Scripts on Stage and on Paper
The workers used their definition of labor as a commodity to orchestrate the unfolding of a work stoppage in space. When British workers had a grievance they wanted corrected, they typically filed out of their workrooms into the central mill yard, which served as a theater for their demonstration. The tactic was habitual, as the documentary sources as well as oral history collections in Britain show. Textile workers from both Yorkshire and Lancashire, asked in interviews what they did to correct a workplace problem, responded, "We went out to the mill yard." The workers in some instances transformed this action into a raucous assembly, singing and shouting slogans in the yard. For example, at Glossop, just southeast of Lancashire, the
weavers at one mill who filed into their yard delivered a message that merged rebellion and patriotic conformity when they commenced singing "Rule Britannia" as loudly as possible.
The British textile workers also imported community traditions of demonstration into the factory. At the end of the nineteenth century, textile workers in urban areas, especially women, still subjected miscreant supervisors to the proverbial ceremony of "rough music." At a mill in Bradford, for example, the female workers in 1893 condemned the advances of their overlooker by preparing an effigy of him. They banged on cans and shouted. In 1891 at Great Horton, near Bradford, weavers who were "members of the weaker sex" jeered and hissed on the shop floor at a team of new overlookers with whom they were supposed to work. When the overlookers informed the employer of the rude distractions, he locked the women out and closed the mill. To put an unpopular overlooker in his place, workers at another mill in Bradford in 1890 formed a procession on the factory grounds, playing on tin kettles and a ram's horn. In these instances, workers drew upon repertoires of protest that had traditionally been used to censure those who transgressed community norms.
Textile strikes had long drawn upon community repertoires of mockery. In the Preston strikes of the 1850s, strikers who had turned out called upon itinerant musicians to stand opposite the mill and accompany their dances, which employers interpreted as a form of "ridicule and defiance." Even after the turn of the century, work boycotts could become an occasion for carnival merrymaking. At a village near Burnley, strikers in 1908 lent their
stoppage a festival atmosphere when a female participant "masqueraded in man's attire." In mockery of their owner, these revelers also paraded a pig in a cart through the town streets. With such opportunities for entertainment, an incident such as occurred at a Bradford mill in 1893 could only have been expected: officials of the textile workers' union, called to investigate the cause of the stoppage, claimed that many of the merrymakers demonstrating at the mill gate could not cite a grievance. The workers said they had "come out to have 'a little fun.'" The union officials said that "upon inquiry it turned out that few of the women really understood why they were on strike, many of them coming out as sympathizers with the first malcontents."
The British workers thought of their assemblies as a means of signaling their insistence upon bargaining, not just as a means of withdrawing labor. A newspaper account of a stoppage in the Colne Valley during 1891 makes plain the importance workers attached to turning the cessation of work into a visible gesture of disobedience. "The workmen were seen to be making their way to an open space close by their mill," the report stated," and when anything of this kind takes place all eyes are upon them in wonderment." At a mill in Apperley Bridge in 1893, the weavers were delighted to see that the head of the company "stood stock still when he saw all the weavers outside the mill gates."
The physical arrangement of the British mills often created a stage for workers' demonstrations. The central location of the yard in many mills ensured that a congregation there would be visible to workers and supervisors in every department of the factory. When not used as a site for protest, the mill yard was used by employers and public figures as a platform for addresses. In the Colne Valley, for example, politicians campaigning for
office used yards inside the mills as sites for public addresses to workers. A weaver from Yeadon, born in 1861, chose the mill yard as the setting in his autobiography in which to portray the turning point of his spiritual development. There he rejected a job offer from a shady music agent from London and threatened to heave a rock at the man. Well could the central yard, encircled by buildings as if by grandstands, serve as a stage for dramatic confrontation.
The surviving record of evidence in Germany does not easily yield instances before 1914 in which workers turned the mill yard into a theatrical arena for their protests. Yet many examples of conduct come forth that draw on an alternative symbolism: German workers stopped work at their looms and refused to continue until their grievances were corrected. At a weaving mill in Rheydt, for example, weavers stopped work for two days in 1909, but stayed in their shop rooms, to protest against what they viewed as a reduction in piece rates. The workers employed this tactic in Saxony, Bavaria, the Vogtland, the Rhineland, the Münsterland, and the Osnabrück district. Since the workers left whenever owners requested it, this conduct cannot be taken to represent an attempt to occupy the factory by means of a sit-down strike. A police report from the district of Burgsteinfurt said the
inoperative workers had even left "obligingly." Workers sometimes used the sit-down technique after telling the owner that they did not intend to work. Therefore it was not a silent way of striking without verbal communication, nor a way of denying to authorities that a strike was in fact underway. Like their colleagues in Britain, many German workers remained skeptical of employers' claim to authority and were ready to mock it by pranks on the shop floor, such as falsely pulling emergency alarms. Starting a strike by sitting at the machine was not a sign of greater subordination to managerial directives. It simply exemplified the German workers' conception in this period of the stoppage of work.
The tactic of merely sitting at the machine did not represent a less active response than demonstrating in the yard, or one that required less coordination than marching in a body out of the factory. German workers who adopted the tactic of the "passive strike" showed a high degree of discipline. According to police records from Emsdetten, for example, the weavers who initiated a passive strike in 1904 stopped work at their looms "suddenly, according to an arranged signal." These protesters then sat in the workroom all day. A decade later, at another mill in the same town, the weavers repeated this tactic during the morning shift to protest against weft yarn of substandard quality. The owner eventually shut off the steam power and asked the weavers to leave the premises. When the weavers complied, they did not scatter. Having made their point, they had the discipline to return "punctually" to work in a body at the beginning of the afternoon shift. Details such as these indicate that German workers conducted well-orchestrated stoppages. But they hardly drew upon established techniques such as rough music, nor did they regularly mount protests that depended upon a visual display of disobedience in the yard. The German strikes emphasized the precise, timed withdrawal of labor. At some citywide work stoppages, all
workers in town stopped their work at the same instant. "On May 10th, at nine o'clock in the morning," a factory inspector from Greiz reported, "the strike broke out as if on command in all mechanical weaving mills and in the dyeing and finishing branches." Since workers often began work in the morning with the intention of stopping shortly thereafter, their conduct seemed to affirm the symbolic importance of the act of collectively ceasing the motion of production, rather than merely preventing that motion from starting at all.
The absence of visible workplace demonstrations in the enactment of German strikes made it awkward for some to distinguish between a strike and the contractual withdrawal of labor. Legal-minded German bureaucrats of the time found it so. In the Rhineland, local officials thought that if a large group of workers canceled their employment contract by giving prior notice, they were legally withdrawing their labor and therefore not launching a strike. The Imperial Bureau of Statistics in Berlin had to keep the provincial authorities informed that a mass labor dispute which transpired according to orderly procedures of terminating a labor contract still constituted an event that the officials should report as a strike. The district record keepers in Thüringen may have reflected the prevailing uncertainty about the sighting of a strike in the title of a volume of handwritten enumerations for the period 1882–1906: they called their compilation "Supposed Strikes." In contrast with the British stoppages at the workplace, German protests in the quarter-century before the First World War seem elementary and austere.
How are we to explain the difference between the German and the British forms of protest? Certainly the German workers did not adopt this particular style of action because they lacked acquaintance with forms of crowd action. In the early days of factory development at midcentury, workers also employed rough music (Katzenmusik ) against their employers, though not in the workplace. A minister reported in this era that the workers in the Wuppertal district treated their employers to this ceremony whenever "it became known that a moral lapse had occurred in an eminent family." The tradition of rough music still enjoyed a rich life in industrial towns of imperial Germany. At a village in the Lausitz in 1886, weavers suffering from a wage reduction subjected the mayor's house to these raucous sounds. Protesters used this repertoire for issues unrelated to the workplace. At a textile town near Mönchengladbach, one hundred people, including workers from the local mills, joined a rough music demonstration in 1902. They banged pot tops and clanged bells for several nights around the home of a carpenter whom they accused of carrying on an indecent sexual liaison. German textile strikers also organized street processions after the cessation of work. Striking weavers at a firm in the Löbau district in 1886 paraded through the streets with their colorful fabrics mounted on poles. German workers had the repertoires for collective demonstrations at hand in the community, but seldom imported them into the workplace.
Nor did the divergence in British and German repertoires of action originate in the legal statutes that applied to protest. To be sure, the laws regarding public assembly in Prussia, and in most other German states, required workers to give local police forty-eight hours' notice of a meeting. Yet the courts ruled that the laws that prevented public meetings of associations without prior announcement did not apply to gatherings of employees at work. The courts reasoned that the participants at meetings on shop property discussed workplace matters, not "public affairs." Therefore the law did not require German workers to give police notice of meetings or assemblies on the mill grounds. On this score the laws governing assembly at work in Germany were no different from those in Britain.
If the difference in the repertoires of action at the workplace cannot be explained by the legal environment, where can we turn to discover their significance? One of the terms workers used to describe their actions provides an initial clue, though not a monolithic response. British textile workers who went on strike often said they had "turned out," a figure of speech which highlighted the crossing of a boundary between inside and outside the mill rather than focusing on the stoppage of labor per se.
A confrontation between workers and employers at a Blackburn weaving mill in 1865 implemented this principle. The insurgent weavers assembled in the mill yard before leaving, but they defined the start of the strike as the moment at which they passed through the main gate and left the premises.
Managers, too, framed the cessation and resumption of work in spatial terms. The director of a factory in Bradford described the readiness of strikers to begin work again with the expression "They were glad to come in." To "come out" became synonymous with going on strike. In their own accounts of work stoppages, workers described the start of a strike with the standard phrase that they "came out" together or "in a body." The phrase "in a body" connoted a highly patterned form of group conduct. Both the middle-class and the working-class press took care to distinguish between actions committed by a "crowd" and those that workers committed "in a body." A crowd, The Dewsbury Reporter noted in 1875, moved "without arrangement," even when it seemed a peaceable assemblage, whereas workers organized and coordinated their movements when they acted "in a body." In a word, the spatial form assumed by many strikes was purposeful and methodical.
German workers who struck said they had "ceased their labor" (die Arbeit eingestellt ). A similar phrase appeared in German dialect speech. The memoirs of Friedrich Storck, a German poet from the Wuppertal who worked in textile mills as a teenager, document the evolution of workers' language. Storck said that in the Wuppertal, a region known as a pioneer in the development of factory workers' movements, the word strike (Streik) did not acquire currency until after the 1860s. The popular expression of that era was de Brocken hennschmieten ("throw down the work"), a colloquialism which survived into the early twentieth century. Modern histori-
cal research confirms that in other regions of Germany, the phrase "cessation of labor" (Arbeitsniederlegung ) was employed before use of the word strike became commonplace.
The German workers' tactic of sitting at the machine indicates that the withdrawal of the owners' command of the conversion of labor power comprised a symbolic statement of its own. The only "language" the employer knew how to interpret, the Social Democratic textile union said, was "the language of the work stoppage." In Britain, by comparison, the exchange of labor as it was embodied in finished products meant that the withdrawal of the conversion of labor power per se at the point of production did not constitute a symbolic end to the employment relation. Instead, workers supplemented this with the crossing of the boundary of the workroom, combined with a visible demonstration of protest in the mill yard, to express their flouting of the owners' authority. British textile workers enacted their protests by responding to the employers' own emphasis on the surveillance of traffic at border zones rather than on the control of the transformation of labor power into labor. They took hold of the employers' use of space as a handle by which they could turn the employers' authority upside down in the theater of the central mill yard.
In both Germany and Britain, the workers' tactics of collective action represented the appropriate counter-symbols to use against the employers' own ways of asserting their authority over the factory. British textile workers did not as a rule sign contracts or other documents when they entered into an employment relation. Custom and implicit agreement, to which the courts referred if called upon, governed workers' association with their employers. Only a few mills posted notices in the workroom about the
terms of employment or about the conduct of the hired hands on the shop floor itself. No wonder, then, that British textile workers did not break the employment relation merely by withdrawing the use of their labor power, for there was no official code giving the owner control on the shop floor over the workers' labor time. Instead, workers reacted by crossing the factories' physical boundaries.
Unlike their British counterparts, German workers signed written contracts when they began employment. As early as midcentury, most German mills had printed rules posted in the shop. After 1891 such posting became obligatory. Workers usually received a personal copy of the factory rules. These ordinances typically told workers how to carry out their work effectively, banned political or religious conversations on the shop floor, and specified the fines that would be levied for misbehavior. According to the provisions of the factory ordinances posted in the mills, stopping work at the loom indicated that workers had "deliberately disobeyed" the factory
managers. Such defiance provided grounds for immediate dismissal, according to the provisions of the state industrial labor code. The importance German employers attached to the posting of written rules as a means of enforcing their authority over the labor process can be judged from the composition of the rules. Before 1891, factory owners frequently entitled the factory regulations "laws" (Gesetze ). On their own initiative, employers had the local police stamp the rules before posting them. In some instances, they entitled their rules "police regulations." Through these tactics German employers could give the impression that conduct on the shop floor was subject to legal scrutiny and punishment.
It seems clear that German workers took a more legalistic view of the employment relation than did their British counterparts—when it was to their immediate advantage. In both Germany and Britain, the workers' newspapers reported that managers typically responded to workers' grievances with the comment, "If you don't like it, you can leave." But workers responded to these taunts in a different way in each country. German workers took such casual challenges as grounds for departing, for they had, literally, been told they could go home if they wanted to do so. In each of the principal textile districts of Germany, the work force left without notice on the grounds that by saying anyone could return home if things did not suit them, factory officials had terminated the employment relation. Individual workers used the same reasoning before the business courts. A bobbin winder told the court in Elberfeld in 1899 that she had left without offering notice because a supervisor had told her, "If you don't want to work
for the pay, you should get out of here." In response, she left her machine, never to return.
The legal savvy of German workers can be detected in their treatment of written contracts as well. A spinning mill owner in Rheine complained to a district official in 1908 that workers were acutely aware of their legal situation in the factory during the first hour of their hire, before they had been handed their personal copy of the factory ordinance. During these few minutes, the owner said, the workers believed they were "justified" in committing "the worst kinds of mischief" because they knew they did not yet stand under the legal provisions of a labor contract. Not surprisingly, the "people's bureau" (Volksbüro ) in that town, set up by Catholic organizations to inform workers of their legal rights in housing and employment, reported frequent inquiries from workers about the terms for concluding labor contracts. In Rheine, weavers in 1891 stopped work instantly when a clerk took down the sign that listed their piece rates. The workers did not ask why the sign had been removed, but they refused to continue until the clerk replaced it—in the absence of a posted agreement about rates, the workers believed that they had no contract.
The German strikers treated a halt to the process of converting labor power into labor as an essential and dramatic challenge to the owner's authority. They oriented their action to the technical violation of the printed factory rules, which specified the employer's authority over conduct on the shop floor. British textile workers, by contrast, considered a visual demonstration of defiance, "coming out" of the mill into an open theater, to be one of the hallmarks of a strike. In each country the workers' actions represented the appropriate counterstatement to daily practices on the shop floor. In German mills, where the rituals for entering the mill and the timing of workers' entry focused on the appropriation of workers' labor power, strikers acted out the withdrawal of labor power as such. In British mills, where owners focused on the appropriation of products and the assertion of control over border spaces, strikers, too, thought in terms of "coming out" and staging visible protests in the mill yard.
For many Germans who reflected on their economy in the middle of the nineteenth century, the treatment of labor as a commodity still appeared
monstrous and perverse. Ferdinand Lassalle pointed to industrial conflict in Britain as evidence that the complete objectification of human labor was unrealizable. The melancholy course of strikes in Britain, Lassalle claimed, represented the vain attempt of human beings "to disguise themselves as commodities." In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, however, the specification of labor as a commodity was taken so thoroughly for granted that it guided not only the humdrum enactment of production but the small insurrections workers improvised on the shop floor against the system's indignities. In all likelihood, only a minority of workers could have offered a detailed verbal exposition of their understanding of labor's commodity form. But the eloquent patterning of work stoppages shows, as philosophers and social historians alike have remarked, that although people may not be able to put their knowledge into words, they can put it into action.