An Exhortation to Organized Labor by Louis D. Brandeis

An address to the Boston Central Labor Union, February 5, 1905

Trade unionism has made great advances within the last three years. The growth in membership has been large, but the change in the attitude toward unions both on the part of the employer and of the community marks even greater progress. To this result the anthracite coal strike, so wisely led by John Mitchell, has largely contributed. That struggle compelled public attention to the trades union problem in a degree unprecedented in this country.

The arbitrary attitude of the presidents of the coal and railroad companies was an object lesson which made clear to many employers the unreasonableness of the position that an employer "must be free to run his own business in his own way."

From this warning example many employers learned also that one may deal with employees otherwise than directly or individually, and that the representatives of unions may be recognized without impairment of usual business honor. Since then it has become far more common for enlightened employers, whether their shops be union or open, to discuss labor problems with the representatives of the unions as freely as they would discuss other problems with other business connections.

The people at large who had no special interest in contests between employers and employees learned also through the coal strike much about unions. Sympathy was generally with the men as against the coal trust. Even among employers there were many who realized that their interests lay with the workingmen as against the great aggregations of capital.


Sympathetic attention being drawn to the unions, many people realized that the aim of the unions was in the main commendable, even if particular measures of unions or acts of individual unionists deserved condemnation–for who could deny that the work of the unions in seeking to improve the conditions and to shorten the hours of labor, to raise wages–to protect children and women–made for good citizenship and the general welfare of the community? The attitude of the American Federation of Labor in opposing socialism is also gaining for the unions support from the most conservative classes.

A substantial advance has thus been made by the unions in the estimation of working men, of employers, and of the public.

The achievements of the unions in improving the lot of the laborer are not to be measured solely by conditions in the union shop or even in the non-discriminating open shop.

Unions may well point, as their greatest triumphs to certain establishments where no unionist is to be found, but where the conditions of labor are far in advance of the standard ordinarily prevailing. Those are instances where wise, far-seeing employers have acted upon the spirit or hint of union demands.

These steps in advance have been taken often for the purpose of preventing trades unionism from finding a lodgement, often unconsciously as a result merely of the enlightenment that comes with the necessary thinking that trade-union agitation compels.

So the unions have already achieved much, both directly and indirectly, in shortening the hours and in improving the conditions under which labor is performed, and in raising wages.

How far can this increase in wages be carried, and how shall it be accomplished?


First--The unions should strive to secure for the workingmen all the earnings of a business except that part which is required to get for it the necessary capital and managing ability.

Into most businesses three elements enter:

1-The capital

2-The ordinary labor

3-The special labor, usually called the "management."

The owners of capital are comparatively few in number; the possessors of the special ability to manage business still less in number; men competent to perform the ordinary labor very numerous.

Obviously in our country we should strive to conduct our industries as we do our government; that is, to secure the greatest good for the greatest number. The employees being the greatest number, [they] should get of the fruits of the business as much as possible. This is clear. The question is merely, what are the limits now possible, and how can those limits be extended?

It is absolutely essential upon any scheme of division of the fruits of industry among employer, capitalist and employee that the business should be profitable. By "profitable" I mean not merely that the business shall not be run at a loss, but that the business shall be run under such conditions that the owner of the capital on the one hand is willing to risk his capital in the business, and the possessor of that special ability which is required to organize and conduct a successful business will be led to use his greatest efforts in that direction.

Unless the profits of businesses are such as to tempt capitalists to risk their money, the money will seek, not participation in business, which necessarily involves great risks, but will be put into classes of investment where there is supposed to be no risk whatever.

Unless men of exceptional business ability have the promise or possibility of large rewards they will not be led to develop or use those special talents or capacities which we find in the leaders of great businesses–the men who have made or managed them.

What the exact amount of profit is which is necessary to make men risk their money in business, and how great the rewards must be in order to develop the leaders of industry are, of course, matters which cannot be decided by any general rule.


Second--The employees should strive to make the earnings of any business as large as possible.

There can be no greater mistake for the workingman than to restrict the output of the individual.

You must make the total earnings of the business in which you are engaged the largest possible. By earnings in this connection I mean the aggregate fund available for paying workingmen, capitalists and managers. Make that aggregate large and there will be plenty for all among whom it is to be divided.

The most potent factor in securing large profits is the avoidance of waste, and the greatest source of waste in the industrial world is unused, undeveloped or misdirected human effort. To the correction of that evil trade unions should direct their attention.

Let every one engaged in the business work with the greatest possible efficiency and diligence consistent with maintaining himself in good condition to work thereafter, and leaving himself the leisure necessary to the performance of his duties to his family, to his state and for his own development and pleasure.

The hours of labor should be reasonably short; but during working hours each individual should work hard and earnestly, and under conditions leading to the greatest possible efficiency.

Any restriction upon the output of the individual reduces the fund of profits available for distribution, besides demoralizing the man who is so restricted.

It follows also that differences in efficiency between different individuals must be recognized and rewarded; and that those who can work faster and better than others must not be retarded by the less efficient. The industrial superiority of America is largely due to the absence of restriction upon individual effort; to the encouragement of the individual by giving him the fruits of his labors.

Your federation opposes socialism, but to ignore the difference between individuals would lend strength to socialism and communism.


A limitation of the production of the individual is pure waste. The business is merely rendered less profitable, and the man whose production is restricted is injured also.

Nor does the restriction of the output of the individual make more work for others. The amount of work to be done is, in a country like ours, in no sense fixed; for the amount of goods or service men buy is not fixed. The amount bought is as a rule limited only by the ability to buy.

If you waste human effort you make the product cost more. If you raise prices without increasing income you have simply limited the amount that will be bought. You have not made work for more people. You have merely given people less for their money.

Another great factor of waste in most businesses is the cost of inspectors, foremen and assistant foremen–men whose services are in large part required only because so many employees work, not as hard or as well as is possible but only hard enough or well enough to pass the inspector or foreman.

Every man should look out for himself, should do the work without inspector or foreman watching him like a policeman. The dishonor and the expense of unnecessary inspectors and foremen should be avoided.

Trade unions have already done much for the manhood of the workingman. They should teach him that it is a disgrace to manhood to require watching.


Third--Theunions should demand for the workingman steady work.

In order that the pay of the individual may be large it is necessary not merely that the business as a whole be profitable, but also that the individual be given full opportunity to work for his share of the profit.

Most controversies between employers and employees have arisen upon claims for what is called higher wages; that is, for a higher rate per day or per piece. But the rate per day or per piece is only one of the factors which go to make up wages.

The important question is not how much a man is paid per day nor how much per piece, but how much can he earn in a year. He may have high wages and an opportunity of working only half the year.

For instance, it appeared to the anthracite coal strike inquiry that the men worked only about 181 days in the year. Speaking roughly, men should work 300 days in the year.

Lack of earnings is only a small part of the evil which results from irregularity of employment. It is the uncertainty as to a job which produces a large part of the care of a workingman's life, and the days of enforced idleness which led to most of the bad habits.

Every man should have the opportunity of working every day in the year excepting Sundays and holidays and such time as he properly wishes for a vacation. In some trades this is impossible, but in many trades where the irregularity of work is accepted as a necessity, it would be found that if the effort were duly made the amount of slack time could be greatly reduced.

Where men are engaged in trades which on account of the physical conditions can be followed only during a part of the year, there ought to be found for them work at some other trade for the remainder of the year.


No industrial condition can be satisfactory which does not tend to remove the thing called "day labor," which does not seek to make the work of the workingman as steady as that of the clerk or salesman.

No adequate effort to provide against irregularity of work has been made. If the unions once formulate demands for steady work and co-operate with employers to secure it, an immense improvement on these lines will undoubtedly result.

Steadiness of work is nearly as important to the employer as to the employee. For instance, the great aim of the manufacturer must be to run his factory full all the time. Many factories can earn their profit only if they do. If the factory runs all of the time, and the employees work all of the time, it is obvious that the owner can be satisfied with a much smaller rate of profit and the men can be satisfied with a smaller rate per day or per piece than they would have to get if the factory and the employees were idle part of the time.

The manufacturer and the men will get less per piece, but more in the aggregate, and if you can keep the price low the demand for the article, whatever it may be, will be increased.

That is, if you can get your goods cheaper and yet have the men who make them earn in the aggregate as much as when the price of the goods was higher, you are increasing the amount of work, not diminishing it. In other words, it is by increasing the output per man, not by restricting it, that you give work to more men.

And therefore every bit of efficiency that you can add to the ability of an individual, and every bit of waste that you can avoid and thus enable the goods to be turned out cheaper, will increase the number of consumers, and increase the number of men employed, and increase your own means of comfort and improvement.


Fourth--The unions should adapt their demands to the conditions of a particular business.

In order to determine how large a part of these earnings of any business you can properly demand, it is essential that your representatives should understand the conditions of the business.

It is not sufficient that you should make a demand and have that demand assented to or refused. Your representatives must be able to understand the needs and the possibilities of the business you are engaged in.

John Mitchell was successful in the anthracite strike because he understood the conditions of the businesses of the employers and they did not understand the workingman's side of the question.

Your representatives must understand not merely the general line of the business, but the possibilities and the necessities of the particular business in which your demands are to be applied. Concerns engaged in the same line of business in one part of the country and in another, or even in the same community, have varying possibilities and necessities, and your demands must be tempered by those possibilities and necessities.

The possibilities of employers' businesses vary like the employees' capacities. If you attempt to apply rigidly uniform rule to all you may kill the goose that lays the egg; and except in extreme cases the goose must be kept alive whether the egg be golden or not.

Don't assume that the interests of employer and employee are necessarily hostile–that what is good for one is necessarily bad for the other. The opposite is more apt to be the case. While they have different interests, they are likely to prosper or to suffer together. Like in the case of dealer and customer, co-operation and a mutual regard for the others’ rights are essential to continued success.

This is the lesson unions should teach.

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