The outlook for the shop assistant

A case engaging public attention recently, illustrated very vividly the perils and pitfalls awaiting those who turn to the serving art for a livelihood. Many years back that master of realism, Emile Zola, in his “Ladies’ Paradise,” pointed out the awful plight of those brought into the great cities by the octopus-like departmental stores. He drew a terribly true picture of the road these poor girls travel once they are in the clutches of the “masters of life.” The meagre “salary”—most of which must be spent on “respectable” attire ; the barrack-buildings in which the slaves of the counter are herded together ; the demoralising conditions under which they work : all this, coupled with the ever-haunting fear of unemployment far from their home, makes the lot of the black-clothed proletariat equally as bad as that of the rest of their class.

The present case especially gives prominence to the sinister side of the shop-workers’ position. It clearly shows that those who own the means of life use their economic advantage to


upon the daughters of the toilers. Further, the microscopic remuneration of the workers drives them too often to supplement their earnings by means that are palpable and well known. It is not a matter for surprise that some forsake shop life altogether for the path of “easy virtue,” because the latter is at any rate free from the torture and semi-starvation associated with the toiler’s weary round. They prefer “a short life and a merry one” to an existence whose long-drawn-out sufferings oft make its victims pine for the silence of the grave. The female assistant, at all events, knows that when the bloom of youth vanishes and the sprightliness of adolescence wanes, she is no longer wanted. A further “supply” can be obtained, for “flesh and blood are cheap to day.” Sometimes the assistant sees escape in the “capture” of a husband, or perhaps a “patron” as an alternative !

Many are the ills of the “counter-jumper,” but “living in” has been a burning question for years past, though the number of firms who now adopt the system is fewer than ever and is still declining.

The “living-in” system has changed greatly since the days when the small shop or warehouse alone had the field. It often meant then eating and drinking the same food at the same table as their employers, and it was no strange thing to be treated almost


The position of shop assistant was frequently regarded as a desirable haven of refuge from the monotony and idiocy of rural life. With the decline in economic importance of the small shop, the “living-in” system has undergone vast alteration. The boarding and lodging of assistants has come to be treated as a purely commercial affair. It means bad and insufficient food, overcrowded apartments, and very low pay.

“Living-in” is going owing to the heavy rents that suitable premises in busy areas now involve making it unprofitable. The great emporiums such as Selfridge’s, the new Arding and Hobbs, and the new Whiteley’s, all favour the “outdoor” method now. Commercial development and the more economical working of business have caused this, not the “energies” of trade union leaders. There is, also, a great deal of kudos to be gained by a firm booming the fact that it has given up the “living-in” system— in the workers’ interest, of course.

But whether the “in” rule or the “out” be adopted, depend upon it, the same


runs through it all. How callous and indifferent to the interest of their employees, as such, the capitalists are, was demonstrated at the Brixton fire a short time ago, when two assistants lost their lives for want of proper means of escape being provided.

The desire to save expense and the attempt to cover the cost of any by getting more out of the employees, remains, whether the toilers live in or out. They have to deal with the same profit-hunting masters, who get their pound of flesh, whatever changes may be made in the method of getting it.

The black prospect of the assistants tends to make many of them bitterly resent the idea of a lifetime serving masters under such conditions, and they look forward to the day when they can start “on their own.” Dreamers of dreams ! The hope had some real meaning in the “old days,” but now it is a mockery.

Industry has progressed so greatly since that it has had a profound influence upon the commercial methods of our time. The rise of the limited liability company has made possible the great emporiums and stores whose all-embracing character has


of the “small man.” The competition of the “world’s providers” has spelt imminent bankruptcy to him, and hastened his journey to Carey Street. The tremendous buying power, the more attractive display, the greater variety of goods, and the frequent sales—these are the weapons used so fatally against the struggling rivals. Hence we see the little chance that is offered the assistants to climb into the ranks of the employers. Very few of them really understand the trend of the economic forces which are causing havoc all around them. But the enormous power exercised by the large employers, the concentration of control of trade into fewer hands, and the frequency of unemployment, led to a number of assistants combining, and thus in 1891 the National Amalgamated Union of Shop Assistants was formed. Twenty years’ existence has given the organisation a membership of 21,000 out of the million persons engaged in the work of distribution who are eligible to join. The “union” largely imitates a


in its working, and its stupendous value to assistants may be gleaned from the 1909 Annual Report, which tells us that while £372 were spent on trade disputes during the year, over £11,000 went to management expenses in that period. The poor, jaded shop-workers contribute theif hard-earned silver to provide fine, soft jobs for officials. They financially supported their Parliamentary “representative,” Mr. J. A. Seddon, what time he was engaged in booming the Dreadnought-providing Budget of the Liberal Party. It was a deplorable thing to see a shop-assistants’ Member shouting for the taxation of land values, helping the agitation of large, slave-driving drapers, who talk of the villainy of ground landlords and the burden of their rents !

For upwards of fifteen years the union has been talking about getting a 60-hour Bill passed, and in 1896 Sir Charles Dilke introduced a Bill into the House of Commons. This was shelved, and each succeeding year has witnessed its fruitless re-appearance. In May 1908 the bill was again brought forward, but was dropped on the promise of the Government to bring in a measure themselves. It was mentioned in the King’s Speech in February 1909, and in August the long awaited “charter” was ushered in by Lord Gladstone. But the measure did not suit the Labour-loving Liberal Party, and this year it once more comes on the scene, or, rather, a modified measure (the Shops’ Bill No. 2) does instead.

The union leaders pride themselves upon its entry into the


and they boast that their “activities” have been rewarded. How little the union has mattered may be gathered from the fact that only 2 per cent. of the shop assistants are enrolled in its ranks.

Many large firms favour the Bill because it gives them a lever to use against the small ones. The small shops in these fateful times keep open all hours lest they lose custom-the slightest dwindling of which they keenly feel. The reduction of hours may harry them while the large concerns can look smilingly on and effect economies in their business to nullify any inroads the Bill may threaten.

While the No. 1 Bill made a weekly half-holiday compulsory, the present Bill makes it depend upon “local option” for its operation. The shop-keepers of a district are themselves to decide by a majority vote whether it shall apply to their locality. Originally the Bill provided for the closing of shops at least three nights a week by 8 o’clock, but upon employers protesting the number was reduced to two. Exclusive of meal-times the Bill claims to fix a 60-hour maximum, but its clauses actually allow at least 62 hours for those who get a fortnight’s holiday during the year.

In their Manifesto the union state that “Two years ago the Government were moved to send a Commission to the Colonies to secure evidence on the working of shop legislation in Britain beyond the Seas, and the report shows that shop assistants, employers, and the general public were


Moving the second reading in the House of Commons on March 31st., Mr. Masterman said : “The Bill had considerable support from shopkeepers and shop assistants. The main principles of the Bill had been framed to help retail traders to help themselves.” The assistants’ spokesman in the House (Mr. G. H. Roberts) during the debate pointed out that “In New Zealand a similar measure to that before the House had been of great benefit, not, only to the workers concerned, but also to the shopkeepers. He had recently read the correspondence which had passed between Mr. J. A. Seddon and some of the largest firms in New Zealand ; this had been supplemented by the evidence of a member of the New Zealand Cabinet, and all strongly registered the opinion that a blot on their Act was the failure to exact the compulsory closing of shops and the weekly half-holiday. He had found in England the apprehension existed in the minds of small shopkeepers that the large establishments would be able to compete unfairly with them because they employed larger staffs and could adjust their hours accordingly. He felt that the New Zealand experience and the action of large trading organisations in this country gave force to the contention that they ought to restore in the present measure the provisions of the previous bill exacting compulsory closing of shops and a compulsory half holiday.”

The foregoing extracts pointing to the acceptability of the measure to employers and the favourable (to the masters) working of similar measures in the Colonies, should convince every assistant of the


It must be plain to him that if these measures benefit employers and draw their support, they cannot help him, because the interest of employers is to extract profit from the workers, and the workers’ interest is to stop them. Surely the experience gained in the disputes over tiny increases in salary should be sufficient evidence of the contrast in material interests. That the Bill emanates from the Liberal Government should be a sign of its tainted source. The Liberal party is composed of employers and their henchmen. Did not Lloyd George tell us (Swansea, Oct. 1, 1908) that “the richest men in the House of Commons sat upon the Liberal side” ?

Even if the measure had a vestige of benefit for the working class about it, remember it depends upon the capitalist administration for its working. The Liberal party see to it that they have a formidable second line of defence against us by appointing blatantly reactionary “justices” to see that the laws are interpreted in the interest of the capitalist class.

To give an instance of the value of capitalist laws, the Shops’ Act of 1904 laid it down that seats for assistants must be provided behind the counter. The fundamental purpose of these was shown by the same speech of G. H. Roberts, when he said that they had “received many complaints that although seats had been provided, assistants had been subject to such restrictions that they had been practically useless.”

Trade Unionism, though it may act as a temporary brake upon the downward trend of wages, is futile to change the conditions under which the workers live. The strongest unions, such as the miners of South Wales, have


in face of the strength of capitalism’s combined forces on the economic field. The Miners’ is practically an industrial union, as it embraces widely different branches of the industry, yet it cannot improve permanently the state of the toilers. No, not even Socialist unionism can alter the material position of the workers while the means of life are owned by a few. The road for the toilers to travel has long been pointed out by the S.P.G.B., and that is to get control of the political machine and so dislodge our masters from their citadel.

The assistant’s duty is to direct his energies to ending this system and instituting one where the absentee shareholder does not find a place ; a system where those who produce wealth shall use it, and where the useless toil of the greater number of “counter jumpers” will be no more but all shall perform their share of the necessary labour of the Commonweal.

Shops’ Acts and any legislation will be of value to the working class under capitalism in so far as the organised revolutionary toilers can make their existence feared by those who rule. To-day, unfortunately, we are weak in number, but tomorrow we can be strong. Will you help us ?


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