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A History of Trade Unionism in the United States

Would be redeemable in government bonds


In

Massachusetts, however, the workingmen succeeded after hard and protracted labor in obtaining an enforceable ten-hour law for women--the first effective law of its kind passed in any American State. This law, which was passed in 1874, provides that "no minor under the age of eighteen years, and no woman over that age" shall be employed more than ten hours in one day or sixty hours in any one week in any manufacturing establishment in the State. The penalty for each violation was fixed at fifty dollars.

The repeated disappointments with politics and legislation led in the early seventies to a revival of faith in trade unionism. Even in the early sixties we find not a few unions, national and local, limiting their hours by agreement with employers. The national unions, however, for the most part left the matter to the local unions for settlement as their strength or local conditions might dictate. In some cases the local unions were advised to accept a reduction of wages in order to secure the system, showing faith in Steward's theory that such reduction could not be permanent.

The movement to establish the eight-hour day through trade unionism reached its climax in the summer of 1872, when business prosperity was at its height. This year witnessed in New York City a general eight-hour strike. However, it succeeded in only a few trades, and even there the gain was only temporary, since it was lost during the years

of depression which followed the financial panic of 1873.

To come back to the National Labor Union. At the second convention in 1867 the enthusiasm was transferred from eight-hour laws to the bizarre social reform philosophy known as "greenbackism."

"Greenbackism" was, in substance, a plan to give the man without capital an equal opportunity in business with his rich competitor. It meant taking away from bankers and middlemen their control over credit and thereby furnishing credit and capital through the aid of the government to the producers of physical products. On its face greenbackism was a program of currency reform and derived its name from the so-called "greenback," the paper money issued during the Civil War. But it was more than currency reform--it was industrial democracy.

"Greenbackism" was the American counterpart of the contemporary radicalism of Europe. Its program had much in common with that of Lassalle in Germany who would have the state lend its credit to cooperative associations of workingmen in the confident expectation that with such backing they would drive private capitalism out of existence by the competitive route. But greenbackism differed from the scheme of Lassalle in that it would utilize the government's enormous Civil War debt, instead of its taxing power, as a means of furnishing capital to labor. This was to be done by reducing the rate of interest on the government bonds to three percent and by making them convertible into legal tender currency and convertible back into bonds, at the will of the holder of either. In other words, the greenback currency, instead of being, as it was at the time, an irredeemable promise to pay in specie, would be redeemable in government bonds. On the other hand, if a government bondholder could secure slightly more than three percent by lending to a private borrower, he would return his bonds to the government, take out the corresponding amount in greenbacks and lend it to the producer on his private note or mortgage. This would involve, of course, the possible inflation of legal tender currency to the amount of outstanding bonds. But inflation was immaterial, since all prices would be affected alike and meanwhile the farmers, the workingmen, and their cooperative establishments would be able to secure capital at slightly more than three percent instead of the nine or twelve percent which they were compelled to pay at the bank. Thereby they would be placed on a competitive level with the middleman, and the wage earner would be assisted to escape the wage system into self-employment.


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