The American Workman

Posted By Tom Cropper on 14 May 2014

Posted in The Vintage Machinery Almanac

This article first appeared in Eletrochemical and Metallurgical Industry 1907. The information that is contained within this article is therefore valid as of 1907. The article provides an historic look at Labor in the US at the time.

The Outstanding American Workman

There are four factors in the production of wealth—land, capital, labor and management. In our November issue we editorially discussed some of the characteristics of the American capitalist. We may now take up the salient features of the American working man, with whom the capitalist is so often at variance. First of all, let it be said that in all that makes for social and economic well being, the laborer in the United States, be he skilled or unskilled, has as much as or more than the average middle class in Europe. While his opportunities for pleasure are not so good, yet this is more than counterbalanced by material enjoyments and by the hope and ambition that he and his family can better their station. This is due to the wonderful productivity of American industry in which so large wages are paid because of the widespread use of machinery. The food of our average laborer is of so high a class that his physical strength is great. Often lean and angular, his endurance is wonderful. The American laborer is also resourceful and ingenious, a result of the pioneer spirit that still exists today in the descendants, spiritual as well as physical, of the founders of the republic. The readiness with which the American adapts himself to new conditions is seen in the way in which the large blast furnaces in the metallurgy of copper and iron are handled. The ability to operate expensive machinery at a maximum efficiency is par excellence the cause of high wages. As we have often pointed out, the effect is that the labor charge per ton of product is usually much less in this country of high wages than in countries of low wages, like Italy.

Labor Unionism

A further distinguishing trait is the kind treatment that the American workman gives his wife and family. This always strikes the acute foreign observer, and should be a point of pride with all of us. The American always wants his children to have the advantages that he missed. This is as it should be in a nation of self-respecting freemen. In loyalty to the employer the American is not behind the European, though this is less formal than in Europe where the feudal instinct is everywhere manifest. The rise of labor unionism in this country is giving some of us much anxiety, but it is a natural development of the workman, where he feels that his rights are withheld. Should the "ca-canny" spirit pervade America as it has England, it will be a sad day for all of us. Let it be distinctly understood that combination of workmen is an absolute necessity, where the spirit of rapacity is rampant on the other side. But to go to the other extreme and to wrest from capital its rightful return by the aggression and tyranny of labor unions, will put a blight on all industry. However, the labor question looks less serious to us now than it did four years ago, before President Roosevelt took up his active campaign of the "square deal." And we believe that the good sense of the American people, making itself known in forceful public opinion, will tend to minimize the errors of thoughtless and selfish men whether they wear overalls or sit at mahogany desks.

Thrift and Harmony

The American workman is to be criticised in two respects. He is often headstrong and restless in leaving employment, but this only reflects the spirit of twentieth-century America. In the second place too many American workmen are wasteful in their household expenditures, especially in the purchase of foolish nicknacks. This is also due to the crude spirit of eternal youth, especially rampant in the growing West. We have not the slightest doubt that a general system of national postal savings banks would extend the spirit of thrift and savings, so prevalent in careful New England and the other Eastern States, and increase the wealth of the country beyond all measure. The waste of the poor is the curse and cause of their poverty. But considering the American workman in a composite mental photograph, we are rather proud of him. As far as happiness and morality goes he is ahead of his wiser, far-seeing, and avaricious capitalistic friend, but, of course, he does not stop to realize this. If his employer be of the higher type, both give each other full measure of affection, sympathy and loyalty. And these isolated examples of perfect accord between the "boss and his boys" are not growing less, even in these days of monster corporations.