1896: Stand True

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TRADE-UNIONS FROM THE STANDPOINT OF A TRADE-UNIONIST
by John F. Sheehan

I have been asked to defend trade-unionism. It is unnec­essary; trade-unions are their own defense: by the added comforts they bring into thousands of homes, through increased wages and greater leisure; by the stimulus they give to the virtues of fraternity and mutual help among their members; by their influence in leveling the barriers of nationality and of race prejudice; by their work in a hundred ways in developing man intellectu­ally and morally, they have won such recognition from all fair minded citizens that their utility is as well established as that of any form of association into which men enter for their mutual benefit….

The sphere of the trade-union is a dual one, economic and ethical. In the former it is confronted by the fact that labor is treated as a com­modity and its value regulated by the law of supply and demand. To modify the effect of this erroneous law, its members agree to exact a minimum price for a given amount of the commodity—a worthy motive surely. There is, however, another phase of this economic problem, which still further complicates the case. It is that fierce, despairing competition among laborers, that de­spite the heroic defense of the trade-union, is continually forcing the liv­ing wage standard lower and lower, constituting a menace to the wel­fare, not only of the laborer, but also of his employer, by creating a pro­portionately narrower market for his products. And this, too, the trade-union seeks to curb.

The true, the noblest sphere of the trade-union is the ethical one. Be­hind the so-called commodity labor is the laborer. What he is the nation will be. What progress he makes civilization will make. Upon him and his progress the trade-union exercises a salutary influence. It edu­cates him, it teaches him to think and express his thoughts, it incul­cates a respect for the will of the majority; by its doctrines selfishness is subordinated to the general good, obstinacy is reasoned with, disorder frowned upon, and lines of thought broadened. Realizing this, we should ever labor to promote and extend their influence, and welcome them as one of the chief factors in the building up of a citizenship and a manhood of which Americans might well be proud….

An impression has gone abroad that trade-unionism seeks only to ameliorate the condition of the male worker. While it might be argued that benefits secured for them must tend to better the condition of the weaker sex, it is not necessary to thus beg the question. “Equal pay for equal work ” is one of their dearest and soundest mottoes, in support of which some of their bit­terest fights have been waged. Lis­ten to the eloquent tribute paid to them by Miss Frances E. Willard, the able advocate of the rights of womankind, in the American Journal of Politics, of August, 1892:

“Our expectation of justice is not in the lily-handed men of college, court and cloister, but in the farmers, whose higher education has been the grange, and in the mechanics, trained by the trade-union and the Knights of Labor. These are the men who have been known to go on a strike because sewing women toiled at starving rates, who stand stoutly by their motto, ‘equal pay for equal work,’ who declare in their platform that we shall have the ballot, and who are the force that shall yet bring about an evenness between the eight hours of the husband and the sixteen hours of the wife….”

Stand true to your trade-unions, sink those narrow prejudices that blind and enthrall us, and after gen­erations will call us blessed. The fate of the future, the fate of our children is in our hands. Let us prove ourselves worthy of the sacred trust by fidelity to the cause of our Union.

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