The High Place of Labor

Title: The High Place of Labor

Date: September 1, 1924

Location: Washington D.C.

Context: An address to a group of labor leaders on September 1, 1924, which was Labor Day in 1924

Labor Day is more entitled than any other to be called a national holiday. Other holidays had their origin in state legislative action. Labor Day had its origin in national legislative action. After Congress had taken the lead the states followed. It is moreover a peculiarly American holiday. It is a most characteristic representation of our ideals. No other country, I am told, makes a like observance. But in America this high tribute is paid in recognition of the worth and dignity of the men and women who toil.

You come here as representative Americans. You are true representatives. I cannot think of anything characteristically American that was not produced by toil. I cannot think of any American man or woman preëminent in the history of our Nation who did not reach their place through toil. I cannot think of anything that represents the American people as a whole so adequately as honest work. We perform different tasks, but the spirit is the same. We are proud of work and ashamed of idleness. With us there is no task which is menial, no service which is degrading. All work is ennobling and all workers are ennobled.

To my mind America has but one main problem, the character of the men and women it shall produce. It is not fundamentally a Government problem, although the Government can be of a great influence in its solution. It is the real problem of the people themselves. They control its property, they have determined its government, they manage its business. In all things they are the masters of their own destiny. What they are, their intelligence, their fidelity, their courage, their faith, will determine our material prosperity, our successes and happiness at home, and our place in the world abroad.

If anything is to be done then, by the Government, for the people who toil, for the cause of labor, which is the sum of all other causes, it will be by continuing its efforts to provide healthful surroundings, education, reasonable conditions of employment, fair wages for fair work, stable business prosperity, and the encouragement of religious worship. This is the general American policy which is working out with a success more complete for humanity, with its finite limitations, than was ever accomplished anywhere else in the world. The door of opportunity swings wide open in our country. Through it, in constant flow, go those who toil. America recognizes no aristocracy save those who work. The badge of service is the sole requirement for admission to the ranks of our nobility.

These American policies should be continued. We have outlawed all artificial privilege. We have had our revolution and our reforms. I do not favor a corporation government, a bank government, a farm government or a labor government. I am for a common-sense government by all the people according to the American policy and under the American Constitution. I want all the people to continue to be partakers in self government. We never had a government under our Constitution that was not put into office by the votes of the toilers.

It is only necessary to look about you to observe the practical effect of this policy. It is somewhat difficult to find men in important Government positions who did not in their beginnings live by the work of their hands. Of those who sit at the Cabinet table of the Nation none were born to the purple, save only as they were born to become American citizens, and nearly all in early life earned their living by actual manual labor. The Secretary of Labor comes from union labor ranks. In each important national conference in which labor is interested, labor has been represented. On several occasions under this administration that has been the practice. It was so at the Conference on Unemployment, on Transportation, on Agriculture, on the Business Cycle, on Intermittent Employment in Construction Industries, and on the great Washington Conference for the Limitation of Armaments. The same policy prevails in the membership of many of our important commissions. The Chairman of the United States Shipping Board, one of the most important places of business administration in the Government, is filled by a man who was prominent in organized labor. The St. Lawrence River, the Interstate Commerce, and the United States Employees’ Compensation Commissions, the Vocational Education and the Railway Labor Boards, are examples of this policy and are results of the open door of opportunity. Those who have been identified with toil are now, and will continue to be, in important places of government authority. The wage earners of America have been mixing their work with brains ever since the day of George Washington.

But the Government of the United States is not for the gratification of the people who happen to hold office. It is established to promote the general welfare of all the people. That is the American ideal. No matter how many officeholders there may be, or what their origin, our institutions are a failure unless they serve all the citizens in their own homes. It is always necessary to find out what effect the institutions of Government and society have on the wage earner, in order to judge of the desirability of their continuation.

One of the outstanding features of the present day is that American wage earners are living better than at any other time in our history. They have not only retained, but actually increased, the gains they made during the war. The cost of living has been high, but the increase in wages has been greater. Compilations of the Department of Labor demonstrate that the wages of an hour, or a day, buy more now than it ever did before. Not only are the American wage earners now receiving more money, and more of the things that money will buy, for their work, than any other wage earners in the world, but more than was ever before received by any community of wage earners. We have here in the United States not only the best paid workers in the world, but the best paid workers that ever lived in this world.

All this has been accomplished in spite of a general shortening of the hours of labor in the industries. The case of the iron and steel, and the box board industry, are particularly notable in this regard. As a direct result of President Harding’s initiative the iron and steel manufacturers were brought together, and an agreement was reached under which the 12-hour day and the 7-day week have been eliminated. Secretary Davis did the same for the box board workers.

Yet this has been done without any loss in wages. On the other hand, there has been actual gain. The Department of Labor statistics show that in 1924 the customary working time per week in blast furnaces has been reduced to 75 per cent of the customary working time per week in 1913. But earnings per hour in 1924 are more than two and one-half times the earnings per hour in 1913. Despite the great reduction in hours, weekly earnings in this industry stand 90% above weekly earnings of 1913.

In the open-hearth furnace department of the iron and steel industry, working hours are now only 74% of the working hours of 1913. But earnings per hour are more than two and two-thirds times the earnings per hour of 1913. Earnings per week are 99% above the weekly earnings of 1913. All other departments of the iron and steel industry have enjoyed large increases in earnings per hour and per week.

I know that figures are sometimes tiresome. But these I am quoting are so eloquent that I am sure you will pardon other illustrations. In the shoe industry regular working hours are now 11% lower than in 1913, hourly wages are two and one-seventh times those of 1913, and full-time weekly earnings are 92% above those of 1913.

In cotton manufacturing hourly earnings are more than two and one-half times those of 1913. Working hours have been reduced 8%, and wages by the week are almost two and one-third times what they were in 1913.

The figures I have quoted apply to workers in these industries, regardless of whether they are organized or unorganized. A study of wages in organized trades shows that in 1923 the average wage per hour was two and one ninth times that in 1913, and two and one-third times that of 1907. Taking the entire body of union men, working hours have been reduced 6% as against 1913 and 8% as against 1907. But their weekly pay in 1923 was 99% higher than in 1913, and hvo and one-sixth times as high as in 1907. And let it be added, the figures show that average wages of organized workers in 1924, are higher than in 1923.

But increased wages, in terms of money, mean little if they are entirely absorbed by higher prices of the necessaries of life. In order to know whether an increase in the money wage is also an increase in the real wage, we must know how much the prices have advanced. On that point, I find that the cost of living of the average family for the same standard of living has been falling since the high point was reached in 1920, and is now, in terms of money, only 69% above the level of 1913. That is, the increase in wages has far outrun the advance in the cost of living. Real wages, as determined by the things that money wages will buy, are higher today than ever before in our history.

A moment ago I said that the American workman is now not only better paid than he was ever before, but better paid than any other workman in the world’s history. I want to give one or two illustrations to show his advantage over wage earners of other countries. Some very recent figures have made it possible to compare British and American earnings. They show that the average British cotton mill worker earned $7.85 per week in June this year, while the average American cotton mill worker earned $14.95. The British woolen mill operative earned $9.56 per week; the American $26.21. The British potter earned $8.34, compared to the American potter’s $26.70.

But once more, we must inquire about the comparative buying power of money in the two countries before we can be assured that the actual earnings of the Americans are higher than those of the British wage earner. It happens that the British Government has made a study of wages and living costs in the principal cities of several countries, as of 1923. It was found that a bricklayer in Madrid receives a wage which buys only 50% as much as the London bricklayer can buy with his wage. The Vienna bricklayer has a wage whose purchasing power is 57% of that of the London bricklayer. The Berlin bricklayer’s wage has 61% of the buying power of the London bricklayer; while the Paris bricklayer’s wage will purchase 71% as much as will the wage of the London bricklayer.

These figures show that the British working man is easily the aristocrat of all Europe. He earns much higher wages, measured in buying power, than any working man on the continent. And yet, this same British authority shows that the New York bricklayer earns a wage whose effective buying power is two and three-fourths times that of the London bricklayer.

In other trades and occupations the comparisons lead to similar conclusions. Wherever you turn, the statistics of wages and living costs show that the American wage earner enjoys a buying power enormously greater than that of any other wage earner in the world.

We do not need to import any foreign economic ideas or any foreign government. We had better stick to the American brand of government, the American brand of equality, and the American brand of wages. America had better stay American.

These are some of the material results of present American policies. We have enacted many laws to protect the health of those who are employed in the industries. Especial efforts have been made in this direction in behalf of women and children. We are attempting at the present time to secure a constitutional amendment giving Congress jurisdiction over child labor. The efforts of the states and Nation to provide and encourage education have been such that it is fair to claim that any youth, no matter how humble his circumstances, can unaided secure a college education by the exercise of his own efforts. We have achieved an equality of opportunity which has opened up the avenues of a more abundant life to all the people.

There are two sides to every bargain. It is not only human nature, but necessary to progress, that each side should desire to secure a good trade. This is the case in contracts for employment. In order to give wage earners reasonable advantages, their right has been established to organize, to bargain collectively, and to negotiate through their own chosen agents. The principle also of voluntary arbitration has come to exist almost as a right. Compulsory arbitration has sometimes been proposed, but to my mind it cannot be reconciled with the right of individual freedom. Along with the right to organize goes the right to strike, which is recognized in all private employment. The establishment of all these principles has no doubt been productive of industrial peace, which we are at the present time enjoying to a most unusual degree. This has been brought about by the general recognition that on the whole labor leaders are square, and on the whole employers intend to be fair. When this is the case, mutual conference is the best method of adjusting differences in private industry. Of course employment affecting public safety or public necessity is not private employment, and requires somewhat different treatment. In this field we have been making an interesting experiment in relation to railroad labor. This has no doubt been a step in advance. It could probably be modified, through mutual agreement, to the benefit of all concerned.

Soon after the close of the war the policy of deflation was adopted, which no doubt some thought might be used to secure a reduction in wages and the dissolution of labor organizations. This administration refused to lend itself to any such program, and at once adopted a policy, which it has steadily pursued, of helpfulness to business, industry and labor. The Federal Reserve System has constantly reduced discount rates, business has revived, and the millions who were without employment have found plenty of work at an increasing rate of wages. It is my belief that this policy represents one of the most important and helpful services on the part of the United States Government which was ever performed for the benefit of the wage earners of this Nation. When almost everything else went crashing down, a change of front took place in time to save them from almost certain destruction.

As a result of all these fortunate circumstances, organized labor is fast becoming one of the powers of capital in this country. Its coöperative enterprises and its entrance into the field of banking and investment have given it not only a new power of influence, but a new point of view. It is learning the problems of enterprise and management by actual experience. This again is the working out of the American ideal in industry. It is the beginning of a more complete economic equality among all the people. I believe it to be the beginning of an era of better understanding, more sympathy, and more fellowship, among those who serve the common welfare through investment and management, and those who serve as wage earners. We have yet a long way to go, but progress has begun and the way lies open to a more complete understanding that will mark the end of industrial strife.

It is my policy to continue these conditions in so far as it is possible and to continue this march of progress. There are two important domestic factors in this situation. One is restrictive immigration. This has been adopted by this administration chiefly for the purpose of maintaining American standards. It undoubtedly has a very great economic effect. We want the people who live in America, no matter what their origin, to be able to continue in the enjoyment of their present unprecedented advantages. This opportunity would certainly be destroyed by the tremendous influx of foreign peoples, if immigration were not restricted. Unemployment would become a menace, and there would follow an almost certain reduction of wages, with all the attendant distress and despair which is now suffered in so many parts of Europe. Our first duty is to our own people. The second important factor is that of a tariff for protection. I have already given you some examples of the wages paid in Europe. Such a scale means that goods can be produced much cheaper there than they can here. If our policy of protection is to be abandoned, the goods which are now made by the wage earners of America will be made by the wage earners of Europe. Our own people will be out of employment. Our entire business system will be thrown into confusion with the want and misery which always accompany the hard times of attempted economic readjustment. Under free trade the only way we could meet European competition would be by approaching the European standard of wages. I want to see the American standard of living maintained. We shall not be misled by any appeal for cheap goods, if we remember that this was completely answered by President McKinley when he stated that cheap goods make cheap men. By restrictive immigration, by adequate protection, I want to prevent America from producing cheap men.

To these must be added economy of expenditure by the local and national governments. There are about 24,000,000 heads of families in the United States. It takes 5,000,000 of these working at $5.00 a day to pay the present cost of governments. This gives us some idea of what public expense takes out of the productive power of the Nation. No matter what anyone may say about making the rich and the corporations pay the taxes, in the end they come out of the people who toil. It is your fellow workers who are ordered to work for the Government, every time an appropriation bill is passed. The people pay the expense of government, often many times over, in the increased cost of living. I want taxes to be less, that the people may have more.

I am for peace and against aggressive war. I am opposed to warlike preparations. But I am in favor of an adequate Army and Navy to insure our citizens against any interference with domestic tranquillity at home or any imposition abroad. It is only in peaceful conditions that there is a real hope of progress. I want to have America cooperate in securing speedy settlement of European differences, and assist in financing a revival of business which would be of world-wide benefit to wage earners. I am in favor of continuing and extending the policy of covenants between nations for further disarmament and more extensive guarantees of permanent peace.

These are some of the policies which I believe we should support, in order that our country may not fail in the character of the men and women which it produces. I want to see our institutions more and more humane. But I do not want to see any of the people cringing suppliants for the favor of the Government, when they should all be independent masters of their own destiny. I want to encourage business, that it may provide profitable employment. I want to see jobs hunting for men, rather than men hunting for jobs. I want the factory able to consume at a fair price the products of the farm. I want every individual, no matter how humble, to know that over him is the protection of public law. I want to raise the economic condition and increase the moral and spiritual well-being of our country. The foundation for a new era is being steadily and surely laid. Whether we shall enter upon it, depends upon the attitude of our fellow countrymen. I have an abiding faith in the American people.

Citation: Everett Sanders Papers, LoC

The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of John Sullivan III, who prepared this document for digital publication.

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