries. Such associations may promote fraternity, extend social intercourse and provide assurance in case of sickness or death, but if they go no further they are powerless to affect wages even among their members. As to trades-unions proper, it is hard to define your position, which is, perhaps, best stated as one of warm approbation provided that they do not go too far. For while you object to strikes; while you reprehend societies that “do their best to get into their hands the whole field of labor and to force working-men either to join them or to starve;” while you discountenance the coercing of employers and seem to think that arbitration might take the place of strikes; yet you use expressions and assert principles that are all that the trades-unionist would ask, not merely to justify the strike and the boycott, but even the use of violence where only violence would suffice. For you speak of the insufficient wages of workmen as due to the greed of rich employers; you assume the moral right of the workman to obtain employment from others at wages greater than those others are willing freely to give; and you deny the right of any one to work for such wages as he pleases, in such a way as to lead Mr. Stead, in so widely read a journal as the Review of Reviews, approvingly to declare that you regard “blacklegging,” i.e., the working for less than union wages, as a crime.

To men conscious of bitter injustice, to men steeped in poverty yet mocked by flaunting wealth, such words mean more than I can think you realize.

When fire shall be cool and ice be warm, when armies shall throw away lead and iron, to try conclusions by the pelting of rose-leaves, such labor associations as you are thinking of may be possible. But not till then. For labor associations can do nothing to raise wages but by force. It may be force applied passively, or force applied actively, or force held in reserve, but it must be force. They must coerce or hold the power to coerce employers; they must coerce those among their own members disposed to straggle; they must do their best to get into their hands the whole field of labor they seek to occupy and to force other working-men either to join them or to starve. Those who tell you of trades-unions bent on raising wages by moral suasion alone are like those who would tell you of tigers that live on oranges.

The condition of the masses today is that of men pressed together in a hall where ingress is open and more are constantly coming, but where the doors for egress are closed. If forbidden to relieve the general pressure by throwing open those doors, whose bars and bolts are private property in land, they can only mitigate the pressure on themselves by forcing back others, and the weakest must be driven to the wall. This is the way of labor-unions and trade-guilds. Even those amiable societies that you recommend would in their efforts to find employment for their own members necessarily displace others.

For even the philanthropy which, recognizing the evil of trying to help labor by alms, seeks to help men to help themselves by finding them work, becomes aggressive in the blind and bitter struggle that private property in land entails, and in helping one set of men injures others. Thus, to minimize the bitter complaints of taking work from others and lessening the wages of others in providing their own beneficiaries with work and wages, benevolent societies are forced to devices akin to the digging of holes and filling them up again. Our American societies feel this difficulty, General Booth encounters it in England, and the Catholic societies which your Holiness recommends must find it, when they are formed.

Your Holiness knows of, and I am sure honors, the princely generosity of Baron Hirsch toward his suffering coreligionists. But, as I write, the New York newspapers contain accounts of an immense meeting held in Cooper Union, in this city, on the evening of Friday, September 4, in which a number of Hebrew trades-unions protested in the strongest manner against the loss of work and reduction of wages that are being effected by Baron Hirsch’s generosity in bringing their own countrymen here and teaching them to work. The resolution unanimously adopted at this great meeting thus concludes:

We now demand of Baron Hirsch himself that he release us from his “charity” and take back the millions, which, instead of a blessing, have proved a curse and a source of misery.

Nor does this show that the members of these Hebrew labor-unions — who are themselves immigrants of the same class as those Baron Hirsch is striving to help, for in the next generation they lose with us their distinctiveness — are a whit less generous than other men.

Labor associations of the nature of trade-guilds or unions are necessarily selfish; by the law of their being they must fight for their own hand, regardless of who is hurt; they ignore and must ignore the teaching of Christ that we should do to others as we would have them do to us, which a true political economy shows is the only way to the full emancipation of the masses. They must do their best to starve workmen who do not join them, they must by all means in their power force back the “blackleg” — as the soldier in battle must shoot down his mother’s son if in the opposing ranks. And who is the blackleg? A fellow-creature seeking work — a fellow-creature in all probability more pressed and starved than those who so bitterly denounce him, and often with the hungry pleading faces of wife and child behind him.

And, in so far as they succeed, what is it that trade-guilds and unions do but to impose more restrictions on natural rights; to create “trusts” in labor; to add to privileged classes other somewhat privileged classes; and to press the weaker closer to the wall?

I speak without prejudice against trades-unions, of which for years I was an active member. And in pointing out to your Holiness that their principle is selfish and incapable of large and permanent benefits, and that their methods violate natural rights and work hardship and injustice, I am only saying to you what, both in my books and by word of mouth, I have said over and over again to them. Nor is what I say capable of dispute. Intelligent trades-unionists know it, and the less intelligent vaguely feel it. And even those of the classes of wealth and leisure who, as if to head off the demand for natural rights, are preaching trades-unionism to working-men, must needs admit it.

Your Holiness will remember the great London dock strike of two years ago, which, with that of other influential men, received the moral support of that Prince of the Church whom we of the English speech hold higher and dearer than any prelate has been held by us since the blood of Thomas à Becket stained the Canterbury altar.

In a volume called “The Story of the Dockers’ Strike,” written by Messrs. H. Llewellyn Smith and Vaughan Nash, with an introduction by Sydney Buxton, M.P., which advocates trades-unionism as the solution of the labor question, and of which a large number were sent to Australia as a sort of official recognition of the generous aid received from there by the strikers, I find in the summing up, on pages 164-165, the following:

If the settlement lasts, work at the docks will be more regular, better paid, and carried on under better conditions than ever before. All this will be an unqualified gain to those who get the benefit from it. But another result will undoubtedly be to contract the field of employment and lessen the number of those for whom work can be found. The lower-class casual will, in the end, find his position more precarious than ever before, in proportion to the increased regularity of work which the “fitter” of the laborers will secure. The effect of the organization of dock labor, as of all classes of labor, will be to squeeze out the residuum. The loafer, the cadger, the failure in the industrial race — the members of “Class B” of Mr. Charles Booth’s hierarchy of social classes — will be no gainers by the change, but will rather find another door closed against them, and this in many cases the last door to employment.

I am far from wishing that your Holiness should join in that pharisaical denunciation of trades-unions common among those who, while quick to point out the injustice of trades-unions in denying to others the equal right to work, are themselves supporters of that more primary injustice that denies the equal right to the standing-place and natural material necessary to work. What I wish to point out is that trades-unionism, while it may be a partial palliative, is not a remedy; that it has not that moral character which could alone justify one in the position of your Holiness in urging it as good in itself. Yet, so long as you insist on private property in land what better can you do? ... read the whole letter




To share this page with a friend: right click, choose "send," and add your comments.

related themes: see_also
Red links have not been visited; .
Green links are pages you've seen

Essential Documents pertinent to this theme:

Top of page
Essential Documents
to email this page to a friend: right click, choose "send"
Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper