V The Decline In Refinery Workers' Wage Levels
1) The Refinery Workers' Strike of 1888
The end of the 'golden age' of the traditional furnace masters
It has been rather a long detour, but we are now in a position to be able to answer the question of why refinery workers' wages, which in the 1880s were comparable with those of highly-paid miners, fell in the 1900s to levels hardly much above those of laborers.
As we have seen, owing to the discovery of new rich lodes of ore at the beginning of the 1880s and to improvements in underground ventilation, the years 1883 and 1884 saw sharp rises in ore production, which put the ore dressing and refining departments under some considerable pressure; they had to expand rapidly in order to cope with the flow of ore produced. High wages had to be offered in order to attract the necessary greater numbers of workers over a short period. The introduction of western furnaces was no simple matter, and in the meantime the refinery department had to make do with efforts to improve the ventilation of traditional furnaces, increase their number, and ensure that there was at least one skilled man per furnace. It was only natural that in the 1880s furnace masters at Ashio should have been paid relatively high wages since such men, whose skills were based on long years of experience, were in short supply nationwide, had traditionally been regarded as the most highly-paid mineworkers, and had had to be poached by Ashio from other mines.
However, the 'golden age' of the furnace master was not to last long. Once the necessary number of men had been obtained and the changeover to western furnaces began, so too did the decline in their wages. The refinery workers' strike which started in December 1888 was rooted in opposition to the cuts. There is only one extant source which describes the background and the events of the strike, so the relevant section will be quoted in full: 1)
"The workers got used to being treated well, and became arrogant and lazy. Eventually, however, the management secured an adequate number of workers, and after the introduction of western-type furnaces from 1886, the need for the furnace masters diminished and their conditions of work had to be tightened. Previously, there had been a system of allowances under which the company bought from the furnace masters the leftover charcoal they had not used, but from about that time (mid-1880s) there was a lot of rock mixed in with with the ore which was not so easy to smelt. More charcoal thus had to be used than the amount that was stipulated. From December 1888 the basic rate continued at 50 sen a day as before and the company continued to buy back unused charcoal, but if extra charcoal was used, an equivalent amount of money was deducted from the basic wage. The equipment refurbishment allowance was also cut from 17 sen to 12 sen. The boss of one of the maedaiku hanba, Tôsuke, then led a group to the company office to complain about the changes a number of times, but their views were not accepted, and in consequence, a group of furnace masters including those from Kodaki staged a strike which involved the western furnace operators, and the situation became more serious. Work stopped at all the old furnaces, but the furnaces were kept going by bringing in hauliers from the pits. Over 200 of the strikers were laid off and made to quit their accommodation the same day. They gradually came to reflect on their actions, and after mediation by the Ashio town mayor, the priest, and the police chief, they finally apologized. The management closed the Tôsuke hanba but took no further action against the other strikers. The refinery workers' regime changed however; the old furnaces were gradually phased out, and the current job grading system was adopted."
I would like to draw attention here to the fact that the wages of Ashio refinery workers in the early 1880s were a good deal higher than the average daily rates shown in tables 5 and 16. Table 5 is based on the 1883 and 1884 Ashio Mine Reports, which estimated refinery workers' average daily wage rates at 45 sen 5 rin and 42 sen 5 rin respectively. As I have pointed out several times, however, these figures were but a broad representation of the wages of refinerymen; the wages of furnace masters were lumped together with those of ore dressers and ore roasters. In the early 1880s the furnace masters' daily rate was 50 sen, but that was only the base rate; they were also paid various bonuses and allowances.
The first of these was related to fuel savings, which played an important part in determining the cost of refining. If a master used less charcoal than a certain stipulated amount, he was paid the money it would have cost the company to buy the surplus from him. "It was determined that 750kg of charcoal were sufficient for 2,250kg of ore, and this became a fixed rate, although actually it was enough for 3,187kg of ore". In 1885 37.50kg of charcoal cost 2 sen 2), so the 'surplus purchase price' was 1 yen, twice the furnace masters' basic rate. This allowance was probably also paid to furnace masters' assistants and bellows operators, although the difference between the fixed rate and the ore produced would not normally have been as much as 50 kan(187kg). Nevertheless, compared to the basic rate, the allowance was no trifle.
The 'Development of Refining at Ashio Copper Mine' dates from a later period and was drawn up by the company, so its data should be treated with a certain degree of circumspection, but it still remains true that Ashio refinery workers in the 1880s, especially the furnace masters, were relatively highly paid.
The record of the strike quoted earlier makes it clear that the dispute was no spontaneous affair, but was rather the result of actions taken by the management. "...the need for the furnace masters diminished and their conditions of work had to be tightened.". Cutting workers' pay was thus deliberate management policy. In place of the former bonuses paid to encourage a more economical use of charcoal, penalties now had to be paid if a fixed amount of charcoal was exceeded, and the equipment replacement allowance of 5 sen a day was also cut. It is hard to imagine, however, that the management actually planned and provoked the strike, which started in December 1888 just after Furukawa had signed a contract to supply copper to the Jardine Matheson Trading Company. Judging from the Furukawa company's previous record, it would have been no easy matter to provide the contracted 19,000 tons in the stipulated time of two and a half years. It would hardly have been in the company's interest to have provoked a strike at a time when the need to expand production had become a matter of supreme urgency. Why then did the company take the brazen step of cutting workers' wages and then lay off all those who took part in the strike that followed?
It is thought that the management's actions were influenced by the sudden sharp drop in the world price of copper at that time and the consequent rise in Ashio's production costs. In the second half of 1885 it cost 6 yen 64 sen to produce 60kg of finished copper at Ashio. Two years later this had risen to 11 yen 58 sen. In the same period, smelting costs had doubled, from 1 yen 8 sen (per 60 kg) to 2 yen 16 sen 4). This was mainly due to the declining quality of Ashio ore and sharp rises in fuel costs. Meanwhile, although the copper market worldwide had expanded greatly in 1888 due to large-scale buying by copper syndicates, the overall trend had been downward since the peak of the early 1870s; prices were falling rapidly. The cost of Ashio's rough copper fell from 27 yen 24 sen per 60kg in the first half of 1881 to 16 yen 86 sen in the first half of 1884, and to 11 yen 27 sen in the first half of 1886 5). These declining prices were no short-term phenomenon; they represented a structural shift in the international copper market due to falling prices in the United States, which accounted for half of world copper production at that time. Technological advances in ore dressing and refining there had served to drive down the cost of production. An article in No. 46 of the "Bulletin of the Japanese Mining Industry Association" (Feb. 1888), entitled "A Busy Year for Copper Buyers" and based on a report in the London "Economist" in January that year, noted that:
"In the world's most important producer country, the United States, production costs have dropped more sharply than in any other industry over the last ten years. At the Lake Superior copper mine, extraction and dressing costs fell from $5.50 a ton in 1866 to $0.83 in 1876 and $0.47 in 1887. Other costs also fell considerably, and whereas in 1876, Lake Superior refined copper cost 15.42 cents per pound, this had fallen to 8.5 cents by 1885. Over the following three years further cost-cutting measures were adopted, and production costs continued to fall. Current costs are practically half the 1876 figure."
Although the contract with Jardine Matheson guaranteed a price of 20 yen 75 sen per 60kg - nearly double Ashio's production costs - until 1890, the outlook for the period after that was not bright.
To fulfil the contract with Jardine Matheson, Furukawa had to increase output substantially, from 300,000kg to 540,000kg a month; only the refinery workers could make this possible. One of the main reasons why the refinerymen's strike ended in failure despite their seemingly strong bargaining position was that at the time of the strike, the contract still had over two years to run, thus enabling the management to take a hard line. Furthermore, although the furnaces were all closed down during the strike, the management were able to bring in mineworkers from the pits department to keep the western furnaces running. Although a failure from the technological point of view, for the management, the Pilz furnaces were a success.
Meanwhile, on the strikers' side, despite the cuts in their wages and the worsening working conditions, Ashio workers were still better paid than mineworkers elsewhere. At the time of the strike they would not likely have found better pay at any other mine. Neither was there any other mine that could accommodate nearly 200 furnace workers. After all, Furukawa's share of the nation's total copper production was 52% in 1886 and 40.3% in 1887 6). For those workers operating the western furnaces, there was simply nowhere else to go; Ashio was the only mine using such technology. This was one of the factors which contributed to the inevitable failure of the refinery workers' strike.
2) 1889 Smelting Workers' Job Grading Regulations
Furnace Masters' Grading
After the strike, the company quickly moved to tighten its control over refinery workers, especially the traditional furnace masters. In February 1889, just two months after the strike, the company issued a 'Smelting Masters' Grading System' and a set of rules, allowances and penalties for roasting workers, all of which were put into effect the following month.
[Notes] In fact, however, above 15.2%, the figures in parentheses applied for the time being. Points per grade were also actually as follows: grade 1, 50-55; 2, 40-45; 3, 30-35; 4, under 25. Special class prizes were: 56-60 points, 1 yen; 65-69 points, 2 yen; 70 points, over 3 yen.
There had already been a job grading system operative before the strike 8), but it had applied only to western furnace workers and to those ancillary workers (tetsudaifu) who assisted the furnace workers. The wages of the latter were fixed at 50 sen for furnace masters and 30 sen or 25 sen for their mates (assistants) 9). It was precisely because of these simple across-the-board rates that extra incentives in the form of sake, fish, and so on had to given to increase furnace masters' efficiency and that the 'buy-back' system was instituted to encourage fuel savings. The furnace masters' job grading points system did away with the need for such costly measures, because it did not fix wage rates; a furnace masters' grade was reassessed each month in accordance with his monthly output. Wages were linked to grades, and bonuses were given to those with especially high points. The system did of course give the furnace masters a material incentive, but it also put them under some considerable psychological pressure and must have driven the workers to compete fiercely against each other. For those who were proud of their ability, winning the points race may have mattered even more than the money itself. There were no doubt some who ignored the temptation to take part in the race, but they were penalized by measures built into the system. If they continued at grade 4 level for two months in succession, furnace masters were demoted to the level of 'standby smelting worker' (yobi yôkôfu).
The new grading system had an even worse effect on working conditions than did the cuts in equipment allowance and the institution of the penalty system for exceeding the fixed fuel quotas - the two measures which had triggered the strike. Before the grading system, all furnace masters had been on the same daily rate of 50 sen. Under the system, however, only grade 1 workers earned 50 sen; the rates for grades 2, 3, and 4 were set at 45, 40, and 38 sen respectively. Table 26 shows output in the seven months between July 1888, just before the introduction of the system, and January 1889. if the grading points system is applied to these results, most workers would be grade 3. Not one person achieved the maximum 13.6% output level - grade 1 - in January 1889.
1) "Japan Labor-Management Yearbook" 1st ed. (I) p. 237.
2) Average charcoal consumption rate per furnace in Jan. 1889 was 907kg
3) The Effects of the Introduction of Western Furnaces
The last furnaces were dismantled in 1890 and replaced by western furnaces. How the furnace masters reacted to this development is not known. Certainly there is no record of them taking any organized action to protest the change, although this is hardly surprising since their strike had failed only the year before. The 'Development of Refining at Ashio Copper Mine' concludes its account of the refinery workers' strike of 1888 as follows: "After this the refinery workers' working conditions changed markedly. First the old furnaces were gradually phased out, and the current job grading system was introduced".
The introduction of the new western furnaces further depressed workers' wage levels. As we saw earlier, operating the furnaces required a higher level of experience and training than had working the furnaces, and there were very few workers nationwide who possessed such skills. The working environment of the furnaces, with its liability to explosions and other calamities, was also much more dangerous than that of the furnaces. Also, a single firing of the furnaces was able to process a huge amount of ore in comparison with the furnaces, and any mistakes meant a correspondingly large loss to the company; workers were thus under a far greater psychological pressure. One might therefore have naturally expected furnace operators to be much better-paid than furnace workers had been.
[Notes] Compiled from Kamiyama Tatsuzo Observation Study Report pp. 136-139
[Notes] Ôkawara Saburô "Metallurgical Report On The Ashio Copper Mine" pp. 81, 82
It is soon evident from these data that even the lowest graded operators were earning less (28 sen) than the 30 sen average daily rate of laborers. Naturally, as they became more experienced, their grade and wage level would rise, but in contrast to the former two grades of furnace master and assistant, and the three wage levels - the standard 50 sen for furnace masters, and 25 or 30 sen for assistants - smelters now had to cope with a ladder of more than ten grades on which climbing each rung only brought an increment of between two to five sen, and the lower the rung, the smaller was the increment. The wage rates and each worker's eligibility for a particular grade and rate were decided by the management. As the furnace workers' skills came to be valued in the wider industrial context, workers could, of course, move elsewhere, which would have an effect on wage levels. But until Bessemer converters began to be used at Hitachi copper mine in 1908 and at Kosaka in 1909, apart from the short-term trials carried out at Besshi, there was nowhere else for Ashio refinery workers to go. Semi-water jacket furnaces were being used at other mines, so it would not have been impossible for refinery workers to get better wages by moving, and in fact, in 1906, "because copper prices suddenly soared and new mines were opened in various places at a time when average wage levels at Ashio were low, many men were head-hunted by other mines"10). However, as we shall see later, most Ashio refinery workers actually chose to stay on.
Shortly before I completed the manuscript of this book Takeda Haruhito published "The History of the Japanese Copper Industry" in which he pointed out that Ashio refinery workers were in fact being paid the equivalent of 1.3 shifts' wages for a single night shift's work. On the basis of figures drawn from "Surveys of the Japanese Mining Industry", he calculates the actual wages paid to have been those shown in Table 31 and criticizes me for "overemphasizing the differentials between the two groups [miners and refinery workers]"11).
Takeda's book is the first to bring to light the fact that a refinery workers' night shift allowance was paid on the basis of the number of night shifts worked. It also draws attention to the fact that, in addition to the night shift allowance, a good attendance allowance and a coke-saving allowance were also paid by totalling up the number of shifts worked in which workers qualified for these allowances (a system known as bumashi). If workers used too much coke, they were penalized by having the number of shifts cut. Takeda's book certainly points up the need to reexamine the way in which refinery workers' wages have been discussed to date, and the assertion that refinery workers' wages hardly differed from those of laborers will probably have to be revised. Takeda's findings also serve to reduce somewhat the gap between the wage levels of miners and refinery workers. However, while accepting his criticism, I do not think that what I have argued concerning the decline in refinery workers' wages is in error nor do I consider that it needs to be fundamentally altered.
The reason for this is that the bumashi system applied to miners as well as to refinery workers, and miners were also paid good attendance allowances. A more significant problem, however, is the fact that the figures for refinery workers' real wages adduced by Takeda (see Table 31) are highly questionable. Takeda's figures are based on the number of shifts worked per man, but the numbers of shifts are far too large to be explained simply by night shift and other allowances. According to Takeda, a refinery worker worked 320 shifts a year. Assuming 160 night shifts, the bumashi increment would amount to 160 x 0.3 = 48 shifts - a total of only 368 shifts, but the minimum number of shifts worked per man on which Takeda bases his figures for real wages is 422, while the maximum number is 550. Even allowing for other bonuses, these figures are far too high.
[Notes] 1) Compiled from the annual "Survey of the Japanese Mining Industry" and "Statistical Data of the Major Japanese Mines" for the year 1917
2) Takeda Haruhito "A History of the Japanese Copper Industry" p.173.
The main reason why these improbably large shift numbers result from the personnel numbers is not so much due to the night shift increments but rather to the fact that temporary workers have been included in the figures for the number of shifts, whereas the figures for 'personnel' are those corresponding to regular workers only. For example, to take the figures for an average day in the first half of 1906, there were 66 regular smelters (honbanfu) working in the smelting workshops alongside 64 temporary smelters (rinji honbanfu); the regular smelters worked a total of 1974 shifts a month and the temporary smelters worked 1910 shifts a month. In the finishing workshops, there were 32 honbanfu refiners and 7 rinji honbanfu refiners13). According to the "Working Conditions of Mineworkers", there were 103 refinery workers at Ashio in 190614), a figure which is clearly based on the number of regular workers only. In other words, in official reports on the number of personnel, Ashio reported the number of regular workers only, but calculated the total number of shifts worked on the basis of all employees, both regular and temporary. Takeda's 'revised figures' for refinery workers' wages are clearly overestimates, and actual real wages in terms of annual income amounted to around 360 shifts at the daily rate.
[Notes] Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce, Bureau of Mines "1909 Survey of the Japanese Mining Industry" (1910). and "1912 Survey of the Japanese Mining Industry" (1913).
1) 'The Development of Refining at Ashio Copper Mine' in "The History of Tochigi Prefecture" Historical Documents - Modern 9, p. 117.
2) Harada Shinji 'Report from Ashio Copper Mine' ("The History of Japanese Mining Collected Documents" The Early Meiji Period (4) "The Ashio Mine" Haku-a Shobô 1981, p. 41).
3) The Asahi Weekly ed. "A Social History of Prices in the Meiji, Taishô, Shôwa Periods" (Asahi Newspapers, 1981).
4) 'Table of Average Prices 1885' and 'Table of Average Prices 1887' ("Tochigi Prefecture", pp. 158-160).
5) 'The Production and Movement of Minerals 1881-1886' ("Tochigi Prefecture", p. 148).
6) "100 Years of the Furukawa Company" p. 76.
7) "Japan Labor-Management Yearbook" 1st ed. (I), pp. 277-281.
8) One article in the Smelting Workers' Job Grading Regulations states that 'ancillary workers (tetsudaifu) are considered as grade 9 smelters, and sashiko (bellowsmen) as grade 10 smelters' ("Japan Labor-Management Yearbook" 1st ed. (I), p. 281).
9) Ôhara Jun'nosuke 'The Ashio Copper Mine' ("Historical Documents of the Japanese Labor Movement" Vol. 1, p. 83).
10) 'The Development of Refining at Ashio Copper Mine' ("Tochigi Prefecture", p. 125).
11) Takeda Haruhito "The History of the Japanese Copper Industry" (Tôkyô University Press, 1987) 172-173, 187.
12) See Nimura, 'The Number of Mineworkers in the Early period of (Japanese) Industrialization (I)' (Hôsei University Ôhara Institute for Social Research "Monthly Research Bulletin" No. 289, Sept. 1982).
13) Ôkawara Saburô "A Report on Refining at Ashio Copper Mine" (1907, University of Tôkyô Faculty of Engineering Department of Metallurgy Library Archive) pp. 195, 315.
14) Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce, Bureau of Mines "The Working Conditions of Mineworkers" p. 2 (1908, reissued in 1957 by Kyûshû Industrial History Research Group).