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Thirty Years of Labor

by Terence Powderly


THREE years ago it was suggested to the author that he write a book on the labor question. The stirring events of that year, in labor circles, attracted the attention of all classes toward the labor problem, and for the first time in the history of America did the industrial question assume such proportions as to become the theme of conversation in public and private. Taken up with the affairs of the organization of the Knights of Labor, the author could not, in justice to the charge entrusted to his keeping, devote the necessary time to the compiling of the work required of him. During the hours which have flown since 1886, the material has been gathered on which the following pages have been written, and although the time in which the work was done was stolen, here and there, as occasion presented itself to the author, the subjects treated in these chapters have had his earnest attention for the last fifteen years.

Within the period of three years many books have been written on the labor question by men who were interested in the subject. Any one of them would win a place for itself on the shelves of any library under the name of its author, but several of them were published and advertised in such a way as to create the impression that the author of Thirty Years of Labor was either associate author or in some way concerned in their publication. This is the first and only book that has been written by the undersigned; it is the only one in which he is or was interested, directly or otherwise. He does not make this statement for the purpose of detracting from the merits of other works on the subject, but merely to state a fact in connection with his name, which has been made use of for advertising purposes; he would advise all to read these books, for they deal with times and subjects which he does not touch upon in these pages.

The necessity for organization among producers becomes clearly discernible when one takes note of the tendencies toward centralization of power in the hands of those who control the wealth of the country. Combinations, monopolies, trusts, and pools, make it easy for a few to absorb the earnings of the workers, and limit their earnings to the lowest sum on which they can sustain life. Combination, in America, is heartless in the extreme, and has reached a point where it hesitates about going still farther only through the fear of crowding the poor to a condition "where the brute takes the place of the man." And yet these combinations and pools are educators; they are teaching the American people that if a few men may successfully corner the results of labor, and the wealth to purchase them, there is no just reason why the many may not do so for the benefit of all, through agents of their own selection. Natural opportunities are being controlled, monopolized and dwarfed by artificial means; production is limited because consumption is checked through poverty. To free the earth and its treasures, and allow man to have free access to his natural rights is the aim of organization to-day. Bitter was the opposition shown to governmental control of corporations a few years ago; to-day that opposition is insignificant in comparison with what it was even five years ago. This result is due to the marching and counter-marching of the Knights of Labor, Farmers Alliances, Patrons of Husbandry, and kindred organizations. The organization of labor means far more in 1889 than it even shadowed in 1859; then the supplication was: Give us an advance in wages and shorter hours of toil, and we will be content with our stay on earth." To-day the demand is: Give us the earth and all that it can produce, for to no man, or set of men, belongs the right to monopolize it or its products. We do not mean to deprive any man of his natural rights to the soil, but we do intend to oblige every man to render an equivalent for that which he receives by establishing an equitable standard of taxation."

As to the manner in which these pages have been written, it becomes the author to say but little. He is painfully conscious that they contain numerous imperfections, that they will not be regarded with favor by many, and that others will be disappointed on reading them. He is also conscious that there are thousands entertaining the same views that he does, who could have placed them before the world in a far more pleasing and comprehensive manner. His aim has been to tell the story of one movement in a given direction for a short period of time, and his greatest trouble was to keep from diverging. There is so much to say that when the closing lines were written, the author felt that only a beginning had been made and that he should proceed. The merest outline has been given, the great strikes and upheavals were briefly referred to, their discussion has been deferred until justice can be done the subject.

The author has not aimed at rhetorical effect; it has been his aim to answer a number of questions concerning labor organizations which have been put to him within the last three years; he has avoided saying what has been written before as far as he could. If the reader discovers any reasoning in conflict with his own, let him not resort to abusive epithets in order to disprove what is said in these pages; rather let him show wherein the error exists, that others may profit thereby. If the reader can show wherein the author has erred, it is his duty to do so, for by that means the cause of truth will be advanced. The author felt that it was his duty to unveil the early history of the Order of the Knights of Labor dispel the mystery which enshrouded it and disprove the oft repeated assertion that it was of foreign origin and an offshoot of the International of Europe. Well aware that it will meet with adverse criticism, the author takes consolation in the knowledge that the productions of the brightest minds have met with the same reception; he does not expect to receive any more consideration than they.

He might have made these pages more interesting had he spoken in detail of the various men who were actors in the scenes referred to, but the limits within which this may be done with propriety, and without giving offense, are so circumscribed, that he deemed it best to speak only of their deeds. They will be satisfied to know that they were right, although it cost them many a comfort and pang.

"To brave opinion's settled frown
From ermined robe and saintly gown,
While wrestling reverenced error down."


SCRANTON, PA., July 4, 1889.

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