John Rogers Commons.

Trade unionism and labor problems; online

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SOME time ago I was asked to prepare a memorandum on the
subject of workshop committees, for presentation to the British
Association, as a part of the report of a special subcommittee study-
ing industrial unrest. The following pages contain the gist of that
memorandum and are now issued in this form for the benefit of some
of those interested in the problem who may not see the original

I have approached the subject with the conviction that the worker's
desire for more scope in his working life can best be satisfied by giv-
ing him some share in the directing of it ; if not of the work itself,
at least of the conditions under which it is carried out. I have tried,
therefore, to work out in some detail the part which organizations of
workers might play in works administration. And believing as I do
that the existing industrial system, with all its faults and injustices,
must still form the basis of any future system, I am concerned to
show that a considerable development of joint action between man-
agement and workers is possible, even under present conditions.

Many of the ideas put forward are already incorporated to a
greater or lesser degree in the institutions of these works, but these
notes are not intended, primarily, as an account of our experiments,
still less as a forecast of the future plans of this firm. Our own ex-
perience and hopes do, however, form the basis of much here written,
and have inevitablj' influenced the general line of thought followed.


Throughout the following notes it is assumed that the need is

realized for a new orientation of ideas with regard to industrial

management. It is further assumed that the trend of such ideas must

be in the direction of a devolution of some of the functions and

^Survey, Vol. XLI, 1918, Reconstruction Series No. i.



responsibilities of management onto the workers themselves. These
notes, therefore, are concerned mainly with considering how far this
devolution can be carried under present conditions and the necessary
machinery for enabling it to operate.

Before passing, however, to detailed schemes it is worth consider-
ing briefly what the aims of this devolution are.

It must be admitted that the conditions of industrial life fail to
satisfy the deeper needs of the workers, and that it is this failure,
even more than low wages, which is responsible for much of their
general unrest. Now the satisfaction to be derived from work depends
upon its being a means of self-expression. This again depends on the
power of control exercised by the individual over the materials and
processes used and the conditions under which the work is carried
out, or in the case of complicated operations (where the individual
can hardly be other than a " cog in the machine") on the willingness,
understanding, and imagination with which he undertakes such a
role. In the past the movement in industry in this respect has been
all in the wrong direction ; namely, a continual reduction of freedom,
initiative, and interest, involving an accentuation of the " cog-in-the-
machine" status. Moreover, it has too often produced a "cog"
blind and unwilling, with no perspective or understanding of the
part it plays in the general mechanism of production or even in any
one particular series of operations.

Each successive step in the splitting up and specializing of oper-
ations has been taken with a view to promoting efficiency of pro-
duction, and there can be no doubt that efficiency, in a material
sense, has been achieved thereby and the productivity of industry
greatly increased. This has been done, however, at the cost of
pleasure and interest in work, and the problem now is how far these
could be restored, as, for instance, by some devolution of manage-
ment responsibility onto the workers, and how far such devolution is
possible under the competitive capitalist system, which is likely to
dominate industry for many long years to come.

Under the conditions of capitalist industry any scheme of devolu-
tion of management can only stand provided it involves no net loss
of productive efficiency. It is believed, however, that even within
these limits considerable progress in this direction is possible, doubt-
less involving some detail loss, but with more than compensating


gains in general efficiency. In this connection it must be remembered
that the work of very many men, probably of most, is given more or
less unwillingly, and even should the introduction of more democratic
methods of business management entail a certain amount of loss of
mechanical efficiency, due to the greater cumbersomeness of demo-
cratic proceedings, if it can succeed in obtaining more willing work
and cooperation, the net gain in productivity would be enormous.

Important and urgent as is this problem of rearranging the ma-
chinery of management to enable responsibility and power to be
shared with the workers, another and preliminary step is even more
pressing. This is the establishing of touch and understanding be-
tween employer and employed, between management and worker.
Quite apart from the many real grievances under which workers
in various trades are suffering at the present time, there is a vast
amount of bad feeling, due to misunderstanding, on the part of each
side, of the aims and motives of the other. Each party, believing
the other to be always ready to play foul, finds in every move easy
evidence to support its bitterest suspicions. The workers are irri-
tated beyond measure by the inefficiency and blundering in organiza-
tion and management which they detect on every side, and knowing
nothing of business management cannot understand or make allow-
ance for the enormous difficulties under which employers labor at
the present time. Similarly, employers are too ignorant of trade-
unions affairs to appreciate the problems which the present "light-
ning transformation" of industry present to those responsible for
shaping trade-union policy ; nor is the employer generally in close
enough human touch to realize the effect of the long strain of war
work and of the harassing restrictions of personal liberty.

More important, therefore, than any reconstruction of manage-
ment machinery, more important even than the remedying of specific
grievances, is the establishing of some degree of ordinary human
touch and sympathy between management and men.

This also has an important bearing on any discussion with regard
to developing machinery for joint action. It cannot be empha-
sized too strongly that the hopefulness of any such attempt lies not
in the perfection of the machinery, nor even in the wideness of the
powers of self-government granted to the workers, but in the degree
to which touch and, if possible, friendliness can be established. It


should be realized, for instance, by employers that time spent on
discussing and ventilating alleged grievances which turn out to be
no grievances may be quite as productive of understanding and
good feeling as the removal of real grievances.

Passing now to constructive proposals for devolution of manage-
ment, the subject is here dealt with mainly in two stages.

Under Section I some of the functions of management which most
concern the workers are considered with a view to seeing how far
the autocratic (or bureaucratic) secrecy and exclusiveness which
usually surround business management, as far as workers are con-
cerned, is really unavoidable or how far it could be replaced by
democratic discussion and joint action. The conclusion is that there
is no reason inherent in the nature of the questions themselves why
this cannot be done to a very considerable extent.

Section II deals with- the second stage referred to and considers
the machinery needed to make such joint action as is suggested in
Section I workable — a very different matter from admitting that
in itself it is not impossible! The apparent complication of such
machinery is doubtless a difficulty, but it is not insuperable and is
in practice less formidable than it seems at first sight. It must be
realized, however, that the degree of elaboration of the machinery for
joint working adopted by any particular industry or iirm must be
in relation to the elaboration of the existing management system.
It would be quite impossible for many of the refinements of dis-
cussion and joint action suggested to be adopted by a firm whose
ordinary business organization was crude, undeveloped, and un-
systematic. This point is more fully dealt with in this section.

Section III contains a summary of the scheme of committees con-
tained in Section II, showing the distribution to each committee of
the various questions discussed in Section I.

It is proposed in this section to consider the activities which or-
ganizations of workers within the workshop might undertake without
any radical reorganization of industry. What functions and powers,
usually exercised by the management, could be devolved onto the


workers, and what questions, usually considered private by the man-
agement, could be made the subject of explanation and consultation?
The number of such questions, as set out in this section, may appear
very formidable, and is possibly too great to be dealt with except by
a very gradual process. No thought is given at this stage, however,
to the machinery which would be necessary for achieving so much
joint working, the subject being considered rather with a view to see-
ing how far, and in what directions, the inherent nature of the ques-
tions themselves would make it possible or advisable to break down
the censorship and secrecy which surround business management.

In the list which follows, obviously not all questions are of equal
urgency, those being most important which provide means of consul-
tation and conciliation in regard to such matters as most frequently
give rise to disputes ; namely, wage and piece-rate questions and, to
a lesser degree, workshop practices and customs. Any scheme of
joint working should begin with these matters, the others being taken
over as the machinery settles down and it is found practicable to
do so. How far any particular business can go will depend on the
circumstances of the trade and on the type of organization in

Though machinery for conciliation in connection with existing
troubles, such as those mentioned, must be the first care, some of
the other matters suggested in this section — for example, safety and
hygiene, shop amenities, etc. — should be dealt with at the earliest
possible moment. Such subjects, being less controversial,' offer an
easier means of approach for establishing touch and understanding
between managers and men.

The suggestions in this section are divided into two main groups,
but this division is rather a matter of convenience than an indication
of any vital difference in nature. The suggestions are arranged in
order of urgency, those coming first where the case for establishing
a workers' shop organization is so clear as to amount to a right, and
passing gradually to those where the case is more and more question-
able. The first group, therefore, contains all those items where the
case is clearest and in connection with which the immediate benefits
would fall to the workers. The second group contains the more ques-
tionable items, which lie beyond the region where the shoe actually
pinches the worker. These questions are largely educational, and the


immediate benefit of action, considered as a business proposition,
would accrue to the management through the greater understanding
of management and business difficulties on the part of the workers.

Questions in Connection with which Shop Organizations


This group deals with those matters where the case for establishing
shop organizations, to meet the need of the workers, is clearest.

I. Collective bargaining. There is a need for . machinery for
carrying this function of the trade-union into greater and more inti-
mate workshop detail than is possible by any outside body. A
workshop organization might supplement the ordinary trade-union
activities in the following directions :

a. Wages

(Note. General standard rates would be fixed by negotiation
with the trade-union for an entire district, not by committees
of workers in individual works.)

To insure the application of standard rates to individuals, to
see that they get the benefit of the trade-union agreements.

When a scale of wages, instead of a single rate, applies to a
class of work (the exact figure varying according to the ex-
perience, length of service, etc., of the worker), to see that
such scales are applied fairly.

To see that promises of advances (Such as those made, for in-
stance, at the time of engagement) are fulfilled.

To see tliat apprentices, on completing their time, are raised to
the standard rate by the customary or agreed steps.

b. Piecework Rates

(It is assumed that the general method of rate-fixing — for
example, the adoption of time study or other method — would
be settled with the local trade-unions.)

To discuss with the management the detailed. methods of rate-
fixing, as applied either to individual jobs or to particular
classes of work.

Where there is an agreed relation between time rates and piece
rates as, for instance, in engineering to see that individual
piece rates are so set as to yield the standard rate of earning.

To discuss with the management reduction of piece rates where
these can be shown to yiel'd higher earnings than the standard.


To investigate on behalf of the workers complaints as to in-
ability to earn the standard rate. For this purpose all the
data and calculations, both with regard to the original setting
of the rate and with regard to time-booking on a particular
job, would have to be open for examination.

(Note. It is doubtful whether a shop committee, on account of
its cumbersomeness, could ever handle detail, individual rates,
except where the jobs dealt with are so large or so standard-
ized as to make the number of rates to be set per week
quite small. A better plan would be for a representative
of the workers, preferably paid by them, to be attached
to the rate-fixing department of a works, to check all cal-
culations and to look after the workers' interests generally.
He would report to a shop committee, whose discussions
with the management would then be limited to questions
of principle.)

c. Watching the Application of Special Legislation, Awards, or

Agreements ; for example,

Munitions-of-war act, dilution, leaving-certificates, etc.

Recruiting, exemptions.

After-war arrangements, demobilization of war industries, res-
toration of trade-union conditions, etc.

d. Total Hours of Work

To discuss any proposed change in the length of the standard
week. This could only be done by the workers' committee
of an individual firm, provided the change were within the
standards fixed by agreement with the local union or those
customary in the trade.

e. New Processes or Change of Process

Where the management desire to introduce some process which
will throw men out of employment, the whole position should
be placed before a shop committee to let the necessity be
understood and to allow it to discuss how the change may be
brought about with the least hardship to individuals.
/. Grades of Worker for Types of Machines

Due to the introduction of new types of machines, and to the
splitting up of processes, with the simplification of manipula-
tion sometimes entailed thereby, the question of the grade of
worker to be employed on a given type of machine continually
arises. Many such questions are so general as to be the
subject of trade-union negotiation, but many more are quite
local to particular firms. For either kind there should be a
works committee within the works to deal with their applica-
tion there.


2. Grievances. The quick ventilating of grievances and injustices
to individuals or to classes of men is of the greatest importance in
securing good feeling. The provision of means for voicing such
complaints acts also as a check to petty tyranny and is a valuable
help to the higher management in giving an insight into what is
going on.

A shop committee provides a suitable channel in such cases as
the following :

Alleged petty tyranny by foremen.

Hard cases arising out of too rigid application of rules, etc.

Alleged mistakes in wages or piecework payments.

Wrongful dismissal ; for example, for alleged disobedience, etc., etc.

In all cases of grievances or complaints it is most important that
the body bringing them should be of sufficient weight and standing
to speak its mind freely.

3. General shop conditions and amenities. On all those questions
which affect the community life of the factory the fullest consultation
is necessary and considerable self-government is possible.

The following indicate the kind of question :

a. Shop Rules

Restriction of smoking.

Tidiness, cleaning of machines, etc.

Use of lavatories and cloakrooms.

Provision, care, and type of overalls.

Time-booking arrangements.

Wage-paying arrangements, etc., etc.
h. Maintenance of Discipline

It should be possible to promote such a spirit in a works that
not only could the workers have a say in the drawing up of
shop rules, but the enforcing of them could also be largely
in their hands. This would be particularly desirable with
regard to

Enforcing good timekeeping.

Maintaining tidiness.

Use of lavatories and cloakrooms.

Promoting a high standard of general behavior, etc., etc.
c. Working Conditions

Meal hours, starting and stopping times.
■ Arrangements for holidays, etc.

Arrangement of shifts, night work, etc.


d. Accidents and Sickness

Safety appliances and practices.
Machine guards, etc.
Administration of first aid.
Rest-room arrangements.
Medical examination and advice.

e. Dining Service

Consultation re requirements.

Criticisms of and suggestions re service.

Control of discipline and behavior.

Seating arrangements, etc.
/. Shop Comfort and Hj'giene

Suggestions re temperature, ventilation, washing accommoda-
tion, drying clothes, etc.

Provision of seats at work, where possible.

Drinking-water supply.
g. Benevolent Work

Shop collections for charities or hard cases among fellow

Sick club, convalescent home, etc.

Saving societies.

4. General social amenities. A works tends to become a center,
of social activities having no direct connection with its work, for
example :

Works picnics.

Games ; for example, cricket, football, etc.

Musical societies.

Etc., etc.

These should all be organized by committees of the workers and
not by the management.

Questions on which Joint Discussion would primarily be of
Advantage to the Management

In this group are those questions with regard to which there is no
demand put forward by the workers, but where discussion and ex-
planation on the part of the management would be desirable and
would tend to ease some of the difficulties of management. The
institution of works committees would facilitate discussion and
explanation in the following instances:


1. Interpretation of management to workers. In any case of new
rules or new developments, or new workshop policy, there is always
the greatest difficulty in getting the rank and file to understand what
the management is " getting at." However well meaning the change
may be as regards the workers, the mere fact that it is new and not
understood is likely to lead to opposition. If the best use is made of
committees of workers, such changes, new developments, etc. would
have been discussed and explained to them, and it is not too much to
expect that the members of such committees would eventually spread a
more correct and sympathetic version of the management's intentions
among their fellow workers than these could get in any other way.

2. Education in shop processes and trade technic. The knowl-
edge of most workers is limited to the process with which they are
concerned, and they would have a truer sense of industrial problems
if they understood better the general technic of the industry in which
they are concerned, and the relation of their particular process to
others in the chain of manufacture from raw material to finished

It is possible that some of this education should be undertaken
by technical schools, but their work in this respect can only be of
a general nature, leaving still a field for detailed teaching which
could only be undertaken in connection with an individual firm or a
small group of similar firms. Such education might well begin with
the members of the committee of workers, though if found feasible
it should not stop there, but should be made general for the whole
works. Any such scheme should be discussed and worked out in
conjunction with a committee of workers, in order to obtain the best
from it.

3. Promotion. It is open to question whether the filling of any
given vacancy could profitably be discussed between the management
and the workers.

In connection with such appointments as shop foremen, where the
position is filled by promoting a workman or "leading hand," it
would at least be advisable to announce the appointment to the
workers' committee before making it generally known. It might per-
haps be possible to explain why a particular choice had been made.
This would be indicated fairly well by a statement of the qualities
which the management deemed necessary for such a post, thereby


tending tohead off some of the jealous disappointment always in-
volved in such promotions; especially where the next in seniority is
not taken.

It has of course been urged, generally by extremists, that work-
men should choose their own foremen by election, but this is not
considered practical politics at present, though it may become possible
and desirable when workers have had more practice in the exercise
of self-management to the limited degree here proposed.

One of the difficulties involved in any general discussion of pro-
motions is the fact that there are so many parties concerned and all
from a different point of view. For example, in the appointment of
a foreman the workers are concerned as to how far the new man is
sympathetic and helpful and inspiring to work for. The other fore-
men are concerned with how far he is their equal in education and
technical attainments, social standing, length of service ; that is, as
to whether he would make a good colleague. The manager is con-
cerned, among other qualities, with his energy, loyalty to the firm,
and ability to maintain discipline. Each of these three parties is look-
ing for three different sets of qualities, and it is not often that a candi-
date can be found to satisfy all. Whose views, then, should carry
most weight — the men's, the other foremen's, or the manager's?

It is quite certain, however, that it is well worth while making
some attempt to secure popular understanding and approval of ap-
pointments made, and a worker's committee offers the best oppor-
tunity for this.

It would be possible to discuss a vacancy occurring in any grade
with all the others in that grade. For example, to discuss with all
shop foremen the possible candidates to fill a vacancy among the
foremen. This is probably better than no discussion at all, and the
foremen might be expected, to some extent, to reflect the feeling
among their men. Here, again, the establishing of any such scheme
might well be discussed with the committee of workers.

4. Education in general business questions. This point is still
more doubtful than the preceding. Employers continually complain
that the workers do not understand the responsibilities and the risks
which they, as employers, have to carry, and it would seem desirable,
therefore, to take some steps to enable them to do so. In some
directions this would be quite feasible ; for example,


1. The reasons should be explained and discussed for the establish-

Online LibraryJohn Rogers CommonsTrade unionism and labor problems; → online text (page 29 of 83)