Twentieth Century, August 16, 1894, 7-9.
BY W. H. VAN ORNUM.
All over this country, in every city and important town, are scattered industrial plants which are now idle, or nearly so. The mechanics who formerly found employment in these works are many of them out of work entirely, or are so inadequately employed that they scarcely earn enough to meet current expenses. In the present condition of business these works can not be run at a profit under the old system of capitalistic production. This is not because the people no longer want the goods they formerly produced, but because they are not earning enough to enable them to buy what they want. Many of the owners of these idle plants would be glad to lease them to responsible parties who would run them and pay them what would be considered, in ordinary times, a very moderate rent. There has never been a time in the history of this country when those plants could be gotten hold of on such favorable terms as now. They generally have all the appliances ready to be put in operation within a very few days. The most that is needed is the money with which to buy raw material and to pay the help. If the workingmen, who were formerly employed in these establishments, will unite in co-operative associations, they can lease the works, frequently for a period of years and on the most favorable terms. In effecting these organizations great care should be taken in the selection of members. The former superintendents, foremen or most competent workmen may take the initiative. Accept none but those who are known to be thoroughly competent, and who are intelligent enough and kindly dispositioned enough to work together harmoniously. Material should be rejected that is likely to prove a source of discord. Then, instead of forming a joint stock company with a share capital, fix a uniform membership based upon the estimated requirements of the business to be undertaken. For instance, in works which would fairly employ one hundred men, if it is found that $10,000 will be needed to purchase materials and to pay running expenses until goods can safely be marketed, then a membership fee of $100 from each of the cooperators will be sufficient. Some of the members will not be able to pay that membership in cash; but it can be accepted in work at a fair rate, which will be just as good. When the organization is effected let the members select their own superintendents, foremen and agents; and make such regulations pertaining to business as the special needs of the business require. But the society should be strictly democratic. No dictatorship should be attempted or allowed. All should stand on a perfectly equal basis as to a division of products. If one acts as superintendent, another as foreman, another as accountant, and still others as agents, it is but a subdivision of labor with an assignment of those to special duties who are supposed to be the most competent to perform those duties. The functions of one are no more important than those of any other; although, under capitalistic production, some are vastly magnified over others. If a man is specially adopted to perform any certain part of the work, he need have no fears that his mates will not recognize his peculiar abilities. All will be interested in obtaining the best results possible; and, as each part of the work will be equally rewarded, the honor will depend entirely upon the skill and fidelity of the one who performs the work. There will be no offices, in the sense in which we now understand the term. There will be none who are given nice easy jobs with disproportionally high pay. If greater honor attaches to any particular work it will be to that which is most difficult or most disagreeable. In fact, the man who performs, for the benefit of all a very disagreeable task and does it well, is entitled to a greater degree of honor than the one who works at a more agreeable one, just as the hero who plunges into the murky waters of the Chicago river to rescue a drowning man is entitled to, and gets more honor than the officious policeman who merely orders the crowd to “stand back” while he tosts a rope to him.
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It will be found necessary for the different co-operative associations to form themselves into co-operative unions, in which each shall be represented. These unions should in no way interfere in the affairs of the associations, because these associations, being confined each to their separate trades, better understand what the special needs of their trades are. The union may only insist that the general principles of co-operation shall be adhered to as a condition of membership in the union, and that full reports of transactions be furnished at proper intervals. It would exercise no governing power over them. It would be the function of the union to issue co-operative certificates of credit or co-operative scrip to the several associations based upon the amount of the paid up memberships and the amount and value of the goods produced. Those certificates should be receivable as cash by every association in the union, and by every member of every association for any goods manufactured or sold, or services rendered, at the labor cost of production; and if the goods chanced to be such as may have been bought outside for the supply of co-operators in their stores, then any one presenting those certificates should be entitled to buy at wholesale—that is, at cost price. In short, every co-operator must be bound to accept these certificates for all the purposes of money, no matter by whom they are presented. It will be found that very much of the success of the whole co-operative scheme depends upon inspiring such confidence in the outside public in this co-operative money that it will pass current in the community and buy all that shall be wanted. To do that all must co-operative to maintain that credit. As a temporary expedient, until that credit has been established, it may be desirable to place other money at a discount, say of 20 per cent, in the purchase of commodities and payment for services. For a time, a retail price of commodities can be established 20 per cent higher than cost of production, or wholesale, so that when buyers present banker’s money they must buy at retail ; but when presenting co-operative money their purchases would be at wholesale. People will always gladly accept that money which will buy them the most goods, in preference to that which will buy less. In this way there will be no difficulty in getting our money into circulation and make it buy everything desired.
The next step will be to establish our own co-operative bakeries, meat markets, groceries and general stores; our tailoring, dressmaking, cloakmaking and other establishments for common utilities, and buy land on which to build houses for such co-operators as wish to form a co-operative community. This however, I think, should not be undertaken until a sufficient range of industries have been organized so that most of the labor and material will be done and furnished by the co-operators themselves.
For instance, it is desirable to have early in the work co-operative brick works, co-operative quarries, a chapter of co-operative masons, one of co-operative carpenters, and so on to cover all of the building trades. Then come the printing offices, founderies, machine shops, pattern shops, and all the multitude of forms of metal working, wood working, furniture, farm implements, etc. These industries should be gotten hold of, one after another, just as rapidly as the workmen can be properly organized and instructed in the principles of co-operation. It is probable that work may be done in the body of the present labor unions and other labor organizations, which will develop them quickly into co-operative associations. The one thing needed is to make such a start as will furnish a demonstration of the advantages of co-operation over the present system of capitalistic production. With such a demonstration before them the subsequent strikes on the part of labor will be against capitalism itself, and not merely for a little more wages or less hours of work. Men will strike for co-operative leases, and, failing to obtain them, will set up works of their own, with such assistance as the co-operative union will be able to furnish, and leave the old employers to run their works themselves or get others to do it—if they can. But they can’t. Workingmen, when they understand it, will rather form co-operative associations and have the full product or their labor than to work for an employer and only get a part. This will settle the question of scab labor, for there will be no scabs. Scabs are only possible where there are unemployed men, who see in the stoppage of work by others an opportunity for their own employment. The scabs will form co-operative associations and no longer be scabs. So that workingmen striking for co-operative leases will be able to dictate the terms of those leases.
I think it is very desirable that these associations should be formed right in our industrial centers and not go away into some unheard of, out of the way corner of the world to form a colony. By forming right alongside of and among the workingmen who are now employed under capitalism, the sharp contrasts between the two systems will be brought out; the educational influence of co-operation will not be lost as it is in an isolated colony, and we shall not be shut off from the markets of the world for the sale of our own goods and the purchase of those of others. The time, expense and uncertainties of transportation to and from distant colonies alone make them decidedly impracticable. Generally, about the only advantage gained by going away to long distances to found colonies is to obtain cheap land, but that is offset by the other disadvantages. The land question is no doubt a serious question, and in time will have to be grappled with. Landlordism will have to be abolished before co-operators can obtain the full measure of their earnings. But landlordism cannot be abolished until the mass of the people come to see that it is only another form of slavery—a means by which a few who do not work are enabled ot get the earnings of those who do. It is one of the forms of monopoly, one of the worst, but the co-operative associations can be made the most effective schools for teaching the doctrine that the land belongs to the people.
But I do not wish to have it understood that I am opposed to colonies, On the other hand, I can easily see how they will be of wonderful assistance in furthering the work of co-operation. Beginning, we will say, in Chicago, as soon as reasonable progress has been made in organizing co-operative industries, stores etc., and people begin to have confidence in the stability of the scrip, it will be highly desirable that a considerable tract of land shall be bought or leased for a term of years within easy reach of the city, where a co-operative community can be established. Land should be allotted for the building of homes, streets laid out, parks reserved and improved, stores and warehouses established, schools, reading rooms, gymnasiums, public halls, etc., built; other land be set apart for extensive gardens and fruit growing, the products of which will find a market among the cooperators in the city, and still more land devoted to grazing, so that pure milk, cream and butter can be furnished to all in the community, and any surplus be sent to the co-operators in the city. I have no doubt that as soon as intelligent farmers begin to understand the advantages of co-operation they will unite several farms together and offer them as locations for co-operative communities, where, through high culture, thorough subdivision of labor and improved appliances the land can be made to yield five to ten times as much as it does now, while lessening the individual labor of all and giving opportunity for social growth and enjoyments to which farmers are now strangers, owing to their solitary lives.
When all this has been accomplished it is merely a question of extension. Co-operation will have been demonstrated, not merely in particular things and within narrow limits, but on general principles as applied to society. Those who are now poor who in all their lives have never known what it is to have plenty to eat, plenty to wear, comfortable houses to live in, furnished with every necessary convenience, and who have been unable to cultivate or gratify their tastes for books, for music, for pictures and amusements will find all these things easily within their reach. All will be rich in the sense that all can enjoy every comfort and luxury that any other can enjoy. There is no man in city or country who is so poor that he cannot become a member and pay his entrance in work, and there is no one who could not raise his own standard of personal excellence so as to enable him to be accepted in some association. Once in, with the associations and help which the society of others around him will give, there need be no difficulty in maintaining his place. This will lift men from the very lowest strata in society, not by any power outside of themselves, and not as a boon conferred upon them—a charity—but by their own inherent power, aided by favoring opportunity and encouraged by the association of others like themselves.