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John P


Necessity of Organization Among Laborers.

(Interview, "Morning News," April 28, 1890.)

"It comes with ill grace from those who, to a greater or less extent, hold not only their own employes but the whole community by the throat by means of their organizations, to refuse to recognize the


right of others to organize." Judge John P. Altgeld made this reply to a question concerning his views on the existing deadlock between the striking carpenters and the bosses.

Judge Altgeld was not interviewed because of his high position as a jurist. He has made a deep study of the labor question, and has been frank and outspoken in expressing his views. His conclusions, if they require it, obtain added weight from the fact that during the last year he has built five large blocks of buildings, costing over $500,000. Judge Altgeld thus occupies the position of an employer, and his views on the labor question appear to have been arrived at regardless of his personal or private interests.


The point at issue between the striking carpenters and the bosses has dwindled and narrowed until it is now less a question of hours and pay than it is of the question of union. The carpenters are organized in a solid, compact body. They spent years at the work of perfecting and recruiting their organization. But for this organization their strike could not be maintained over night. It is all that enables them to make their demands effective.

The bosses say they will arbitrate. They will make concessions. They will do this, that and the other thing. But they demand a concession of the carpenters. This union that has enabled the carpenters to make their demands felt must be abandoned. The bosses are organized, and speaking through a single executive head, refuse to recognize the same right of organization among the carpenters — refuse to do business with the head of the carpenters' organization. The bosses are unwilling to concede to the men the same right of organization that they themselves utilize to make their acts effective.


In opening the interview with Judge Altgeld yesterday, he was asked what he thought of the demands of the bosses that the carpenters abandon their organization. He replied: "The objection that the men should be dealt with as individuals, and not as an organization, it seems to me, under existing conditions, is not well taken. Fifty years ago it would have been different. But at present there is the most perfect organization among all lines of large employers, whether mining, manufacturing or building. These organizations settle all questions relative to the policy to be pursued, and very frequently, also, questions of prices and wages to be paid by them. Now, an individual employe confronting one of these organizations, is not only absolutely


at its mercy, but is almost too insignificant to secure thoughtful attention to his demands."

"But how can this condition be met?" was asked.

"The only way in which these organizations can be prevented from abusing their power is by counter-organization. All experience in this country has shown this to be so. The condition of many of the laborers has greatly improved in the last twenty years, and in not a single instance has this been brought about by individual effort. In every case it was accomplished by the force of organization. This being so, the men are right when they insist on having their organization recognized. It is vital to them, and it comes with an ill grace from those who, to a greater or less extent, hold not only the employes, but the community, by the throat by means of their own organization, to refuse to recognize organization and thereby practically deny the right to organize on the other side. And if the men can only better their condition and that of their families by means of organization, then it is but natural that they should want to keep their members together in order to secure the greatest good to the greatest number. It is but natural that they should discourage the idea of individual employes treating with the bosses just at a critical time in a labor movement, and thus perhaps defeating the efforts and injuring the welfare of all laborers, themselves included."


"But what of the men who are not members of the union?"

"It is worthy of note that if the so-called ‘scabs’ or non-union men would just keep hands off for a few days, or at most a few weeks, movement in favor of shorter hours or more pay, or in favor of and measure founded on justice, would easily succeed, and they themselves would be the gainers, even though they had done nothing to bring about. They themselves would have a better prospect for work in the future. They would gain the benefit of the shortened hours of labor. By rushing in and offering to work at a critical moment they really do what they can to defeat the movement. So while it to be regretted, yet it is but natural that laboring men should have bitter feeling against those of their class who in their eyes are the enemies of the common cause and of the best interests of their own families as well. This being so, the carpenters of Chicago are to be highly commended for their self-restraint and orderly demeanor during the pending strike."

"What do you think of the argument in favor of individual freedom, made by some?"


"A noticeable thing is, that this argument in favor of the individual freedom of each workman is made almost exclusively by the class who, either by instinct or interest, are antagonistic to the laboring men. The great body of the laboring men will never make that argument. As isolated individuals they can accomplish nothing. The future welfare of themselves and their children depends upon organization, and even the so-called scabs do not attempt to defend their action upon any high ground. As a rule they admit that their action is injurious to the cause of labor generally. They defend their conduct only on the ground of present necessity; that they are needy and want to get a little money. In order to get it they are willing to defeat what in the long run would have been to the best interests of themselves and their families. The talk about individual freedom is heard only among employers and their friends and also among a class of people who may be called the parasites of employers."


"How, in your judgment, will the present strike of the carpenters terminate?"

"So far as the success of the present strike is concerned, I am convinced that if the boss carpenters will act honestly in their efforts to get new men to come here we will have no trouble. By this I mean that where they advertise all over the country, as some of them are now doing, for carpenters, they should state that there is a strike in Chicago and that the carpenters advertised for are wanted to take the places of strikers. This they are not doing now. On the contrary, they are inducing hundreds of men to come here who would not come if they knew all the facts. Some "of the men who come here claim to have been induced to come under false pretenses. I will say further that the effect of bringing raw carpenters from the country villages must in the long run be injurious to the best interests of Chicago. First, because as a rule the new-comers are not skilled workmen; and, second, because after the strike is over there will be a surplus of men. The ranks of the unemployed will be greatly increased and those conditions which produce pauperism and crime will be greatly intensified."

"What do you consider an adequate remedy for the condition of things you depict?"

"In my judgment the State should step in and protect the non-combatants. The whole community should not suffer every year because certain individuals or classes of individuals have a dispute. As society is now organized there is a kind of interdependence of all


interests, so that no two interests can keep up a warfare without injuring the rest. The State has just as much power to require the employee and the employed to submit their differences to a competent tribunal as it has to require individuals who have a dispute over property to submit it to the decision of a court, and not to disturb the welfare or good order of society by attempting to fight it out among themselves. In fact, there is more reason for letting these latter fight out their disputes, because, as a rule, they do not affect the whole community. Disputes between employer and employed, if sufficiently protracted, tend to paralyze our whole industrial system."


"What do you think of the prospect for the eight-hour demand generally?"

"There is no reason why the demand should fail if it is properly sustained. With such trades as the building trades it is merely a local problem. Each city or community can have different hours, and there will be no unsatisfactory results. Houses built in Chicago by eight-hour labor will not have to compete with houses built in other cities by ten-hour labor. Thus the Chicago building trades can have the eight-hour day without regard to what the same trades have in other cities. But with other trades it is widely different. The manufacture of boots and shoes, for example, presents a problem that is not local. The building trades problems are bounded by geographical lines. In the manufacture of boots and shoes geographical lines do not limit the problem. It is limited by commercial boundaries. The influence of a ten-hour factory extends wherever its goods are shipped. This makes the entire shoe making industry in the United States a problem by itself. In this view of the case it can be seen that if the non-union men do not prevent it the carpenters or building trades can settle the strike in Chicago without regard to what is done in other cities. Manufactories that are located in different cities that have a co-extensive trade throughout the country will be among the hardest to deal with."

"But will not the winning of reduced hours by one trade have a tendency in favor of reduced hours in all the trades?"

"It certainly will if the carpenters stand firmly together. If they win the fight in Chicago they will drive an entering wedge that will be felt everywhere in every industry."