Powerful Interests Always Align Against the Independence of the Working Class

What shall we do for American boys and men who are not going to college? That used to be a critical question for far-sighted patriots in both major parties. Only one of those parties now gives it an occasional thought, and mainly because of President Trump. The real estate magnate from Queens’ “opportunity zones” located in poor neighborhoods have attracted a fair amount of capital, lifting many people out of poverty. But the benefit for the individual man who works with his hands or his back is still indirect. He is hardly remembered at all; while the other party, its soul sold to feminism, is fairly prohibited from recognizing that there is such a boy or man whose needs ought to be acknowledged.

Many years ago, a man who ministered to the men in the state prison in Rhode Island told me that programs to educate the prisoners were almost wholly in the vein of academics, with almost nothing in the trades. When I expressed my disbelief, because that surely was not going to be the most reliable way to get these men into gainful employment upon their release, he told me that courses in the trades had been shut down by the unions, whose members did not want the competition.

It is not a new phenomenon. 

In 1893, the editors of The Century Magazine ran a series on the plight of native-born American boys after the revolution in industrial production threatened to make the old apprentice system obsolete. Despite attempts by the states to protect and promote apprenticeship, labor leaders, according to New York Labor Commissioner Charles F. Peck, a man friendly to their cause, had “kept up a quasi form of apprenticeship in an irregular and illegal manner” to “control their special trades.” Evidence of an effort to keep numbers down, the editors say, was easy to find. Said a delegate to a convention of house painters in Pennsylvania, who investigated the matter in his own trade: 

The larger the workshop or establishment, the greater seemed the abhorrence with reference to the employment of boys to learn the trade, many masters going so far to say, and with an evident spirit of pride, that in all their experience as masters, extending from fifteen to thirty-five years, and employing from fifteen to fifty, and as high as eighty, workmen, they had never bothered their brains teaching a boy the business.

“The general attitude of the labor organizations” toward the establishment of trade schools, say the editors, “is unquestionably one of hostility. This was shown in a striking manner by the action of the Bricklayers’ Union of Pennsylvania in going before a committee of the legislature last spring to oppose a bill making an appropriation for the establishment of a trade-school in the State Reform School,” effectively killing the boy-criminal’s best chance to quit his antisocial life. 

The retired Union colonel and architect Richard Auchmuty had built trade schools for boys, endowing them as far as he could with his own funds, but earned the sneers of Samuel Gompers: “The great trade and labor organizations which dot the land decided long ago that the limitation of the number of apprentices was the best method of meeting the question. The opinion of the myriads of men and women who belong to these organizations, I submit, is entitled to a little more weight than Mr. Auchmuty’s ipse dixit.” 

Edward Conkling in the July 1893 edition went so far as to say that Auchmuty did not take “as much interest in the ‘American boy’ as some people think,” for what he really wanted was “to fill the market with indifferent workmen who may be used as a club against organized labor.”

When the editors recorded those words, Auchmuty was dying slowly, of congestive heart failure. “In the last year or more of his life,” they write, “when he was suffering unceasing and torturing pain, sitting practically helpless in his home, his mind was always on his beloved schools and their future.” It was a personal matter for him, for “he was never weary of talking about his ‘lads,’ as he called the pupils, of showing photographs of his graduates, and of tracing their careers in the world.” 

The colonel’s motive was not ambition but patriotic love: “His heart beat warm and strong for his country, and especially for the youth of his country; to see them growing up in idleness, and thus going directly and surely to crime, have him as keen a sense of pain as a father would feel over the errors and misdeeds of a worthless son,” the editors wrote that October.

The Reverend Frederick H. Wines, a sociologist by avocation who dedicated his energies toward showing that criminals were made and not born, had collected information about the 52,894 men in American prisons and reformatories in 1890. Of those, he found, 31,426 had no trade whatsoever, even though the great majority, no fewer than 23,144, were native born. Of men convicted of homicide, said Wines in the September 1893 issue, “more than four-fifths have no trade.” 

“American boys are becoming criminals and filling our prisons,” said the editors, “because of lack of occupation . . . In all our large cities there are thousands of boys coming to manhood every year who are denied the opportunity to fit themselves for upright, industrious, and useful lives because the doorway to every trade is shut and barred against them.”

Conkling sniped at the man’s motives, but the editors question those of the labor leaders themselves. For despite their worry about an oversupply of laborers, we find in the May 1893 edition, “they admit freely to their organizations foreign workmen who have not served full apprenticeships, and who have only a slight knowledge of their crafts.” 

Often they bring them in for the heavy seasons, and then the workers return to their countries. Why would the labor leaders do so? To consolidate the power of organization, say the editors, and to strengthen the use or the threat of violence to procure concessions from capital, for “the worst labor riots and the most dastardly assaults upon social order that have ever been witnessed have been due to [foreign] control.” In the Homestead riots of 1892, they say in the August 1893 issue, about 60 percent of the strikers were foreigners, “most of whom were unable to speak the English language.” 

The editors do not object to the foreign-born as such, but as they are used for leverage by labor leaders, as they are shutting out the native-born by design, and as they are showing neither love for nor understanding of the country where they work, and which they often leave again when they have made a bit of fortune. Said one Hungarian man to Peck in the July edition that same year:

I go back to Hungary a rich man. There I live like a baron. I get married and enjoy myself for all my trials here. America will soon make laws to stop immigration. So many foreigners come in to work cheap that American workingmen after a while will be so poor they will come to the level of foreign workingmen. Capital in America wants protection. America had better protect its native-born workingmen. I have got enough for myself. Now I can tell the truth. I don’t care.

“Shall American boys be permitted to learn trades,” the editors ask at the onset of their series in May, “and, having learned them, shall they be permitted to work at them?” The question, they say, seems absurd even to ask. We might ask a similar question now: “Shall American boys be enabled to learn trades, in an effort to alleviate poverty and crime, and to strengthen the working-class family, which is in dire straits?” 

The answer should be, “Of course!” But it would require in us a real counterrevolution, a return to common sense and decency.

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About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen's most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). He is a Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.

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