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Working-Class Life (1891)

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Most of these evils, and the greatest of all, came, at any rate, from the deplorable practice of providing sleeping places and lodging. This is the ruin of the German worker’s family. But in the vast majority of cases this is an economic necessity. The small material benefit it yields is a longed-for supplement to the household funds of the worker’s wife. No one should believe that the workers would bother with such strangers simply for fun. On the contrary, it was often my experience that anyone who is able to keeps these people at arm’s length and out of the house. But those who do it always prefer to take young men rather than young girls.

If I may finally say a few words about the experiences I had looking for work. In brief, they are as follows. At that time, it was still much easier for skilled tradesmen, like locksmiths and lathe operators, to find work in factories and small workshops than it was for manual workers, weavers, and machine operators. In search of work, most were curtly turned away already by factory porters. In the few cases where we were able to ask the manager directly, we were treated in a friendly and polite manner, and also given good advice in one instance, though in this case it was, needless to say, useless. The job announcements we sought refuge in also did not meet our needs. These were the ones in inns and newspapers. [ . . . ] At any rate, I can say from personal experience how unspeakably depressing it is to have to wander without success from factory to factory, from workshop to workshop, offering one’s strength again and again, with pleading words, and always without success. Involuntary joblessness, even when hunger is not yet pounding on the door with its iron fist, is the most terrible fate that can befall a healthy, hard-working man who provides for his family, and it is all the more bitter the more earnest, deep, and full of character he is. [ . . . ]

Work rules
[ . . . ] In the first place, it says the following, verbatim: “The right to hire workers rests solely with the management or its designees. By accepting the work, every worker submits to the stipulations of the work rules, a copy of which is handed to him when he begins, and receipt of which he has to acknowledge by personally entering his name into a book that is displayed in the office.” At the end it says, also verbatim: “Changes and additions to the same will be announced by management through posted notices and always take effect immediately.”

Even to the naïve, this drives home in no uncertain terms the entire character of these work rules – and that of nearly all existing work rules, as well. They are unmistakably the product of the factory management, tailored to the sole aspect of their unilateral interests. They are house rules which the owner decrees solely according to his will, and to which everyone must conform as long as he is a member of the house. The workers have no effective protest against such work rules other than leaving the collective for which they are the law. In all cases of importance, their existence and validity explains the utter and silent dependence of all workers; they are the expression of an absolutist system, the exact opposite of economic freedom, which is after all supposed to be the dominant law today in the economic life of nations; they are a new and momentous cause of the lack of independence and the immature character of today’s factory worker. [ . . . ]

Source: Paul Göhre, Drei Monate als Fabrikarbeiter und Handwerksbursche [Three Months as a Factory Worker and Journeyman]. Leipzig, 1891.

Original German text reprinted in Ernst Schraepler, ed., Quellen zur Geschichte der sozialen Frage in Deutschland. 1871 bis zur Gegenwart [Sources on the History of the Social Question in Germany. 1871 to the Present]. Göttingen, 1996, pp. 47-51.

Translation: Thomas Dunlap

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