‘A Dundee Working Man on America—No. 2.’ by a Correspondent in New York (21 January, 1882)

The following is part of a series of articles on the condition of the United States of America for working class Scottish immigrants. One of the core tenants of The People’s Journal was to encourage self-improvement for the working classes. For these reason the paper would regularly promote emigration and provide news  and publish correspondence from the major destination of Scots in the period (the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). This piece continues the discussion from the previous article on work and wages, specifically the advantages of trade unions.

Work and Wages.

To the Editor of The People’s Journal.

Sir,—As regards the wages paid to different trades here I would like those interested in these letters to know what the difference between the wages are now and when trade was dull, and by what means and agency the difference was brought about. Of course supply and demand have a great deal to do with the rise and fall of wages. But all working men know that unless there is pressure put upon employers in the busiest of times wages will never be so good as they would be without this pressure, and successful pressure can never be applied unless combination moves the lever. So it was pressure wrought by Trades Unionism which was the principal means of raising the wages so much this last three years back. And here let me say that I have seen the great benefits that working men derive from Trades Unions more than ever I did before, and I am sorry to add I have seen the want of unionism more than ever I did before.

I will begin with the iron trade first, and in this I include moulders, machinists, blacksmiths, and boilermakers. Three years ago the wages of these different branches were a dollar less per day than they are at present. If the readers of these letters will bear in mind that a dollar is four shillings and twopence, and that there are a hundred cents in a dollar, they will easily follow me in speaking of the currency of this country. So these branches of the iron trade have got a rise of 25s per week within three years. There is a case in point which I was interested. Last spring I was working in a small town called Fulton, in the State of New York. We had two dollars per day, and we knew that wages were rising all over the country, so we combined together and demanded a rise, the employer or boss (as the master is termed here) offered us a quarter of a dollar more per day, which was refused, and after some negotiations we received one half-dollar more per day. I thought to myself that it would have been something wonderful if I had received twelve shillings and sixpence of a rise per week in Dundee. The different branches of the iron trade are nearly paid alike in Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, Cleveland in Ohio, and Rochester in New York; the rate of wages in this class is nearly parallel. In these places moulders have at the present time from two and a half to three and a quarter dollars per day (all wages are counted by the day here; machinists (that is, turners and fitters) have from two dollars to two and a half per day; blacksmiths, from two and a half to three dollars per day; boilermakers, from two to two and a half per day—ten hours per day, or sixty hours per week. But it must be kept in mind that the foregoing wages are only paid to competent workmen, for in America a young man becomes a journeyman after an apprenticeship of three or four years, and a great many of them never serve an apprenticeship at all. This holds good in almost all trades. The consequence is that there are a great many who are not fit to do a day’s work either in quantity or quality. They are generally Jacks-of-all-Trades and masters of none. There is a great deal of piece-work done in America in all branches of industry, and the labour is divided in this manner:—In shoemaking, it takes eight or ten men to make a boot or shoe; there are cutters, bottomers, boot-treers, buffers, heelers, fitters, &c. In moulding, cooking and heating stores are made in the same manner. One man makes the bottom part, another the top, another the sides, another the doors, and so on. By this system the workmen get to be proficient in a short time, but only at the once branch of the trade. All these different branches of shoemaking are made in factories, and by machinery; wages ranging from ten to fifteen dollars per week. But there are workshops where hand-sewed boots and shoes are made. A good shoemaker can earn two or two and a quarter dollars per day.

I will next give the building trades. I am not giving these statements by random. I have made careful inquiry at different tradesmen on whom I can rely; besides, I have before me a book published in New York called the “Handbook of the United States of America, and Guide to Emigration,” giving the latest statistics of wages of almost all trades and occupations in the States. Joiners’ wages vary very much in different states and different towns a; a great deal of their work is done here by machinery. There are large factories for making doors, windows, venetian blinds, &c., but then the houses are (at least the great majority of them) built of wood. The wages around this quarter for a competent hand is two dollars per day. But both east and west of this they are much better—this is for want of combination in this quarter. But they have started a Trades’ Union here, and a great many are joining the ranks, and they intend doing “the grand” by the spring of the year. East in New York and its vicinity wages in the building trade have been very high this past year, and no wonder, for in the first eight months of the year There were no fewer than 1933 new buildings, costing 32,543,606 dollars, and 1220 alterations on buildings, costing 3,636,000 dollars, in New York city. In Brooklyn, just across the water from New York, they spent in building and alterations 6,000,000 dollars. Going west we find some of the large cities doing the same. Cincinnati spent $2,000,000 in manufacturing buildings, and $3,000,000 in business buildings. No wonder then that wages were high. But Unionism helped to raise the wages in these places.

Some of your readers may think that I am prejudiced in Trades’ Unions, but here is a fact for them, and “facts are chields that winna ding.” I was working in a city called Syracuse and another called Oswego, last fall, and there were only a very few Trades’ Unions in both places—in fact there is no combination among working men worth speaking off [sic] in either city. Well, the wages in these places are two dollars a day at my trade. Two of us left and came here, where Trades’ Unions are very strong, and we earned two dollars and a half per day, and trade was as brisk in the former mentioned places as it was in Rochester. I could mention dozens of similar cases, but I think the above will suffice, and my advice to intending emigrants is, if they are Union men in Scotland bring their card of membership along with them. It will do them much good as a freemasons’ signs, signals, grips, or pass-words. Plasterers and masons are best paid in large cities, for in small towns the great majority of houses are built of wood and few of brick. All the houses have cellars built of stone, the stone work being carried up to the height of three or four feet above the level of the ground. This is all the mason work which is required unless in the heart of large cities, where some of the buildings are built of stone. After the mason has finished his part of building, then the joiner builds the rest in wood. The plastering work in all working men’s houses is very plain, no ornamental ceiling or cornicing being used, but in some large houses and public buildings there is some very nice plastering work done. It is often the case here that the mason is a plasterer, and the plasterer a mason, as they combine both jobs. In this quarter their wages vary from two to two a half dollars per day, but in the case of joiners their wages are better where so much new building is going on. Plumbing is very well paid here, being fully better than the rest of the building trades. Painters and glaziers have from two to two and a quarter dollars per day. Slaters are not well paid here, for the reason that the joiners slate the most of the houses with shingles of wood. Their wages run about two dollars per day. Gasfitters come under the same category as slaters, for the reason that not one working man in a hundred has got gas in his house. They all burn kerosene oil in lamps. Cabinetmakers have about two dollars per day. The most of their work is done in large factories with machinery. Wherever I have been I have found that pattern-making is a good job in this country. I find in a book entitled, “Facts, Dates, and Statistics from the Statistical Bureau at Washington,” that the average wages for patternmakers in 1878 was three dollars per day. This was an average all over the States; and, as they generally rise and fall with the iron trade, it must be as good now if not better than it was at that time. To my own knowledge I know that they are as well paid as any branch of the iron trade. In the same publication I find that printers’ wages in 1878 averaged thus:—Compositors, three dollars per day; job compositors, two and a-half per day; proof readers, three and a-half dollars per day; book compositors, two and a-quarter per day; job pressmen, three dollars; newspaper pressmen, three dollars per day. But if we go back to 1872 we find that all classes of tradesmen had more wages in that year and the following one. For example, at that time proof readers had four and a-half dollars per day, and compositors four and a-quarter dollars. The masons and plasterers had at that time three and a-half dollars per day, and their labourers had two dollars a-day.


Rochester, New York.

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