Working-class “Progress” in Lancashire

A statistical work, “The History of Wages in the Cotton Trade during the Past Hundred Years,” has recently been published, and, as it is a reprint from the “Journal of the Royal Statistical Society,” it cannot be expected to be anything but an attempt at a pean of progress. This volume (written by Mr. G. H. Wood) has received a hearty welcome from the Lancashire capitalist Press, but anyone not financially interested in perverting the truth—either being a capitalist or in the pay of one—can glean from the work instruction which, supports the Socialist position. Labour leaders of the posing, pretentious, optimistic, Ramsay Macdonald type must have received many eye-openers from certain of the statistics in this volume.

In comparing the “ups and downs” of the wages of Lancashire cotton workers during the past hundred years five factors need to be borne in mind. (1) The nominal wages received, the amount of money for which the labourer sold himself to his employer. (2) The real wage received—the money wage compared with the necessaries of life. (3) The larger number of children employed relatively to adults in the early part of the nineteenth century, thus lowering the average wages in the early half as compared with the latter. (4) The constantly increasing number of looms tended per weaver and the speeding-up of machinery. (5) The striking fact that the rate of wages—most of the cotton operatives are engaged on piece-work—was no higher in 1909 than in the year 1853.

(1) Take the nominal wages received. Says Mr. Wood (p. 126) “It certainly needs very sound evidence to substantiate a conclusion which shows that the wages of all persons employed in the industry were as high in 1806 as in 1890, that a reduction of over 50 per cent, took place in so short a space as 25 years.” And again (p. 129): “At Bolton (in 1806) we have as the earnings in that year, for various work, 22s., 21s., and 21s., at Wigton 22s., at Glasgow 17s. 8d. and 32s. 6d.. Wages had fallen by 1810, yet even in that year we have 16s. 3d., 16s. 10½d., 14s., 16s. 5½d., 17s. 2d., and 21s. as wages on various goods at Manchester, and 17s. to 24s. 6d., and 13s. 6d. to 17s. 2d. at Glasgow.” This was the state of affairs just previous to the application of steam power to cotton manufacture, and if we reckon that working-class conditions for a century had been gradually deteriorating, we can see that truly he is an Ananias who would gabble about a century of progress. Certainly we do meet with some striking figures if we look a little beyond those “hungry forties” Labourists and Radicals wax so eloquent about,

(2) The cost of living—of house rent, fuel, aad of necessaries of life such as meat, butter, cheese, eggs, etc., has rarely, if ever, in any period of English history, reached modern prices.

(3) During a discussion at the Royal Statistical Society on this work, a speaker, dealing with this phase of our subject said: “At the beginning and at the end of the nineteenth century it appeared that the general average of wages of all operatives in the cotton industry had substantially the same level, which was a very remarkable fact. The proportion of children in the industry was substantially higher at the earlier date, and that would lead to the conclusion that the figures presented failed to represent fully the high level of adult wages at the beginning of the nineteenth century.” Page 158.

(4) There has been a continuous increase in the number of looms tended per weaver, and this, together with the “speeding-up” of machinery, has accounted for any increase of wages over the temporarily low level of the “hungry forties.” Our author here says: “From the introduction of the power loom the average weaver had one or two looms, rising to two and a fifth by about 1850, increasing slowly to two and two-fifths by 1860, and more rapidly after the cotton famine to two and four-fifths by 1870, and more slowly to three and one-fifth by 1877. By 1886 the average had advanced to 3.3 and by 1906 to 3.44.” Page 143. And again: “that immediately hours were reduced it was found possible to speed up the different machines and get closer attention from the operatives ; . . . the speeding up of the machinery in the cotton trade had been gradual and automatic ; it probably advanced 1 per cent. per annum cumulatively from 1833.” Page 161.

If the cotton workers had long “lived” at the “hungry forties” level there would have been no efficient labour-power in Lancashire for cotton lords to exploit. Mr. Wood informs us that after the shortening of hours by legislation the workers earned as much, in the short weeks as in the previous long ones ; they drew on their “reserves of personal efficiency” ; the shorter week and the same piece wages and the kiddies at home were a “stimulus to increased exertion,” and the employers’ “average of production per loom” was heroically kept at that mark which is one of the seven wonders of the world.

Labour-power is on a par with other commodities, and all the capitalist world is subject to like laws. The Lancashire weaver receives a larger wage than does the Japanese weaver. This does not mean that the labour-power of the Lancashire weaver sells at above its cost of production ; it does not mean that the Lancashire operative has leisure and luxury. It means that the Lancashire worker’s labour-power is super-skilled, and that a reduction of wages would imply a reduction of efficiency. Capitalists are aware that low-priced labour-power is often costly labour-power. Labour-power of a sensitive kind, expended at high tension, must be rewarded at a comparatively high rate or it would deteriorate. Take away certain simple pleasures from operatives who for ten honrs a day are expending an enormous amount of nervous energy, and you would soon populate the lunatic asylums and impair the workers’ productive capacity.

I quote here from an article in the Manchester Guardian of January 2nd, 1911:

“It was Thomas Brassey who, in the middle of the last century, in his distinguished career as railway contractor, verified the truth that the cost of labour to the employer is not proportionate to the amount of wages paid per employee. Brassey dealt with labourers in different parts of the world, and found by experience that it was less costly to himself to employ the British navvy at 3s. 6d. per day than the Indian coolie at 6d. Exactly the same is true to-day in the cotton industry. In those countries where wages are low the cost of labour is high ; conversely, in Lancashire, where wages are high, the cost of labour is low. The element of efficiency must be taken into account, and the true criterion of the cost of labour is the amount of wages in relation to the amount of work done.”

The following table is from the same source.

“Annual expenses per spindle for labour alone;
In Lancashire 2s. 11½d.
In Italy 4s. 5d.
In France 4s. 5d.
In Brazil 10s. 11d.
In India 7s. 5d.
In Japan 3s. l1d.
This is thus the comparative cost of labour per spindle throughout the world.”

In the “bad old times” female weavers used to take needlework and novelettes with them to their work to help wile away leisure hours, but to-day weavers are “efficient” ; the “amount of work done in relation to the amount of wages” is prohibitive of reading during working hours. When Indian weavers toil at the speed of their Lancashire fellow-proletarians they will perforce have to eat more: you cannot maintain the wonderful Lancashire “average of production per loom” off rice and water.

(5) “If we take an index number of 100 we find that the wages of Lancashire weavers were represented in the year 1853 by the number 110, and in the year 1909 by the number 100 (page 3). These piece-rate wages verify the assertion that any increased wages (apart from temporary fluctuations) must have meant work that was becoming more and more intense.

In Lancashire the men’s leaders specialise in collective bargaining, and the trade unions have elaborate price-lists and agreements with the bosses’ federations, settling the terms upon which these “leaders” sell the labour-power of their dupes. Mr. Wood in this connection says : “The value to Lancashire of organisation had been so great that he remembered Mr. Macara saying to him two or three years ago that if the people of Lancashire knew and valued Mr. James Maudesley as he did, they would put up a statute to his memory.” It is spicy to add that Mr. Macara is a well-known leader of the masters, and Mr. James Maudesley a late well-known trade union official !

A century of progress ! Yes, in exploitation and in the growth of Income Tax returns. How the “leaders” of the textile unions can read this record of a hundred years without shame and regret is an ethical problem of no mean dimensions. It is the old, old story of the lion and the lamb with the old, old ending. Not that the workers’ “leaders” are the lambs: they are too far-seeing—the position of Senior (or junior or any other kind of) Adviser to the Home Office is more in their line. If the position of the working class could be ameliorated anywhere under capitalism, then Lancashire should be that place, and the past twenty-five years should have been the time. Men and women alike are organised in trade unions ; they have trusted their “leaders” and followed and obeyed them ; they have tried Liberalism, and then in turn have tried to terrify Liberalism with Labourism. They have tried thrift and providence and co-operation. But all to no purpose—capitalism is not to be beaten by such time-worn artifices, and soon it must be clear to these men and women workers that, in Socialism alone lies the only hope for their class.


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