Shall Strikers be Court-Martialled?

Shall Strikers be Court-Martialled?

[Liberty, August 25, 1883.]

Of the multitude of novel and absurd and monstrous suggestions called forth from the newspapers by the telegraphers’ strike, none have equalled in novelty and absurdity and monstrosity the sober proposal of the editor of the New York Nation, that unsentimental being who prides himself on his hard head, that hereafter any and all employees of telegraph companies, railroad companies, and the post-office department who may see fit to strike work without first getting the consent of their employers be treated as are soldiers who desert or decline to obey the commands of their superior officers; in other words (we suppose, though the Nation does not use these other words), that they may be summarily court-martialled and shot. The readers of Liberty not being noted for their credulity, some of them may refuse to believe that a civilized journal, especially one which claims to be of the highest order and to represent the best thought of the country and time, has been guilty of uttering such a proposition; therefore we print below an extract from a leader which appeared in the Nation of July 19, and defy any one to gather any other practical meaning from it than that which we have stated.(159 ¶ 1)

The truth is that a society like ours, and like that of all commercial nations, has become so dependent on the post-office, the railroads, and the telegraph, that they may be said to stand to it in the relation of the nerves to the human body. The loss even for a week of any one of them means partial paralysis. The loss of all three would mean a total deprivation, for a longer or shorter period, of nearly everything which the community most values. It would mean a suspension of business and social relations equal to that caused by a hostile invasion, barring the terror and bloodshed. It is consequently something to which no country will long allow itself to remain exposed. It cannot allow strikes of employees in these great public services, any more than it can allow the corporations themselves to refuse to carry on their business as a means of extracting what they think fair rates of transportation. No Legislature would permit this, and one or two more experiences like the railroad strike will cause every Legislature to take measures against the other. Telegraphers, railroad men, post-office clerks, and policemen fill places in modern society very much like that of soldiers. In fact, they together do for society what soldiers used to do. They enable every man to come and go freely on his lawful occasions, and transact his lawful business without let or hinderance.(159 ¶ 2)

During the rebellion, when all of us, except the much-abused copperheads, temporarily lost control of our reasoning faculties (we dare say that even the editor of the Nation at that time forgot himself and became sentimental for once), we got very angry with Carlyle for patly putting the American Iliad in a nutshell and epigrammatically establishing the substantial similarity between the condition of slave labor at the South and that of so-called free labor at the North. England’s blunt old sham-hater was answered with much boisterous declamation about freedom of contract, and his attention was proudly called to the fact that the laborer of the North could follow his own sweet will, leaving his employer when he saw fit, attaching himself to any other willing to hire him, or, if he preferred, setting up in business for himself and employing others. He was at liberty, it was loudly proclaimed by our abolitionists and free-traders, to work when he pleased, where he pleased, how he pleased, and on what terms he pleased, and no man could say him nay. What are we to think, then, when the chief newspaper exponent of the freedom of contract philosophy deliberately sacrifices the only answer that it could make to Carlyle’s indictment by proposing the introduction of a military discipline into industry, which, in assimilating the laborer to the soldier, would make him—what the soldier is—a slave? Think? Simply this,—that the hypocritical thieves and tyrants who for years have been endeavoring to make their victims believe themselves freemen see that the game is nearly up, and that the time is fast approaching when they must take by the horns the bull of outraged industry, which, maddened by the discovery of its hitherto invisible chains, is making frantic efforts to burst them it knows not how. It is a point gained. An enemy in the open field is less formidable than one in ambush. When the capitalists shall be forced to show their true colors, the laborers will then know against whom they are fighting.(159 ¶ 3)

Fighting, did we say? Yes. For the laborer in these days is a soldier, though not in the sense in which the Nation meant. His employer is not, as the Nation would have it, his superior officer, but simply a member of an opposing army. The whole industrial and commercial world is in a state of internecine war, in which the prolétaires are massed on one side and the proprietors on the other. This is the fact that justifies strikers in subjecting society to what the Nation calls a partial paralysis. It is a war measure. The laborer sees that he does not get his due. He knows that the capitalists have been intrusted by society, through its external representative, the State, with privileges which enable them to control production and distribution; and that, in abuse of these privileges, they have seen to it that the demand for labor should fall far below the supply, and have then taken advantage of the necessities of the laborer and reduced his wages. The laborer and his fellows, therefore, resort to the policy of uniting in such numbers in a refusal to work at the reduced rate that the demand for labor becomes very much greater than the supply, and then they take advantage of the necessities of the capitalists and society to secure a restoration of the old rate of wages, and perhaps an increase upon it. Be the game fair or foul, two can play at it; and those who begin it should not complain when they get the worst of it. If society objects to being paralyzed, it can very easily avoid it. All it needs to do is to adopt the advice which Liberty has long been offering it, and withdraw from the monopolists the privileges which it has granted them. Then, as Colonel William B. Greene has shown in his Mutual Banking, as Lysander Spooner has shown in his own works on finance, and as Proudhon has shown in his Organization of Credit, capital will no longer be tied up by syndicates, but will become readily available for investment on easy terms; productive enterprise, taking new impetus, will soon assume enormous proportions; the work to be done will always surpass the number of laborers to do it; and, instead of the employers being able to say to the laborers, as the unsentimental Nation would like to have them, Take what we offer you, or the troops shall be called out to shoot you down, the laborers will be able to say to their employers, If you desire our services, you must give us in return an equivalent of their product,—terms which the employers will be only too glad to accept. Such is the only solution of the problem of strikes, such the only way to turn the edge of Carlyle’s biting satire.(159 ¶ 4)