A Labor Dispute


I tend to view tools and machines as neutral things. To me, a handsaw, table saw and jigsaw are all tools of my personal liberty. With them, I can ditch the obligation to work on someone’s payroll. I don’t care if the tools plug in to the wall or pre-date the Rural Electrification Act.

We focus on handwork here at Lost Art Press because that is what is missing from the market. (The world does not need another book on router tables.) But we are not hostile to machines. To us, it all depends on how the tool is used – either to free yourself or to amass capital for others.

That said, history doesn’t always see technology this way. As I was using my iron miter box today to make some door frames, I remembered a fantastic passage from the “Report of the Industrial Commission of the Chicago Labor Disputes of 1900: The Disputes in the Building and Machinery Trades, Vol. VIII” (Government Printing Office, 1901). (Props to Jeff Burks for digging up the original testimony.)

It’s an interchange between a government official and union carpenter O. E. Woodbury.

Q. Did your union at any time forbid the use of the patent miter box, or the mortising machine, in a building?

A. I think they vetoed the use of the patent miter box; but I will tell you why they did it. In the first place, the carpenter that lugs a kit that he usually has to lug from job to job has got enough to carry without lugging an iron miter box; but not only that, they are a very expensive luxury, and the carpenter’s kit is a very expensive anyway, and he runs a great risk of losing it. A great many carpenters from time to time go home at night and leave the kit worth from $25 to $40 on the job, and go in the morning back to work and find that somebody has broken into the building or the lockup shed and stolen their tools, and they find themselves without a tool to work with; and if they haven’t got a bank account, and mighty few of them have, they will not have any money to put into new tools.

The iron miter box simply increases your kit, and adds more weight to it, and more expenses to it. We feel that it is a tool that if the bosses want you to have and want you to use, because it is perhaps more accurate than the average wooden miter box, they should provide the carpenters with them. We have never said to one of our members, You can not use it. But we forbid them – I believe at one time we forbade them to buy them and to carry them around with them, because the simple fact of the matter was that it would be but a short time before we should all have to carry them around and run the risk of losing them.

— Christopher Schwarz


About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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9 Responses to A Labor Dispute

  1. jonathanszczepanski says:

    Chris, exactly how many pairs of shoes do you own to put in that case?

  2. johncashman73 says:

    Nail and screw cabinet?

  3. I recently picked one of these up and it was almost new! It is heavy and if you had to bring it back and forth on foot from every job site everyday well … you would be in great shape I guess?.

  4. But there’s very little spilt milk over which to cry when someone steals your shooting board.

  5. I love being a part of this community… um, most of the time.

  6. bjack130 says:

    Chris & Jeff,

    This is valuable stuff – I’ve never known tradesmen and -women to be dead set against “progress” as in Luddism. I even strongly suspect that Jesus Christ, had He been born during our age, would be just as much a devotee of the router as He would a router plane. (If this offends anyone, like any self-respecting tradesperson of any age [see “Socrates as a stone mason”], I make no apologies for honest bits of thinking. You may also want to read Kahlil Gibran’s “Jesus, the Son of Man” for the chapter on Jesus’ working as a framer on a Roman villa undergoing remodeling – when the plane was first used.) The key to understanding this nice bit of honest testimony is to force the capital interests to make the investments they should be making rather than to try to fob off your capital requirements on the backs of the working people – these days, that also includes footing the bill for “continuing professional education” (and motivational seminars authored by Covey, Dwyer, etc., don’t count …).

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