Francis Tandy on strikes, boycotts and invasion

Francis D. Tandy
The Arena (February 1900)

IN a state of slavery it is impossible for a man to change his occupation. The very existence of such a state of society depends upon the denial of the right of the workman to leave his master. In proportion as this right is denied, the laborer is still a slave. Even under the present wage-system, this right is hedged about with restrictions, and when exercised is often found to be but stepping out of the frying-pan into the fire. Certain economic conditions make the lot of workmen under one employer very much like that of similar workers under other men. If one man of a humane disposition treats his workmen better than other employers, natural selection soon causes the more industrious and competent workmen to seek his employment—or else it drives him out of business altogether.

One of the most important factors in determining the condition of the laborer is the supply of labor in relation to the demand. Realizing the overwhelming force of such economic conditions and the futility of changing masters, the worker gradually awakes to the idea of stopping work altogether until his demands are granted. To do this singly and in an unorganized manner is suicidal. Concerted action then becomes imperative. A large number of men stopping work simultaneously can often demand successfully, while isolated individuals might beg in vain. But as soon as they do this, a cry of “conspiracy” is raised against them. The men who are told that, if the conditions of their service do not suit them, they may leave their employers. are told that they have no right to leave in a body.

Laws against conspiracy have for centuries been enacted in widely scattered countries, in order to prevent strikes and other labor troubles. Originally the word conspiracy meant merely “working together”—cooperation. It is only in comparatively recent times that it has come to mean working together for some bad end. The nature of a conspiracy depends upon the object conspired for, not upon the fact of conspiring. The philanthropic people of a city form themselves into a Charity Organization Society. They conspire systematically to relieve distress and to protect themselves from imposition. Are they to be judged criminal because they work together for a common end? Criminality must depend upon the nature of the act committed, not upon the number of people committing that act, nor upon whether they work together or singly. If an act is wrong in itself, it is wrong for men to associate themselves to commit that act; but if it is not wrong when committed by one individual, it cannot be wrong for several to cooperate to commit it.

The problem, then, is, Have men the right to form themselves into labor unions? The question of legality may be passed over altogether. In the present day nearly every one is a reformer to the extent of declaring the law wrong in one or two particulars. To do this is to deny the infallibility of the law. The freethinker does not necessarily declare all biblical precepts to be wrong, but the moment he admits the possibility of error in any one of them he denies the infallibility of the Scriptures. So with the reformer—the moment he admits that certain laws are wrong, or even may be wrong, he can no longer say, “This is the law—therefore it is right ;” and such a statement has no weight when addressed to him! It is like a biblical argument when addressed to a freethinker. The argument of legality, when directed against the reformer, is begging the question. When used by the reformer, it is nonsense and hypocrisy; for it is an argument in which he does not believe and which he has repudiated in advance. This question, then, is one of ethics, not of law.

The great social principle, to which verbal assent is given by nearly every one, is Spencer’s Principle of Equal Freedom, which declares that “Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringe not the equal freedom of any other man.” This is the principle that underlies all such catch phrases as “Equal rights for all; special privileges for none.”

Yet many persons, while thus indorsing this principle with their lips, have so poor an idea of its meaning that they perpetually advocate legislation directly opposed to it. It is impossible to infringe the liberty of any one by remaining passive. Such infringement can only come from doing something; hence, all forms of compulsory action are at variance with the principle of equal freedom. The law may say “Thou shalt not,” but it must never say “Thou shalt.” Unfortunately, our language is such that any proposition may be stated either negatively or positively. It is as easy to say “Thou shalt not eat anything but meat,” as to say “Thou shalt eat only meat.” While this adds to the confusion of those unaccustomed to careful methods of thought, it can in no wise affect the difference between doing something and remaining passive. But while the law must confine itself to prohibition of action, it must only prohibit those acts that infringe the liberty of others.

Now, a labor union is an association of men, engaged in the same occupation, to enable them to treat with their employers collectively instead of individually. This, in itself, is not invasive of the rights of others. So long as labor unions confine themselves to non-invasive action, they have a perfect right to existence. Invasion necessarily implies action. A refusal to work for another man cannot by any means be considered an invasion of his liberty. Neither can the agreement of the members of a union not to work for any particular man be considered wrong; yet this is practically all that constitutes a strike. Violence and aggression may grow out of a strike, and these are wrong. But the strike itself is purely a question of passive resistance and is usually much more effective when unaccompanied with violence. The right of men to strike is but a deduction from the right of men to leave their employers; and this right is the only thing that separates the wage-system from slavery.

The laws of nearly all countries contain numerous examples of direct and indirect prohibitions of strikes, or any form of organized effort on the part of workingmen to better their condition by concerted action. As the government is necessarily dependent for its existence upon compulsory service, it is not surprising to find that this right is least recognized in the industries under its immediate control. Even to-day the attempt of a soldier or sailor to leave his work is a punishable offense. Recently Edward Atkinson was accused of treason and his mail seized by a governmental post-office, merely because he dared to tell our soldiers in the Philippines that their legal term of service had expired. Compulsory military service is in vogue in all the Continental countries of Europe—not excepting referendum Switzerland—and is even known in this country, in the form of the “draft.” In 1890 the postmen and police of London were denied the right even to form a labor union.

By slow degrees, however, the right to strike is becoming recognized as the laboring classes increase in strength and intelligence. This is one of the most important and most dearly won victories that the labor movement has achieved. In fact the history of the labor movement might almost be called the history of the struggle for the right to strike. It is an important victory because it is a victory for freedom, and one that makes future victories more easy of achievement. To say that a certain body of men may not refuse to work for certain employers is to compel them to work for those employers. Can any greater violation of freedom than this be conceived?

The question of the boycott is exactly similar. If a man has the right not to work, he also has the right not to have anything to do with any man whom he dislikes. Further than this, he has the right to persuade others to do as he does. This is a fundamental principle of labor unions. If a man does not belong to the union, the members of that union will not work with him. If an employer does not hire union labor, union men will not buy his goods. Here again is the right of a man to do what he wills with his own. To prohibit a man from refusing to buy the goods offered for sale by another is to compel him to buy those goods. To restrain a union man from refusing to work with non-union men is to coerce him into working against his will; it makes a slave of him outright. The boycott is the corner-stone of the labor union. To suppress the latter is to kill the former, for the strike is a form of boycott.

In times of war the opposing armies fight in accordance with the same general principles. Each fires its guns according to similar mathematical calculations. They have the same theories of fortification; they employ the same principles of strategy and tactics. So, in the great industrial conflict between capital and labor, each side employs very much the same methods. While the laborer relies upon the union and the boycott, the capitalist uses the trust and the black-list. The boycott, in labor troubles, usually takes the form of an organized determination on the part of the workers to refuse to purchase the goods offered for sale by certain employers of labor. The black-list is an organized determination on the part of capitalists to refuse to purchase the labor of certain workmen. Both are different forms of boycott and are identical in their nature. When either party finds the other is more than ordinarily successful, it immediately attempts to overcome its adversary by invoking the strong arm of the law.

The capitalist claims that he has an inalienable right to sell his goods. The boycott prevents him from doing this; therefore, it is inimical to his inalienable rights. The laborer maintains, with equal force, that he has a right to sell his labor. The black-list prevents this; therefore, the black-list is opposed to the rights of the workers. Both of these arguments are specious. They each neglect the important fact that it takes at least two to make a bargain. Every one has a right to sell anything that is his—provided he can find a purchaser. If he cannot find a purchaser, it is the height of tyranny to try to create one by law. To say that men may not refuse to purchase whatever they do not wish to buy is to compel them to purchase that which they do not want. Such action denies freedom of the market and freedom of contract. To say that certain men may not refuse to employ certain workmen is to compel them to hire those whom they do not want, and is in direct violation of every principle of freedom.

The self-same arguments apply to trusts. If each man may try to sell his goods at the highest price he can get for them a number of men may cooperate to do the same thing: To be sure, trusts often resort to special legislation and many invasive acts, just as labor unions sometimes do. These things are no worse in the one case than in the other. The sin is in the special legislation and the invasive action, not in the trust or the labor union. ~ party has plenty of these sins of its own, without throwing mud at the other for pursuing a similar line of action. No sooner, however, do the working classes obtain sufficient strength to demand their own rights than they try to exercise that power to deny similar rights to their employers. Instead of directing their energies further to extend their own liberties, they waste themselves trying to play tyrant in turn over their employers. This denial of freedom is bound to react upon their own heads. The labor union and the trust, the boycott and the black-list, are so similar that it is impossible to legislate against one without also prohibiting the other. While the laws are made by the legislative department of the government, they are interpreted and enforced by the judiciary. The working classes have often gained a good deal of control over the former, but when have they had control of the latter? At the time the Supreme Court declared a combination of the leading railroads an illegal association, the labor leaders claimed a great victory. At the same time, however, the question of the legality of labor unions was freely discussed in the light of that decision. Judging from its past history, who can doubt what the Supreme Court will decide if this question be ever brought before it ?

Two years ago the labor unions in Colorado introduced a bill in the State legislature to prohibit black-listing. It was finally passed with an amendment prohibiting boycotts. At the session just passed, the clause concerning boycotts was repealed, but the repeal bill was vetoed by the Governor. In his veto message, Governor Thomas says: “The boycott and black-list are slightly different means of accomplishing the same result. Each is a method of coercion and punishment. Both are based on previous agreement, and depend for their success upon concert of action by those interested.” And again: “Those of our citizens who demand the suppression of the black-list and the freedom of the boycott should reflect that every argument they urge against the one applies to the other.”

These two examples suffice to show that the tendency of all legislation against such action on the part of employers is to react upon the workingmen and to deprive them of their most dearly bought liberties. Nor is this all. Trusts and black-lists require concerted action on the part of a comparatively small number of individuals, while labor unions and boycotts require the cooperation of a very large number. The smaller the number of people required in such cases the more cohesive does the organization become; its actions are more secret, and the harder grows the task of conviction under the law. To quote once more from Governor Tbomas’s veto of the boycott-repeal bill:

“The most serious fact urged in behalf of this bill is that some of the great companies in the State disregard and violate the black-list section with impunity, while labor organizations are held to a strict accountability under the other. This is said to result from the difficulty of detecting the one and concealing the operation of the other. There is, unfortunately, too much truth in this statement. Those who cry loudest against lawlessness and anarchy are frequently unmindful of their civic duties and the mandates of legislation. The strong syndicate, intrenched in power and authority, overrides prohibitions and penalties, snaps its fingers in the faces of the people, and sets at naught the limitations of statutes and Constitutions. Labor is initiative. It cannot understand why obligations should be unequal or retaliation should not be fair. Its mistakes and its offenses have been copied from the conduct of those above it, and it is not surprising that it sometimes seeks to better the instruction.”

So not only does anti-trust and anti-black-list legislation react against the laborer, but it is far more easily enforced against him than against the capitalist.

Yet another fact remains to be considered, and that is the cost of litigation. It is a notorious fact that the rich man is able to carry his case from court to court, until he can secure a verdict in his favor, while the poor man must succumb under the first adverse ruling.

But what of the poor workman who is driven to starvation by the black-list? What of the Irish landlord who is driven from his home by the boycott? These and thousands of others are the soldiers who fall in the battle. They are entitled to the sympathy and, if need be, to the charity of all benevolent people. But this sympathy and charity must not be permitted to interfere with right thinking upon the subject. Justice should be the aim of legislation, while charity should be left to the spontaneous generosity of the individual. If perfect justice can be obtained, there will be small need for charity, and those who wish to bestow it will be the better able to do so. What would be thought of a general who refused to perform some necessary military operation because some of his men and some of his enemies would suffer thereby? The question for him to solve is what operation he shall undertake, so as to achieve the victory with the smallest loss. The question for the sociologist is how to bring about a better social condition with the least attendant suffering. But neither the soldier nor the sociologist must hesitate to take a step that he sees to be necessary because some of his men will suffer. If he does, he will find his purpose defeated and the suffering will be a thousand times greater.

Is there no help, then, for these poor unfortunates ? There $s help, but it must be sought in other directions than through legislation. Legislative help is so slow and so costly that it defeats its own object and often brings greater disaster in its train. While in a few isolated cases judgments’ have been secured against black-listing corporations, yet these judgments could only have been obtained by protracted litigation. This costs great sums of money, and those who were able to bear this expense could in no wise be considered destitute and in sore need of the saving help of the law. It is the poor man, who has not the money to meet these expenses, who is most in need of that help, and he is consequently deprived of it. As a matter of fact, most men are capable of performing several different kinds of labor. If they find themselves shut out from one occupation by a black-list or a boycott, they are in no worse condition than thousands of non-union men. Either they must adjust themselves to these conditions or they must seek “green fields and pastures new.” That this is but poor consolation may be freely admitted, but, owing to the lack of harmony in social relations, it is the least injurious solution of the problem. If this fails, nothing remains but charity, unless a cure is sought in those remedies that are worse than the disease. This is true, whether there be laws to aid them or not, for, as stated above, their very necessity deprives them of the opportunity to seek relief through those laws.

The economic question is the great problem of modern life. So long as that question remains unsolved, misery and strife are bound to result. The economic structure of society is sadly out of joint. To attempt to remedy some of the manifestations of this ill-adjustment, leaving the cause intact, is worse than futile. It often does more harm than good to those for whose benefit it is tried, and further diverts men’s attention from the main issue. Nearly a11 of this so-called remedial legislation is guess-work. It is directed against effects but ignores the cause. It is nearly always at variance with those principles of social science that are beginning to be generally accepted as true. So far as this is the case, the result must necessarily be disappointing; fresh complications will inevitably arise, and, before society can be reorganized in accordance with the principles of freedom and justice, the evil effects of this quack treatment must be eradicated. Such remedies cannot ameliorate in the present, and they render the disease more difficult to cure in the future.

Social progress can only be made one step at a time. It would be the height of folly to refuse to take those single steps because they carry the world along only a short way. But care must ever be taken that such steps are in the right direction and lead toward, not away from, the desired goal. For, as John Morley says—

“a small and temporary improvement may really be the worst enemy of a great and permanent improvement—unless the first is made on the lines and in the direction of the second. In such a case as this and our legislation presents instances of the kind—the small reform, if it be not made with reference to some large, progressive principle, and with a view to further extension of its scope, makes it all the more difficult to return to the right line and direction when improvement is again demanded.”

Every one, or nearly every one, claims to desire a state of society founded in accordance with the principle of Equal Freedom. When this is achieved strikes, boycotts, trusts, and blacklists will seldom if ever be resorted to. With the declaration of peace, the horrors of war become things of the past. If such social conditions are ever to be instituted, every proposed reform must be judged in the light of Equal Freedom. Any that are found to be at variance with this principle must be defeated, no matter how promising they may be at first glance. Justice can never grow out of unjust legislation, nor can the world become free while demanding tyranny.

Francis D. TANDY.

Denver, Col.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2702 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.

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