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Working-Class Life (1891)

This report by Paul Göhre (1864-1928) underscores the dependence of many industrial workers on their daily wage. It also describes the nature of industrial working conditions, as well as the exploitative relationship in which many workers found themselves. The rise of socialism in Germany stemmed in part from this predicament and the precariousness of wage-labor.

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[ . . . ] I myself, to begin here, received 20 pfennig wage per hour as a novice and manual worker [Handarbeiter], the usual beginning wage. In general, however, this wage was quickly raised by 1 to 2 pfennig upon request, especially for married workers. In my case, it amounted to 2.13 marks a day, with the exception of Monday and Sunday, when one hour fewer was worked; on those two days it was 1.93 marks, and for the entire week precisely 12.78 marks. Of that, nearly 2 marks always went to the health insurance contribution and to fines for tardiness and missed work, which meant that I rarely ended up with more than 11 marks in earnings for the week. The other manual workers earned 12 to 15 marks, on average probably 14 marks per week. Locksmiths earned 15 to 21, their engine-fitters 22 to 28, and drillers [Bohrer] 15 to 19 marks. By contrast, the pieceworkers got substantially more: planers as much as 25 on average, lathe operators from 20 to 30, stampers and drillers from 20 to 30, some even as much as 40 marks per week. The machinist at the large steam engine earned, according to his own account, 24 marks a week by working fourteen hours a day and regularly on Sunday morning. Among the engine-fitters, as with some masters [Meister], the income was significantly increased through so-called percentages for machines finished by them. The yearly income of the latter, I was told, supposedly averages 1,800 to 2,000 marks. Among the high earners are many young people with alleged minimum earnings of 100 marks per month. Some of this information, however, may be too low rather than too high. The wage was said to be higher still in a few other machine factories, but the work was also longer and more strenuous. However, I was, of course, not able to verify the accuracy of this information.

From all of this it becomes clear that one cannot talk of misery among this class of workers. Of all the workers in Saxony, they are, at any rate, among the classes that are best off and have the most spending power, even though one must always remember that the highest figures I have given apply only to a small percentage of the workers, that the average earnings are 80 marks a month, and that an hourly wage of 32 pfennig is already seen as very favorable.

The many who earned less than the sums I have indicated (like manual workers, in particular), and who also had large families, cares, and debts, but who were diligent and ambitious and took pride in themselves and their families, tried to raise their income somewhat. They searched in every possible way, in their scarce leisure hours and on Sunday, for an extra job outside the factory – sometimes it paid well and sometimes not, sometimes it was easy and pleasant, sometimes exhausting.

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