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Textile industry in 1900s and the length of a working day

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FlyingAxe posted on Thu, Apr 12 2012 10:52 AM

My mother-in-law was telling me another day about the documentary that she had seen about the textile industry around the turn of 20th century. The documentary had to do with the famous factory fire, but that wasn't what caught my attention. She mentioned that people wanted to work 8-hour days and were striking, and it amounted to no effect. Only when the legislation was passed did the people get their 8-hour working days. She claimed that in this aspect, the free markets had failed, and this was an example when the government had to step in.

Morality arguments aside, I was thinking about the economic aspect of her assertion. My question was: why couldn't the factory owners just introduce two shifts, 8 hours each?

One obvious answer with which my wife and I came up independently was that there were people on the market who were willing to work for 16 hours. Since it was easier just to have someone work for 16 hours instead of having to hire two people to work for two shifts, the factory owners prefered to hire the first group. (Now, I know that eventually the factory owners figured out that long hours reduced productivity, but I guess by that time that hadn't happened yet.)

My question is: were there any other factors besides the competition from the people who were willing to work long hours? Were there any government policies or some economic conditions which made introduction of the two-shift system unfeasible?

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The incandescent light-bulb may have had some influence here.  Prior to its commercialisation, it was important to exploit natural light to the fullest extent - i.e long work shifts in summer and short ones in winter.

Gas/paraffin lamps were not safe in a factory environment.  (You alluded to a fire...)

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It wasn't just a matter of working for 16 hours vs. working for 8 hours. The strikers wanted to work for only 8 hours and receive the same pay as they were receiving by working for 16 hours.

(I'm going by memory here, so if anyone knows better, please feel free to correct me.)

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gotlucky replied on Thu, Apr 12 2012 11:18 AM

I think it's time to summon Wheylous to the thread!

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Ech... this is so basic that we shouldn't even have discussions about it beyond the 3rd grade, let alone running mayor industrial countries on introductory-level economic fallacies.

Getting more money for less work is just the flip-side of rising wages, obviously. So we're talking about raising real wages. Pay is determined by employers bidding for labor, right? So pay is simply a function of workers productivity, right? So when the government declares that workers should receive a bunch of additional money or benefits or whatever, it does not create a free lunch out of thin air, it just bans everyone who isn't that productive from working. As a simple thought experiment, just imagine that if the government could create a free lunch, why shouldn't it just mandate 1-hour workdays at the same pay? Why not ban work altogether at twice the pay? Make everyone rich and leisured in one simple swoop!

The only reason such legislation always appears to raise real wages is that there were productivity gains at the same time, as was the case back in the 1900s. So the government just mandated what would have happened anyways, making everyone think they caused it. Interestingly, such regulation was usually not plucky workers getting together to finally get a break, as is portrayed in the history books, but big corporations lobbying government to enact legislation that drives smaller competitors out of business. That cartelized the market in the hands of big companies who could then lower wages, also leading to the kind of business elites everyone hates.

"They all look upon progressing material improvement as upon a self-acting process." - Ludwig von Mises
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EmperorNero:
 Interestingly, such regulation was usually not plucky workers getting together to finally get a break, as is portrayed in the history books, but big corporations lobbying government to enact legislation that drives smaller competitors out of business. That cartelized the market in the hands of big companies who could then lower wages, also leading to the kind of business elites everyone hates.

Could you provide one or more sources for this? I'm very interested. smiley

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The incandescent light-bulb may have had some influence here.  Prior to its commercialisation, it was important to exploit natural light to the fullest extent - i.e long work shifts in summer and short ones in winter.

Gas/paraffin lamps were not safe in a factory environment.  (You alluded to a fire...)

"The history of the world is the history of the triumph of the heartless over the mindless." - Sir Humphrey Appleby
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This is the most insightful post I've read in a long time.

The same could be said of farming: Getting up at dawn and working all day.

 

To paraphrase Marc Faber: We're all doomed, but that doesn't mean that we can't make money in the process.
Rabbi Lapin: "Let's make bricks!"
Stephan Kinsella: "Say you and I both want to make a German chocolate cake."

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Daniel Muffinburg:
This is the most insightful post I've read in a long time.

Then this may be of interest to you...

The myth of 8-hour sleep

 

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gamma_rat:

You're saying it was not feasible to institute two shifts, because there was no natural light in the evening? What about the summer?

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Autolykos:
Could you provide one or more sources for this? I'm very interested. smiley

Sorry to disappoint you Autolykos, but I don't remember where I read that at all. Might have been Robert LeFevre. He only mentioned it the way I did though, I'm not aware of any real sources on this.

It's kind of obvious though. The government never protects "the little people", that's just not what it does. The statist ideologues just want to believe that government protects them so much, that they always re-interpret history that way. But the reality is that governments always protect the strong, who then invent some fairy-tales to get the rubes to go along with it.

gamma_rat:
The incandescent light-bulb may have had some influence here.  Prior to its commercialisation, it was important to exploit natural light to the fullest extent - i.e long work shifts in summer and short ones in winter.

Gas/paraffin lamps were not safe in a factory environment.  (You alluded to a fire...)

That is true. Britain, for example, is actually pretty far up north. So they have long days in the summer, and rather short ones in the winter. Producers would of course want to exploit every minute of daylight in the summer, then workers would complain about long hours. In the winter, there was only light for a few hours of work, so workers complained about low pay. And what the history books mention is that workers had long hours and low pay.

"They all look upon progressing material improvement as upon a self-acting process." - Ludwig von Mises
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But why couldn't the employers just divide the existing working days into two shifts?

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Workers would have been bidding to work full-time rather than half-time, as you said.  Assuming you to be a full-time employee, would you like it if your employer suddenly announced that he was going to hire twice as many staff and put you all onto half-time?  Would you just carry on as if your new free time were worth as much or more to you than your lost wages, or might you not feel compelled to look for a new job, maybe a second half-time job?

It's just that, in those days, 'full-time' meant with the sun, so it varied.  'Full-time' could only be homogenized into an 8-hour working day all year , without losing significant productivity as a result, once safe electric lighting came to be.

ETA:  What do you do with free time in the early 1900's anyway... drink?  Visit a bawdy-house?  Watch a nickelodeon?  I know value is always in the eye of the beholder, but I do suspect there's more to behold with regards to free time these days than in the past.

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t wasn't just a matter of working for 16 hours vs. working for 8 hours. The strikers wanted to work for only 8 hours and receive the same pay as they were receiving by working for 16 hours.

As a matter of fact, in the first 8hour day movement in Melbourne, the Stonemason's agreed to a pay cut as a trade for an 8hr day. (Much like GM workers took pay and benefit cuts 3 years in a row before the collapse/bailout).  It wasn't until 50 years later that a law (Victoria 8 hours act) was passed mandating the limit (and this is only in Australia).

The Revisionist view: "Greedy violent workers started destroying everything so they could be lazier and make more money, all the while the poor owners water down their 100 year old scotch with their tears."

The Statist view: "Poor stupid sheeple workers were in a sad state of affairs, and government quickly stepped in and saved civilization from the squabbles of the private sector."

What actually happened; "as soon as the industrial revolution even began to take root workers began demanding living incomes and reasonable working conditions.  Ownership called in state thugs to protect their property. This goes on for hundreds of years while Capitalism's one benefit works its magic (the continual need for improvement) until worker solidarity, and more importantly economic power, reaches a critical mass, wherein ownership and government make a pact to give some half-hearted compromise to placate the workers and insure against the collapse of the class system (they wanted an 8hr day.  They got the 40hr week)."

In States a fresh law is looked upon as a remedy for evil. Instead of themselves altering what is bad, people begin by demanding a law to alter it. ... In short, a law everywhere and for everything!

~Peter Kropotkin

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Laotzu del Zinn:
As a matter of fact, in the first 8hour day movement in Melbourne, the Stonemason's agreed to a pay cut as a trade for an 8hr day. (Much like GM workers took pay and benefit cuts 3 years in a row before the collapse/bailout). It wasn't until 50 years later that a law (Victoria 8 hours act) was passed mandating the limit (and this is only in Australia).

Some questions:

1. Are you referring to the first 8-hour day movement in Melbourne, Australia? Or are you asserting that the first 8-hour day movement anywhere in the world was in Melbourne, Australia?

2. How much of a pay cut did the stonemasons agree to? Assuming they were already paid an hourly wage instead of a daily wage, was this pay cut equal to the existing hourly rate times 8 hours?

3. Could you please provide one or more sources for this information?

Laotzu del Zinn:
What actually happened; "as soon as the industrial revolution even began to take root workers began demanding living incomes and reasonable working conditions. Ownership called in state thugs to protect their property. This goes on for hundreds of years while Capitalism's one benefit works its magic (the continual need for improvement) until worker solidarity, and more importantly economic power, reaches a critical mass, wherein ownership and government make a pact to give some half-hearted compromise to placate the workers and insure against the collapse of the class system (they wanted an 8hr day. They got the 40hr week)."

To me that raises the question: why did workers demand "living incomes" and "reasonable working conditions"?

Now as I understand it, the origin for the original industrial revolution (in England) was due in part to the Enclosure Acts and the Poor Laws that had been previously passed. The effect of those pieces of legislation was to force people off of land they were previously using and force them to work somewhere if they were able-bodied. I wouldn't be surprised if this was Marx's inspiration for his notion of "the reserve army of the unemployed".

During the Middle Ages (IIRC), a serf's working day was typically dawn to dusk, which meant it varied in length throughout the year. At the range of latitude that most of Europe falls in, daylight hours varied from about 16 (summer solstice) to about 8 (winter solstice). Freeholders, nobles, etc. probably worked shorter hours, because they had fewer and/or less demanding obligations.

When the first factories appeared in England, workers were paid a daily wage, which was consistent with hired farm labor at the time. They also worked the same hours as a hired farm laborer would. So my question is, was factory work so much more demanding than farm work? Or what?

Finally, I understand that a daily wage is more flexible than an hourly wage, because the concept of a "working day" is more flexible than an hour (which is inflexible). With a daily wage, an employer can demand employees to work longer without paying them more*, but with an hourly wage, he'll pay his employees more if they work longer.


* Note: this assumes, of course, that the employees comply with his demand. There's no guarantee of that actually happening.

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I think it's time to summon Wheylous to the thread!

You called? :P

Actually, I came to this thread to be informed a little bit, not do much informing.

big corporations lobbying government to enact legislation that drives smaller competitors out of business

For a source: Essentially anything by Gabriel Kolko. Start with his Wikipedia page:

Kolko was considered a leading historian of the early New Left, joining William Appleman Williams and James Weinstein in advancing the corporate liberalism idea whereby the old Progressive historiography of the "interests" versus the "people" was reinterpreted as a collaboration of interests aiming towards stabilizing competition [Novick, 439]. According to Grob and Billias, "Kolko believed that large-scale units turned to government regulation precisely because of their inefficiency" and that the "Progressive movement - far from being antibusiness - was actually a movement that defined the general welfare in terms of the well-being of business" [Grob and Billias, 38]. Kolko, in particular, broke new ground with his critical history of the Progressive Era. He suggested that free enterprise and competition were vibrant and expanding during the first two decades of the 20th century; meanwhile, corporations reacted to the free market by turning to government to protect their inherent inefficiency from the discipline of market conditions. In other words, "the corporate elite—the House of Morgan, for example—turned to government intervention when it realized in the waning 19th century that competition was too unruly to guaranteemarket share."[4] This behavior is known as corporatism, but Kolko dubbed it "political capitalism." Kolko's thesis "that businessmen favored government regulation because they feared competition and desired to forge a government-business coalition" is one that is echoed by many observers today [Grob and Billias, 39].

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gabriel_Kolko

The specific books I know of (but haven't read) include

The Triumph of Conservatism

Railroads and Regulation, 1877-1916

He discusses railroads, meatpacking, and others. Essentially, the free market was too much for the "capitalists" who wanted government help.

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