Remarks and Suggestions by Individual Mechanics Relating to Apprenticeships, Employment of Boys in Shops and Factories, State of Trade, and Conditions in General of the Wage-Workers. 1884
From a Wood Turner.
So far the year 1884 has been very hard for workingmen in this city. Trade has been in a deplorable condition for six or seven months, during that length of time there have been in this place from thirty-five hundred to four thousand idle men, and a large number are still unable to obtain work. I have been out of work for five months of this year. The educational facilities of the city are good, but are not taken advantage of as they should be by a great number. Boys are put to work as soon as they can obtain employment, quite a number being under fourteen years of age.
From a Cooper.
The men employed with me are in moderately fair circumstances only. Their education is quite limited. They usually live up to their earnings. This last season they have been compelled to lose considerable time, from the fact that the mill has not been running full time, the low price of flour not warranting the firm in doing so. But I think, generally speaking, the cooperage business has been better in some other parts of the State than it has been at this point, and it is probable that coopers have done better than usual.
From a Pattern-maker.
Owing to business depression, our shop is nearly closed up, with no prospect of improvement at present. The financial condition of the mechanics of our shop is very good, over half of them owning property. They also have a good common school education. If all the boys who learn trades were classed and paid according to capability, and not according to the length of time they have served, I think we should have less snide workmen, and that they would learn faster. As it is now, they are paid according to the length of time they have been at the trade, with no inducement to become skilled workmen until they are journeymen, and then they see their error when it is too late. They seldom get over their old way of working, and frequently abandon the business entirely.
From a Molder.
There are no apprentices in our shop. There are about twenty-five floor molders, all of whom work helpers. These helpers, in time, if they show any aptitude in picking up the trade, become molders. There was a time when a helper could get a floor or bench at the end of a year. Now-a-days molders are so plenty that helpers stand a poor chance of getting farther than where they begin. A great many of our bench-molders are taken from among the corn boys and off the streets. They are started in on “chicken feed” work that requires no skill, and are given more particular work as they learn. They always get the same price for molds as old molders. Their wages are regulated by the job they get, on some of which I could make one dollar and twenty-five cents a day.
This city has passed through the dullest summer in her history. All her extensive factories were closed from one to four months, something that never happened before. Our mechanics were not used to such a state of affairs, and were not prepared for it. Some of them, a majority I apprehend, are not preparing for next summer’s loaf. Most all live up to their earnings. Others find their earnings insufficient to meet their wants, in which case landlords and grocerymen are made to suffer. I do not regard the future of American mechanics as bright, for the reason that we are compelled to compete with the pauper labor of Europe right here at home.
Unless a larger number of immigrants can be induced to take to agricultural pursuits, or unless a considerable portion of the inhabitants of our cities decide ” to go west and grow up with the cornstalks,” the labor market will continue for all time to be overstocked. And an overstocked market means low, lower, lowest wages. Tariff or no tariff, down she goes. Employers do not pay their hands in proportion to what they (the employers) realize. They pay just what they are compelled to pay, no more.
From a Varnisher.
Workingmen in this city, as a rule, find it very hard to get along. I know of one groceryman who is carrying two hundred families. At least two-thirds of the workingmen are idle, with no prospects for work. A great many are leaving the city. The schools here are of the very best, and are convenient to all parts of the city. The worst feature connected with educational matters is the vast number of small boys that are put to work in the shops instead of being sent to school. A good many of the parents of these boys are fully able to give them a good education. The school boards are partially to blame for allowing such a state of affairs.
From a Blacksmith.
One thing that needs a radical change is the custom of paying employes at long intervals, and that, not all that is due. All employes should be paid at least twice a month in full. I know of several firms in this locality that do not pay oftener than once in six weeks or two months; and then they get but one month’s pay. This kind of business compels many a poor man to deal exclusively where he has credit, being unable, for want of money, though he has earned it, to go to the regular markets for his family supplies, where he could save fifteen to twenty-five per cent. Therefore I think, in justice to the poor man, there should be a law to the effect that employers should pay at shorter intervals.
From a Holder.
Life in the foundry is at best a hard one. A great deal of the hardship endured by molders is the result of the insatiate greed of employers. Holders to-day are doing twice the amount of work that was done some years ago, and are receiving at least forty per cent less. The causes that have brought about this condition of things are numerous, and prominent among them is the stimulated competition of the molder to do more work, without any regard for physical laws, or the effect the increased production will have on his wages, or the amount of time he will be employed.
The bane of the trade is piece-work, and until it is abolished, or some restrictions made by which a reasonable and fair day’s work may be done for a fair day’s wages, the lot of the molder “will not improve, but, on the contrary, will become worse, lowering him in the social scale, and destroying those finer qualities of man which his Maker intended should blossom forth and increase the happiness of the human race. Another great crying evil in our trade is the present system of apprenticeship. There can be no hope for an improvement in the pecuniary, social, or educational condition of the molders under this system.
A little present gain outweighs all other considerations. Boys are put to work by the piece and compelled to rely entirely upon their own meagre knowledge to acquire the trade. Hence, seven-tenths of the boys who engage to learn the trade leave the shops without a thorough knowledge of the business, and are forced upon the labor market as botch workmen. The employer seems to have but one idea on this subject, and that is to squeeze out of the boy all he possibly can while he is in his employ.
Through organizations, repeated attempts have been made to restrain this nefarious system, and to compel employers to legally indenture apprentices, so that they may be fully instructed in the art of their trade. But these organized efforts have not resulted in any material benefit to the apprentice. This hot-bed system of turning out inferior mechanics extends through all branches of industry where skilled labor is required, and is gradually lowering the dignity and self-respect of the American mechanic and decreasing the number of skilled artisans.
From a Machinist.
There is a miserable plan carried out here, viz., the keeping back of a part of every week’s wages; and we commit a great offense when we ask for the back pay. Sometimes as much as seventy-five or eighty dollars are back, which it is hard to get without playing sharp. If it were not for this system we would not be quite so hard up all the time. As it is, it is equal to working for reduced wages. The majority of us are married men, and do not want to move elsewhere, which is taken advantage of in many ways to our injury.
From a Tailor.
With regard to apprentices, I know of none except those working at home with their parents. The tailoring trade is so unremunerative that very few people put their sons to it. Young beginners are all emigrants. Very few native Americans learn the business.
From an Upholsterer.
I wish to direct attention to the great evil of girls taking the places of young men in such concerns as sash, door and lumber establishments, cigar manufactories, etc., and also to the employment of children in such places as chain-works. Men are crowded out of all these places and the streets filled with them. Proprietors say they can get girls and children for less wages, in fact for almost nothing. Take a look at the places I have named, and you will see the magnitude of the evil and the necessity of something being done, and that quickly, to put a stop to this monstrous evil.
From a Holder.
There is not much difference observable among molders in this city. All seem to be doing about the same. After working about nine months and loafing the rest of the year, there is not much chance for one to have anything left. Some have large families, and I do not know how they keep the wolf from the door. A very large number of workmen can not read or write, and are made tools of by the bosses, because they can make them believe almost anything they wish to.
From a Cigar-maker.
Trade is about as dull as it well can be. A great many men are unable to get employment, and many are almost in a starving condition. It is a shame and a disgrace that such should be the case in such a rich and growing country as this. In lumber-yards laborers now get from eighty to ninety cents a day. How can men, especially men of families, exist on such wages? But what do capitalists care how much poor people suffer. As it is, the rich get richer and the poor poorer. The laboring people are too ignorant to know how to uphold their own cause.
I know children that are working that cannot read a newspaper. Some do not know when they were born. What can be expected from children brought up in such ignorance. There are too many children under fourteen years of age at work. There are also too many females in workshops. That is no place for them. We must have less hours of labor, so as to secure employment for more men. We must stop labor-contracts and enforce strict school laws. Education is the only thing that will produce harmony between capital and labor.
From a Machinist.
There are no boys learning trades here, except, perhaps, in the foundry. The employers will not take any. If a boy is smart, and picks up the trade in six months he quits and goes to some other shop and passes off for a workman. So it is in all other departments, and it has been so for the last fifteen years. When I first went into a machine-shop, eighteen years ago, a boy served an apprenticeship of from three to four years. Now it is steal what you can. That is what cuts wages down. Men who have not properly learned the business at which they are working, will work for all kinds of wages, anything they can get. That brings down the wages of the man who has learned his trade.
From a Carpenter.
The financial condition of carpenters in this place is very low. They have nothing ahead, and so when dull times come they will cut prices, or will work for whatever they can get. The men are not reliable, and when dull times set in jealousies are the consequence. The social condition is not very good.
From a Machinist.
When I learned my trade apprentices received a certain amount for each year. Now the idea with employers seems to be to keep a boy at apprentices’ wages as long as possible, to the end that the greatest amount of skilled work may be obtained at a nominal cost. A boy goes as an apprentice, and works for sixty or sixty-five cents a day. He is “raised” five cents, or may be ten cents, after a time, and that time is discretionary with the manager. Perhaps the boy is a good mechanic, and “kicks” at his pay, and quits in a year and a half; goes to another shop and hires as a journeyman, spoils a job, and gets discharged; then goes to another and succeeds. You see he has been getting the hang of things. At the end of two or two and a half years from the time he commenced he is getting $2.25 to $2.50 per day. Other boys, with less natural ability, drag along, and are kept in the same shop for—
well, as long as they will stay—at low wages. They never get a show, in fact are mere roustabouts. I know plenty of both these classes. Do you see the idea? This is actually the way things are managed. In some shops you can hardly tell the “jours” from the “cubs.”
From a Machinist.
Socially, in this town, a mechanic earning fifteen dollars a week is looked down on by many of what we call society people, while a counter-hopper, earning one half as much, is regarded as a very much better man, not because he knows any more, but because the former is a ” greasy mechanic.” I admit that many mechanics waste their time and money foolishly, especially on theaters and drink, but many are sober, economical men, kind husbands, and tender fathers. Almost all have a common school education, and many improve their time in reading, drafting, etc.
From a Holder.
I consider it a grievous wrong to let apprentices work by the piece. Why? Because the boy ought to learn the trade thoroughly. When changed from one job to another, as he must be to enable him to master the trade, he will not earn as much money as he will if kept at the same pattern for any length of time. The employer can get more work out of the boy by keeping him on the same job continually. Hence, a young man who has served his time as a piece-worker will never, with very few exceptions, make a good mechanic, but will very likely live and die in the shop where he wanted to learn his trade. He dare not resist a reduction, and his employer knows it; but, of course, he will not take advantage of this knowledge!
From a Cabinet-maker.
During the latter part of 1884 piece-work has been introduced in the factory in which I am employed. Since then the cabinet-makers, if they wish to earn as much as they did formerly at day-work, are compelled to work much harder.
Executive Documents – Annual Reports for 1884
Made to the 66th General Assembly of the State of Ohio
at the Adjourned Session, Commencing January 6, 1885
See Also Part 1.