Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 87/July 1915/Trade Unionism versus Welfare Work for Women



PERHAPS the most popular phase of philanthropic endeavor at the present time is that which deals with the improvement of industrial conditions for women. That their lot is unduly hard is evidenced by the facts of the case. Women have always worked and are therefore no innovation in industrial life; yet the spectacle of their toiling in ever increasing thousands in this country has stirred alike alarmists and reformers, and they have given publicity to hardships always endured by the workers, but hitherto undreamed of by the more favored members of society. Eight millions of women are now engaged in gainful occupations and the great majority of them are under twenty-four years of age.

The youthfulness of so large a number of women makes its own appeal for sympathy, even though it is not powerful to bring about more equitable arrangements in industry. Society, it would seem, is usually lavish with sympathy, but niggardly with justice. But of late we have become obsessed with the idea of meting out justice to the unborn. The inevitable outcome of this, of course, must be fair treatment to the potential mothers. In so far as it results in sane activity in their behalf well and good. Four millions of the eight classed as women in gainful occupations are industrial wage earners, a group sufficiently large to leave its impress on the health and morals of the future.

It can not be denied that modern methods of industry tend to push oppressively hard upon unskilled young women, who have neither ability nor training to enable them to engage in interesting tasks. They are often forced into the most monotonous kinds of labor, where they are poorly paid and obliged to work at nerve-destroying speed. A dawning interest in public health has focused attention upon the physical effects of such toil, and it has also, coupled with certain moral conditions, led to the important investigations into industrial conditions for women that have been carried on during the past few years. People who, a decade or two ago, neither knew nor cared how or where their clothes or food were made, or by whom, now exhibit a lively interest in these matters. It is an awakening of social conscience that omens well for the worker. But even an awakened community works slowly in the matter of reforms. It takes a long time to enact and enforce desirable legislation. In the interim something must be done. Much in fact has been done by organizations large and small, but out of all this endeavor two types of undertakings stand out conspicuously as coming close to the heart of labor and trying to correct abuses. They are trade unionism and employer's welfare work. A consideration of these two agencies, in so far as they affect wage-earning women, forms the subject-matter of this discussion. The two agencies represent distinct, even antagonistic methods, and in fact are usually mutually exclusive.

For about half a century, the trade organizations have been striving, by fair means and foul, to get a voice in the conduct of the businesses in which they work, for the purpose of improving their own condition. The end for which they have striven is laudable. They have been calling for sanitary workshops and living wages; for shorter hours and more certainty of employment; and all the time emphasizing their right to be heard. This movement is especially deserving of notice because it is a movement by the wage workers, for the wage workers—those who are admitted to need help striving to help themselves. This, in theory at least, is the most hopeful of all undertakings, and it is the spirit that should be fostered. The working people have set up for themselves a definite standard of living, which they desire to reach, when they organize together in their trades.

Whatever may be said about methods sometimes employed by the trade organizations, it must be admitted that their theory of industrial betterment is rational. They stand for the uplift of labor, and theirs is a herculean task. They are attempting to push themselves up against forces apparently conspiring to keep them down. This opposition has lent a strength and militant vigor to their purpose. They hold up to themselves the definite ideal of self-improvement, and the tenacity with which they cling to this ideal shows the faith they have in it. A more comfortable working class is their hope. They pursue their purpose oftentimes with set teeth and clenched fists, and their zeal is an inspiration in itself. They have a goal, and with steadfast purpose they are striving to reach it.

Industrial betterment of this kind tends to produce a virile body of citizens, and the test of any ameliorative work must, in the last analysis, be the effectiveness of the citizens it develops. This method of improving conditions is only beginning to seize the imagination of women; its possibilities are only beginning to be realized, and by representative bodies of women fully as much as by wage earners themselves. The great majority have been slow to avail themselves of the benefits arising from organization. Many of the workers feel that their stay in the industrial world is temporary, and they are either indifferent to the conditions under which they must work for a time, or they are unwilling to subject themselves to what they frequently regard as the tyranny of leaders, preferring rather to endure low wages and bad sanitation if need be till marriage sets them free. This and other reasons which have kept women wage earners from adopting union ideals in the past are still operative it is true, but the more intelligent are beginning to see the benefits of organization, and are uniting with others of their trade for mutual betterment. Union men have not always been friendly toward unions for women, chiefly for the reason that they feared the acceptance of women into their ranks might militate against increased wage scales. Their attitude has changed, however, and this has had its share in stimulating an interest in organization among even young women workers.

Many persons interested in social betterment are now growing sanguine over the possible future of women's unions, owing to certain successes achieved by them in the garment and other trades in recent years. Hitherto the union has flourished most in time of stress. There is inspiration in a fight, and, moreover, a fight is sometimes necessary to overcome injustice. But these working women need, too, the ministry of peace, and when the unions shall have passed through their militant stage, the women workers will doubtless be the gainers. Union women are now standing shoulder to shoulder in their effort to obtain higher wages, shorter hours and healthful conditions of work. If they have these, they say they can provide themselves with opportunities for education, and recreation, and other desirable things in life. They are fighting for a chance to work, and a chance to live.

The other form of industrial betterment under discussion is that carried on by more or less philanthropic employers, and through the National Civic Federation called "welfare work." Such work is as varied as the employer's appreciation of needs, or ingenuity in suggesting remedies for existing difficulties. With one it may take the form of shower baths, and a system of profit-sharing; with another hot noon-day lunches and dancing classes; while still another may discharge what he considers his duty by providing club rooms for men, and aprons for women. But whatever the method pursued, vastly better physical conditions have resulted. Welfare work has given us model factories, and beautiful surroundings must ever be an incentive to right living.

Several hundred employers in the United States are carrying on some form of betterment work for their employees, while ten or a dozen stand out prominently for their unusual, even notable, undertakings. In general, welfare work may be said to include: (1) improved physical conditions; (2) opportunity for rest and recreation; (3) educational work; (4) benefit funds.

Now each of these things is good in itself, and employees, while as a rule willing to recognize the truth of this, yet are more or less suspicious of their employers' undertakings. They do not object to the good things, but to the methods of bestowing these good things. Many thoughtful employers, having been beset by labor difficulties, have concluded to make conditions of work pleasanter, in the hope of banishing dissatisfaction. The plan has been successful in some cases. Sometimes these employers are poor psychologists, inasmuch as they fail to understand why blissful content does not follow on the heels of some gift. The young women asked, perhaps, for higher wages, and were given rest rooms and free lunches. Why, forsooth, should they not be happy? Chiefly for the reason that a sop never satisfied anybody. However, many who have grown to distrust union methods are looking with hopeful eyes to employers' betterment schemes as the final solution of labor difficulties. Capital and labor working together for mutual benefit is undoubtedly the ideal condition. But they must really work together if the most desirable results are to be obtained.

Having before us the main features of trade unionism and welfare work, let us now discuss these two agencies. As was stated before, the final test of the value of an institution is the type of citizen it produces. When we seek to improve an individual, we have in view not only the present comfort of that individual, but his future usefulness to society. We feed a hungry boy, not only to keep him quiet and make him fat, but to make him a man. So in all ameliorative work we must keep ever before us the final purpose of it all. The work in itself is of value only in so far as it helps to make better men and women of those whom we would help.

Our duty is toward society at large, and we can discharge it only by helping to promote good citizenship. Now in order to be the best type of individual one must have ever before him an ideal, and an instiution which would elevate any class in society must present to that class a definite ideal; it must give it something for which it must strive, for I am bound to believe that no individual or group will advance very far without this inspiration. "Without a vision all the people perish." Now if we accept this doctrine of social righteousness based on ideals, let us see how far these two industrial betterment agencies under consideration are in harmony with it.

The trade unions in all their bickerings, and turmoil, and failures, and successes, have never lost sight of their goal of better working and living conditions. The union holds up to its members the ideal of class betterment. They are stimulated to further endeavor by this. We must therefore concede to the trade unions a place in our scheme of industrial regeneration. The principle for which the union stands is sound.

Let us now enquire into the social value of employer's undertakings. Here we come to an entirely different situation. The employer is the active force, the employee the passive agent at the outset, and if this condition changes it is owing to the tact of the employer. Welfare work, then, comes to be a bestowing by him who has upon those who have not.

The wealthy employer is touched perhaps by the weary face of one of his women workers, and he immediately opens a rest room; he sees her drinking cold coffee from a can, and he makes plans for serving a hot lunch; he sees her look longingly at a few flowers beyond her reach, and he transforms his factory into a veritable garden; he sees her standing at her work with weary limbs, and he straightway orders high-backed stools. Any employer who allowed his heart to accompany him on a trip through his factory or store would see a score of things he could do for the comfort and happiness of his employees, and if he went forth and did them would be himself a better citizen thereafter. But what of the people whom he has helped? What ideal has he given them? They are recipients of favors. They may have better health on account of his gifts; they may even be happier. But there is something in the average American working man or woman that resents even health and happiness if mixed with patronage; and unless an employer has phenomenal tact his efforts are likely to be regarded as paternalistic. Working women as a rule accept favors more readily than men, with the result that they are more prone to betray some of the characteristics of spoiled children. On the employer's side there is always the temptation to turn to business profit the improved conditions his generosity has made possible. His welfare work may thus become simply advertising, and his employees may be exploited to their humiliation. The employer undoubtedly is entitled to whatever commendation a humanitarian policy may merit, but when that policy is adopted solely for the financial benefits that may accrue from popular approval, it becomes questionable, possibly meretricious, from the ethical standpoint, and certainly should not be accorded a place in the field of ameliorative undertakings. Such work belongs simply to the realm of advertising, and has nothing whatever to do with the broad ethical movement we are considering. Its contribution to the solution of industrial difficulties is a negligible quantity.

The employer who installs shower baths, and then with a blare of trumpets—possibly accompanied by moving pictures of employees performing their free ablutions—calls his goodness to the attention of the passer-by, belongs to the same class as a circus manager who exploits the tricks of his animals, not because he poses as the savior of the animal creation, but because he hopes it will induce money to flow into his coffers. We must, then, make a clear line of demarcation between the schemes of an enterprising publicity agent and genuine purposeful betterment work. The value of welfare work must ever depend on the employer who undertakes it. So far as employees are concerned, they are actuated by no strong purpose. They have greater comforts without the spiritual stimulus of working to get them. Such undertakings do not present a definite ideal to strengthen and enrich character, to develop the best type of citizenship. The chief weaknesses, then, of this system seem to me to be an inherent tendency toward paternalism, with its consequent emasculating or embittering of labor; its lack of the cooperative spirit; and its failure to hold up an ideal.

There are many things in life of more importance than window boxes filled with trailing vines and bright blossoms; there are more pressing needs for girls than fresh white aprons. And the would-be philanthropic employer who does not recognize this is doing less than his whole duty. While providing for the physical comfort of their employees, employers should recognize the fact that they assume certain moral as well as economic responsibilities when they bring together large numbers of workers. And it is this ethical side of welfare work that is most significant; it is the side that has the most direct bearing on good citizenship. It is quite possible for a working woman to discharge her full duty to society without having luxurious couches on which to lie when she grows ill or weary from toil, but it is not possible for that woman to fulfill her duty as a member of the social group unless she is capable of exercising the power of choice, of standing firm as a moral entity, of grasping and holding to a definite ideal of progress.

Now my contention is that the present tendency of welfare work is not to strengthen labor's power of initiative, and is not to summon to the fore that virile zeal which belongs to sturdy manhood and womanhood. When the employer has been the means of rousing his employees to action, of encouraging them to evolve methods of betterment, and of stimulating them to an appreciation of their opportunity to do things for themselves, the situation is much more hopeful. Some few employers in this country have been able to do this, but the general trend of the work is in another direction. And employees, surfeited with comfort for which they can give no return, are liable to become limp of will and uncertain of purpose. Their power of initiative becomes dwarfed. They are always open to the charge of ingratitude. The pampered children of industrial Utopias may become unfit for the competitive system of industry. There are remedies of course that could be suggested for all these difficulties, but it is not my purpose here to show how to revolutionize welfare work, but rather to point out its present tendency.

Now having before us the essence of the two betterment movements for women known as trade unionism and welfare work, and some comments thereon, it becomes pertinent to enquire which one merits the greater degree of approval and support from people interested in industrial and social amelioration, so far as young wage-earning women are concerned. The question really resolves itself into a very simple one, but nevertheless one that we may not be able to answer satisfactorily for a generation or more, that is, which method tends to give us the more efficient women, women who can function most capably in a democracy?