Labor Report from Meiji Japan (4)
Least of all had I expected to see in my last few weeks' sojourn in China an impressive phenomenon of an advanced industrial warfare, known as an inherent disease of civilization, viz; a strike, in that remote part of the world where the ray of civilization still lacks its full penetration. True, there were many instances of feeble and weaker classes resisting the tyranny of their superior classes in the history of Chinese industries. Individual complaints and personal resistances there certainly were. But never have I thought that I should witness such a well-organized, well disciplined, stubbornly-contested strike, in its every aspect similar to that in America or Europe, as the tailors' strike in Shanghai, which occurred in the latter part of October last and continued for eight days. To summarize the important features of the event;
Those who struck were two thousand Chinese tailors engaged in the European trade under Chinese employers. The workshops are generally situated behind stores where daily meals are served, and some of the clerks lodge there at night, and where the regular Chinese filth is in abundance, thus bringing them to the dead level of the sweating shops in the United States. That being the general custom of Chinese living, they did not complain on this point.
What they complained of was that the meals, which are furnished by the employers, were too scanty. They wanted more rice, more pork and more fish. They also demanded that their wages should be increased. Upon refusal of these demands they went out. During eight days following, not one of the hand machines was running in all the Chinese tailor shops in the city. Meantime, resorts to bribery and threats of personal vengeance were made by the employers; municipal and judicial influences were brought to bear; leaders were arrested, tried, and sentenced, some of them flogged and imprisoned for several days, and others were sentenced to a year's imprisonment. The strikers gave this no heed, and their determination became still firmer. Finally, the employers, gave in, conceding every point.
The resultant conditions of this victorious strike are, they will receive forty-five Mexican cents, about 25 cents of American money, per day of eight working hours, instead of 30 cents as before. Expenditures for their meals are raised from three Mexican dollars, about $2.6O of American money. Night workers are to be paid double price.
To me the strike itself is a wonder, but the success of the strike is still more surprising. The conditions that sounded the strikers before the strike were most unfavorable for such an attempt. The only thing that was in their favor was that the time the blow was dealt was the busiest time of the season. This meant a great deal for the strikers. Yet, this advantage was fully offset by the non-existence of any sort of a fund to sustain the strikers during the struggle. Indeed, those tailors who went out had not only to fight the tyranny of their employers, but struggled at the same time against hunger and privation. The day they struck they parted with their work and every means of their daily subsistence. Their precedent conditions had not allowed them to save any portion of their earnings. So hard was their livelihood that a great many of them could not await the time of their monthly pay day, but had to draw every day a part of their daily wages in order to keep their families from hunger. Under such circumstances there certainly was no opportunity for them to save for a time of adversity. This lack of funds meant the lack of the best weapon to win an was the cause of much anxiety. Still they had no time to meditate. With hunger closely following their heels and driven by the growing prospects of coming winter, it was only left for them to strike, no matter whether they had any means to sustain themselves during the contest or not. In the face of such difficulties they fought and won--won a magnificent victory.
But, how did they happen to win? Was it because, as it will naturally be Supposed, the city of Shanghai being the most civilized place in China, furnished the necessary impetus to the strikers? In other words, was it not the influence of civilization that inspired the strike and overcame the difficulties? I think not. True, shanghai, in her outward appearance, is most civilized. The cleanliness of her streets, even where Chinese mostly inhabit, might give sonic lessons to Col. Waring of New York City. Her water works and general sanitary conditions are very commendable. But that is all If you will advance a step forward from these clean streets into a house, where Chinese live, you will be greeted by foul odors and filth, the regular barbaric living condition of the Chinese people, in such a contrast with the clean streets that you cannot help uttering words of disappointment. In short, there is nothing visible that presents any advanced state of living. Whatever may have been said about civilization in China, I am convinced that so-called western civilization in China is, so far, a failure. Nor is this a very strange assertion, since almost all past efforts to civilize the Chinese have been limited to elevation of mental and moral condition, neglecting utterly their material condition, the very foundation of civilization, upon which rest moral and mental advancement. In this connection, we claim with much pride that we are the champions of opening the way to the true and most powerful means of civilization in China, in that we have gained a right, as a result of the war, to establish factories, which have most wholesome influences in advancing the material condition of the people. Having such a view in my mind, I can hardly admit that the influence of civilization has inspired and carried the tailors' strike through to its beneficial result.
There is, however, a most potent factor in this affair that will give a wholly different aspect to this wonderful phenomenon.
Among many characteristics of Chinese people we find one which has a firm grip upon them, especially among the ignorant people. I refer to the Chinese characteristic of solidarity and fraternity Socially speaking, Chinese people are one the most susceptable [sic] to united action. Among people in China, and those who live abroad, social organizations are numerous, and some of them are very powerful. The Six Companies among Chinese in the United States, and Ko-Ro-Kwai among southern Chinese, are conspicuous examples. The former had power and influence to resist the passage of the exclusion act at an early period in the House of Congress of the United States; the latter very nearly succeeded in an attempt to overthrow the reigning dynasty.
Who knows what an important role this characteristic has played in the tailors' strike? Though they may have lacked of a distinct labor organization, and of a fund, solidarity and fraternity as their characteristics, and driven by necessity this characteristic developing to its full sway, there hardly needed in the occasion any fear of defeat. In union there is strength. No wonder that those ignorant Chinese tailors have achieved such a phenomenal success. Unity! Solidarity! It even blesses such an uncivilized people as Chinese. Then, why not Americans and Europeans!
Those who keep away from unions in civilized countries would do well to follow the example of the Chinese tailors.
Tokio, Japan, Dec. 15, 1895.
American Federationist, vol.III, no.1, March, 1896, pp. 5-6.