A Link with the Past—Broken

ubcja1918

The passing away, recently, of Gabriel Edmonston, that well-known veteran member of our organization and its first President, held an interest for us quite apart from the element of personal loss which it was only natural that all keenly interested in the affairs of our organization should feel, for his death, in a manner, marked a definite breaking with the past—or to be more precise, with that period when our organization was as yet unborn and the plight of the average journeyman carpenter in the world of American labor was comparable with that of one of the lost tribes of Israel.

Edmonston, picturesque figure that he was, in recent years, more and more appeared to stand out as one of the last links in the chain which bound us to the unorganized, or shall we say, the disorganized past, when the carpenter was almost a pariah wandering over the land, the victim of miserably low wages, excessively long hours of toil and wretched working conditions. One might say that in his later years he became a living testimonial to the efficacy of the instrumentality which brought about the amelioration and betterment of the carpenter’s condition—and that instrumentality was organization.

This was due no less to the fact that he was prominent in trade union affairs than that his life was fairly evenly divided between the two periods, the period prior to the organization of the U. B. and that which succeeded it, and few were better fitted then he to testify to the permanent value of organization and its immense power for good where the interests of the workers are concerned.

Some interesting reminiscences, now worth recalling, appeared from his pen in “The Carpenter” a few years ago, in which he told of having witnessed when quite a small boy the parade of the journeymen carpenters of the city of Washington who had been driven to go on strike to bring working hours down to a ten-hour minimum.

“Up to that time,” he said, “the hours of labor were from sunrise to sunset. In the long hot days of summer the work was as hard and exhausting as that of a field hand in harvest, before the days of the reaper, with a low hanging cloud just appearing above the horizon.”

“The parade was unique and creditable both as to numbers and deportment. Each carpenter carried some tool that marked positively the distinctive character of the demonstration, broad axes (now obsolete), saws, bench planes, adzes, augurs, hatchets, and a cabinet maker’s bench mounted on a wagon drawn by two black horses chalklined fore and aft. On the wagon were carpenters making shavings that marked the line of march. The parade accomplished its object and ten hours became fixed as a day’s work, but no union grew out of this peaceful victory.”

But even this initial success did not force the value and efficacy of real organization upon them. Shortsightedly, they were satisfied with their measure of success and “failed to see any use for an organization that called for the payment of regular dues.” Accordingly we learn that the benevolent orders, the Odd Fellows, the Red Men and others “attracted the more provident and influential among them where the payment of sick and death benefits were the inducement, but in the main a general air of poverty pervaded the ranks of the journeymen carpenters. Only the practice of the most rigid economy enabled the married man to keep out of debt.”

“The numbers of days employed during the year was about the same as at present. Piece work was introduced for a winter job when outdoor work was suspended. Nearly all well established bosses could make up a large stock of doors, sash and blinds of standard sizes for the next season’s use. The prices were based on what an average hand could do in ten hours work. All work was by hand from the rough as labor-saving machinery had not been introduced to any great extent nor had it even been invented.”

“A four panel door, raised panels both sides, for instance, was considered a day’s work and brought the journeymen $1.25 for his labor, the lumber being furnished. Piece work was originally a help for the journeyman as it gave him employment at a time when he needed it most. It afterward became a menace to his livelihood when unscrupulous bosses cut the prices to the bone in order to gain an advantage over their competitors. Instead of being a winter job, piece work became the rule on a certain class of work the year round.”

Such was the situation in the decade that immediately preceded the Civil War, and with it, as one may very well surmise, “there had grown up many abuses that had a tendency to humiliate both bosses and journeymen.” The most serious of these was enumerated by Brother Edmonston as “the lack of a decent lien law which was an incentive to the dishonest contractor to adopt sharp practices. The poor journeyman was his chief victim, with the material man a close second.”

“The scarcity of real money, the use of a depreciated currency and store orders as a medium of exchange were demoralizing. As regards liquor, the temptation to dissipation was accentuated by the fact that whiskey was only three cents a pint, while a cheaper grade could be had for twenty cents a gallon.”

These demoralizing influences naturally bore hard on a class of workers that saw no future for themselves except incessant toil without sufficient remuneration for any better showing, so we can well imagine, from the words of the departed veteran, what the conditions in the trade were at the outbreak of the Civil War.

Touching on the effect of that great war on the industrial state of the country and particularly in regard to trade unionism his reminiscences of the period are illuminating and are of an especial interest at this critical time.

“The outbreak of the war,” he tells us, “and the call for volunteers so depleted the ranks of skilled labor that wages took a sharp upward turn and more than doubled. But at the close of the war the return of the soldiers to the trades caused the labor supply to exceed the demand and wages suffered a relapse to former conditions, which reached its lowest ebb in 1880.”

“The rough school of army life had proven the value of organization and discipline which was applied to the industrial field not by the masters alone, but by the workers. The conditions became so bad that something had to be done to avoid anarchy. It was an easy task to convince carpenters in a personal chat that the fault lay with them, and their only hope was in union. The call for the journeymen carpenters to meet for the purpose of organization was a surprise. Instead of two or three dozen expected, the hall was crowded. The rest is the history of the Brotherhood.”

Gabriel Edmonston lived to see a great change come over the status of the carpenter, a change almost revolutionary in its scope, and all of it thanks to constant and unremitting organization under the banner of the U. B. of C. and J. of A. He lived to see the organization he helped to found grow into an institution of great strength and influence. It has accomplished much since he became its first President, and will go farther in the future.

Before closing, it is well to draw attention to the last paragraph we have quoted from the deceased veteran’s reminiscences regarding trade conditions at the close of the Civil War. Organized labor is strong today, a power to be reckoned with in the national life, but we shall soon have to face a situation somewhat analogous to that outlined by the late brother Edmonston, though we fervently hope, by no means as dark.

Our boys now in the army and navy upholding the honor of America will come back when peace is declared and we must see to it that the release from military duty of the great numbers now in our national army is not allowed to demoralize industry as it did following the Civil War. The task in this direction is one the solution of which will tax the best thought of the labor movement and of our government. Let us give the utmost consideration to it now.

Richard Hazelton

The Carpenter – July 1918

Gabriel Edmonston was born in Washington D.C. on March 29, 1839. During the Civil War he served in the Virginia infantry, Longstreet’s corps of the Confederate army, and was taken prisoner on four occasions during the war and was twice wounded. After the war he returned to civil life as a carpenter and became an ardent advocate of trade unionism. He was one of the two delegates from Washington, D.C. to the convention held at the old Trades’ Assembly Hall, at Chicago, in August 1881, at which the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America was organized. He was honored by the delegates with the office of President. He died of a stroke on May 15, 1918, six months before the close of World War I.

The provided image is a scan of a UBC dues booklet from my collection. It was issued to Chas E. Stewart (born July 19, 1888) during the summer of 1918, three months after Gabriel Edmonston died. You may see the entire booklet here (pdf).

—Jeff Burks

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One Response to A Link with the Past—Broken

  1. Eric R says:

    The thing that strikes me most, is the eloquent and well-expressed phasing Mr. Hazelton uses in his article.
    You don’t see comprehensive articulation like that these days.

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