Social Organization

Chapter 25: The Organization of the Ill-Paid Classes

Charles Horton Cooley

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IT is not the purpose of this book to add anything to the merely controversial literature of the time; and in treating the present topic I intend no more than to state a few simple and perhaps obvious principles designed to connect it with our general line of thought.

It is quite apparent that an organized and intelligent class-consciousness in the hand-working people is one of the primary needs of a democratic society. In so far as this part of the people is lacking in a knowledge of its situation and in the practice of orderly self-assertion, a real freedom will also be lacking, and we shall have some kind of subjection in its place; freedom being impossible without group organization. That industrial classes exist—in the sense already explained [1]—cannot well be denied, and existing they ought to be conscious and self-directing.

The most obvious need of class-consciousness is for self-assertion against the pressure of other classes, and this is both most necessary and most difficult with those who lack wealth and the command over organized forces which it implies. In a free society, especially, the Lord helps those who help themselves; and those who are weak

(285) in money must be strong in union, and must also exert themselves to make good any deficiency in leadership that comes from ability deserting to more favored classes.

That the dominant power of wealth has an oppressive action for the most part involuntary, upon the people below, will hardly be denied by any competent student. The industrial progress of our time is accompanied by sufferings that are involved with the progress. These sufferings—at least in their more tangible forms—fall almost wholly upon the poorer classes, while the richer get a larger share of the increased product which the progress brings. By sufferings I mean not only the physical hardship and liability to disease, early decay, and mutilation or death by accident, which fall to the hand-worker; but also the debasement of children by premature and stunting labor, the comparative lack of intellectual and social opportunities, the ugly and discouraging surroundings, and the insecurity of employment, to which he and his are subject. There is no purpose to inflict these things; but they are inflicted, and the only remedy is a public consciousness, especially in the classes who suffer from them, of their causes and the means by which they can be done away with.

The principal expressions of class-consciousness in the hand-working classes in our day are labor unions and that wider, vaguer, more philosophical or religious movement, too various for definition, which is known as socialism. Regarding the latter I will only say at present that it includes much of what is most vital in the contemporary working of the democratic spirit; the large problems with

(286) which its doctrines deal I prefer to discuss in my own way.

Labor unions are a simpler matter. They have arisen out of the urgent need of self-defence not so much against deliberate aggression

as against brutal confusion and neglect. The industrial population has been tossed about on the swirl of economic change like so much sawdust on a river, sometimes prosperous, sometimes miserable, never secure, and living largely under degrading, inhuman conditions. Against this state of things the higher class of artisans—as measured by skill, wages and general intelligence—have made a partly successful struggle through cooperation in associations, which, however, include much less than half of those who might be expected to take advantage of them.[2] That they are an effective means of class self-assertion is evident from the antagonism they have aroused.

Besides their primary function of group-bargaining, which has come to be generally recognized as essential, unions are performing a variety of services hardly less important to their members, and serviceable to society at large. In the way of influencing legislation they have probably done more than all other agencies together to combat child-labor, excessive hours, and other inhuman and degrading kinds of work; also to provide for safeguards against accident, for proper sanitation of factories, and the like. In this field their work is as much defensive as aggressive, since employing interests, on the other side,

(287) are constantly influencing legislation and administration to their own advantage.

Their function as spheres of fellowship and self-development is equally vital and less understood. To have a we-feeling to live shoulder to shoulder with one's fellows, is the only human life; we all need it to keep us from selfishness, sensuality and despair, and the hand-worker needs it even more than the rest of us. Usually without pecuniary resource and insecure of his job and his home, he is, in isolation, miserably weak and in a way to be cowed and unmanned by misfortune or mere apprehension. Drifting about in a confused society, unimportant, apparently, to the rest of the world, it is no wonder if he feels

" I am no link of Thy great chain," [3]

and loses faith in himself, in life and in God. The union makes him feel that he is part of a whole, one of a fellowship, that there are those who will stand by him in trouble, that he counts for something in the great life. He gets from it that thrill of broader sentiment, the same in kind that men get in fighting for their country; his self is enlarged and enriched and his imagination fed with objects, comparatively, "immense and eternal."

Moreover, the life of labor unions and other class associations, through the training which it gives in democratic organization and discipline, is perhaps the chief guaranty of the healthy political development of the hand-working class—especially those imported from non-democratic civilizations—and the surest barrier against recklessness and disorder. That their members get this training will

(288) be evident to anyone who studies their working, and it is not apparent that they would get it in any other way. Men learn most in acting for purposes which they understand and are interested in, and this is more certain to be the case with economic aims than with any other.

Thus, if unions should never raise wages or shorten hours, they would yet be invaluable to the manhood of their members. At worst, they ensure the joy of an open fight and of companionship in defeat. Self-assertion through voluntary organization is of the essence of democracy, and if any part of the people proves incapable of it it is a bad sign for the country. On this ground alone it would seem that patriots should desire to see organization of this sort extend throughout the industrial population.

The danger of these associations is that which besets human nature everywhere—the selfish use of power. It is feared with reason that if they have too much their own way they will monopolize opportunity by restricting apprenticeship and limiting the number of their members; that they will seek their ends through intimidation and violence; that they will be made the instruments of corrupt leaders. These and similar wrongs have from time to time been brought home to them, and, unless their members are superior to the common run of men, they are such as must be expected. But it would be a mistake to regard these or any other kinds of injustice as a part of the essential policy of unions. They are feeling their way in a human, fallible manner, and their eventual policy will be determined by what, in the way of class advancement, they find by experience to be practicable. In so

(289) far as they attempt things that are unjust we may expect them, in the long run, to fail, through the resistance of others and through the awakening of their own consciences. It is the part of other people to check their excesses and cherish their benefits.

In general no sort of persons mean better than hand-laboring men. They are simple, honest people, as a rule, with that bent toward integrity which is fostered by working in wood and iron and often lost in the subtleties of business. Moreover, their experience is such as to develop a sense of the brotherhood of man and a desire to realize it in institutions. Not having enjoyed the artificial support of accumulated property, they have the more reason to know the dependence of each on his fellows. Nor have they any great hopes of personal aggrandizement to isolate them and pamper their self-consciousness.

To these we may add that offences from this quarter are likely to be more shocking and less dangerous than those of a more sophisticated sort of people. Occasional outbreaks of violence alarm us and call for prompt enforcement of law, but are not a serious menace to society, because general sentiment and all established interests are against them; while the subtle, respectable, systematic corruption by the rich and powerful threatens the very being of democracy.

The most deplorable fact about labor unions is that they embrace so small a proportion of those that need their benefits. How far into the shifting masses of unskilled labor effective organization can extend only time will show.


  1. See chapter 21.
  2. Professor John R. Commons (Publications of the American Sociological Society, vol. ii, p. 141) estimates 2,000,000 members of unions out of 6,000,000 wage-earners "available for class conflict."
  3. George Herbert.

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