Letter: Unemployment and the Printing Trades
We print below a letter from a correspondent, together with our reply :—
S. Hackney, E.9. 22/9/29.
To Editor socialist standard.
Upon perusal of the Socialist Party’s pamphlet “Socialism,” I am prompted to write of an aspect regarding machine production and its effect on the economic relationship of the working-class. Firstly, I will draw attention to page 3, where will be found workers in practically every trade, profession, and so forth, addressing, as a body, to the working-class the object of Socialism. And amongst them is instanced printers (my italics).
On page 19 I find a reference to the linotype machine and its economic results upon the compositors. In brief, without giving the full quotation, this wonderful machine has displaced men; made them unemployed, but not, I will venture to say, unemployable.
Permit me to give the facts. In 1899, the Daily Mail was the first firm to instal these machines. They were then producing an 8-page news-sheet. The staff of compositors was some thing like fifty. Since then the paper has developed from an 8-page to a 16-page production. Remembering, too, that the linotype sets text matter only, who other than the displaced compositors does the advertisements which monopolises more of the paper than the material composed by the linotype. This position is representative of all firms who installed the machine.
Next, in 1899, when the linotype was introduced in England from America, the membership of the London Society of Compositors was 11,415, so, according to the line of thought given in “Socialism,” by now—1929—the membership should be numerically smaller. But the opposite is the case, and we find the membership of the Society stronger—14,690, to be precise, and the months of May, June and July found only an average of 16 members unemployed on the figures for those three months. How then can you reconcile these facts with that propounded in the pamphlet ?
The explanation is simple. Take another industry. Consequent on the development of the tooth-brush industry, we find the wage-standard is low. With the result of intensive machine production the markets, at periods, get over stocked. That is the cause, Stock ! Stock ! ! Stock ! ! ! But not so in Print. There is no stock in that industry. And that, in my opinion, is the farcical aspect or position I regard for the Socialist Party to take as an example the linotype machine. Other than that point, of course, I am in full agreement.
Yours fraternally, tom.
Our correspondent has read the Socialist Party’s pamphlet “Socialism,” and notes that in reference to the composition of the organization, printers, amongst others, are enumerated (page 3). Printers, whether they be linotype or monotype operators, or hand compositors, or machine managers, and so forth, are all members of the working class. Consequently there are in the ranks of the S.P.G.B. men and women of diverse occupations who have joined together in an endeavour to propagate the gospel of Socialism.
He is in difficulties about page 19, wherein the introduction of a linotype machine into a printing office is given as an illustration of how hand-labour may be displaced by the machine. Let us quote the passage as it appears in the pamphlet:—
“This wonderful appliance, though a great labour-saver, is profitable only to a certain circle of printers—those who have a considerable amount of book or newspaper work. But many are considering the pros and cons of its adoption. A very little will decide. An extra monthly magazine—or, perhaps, putting in a machine, by saving two or three men’s room, will avoid an expensive removal to larger premises.
Now suppose wages rise, immediately the doubters are decided. They adopt the machine and each machine throws three or four compositors into the street.“
It is, indeed, difficult to understand the reasoning of our correspondent, for, while he writes to take exception to the passage quoted above, the significant admission of our correctness creeps in when he says, ” but not, I will venture to say, unemployable.” (Closing words of his second paragraph.) Again, later on, he asks, “who other than the displaced compositors does the advertisements ?”
Our critic then goes on to give what he considers to be the facts. He says :
“In 1899 the Daily Mail was the first firm to instal these machines. They were then producing an eight-page news-sheet. The staff of compositors was something like fifty. Since then the paper has developed from an eight-page to a sixteen-page production. Remembering, too, that the linotype sets text matter only, who, other than the displaced compositors does the advertisements, which monopolise more of the paper than the material composed by the linotype. This position is representative of all firms who installed the machine.”
We would suggest to our correspondent that before he starts “distributing” the “facts,” he should take the trouble to verify them. The Daily Mail was first published on May 1st, 1896. (See “Mystery of the Daily Mail,” page 100; or “Everyman Encyclopaedia.”) Also an agreement for machine composition was signed between representatives of the London Newspapers and Master Printers and the London Society of Compositors in July, 1896.
The facts would have been more informative had they been more definite. For instance, “something like fifty” for the number of compositors employed when the production was an eight-page one, and no mention at all of those required for the sixteen-page edition does not help towards an intelligent understanding of the situation. Our critic goes on to ask, “who, other than the displaced compositor does the advertisements which monopolise more of the paper than the material composed by the linotype?” Of course, some of the displaced compositors may get a look in on the advertisements, seeing that the paper is now, on his own showing, twice its former size ; and the tendency has for a long time past been for newspapers to develop more and more into an advertising medium.
This is where our critic misunderstands our point. We do not deny that an industry can expand and even expand faster when labour is eliminated by machines. The essential point is that more work is done by relatively fewer workers. An instance of this may be taken from the Census of Production figures published in the Board of Trade Journal (21st April, 1927). Dealing with the “Printing and Publication of Newspapers and Periodicals,” it is stated :
Net output per head, 1907 … £190
1924 … £546
Persons employed, 1907 … 43,644
1924 … 56,837
Be it noted that this increase is much greater than the increase in prices between 1907 and 1924.
Because our correspondent fails to grasp these points he wants to know how we reconcile our statement with regard to the displacement of hand labour by machines when the membership of the London Society of Compositors in 1899 was 11,415 and is now 14,690?
The next statement in his letter, which says that “the months of May, June and July found only an average of sixteen members unemployed,” is incorrect. Let us take the figures as given in the London Typographical Journal:—
May 4 May 11 May 18 May 25
25 55 92 118
June 1 June 8 June 15 June 22 June 29
155 151 171 147 147
July 6 July 13 July 20 July 27
169 205 230 228
If our questioner will take the trouble to work these figures out, he will discover that the average for the thirteen weeks is 145 !
Again, notice should be taken that the compositors have extraordinarily good superannuation benefits which, combined with the Contributory Pension Act, has a tendency to remove from the labour market a proportion of seekers after work. Dealing with the unemployment figures for the years 1921-1928, the Annual Report, 1928, of the L.S.C. states :—”Members do not need to be reminded that this substantial reduction has been brought about by the operation of the scheme of superannuation combined with the policy of restriction of membership.” Now this restriction of entrants and the limitation of apprentices all helps to swell the general army of unemployed.
We consider it unnecessary to follow our critic at length to the tooth-brush industry. Suffice it to say that here again he is in error in imagining that in the realm of print there is no stock. Evidently he has never heard or seen such things as receipt books, rent books, registers, to mention but a few that come to mind at once, that can be obtained for the asking.
(Socialist Standard, November 1929)