The N.A.M. Speaks

by Walter Lippmann | July 3, 1915

More ingenious use of Scripture has rarely been made than in a recent preliminary report of the National Association of Manufacturers. The document deals with the legislative minimum wage. It will repay reading by anyone who wishes to mix laughter with his tears. He will find that the discussion begins at the beginning, with Genesis, in fact, from which we learn that Jacob worked seven years in payment for each of his wives, Leah and Rachel, and six years more for the possession of a herd of cattle. Jacob's wages were changed ten times by his employer, Laban, but as to whether this industrial unrest was due to strikes or legislative minimum wage boards, the National Association of Manufacturers does not commit itself. Be that as it may, we hear next about Athens, where, significantly enough, the wholesale price of wheat was fixed in the third century, B.C.; also about Sparta, and even Thebes, where a workman could never aspire to office. There are passing but learned allusions to Aristotle, Xenophon, Pisistratus, Pericles, and Periander, as well as to Cicero and the emperor Diocletian who, disregarding the laws of economics in the year 301 A.D., fixed a minimum rate for provisions and wages.

Yet we must not linger over the scholarship of these practical men. Let us pass without comment Constantine and the emperor Zeno. Let us come at once to Jesus of Nazareth, and his parable of the laborers in the vineyard, as quoted by the National Association of Manufacturers:

 

St. Matthew, XX, 1-15—"For the Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard.
"And when he had agreed with the laborers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
"And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place.
"And said unto them: Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.
"Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour and did likewise.
"And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said unto them. Why stand ye here all day idle?
"They say unto him. Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them. Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.
"So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward. Call the laborers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.
"And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny.
"But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny.
"And when they had received it, they murmured against the good man of the house.
"Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou has made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.
"But he answered one of them and said. Friend, I do thee no wrong; didst not thou agree with me for a penny?
"Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last even as unto thee.
"Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil because I am good?"
 

Here the document pauses, and remarks:

This parable is regarded by the commentators as having established some very interesting principles and facts, viz: 
1. The right of a man to do what he desires with his own money (if he does not do evil with it, or interfere with the rights of others).
2. The tendency of the maximum and the minimum wage to become the same, whenever the latter is greater than it would be usually.
3. The fact that the length of the work-day at this period was by no means limited to a three-hour or eight-hour schedule.

 

The quotations, remember, are from a document issued in the year 1915 by the official body of American Manufacturers. The first eleven pages out of thirty-two are devoted to these supreme assininities. 

I must confess that after such an introduction it was a little difficult to approach the rest of the report with the entire respect of an open mind. How, for example, was one to treat the statement that "the legislative minimum wage has so far been enacted mainly in the agricultural states of the West … the exception outside the agricultural states being the industrial state of Massachusetts," when everyone knows that Massachusetts does not have a legislative minimum wage at all? It has a legal wage commission, whose findings do not establish a legal wage because those findings have no compulsory power. Oregon and Washington, on the contrary, have a real legislative minimum wage. But Oregon and Washington are not mentioned in this report, and their experience is not discussed. Massachusetts is discussed, and never once is there a hint that the author of this document knows the difference between the Massachusetts and the Oregon and Washington method. He simply ignores the Western states as "agricultural," and treats Massachusetts as if its voluntary minimum wage system were identical with a legislative minimum wage. 

Nor does the author make the least attempt to distinguish compulsory arbitration in Australia from t he minimum wage as proposed in the United States. They are all one to him, and all bad. Conciliation boards, arbitration courts, compulsory minimum wage by legislative fiat, compulsory minim um wage by the decree of a wage board, voluntary minimum wage by the agreement of wage board, the maximum wage in Rome, the Statute of Laborers in 1349—no distinction is made. They are all interference with the wage contract, and they are lumped together in one foggy denunciation for the befuddlement of human reason. It is impossible to argue with the sponsors of this document. They have got themselves so tangled up in ignorance and misstatement, they are so blandly oblivious even of the difference between setting a maximum and a minimum wage, that all one can do is to give samples of their quality of mind, and leave it to the reader to determine how seriously he will have their argument.

 

They say, for example, that when the Australian Commission of the National Association of Manufacturers made its investigation, "it was given evidence daily of the growing dissatisfaction." But they furnish absolutely no evidence. They simply assert about Australia and New Zealand that "nowhere is more industrial unrest to be found." Nowhere, indeed! and that after Lawrence, Lowell, Paterson, Calumet, Akron, West Virginia, Butte, and Colorado.

They go on to state that in Massachusetts "practically every employee affected by the law, has been discharged." That is a serious indictment if true, and pending a report from the Massachusetts Commission I am in no position to dispute the assertion. But when I read that one firm discharged seventy five women and minor workers, I remain unconvinced until the statement is supplemented by some facts as to who is now doing the work of these seventy-five who were discharged. Another firm of brushmakers reports that "it has been necessary recently to discharge some of our employees, and of course in doing this we have allowed those to go that we considered of the least value." But nothing is said to make certain that this cutting down of the force was not due to industrial depression.

Since they were looking for experience, I wonder why the first biennial report of the Industrial Welfare Commission of Washington is not even mentioned in this document. Why have the Manufacturers failed to dispute these assertions?

 

The sequence of it all is that there are vastly more women workers in the State of Washington to-day receiving a living wage than there were two years ago when the law was enacted; that there are more higher paid girls than there were then; that the whole wage standard, together with the standards of efficiency and discipline, has been raised. …

 

And in the forthcoming report of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics on the operation of the Oregon Minimum Wage Law they will be able to read that:

 

The rates of pay for women as a whole have increased. Wherever the wage rates of old employees were affected by the minimum wage rulings, they were benefited. Some women upon reinstatement after an absence had been compelled to accept the rate to which they were legally entitled, a rate below that received during their earlier services. The average rates of pay of minors and experienced women have increased, that of inexperienced adults decreased slightly. More girls under 18 years received over $6 after than before the minimum wage determination. Among the experienced women not only the proportion getting $9.25, but those getting over $9.25 have increased. The proportion of the force receiving over $12 has also increased, although the actual number have decreased but not in the same degree as the decrease in the total force. …
No evidence of decreased efficiency among women affected by the wage rulings could be discovered. The numbers for whom comparable data on this subject could be secured were too limited, however, to warrant conclusions.
All the changes arising from decreased business, reorganization of departments and increased rates and earnings, resulted in an increase in the female and also the total labor cost of three mills per dollar of sales. This increased cost was not distributed equally among stores or among departments in the same stores. The female labor cost varied from an 8-mill increase in Portland neighborhood stores to a 1.2-cent decrease in Salem stores.
Business conditions reduced the number of women employed. T he majority of those who remained and were affected by the minimum wage rulings were benefited in rates of pay and also in average earnings. Those to whom the minimum wage determinations did not apply sustained no losses chargeable to these rulings.

 

All this assertion and counter-assertion is, of course, immensely unsatisfactory. But it is necessary because the Manufacturers' Association has chosen to state on its own say-so that the law is a failure, and to ignore entirely the most trustworthy official documents which happen to be available. The Washington and Oregon reports may be wrong, but the N. A. M. has not attempted to disprove them. The arguments of the New York State Factory Investigation Commission may be biassed, but the N. A. M. has not mentioned them. The N. A. M. may know all about Massachusetts. It has not published the statistics.

This at least is certain. The temper and tone of the report can inspire no confidence whatever. From the idiotic interpretation of the parable about the vineyard to the blank assertion that the minimum wage has "invariably failed," the report is a mass of undigested assertion, unsupported argument, and appeals to prejudice such as one would expect from an illiterate quack, not from the representatives of supposedly intelligent manufacturers.

Hear, for example, the argument that low wages do not make for ill health. "Low general standards of living are usually accompanied by ignorance of the laws and resources of hygiene, by no nutrition and malnutrition, and hence by lower standards of vigor and resistance to disease than where higher standards of living prevail. Obviously, then, lower standards of physical strength and resistance are due to such conditions of labor as excessively long hours of work in the unskilled and sweated industries, or to conditions inherent in the character of the employment itself." In short, "no nutrition and malnutrition" are not due to low wages; "low general standards of living" are not due to low wages.

It is perhaps not for an outsider to presume to offer advice to the Manufacturers' Association. If this is the best it can do, the intellectual victory of its opponents is assured from the outset. But I cannot help wondering what humane and intelligent employers must think of these documents issued in their name. If I were a manufacturer I should either hang my head and blush, or get up and shout from the housetops that these spokesmen of mine were fools who were making a fool of me. I should do what I could to get rid of them at once, knowing that the manufacturers' cause will never command respect while such fifth-rate intelligence is allowed to speak for it. 

This article originally ran in the July 3, 1915, issue of the magazine.

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