Chapter XIII. The Strike
 

The negotiations between the men and their employers, in which the chief exponents of the principles of justice and fair play were Mr. McGinnis on the one hand and Brother Simmons on the other, broke down at the second meeting, which ended in a vigorous personal encounter between these gentlemen, without, however, serious injury to either.

The following day a general strike was declared. All work ceased in the factories affected and building operations which had begun in a moderate way were arrested. Grant Maitland was heartily disgusted with the course of events and more especially with the humiliating and disgraceful manner in which the negotiations had been conducted.

"You were quite right, Jack," he said to his son the morning after which the strike had been declared. "That man McGinnis is quite impossible."

"It really made little difference, Dad. The negotiations were hopeless from the beginning. There was no chance of peace."

"Why not?"

"Because McNish wants war." He proceeded to give an account of the evening spent at the McNish home. "When McNish wants peace, we can easily end the strike," concluded Jack.

"There is something in what you say, doubtless," replied his father, "but meantime there is a lot to be done."

"What do you mean exactly, Father?"

"We have a lot of stock made up on hand. The market is dead at present prices. There is no hope of sales. The market will fall lower still. I propose that we take our loss and unload at the best rate we can get."

"That is your job, Dad. I know little about that, but I believe you are right. I have been doing a lot of reading in trade journals and that sort of thing, and I believe that a big slump is surely coming. But there is a lot to do in my department at the Mills, also. I am not satisfied with the inside arrangement of our planing mill. There is a lot of time wasted and there is an almost complete lack of co-ordination. Here is a plan I want to show you. The idea is to improve the routing of our work."

Maitland glanced at the plan perfunctorily, more to please his son than anything else. But, after a second glance, he became deeply interested and began to ask questions. After half an hour's study he said:

"Jack, this is really a vast improvement. Strange, I never thought of a great many of these things."

"I have been reading up a bit, and when I was on my trip two weeks ago I looked in upon two or three of the plants of our competitors. I believe this will be more up-to-date and will save time and labour."

"I am sure it will, boy. And we will put this in hand at once. But what about men?"

"Oh, we can pick up labourers, and that is all we want at the present time."

"All right, go at it. I will give you a hand myself."

"Then there is something else, Dad. We ought to have a good athletic field for our men."

His father gasped at him.

"An athletic field for those ungrateful rascals?"

"Father, they are not rascals," said his son. "They are just the same to-day as they ever were. A decent lot of chaps who don't think the same as we do on a number of points. But they are coming back again some time and we may as well be ready for them. Look at this."

And before Grant Maitland could recover his speech he found himself looking at a beautifully-drawn plan of athletic grounds set out with walks, shade trees and shrubbery, and with a plain but commodious club-house appearing in the background.

"And where do you get this land, and what does it cost you?"

"The land," replied Jack, "is your land about the old mill. It will cost us nothing, I hope. The old mill site contains two and one-half acres. It can be put in shape with little work. The mill itself is an eyesore; ought to have been removed long ago. Dad, you ought to have seen the plant at Violetta, that is in Ohio, you know. It is a joy to behold. But never mind about that. The lumber in the old mill can be used up in the club-house. The timbers are wonderful; nothing like them to-day anywhere. The outside finishing will be done with slabs from our own yard. They will make a very pretty job."

"And where do you get the men for this work?" inquired his father.

"Why, our men. It is for themselves and they are our men."

"Voluntary work, I suppose?" inquired Maitland.

"Voluntary work?" said Jack. "We couldn't have men work for us for nothing."

"And you mean to pay them for the construction of their own athletic grounds and club-house?"

"But why not?" inquired Jack in amazement.

His father threw back his head and began to laugh.

"This is really the most extraordinary thing I have ever heard of in all my life," he said, after he had done with his laugh. "Your men strike; you prepare for them a beautiful club-house and athletic grounds as a reward for their loyalty. You pay them wages so that they may be able to sustain the strike indefinitely." Again he threw back his head and continued laughing as Jack had never in his life heard him laugh.

"Why not, Dad?" said Jack, gazing at his father in half-shamed perplexity. "The idea of athletic grounds and club-house is according to the best modern thought. These are our own men. You are not like McGinnis. You are not enraged at them. You don't hate them. They are going to work for us again in some days or weeks. They are idle and therefore available for work. You can get better work from them than from other men. And you wouldn't take their work from them for nothing."

Again his father began to laugh. "Your argument, Jack," he said when he was able to control his speech, "is absolutely unanswerable. There is no answer possible on any count; but did ever man hear of such a scheme? Did you?"

"I confess not. But, Dad, you are a good sport. We are out to win this fight, but we don't want to injure anybody. We are going to beat them, but we don't want to abuse them unnecessarily. Besides, I think it is good business. And then, you see, I really like these chaps."

"Simmons, for instance?" said his father with an ironical smile.

"Well, Simmons, just as much as you can like an ass."

"And McNish?" inquired Maitland.

"McNish," echoed Jack, a cloud falling upon his face. "I confess I don't understand McNish. At least," he added, "I am sorry for McNish. But what do you say to my scheme, Dad?"

"Well, boy," said his father, beginning to laugh again, "give me a night to think it over."

Then Jack departed, not quite sure of himself or of the plan which appeared to give his father such intense amusement. "At any rate," he said to himself as he walked out of the office, "if it is a joke it is a good one. And it has given the governor a better laugh than he has had for five years."

The Mayor of Blackwater was peculiarly sensitive to public opinion and acutely susceptible of public approval. In addition, he was possessed of a somewhat exalted idea of his powers as the administrator in public affairs, and more particularly as a mediator in times of strife. He had been singularly happy in his mediation between the conflicting elements in his Council, and more than once he had been successful in the composing of disputes in arbitration cases submitted to his judgment. Moreover, he had an eye to a second term in the mayor's chair, which gubernatorial and majestical office gave full scope to the ruling ambition of his life, which was, in his own words, "to guard the interests and promote the well-being of my people."

The industrial strike appeared to furnish him with an opportunity to gratify this ambition. He resolved to put an end to this unnecessary and wasteful struggle, and to that end he summoned to a public meeting his fellow citizens of all classes, at which he invited each party in the industrial strife to make a statement of their case, in the hope that a fair and reasonable settlement might be effected.

The employers were more than dubious of the issue, having but a small idea of the mayor's power of control and less of his common- sense. Brother Simmons, however, foreseeing a magnificent field for the display of his forensic ability, a thing greatly desired by labour leaders of his kidney, joyfully welcomed the proposal. McNish gave hesitating assent, but, relying upon his experience in the management of public assemblies and confident of his ability to shape events to his own advantage, he finally agreed to accept the invitation.

The public meeting packed the City Hall, with representatives of both parties in the controversy in about equal numbers and with a great body of citizens more or less keenly interested in the issue of the meeting and expectant of a certain amount of "fun." The Mayor's opening speech was thoroughly characteristic. He was impressed with the responsibility that was his for the well-being of his people. Like all right-thinking citizens of this fair town of Blackwater, he deeply regretted this industrial strife. It interfered with business. It meant loss of money to the strikers. It was an occasion of much inconvenience to the citizens and it engendered bitterness of feeling that might take months, even years, to remove. He stood there as the friend of the working man. He was a working man himself and was proud of it. He believed that on the whole they were good fellows. He was a friend also of the employers of labour. What could we do without them? How could our great industries prosper without their money and their brains? The one thing necessary for success was co-operation. That was the great word in modern democracy. In glowing periods he illustrated this point from their experiences in the war. All they wanted to do was to sit down together, and, man to man, talk their difficulties over. He would be glad to assist them, and he had no doubt as to the result. He warned the working man that hard times were coming. The spectre of unemployment was already parading their streets. Unemployment meant disorder, rioting. This, he assured them, would not be permitted. At all costs order would be maintained. He had no wish to threaten, but he promised them that the peace would be preserved at all costs. He suggested that the strikers should get back at once to work and the negotiations should proceed in the meantime.

At this point Brother Simmons rose.

"The mayor (h)urges the workers to get back to work," he said. "Does 'e mean at (h)increased pay, or not? 'E says as 'ow this strike interferes with business. 'E doesn't tell us what business. But I can tell 'im it (h)interferes with the business of robbery of the workin' man. 'E deplores the loss of money to the strikers. Let me tell 'im that the workin' men are prepared to suffer that loss. True, they 'ave no big bank accounts to carry 'em on, but there are things that they love more than money--liberty and justice and the rights of the people. What are we strikin' for? Nothin' but what is our own. The workin' man makes (h)everything that is made. What percentage of the returns does 'e get in wages? They won't tell us that. Last year these factories were busy in the makin' o' munitions. Mr. McGinnis 'ere was makin' shells. I'd like to (h)ask, Mr. Mayor, what profit Mr. McGinnis made out of these shells."

Mr. McGinnis sprang to his feet, "I want to tell you," he said in a voice choking with rage, "that it is none of your high-explosive business."

"'E says as it is none o' my business," cried Brother Simmons, joyously taking Mr. McGinnis on. "Let me (h)ask 'im who paid for these shells? I did, you did, all of us did. Not my business? Then 'ose business is it? (H)If 'e was paid a fair price for 'is shells, (h)all right, I say nothin' against it. If 'e was paid more than a fair price, then 'e is a robber, worse, 'e is a blood robber, because the price was paid in blood."

At once a dozen men were on their feet. Cries of "Order! Order!" and "Put him out!" arose on every hand. The mayor rose from his chair and, in an impressive voice, said: "We must have order. Sit down, Mr. Simmons." Simmons sat down promptly. Union men are thoroughly disciplined in points of order. "We must have order," continued the mayor. "I will not permit any citizen to be insulted. We all did our bit in this town of Blackwater. Some of us went to fight, and some that could not go to fight 'kept the home fires burning'." A shout of derisive laughter from the working men greeted this phrase. The mayor was deeply hurt. "I want to say that those who could not go to the war did their bit at home. Let the meeting proceed, but let us observe the courtesies that are proper in debate."

Again Simmons took the floor. "As I was sayin', Mr. Mayor--"

Cries of "Order! Order! Sit down!"

"--Mr. Mayor, I believe I 'ave the floor?"

"Yes, you have. Go on. But you must not insult."

"(H)Insult? Did I (h)insult anybody? I don't know what Mr. McGinnis made from 'is shells. I only said that if--you (h)understand--if 'e made more than e ought to, 'e is a robber. And since the price of our freedom was paid in blood, if 'e made more than was fair, 'e's a blood robber."

Again the cries arose. "Throw him out!" Once more the mayor rose. "You must not make insinuations, sir," he cried angrily. "You must not make insinuations against respectable citizens."

"(H)Insinooations," cried Simmons. "No, sir, I never make no (h)insinooations. If I knew that (h)any man 'ere 'ad made (h)unfair profits I wouldn't make no (h)insinooations. I would charge 'im right 'ere with blood robbery. And let me say," shouted Simmons, taking a step into the aisle, "that the time may come when the working men of this country will make these charges, and will (h)ask the people who kept the ''ome fires burning'--"

Yells of derisive laughter.

"--what profits came to them from these same 'ome fires. The people will (h)ask for an (h)explanation of these bank accounts, of these new factories, of these big stores, of these (h)autermobiles. The people that went to the war and were (h)unfortoonate enough to return came back to poverty, while many of these 'ere 'ome fire burners came (h)out with fortunes." At this point brother Simmons cast a fierce and baleful eye upon a group of the employers who sat silent and wrathful before him. "And now, what I say," continued Brother Simmons--

At this point a quiet voice was heard.

"Mr. Mayor, I rise to a point of order."

Immediately Simmons took his seat.

"Mr. Farrington," said the mayor, recognising one of the largest building contractors in the town.

"Mr. Mayor, I should like to ask what are we discussing this afternoon? Are we discussing the war records of the citizens of Blackwater? If so, that is not what I came for. It may be interesting to find out what each man did in the war. I find that those who did most say least. I don't know what Mr. Simmons did in the war. I suppose he was there."

With one spring Simmons was on his feet and in the aisle. He ripped off coat and vest, pulled his shirt over his head and revealed a back covered with the network of ghastly scars. "The gentleman (h)asks," he panted, "what I done in the war. I don't know. I cannot say what I done in the war, but that is what the war done to me." The effect was positively overwhelming.

A deadly silence gripped the audience for a single moment. Then upon every hand rose fierce yells, oaths and strange cries. Above the uproar came Farrington's booming voice. Leaving his seat, which was near the back of the hall, he came forward, crying out:

"Mr. Mayor! Mr. Mayor! I demand attention!" As he reached Simmons's side, he paused and, facing about, he looked upon the array of faces pale and tense with passion. "I want to apologise to this gentleman," he said in a voice breaking with emotion. "I should not have said what I did. The man who bears these scars is a man I am proud to know." He turned swiftly toward Simmons with outstretched hand. "I am proud to know you, sir. I could not go to the war. I was past age. I sent my two boys. They are over there still." As the two men shook hands, for once in his life Simmons was speechless. His face was suffused with uncontrollable feeling. On every side were seen men, strong men, with tears streaming down their faces. A nobler spirit seemed to fall upon them all. In the silence that followed, Mr. Maitland rose.

"Mr. Mayor," he said quietly, "we have all suffered together in this war. I, for one, want to do the fair thing by our men. Let us meet them and talk things over before any fair-minded committee. Surely we who have suffered together in war can work together in peace." It was a noble appeal, and met with a noble response. On all sides and from all parties a storm of cheers broke forth.

Then the Reverend Murdo Matheson rose to his feet. "Mr. Mayor," he said, "I confess I was not hopeful of the result of this meeting. But I am sure we all recognise the presence and influence of a mightier Spirit than ours. From the outset I have been convinced that the problems in the industrial situation here are not beyond solution, and should yield to fair and reasonable consideration. I venture to move that a committee of five be appointed, two to be chosen by each of the parties in this dispute, who would in turn choose a chairman; that this committee meet with representatives of both parties; and that their decision in all cases be final."

Mr. Farrington rose and heartily seconded the motion.

At this point Jack, who was sitting near the platform and whose eyes were wandering over the audience, was startled by the look on the face of McNish. It was a look in which mingled fear, anxiety, wrath. He seemed to be on the point of starting to his feet when McGinnis broke in:

"Do I understand that the decision of this committee is to be final on every point?"

"Certainly," said the Reverend Murdo. "There is no other way by which we can arrive at a decision."

"Do you mean," cried McGinnis, "that if this committee says I must hire only union men in my foundry that I must do so?"

"I would reply," said the Reverend Murdo, "that we must trust this committee to act in a fair and reasonable way."

But Mr. McGinnis was not satisfied with this answer.

"I want to know," he cried in growing anger, "I want to know exactly where we are and I want a definite answer. Will this committee have the right to force me to employ only union men?"

"Mr. Mayor," replied the Reverend Murdo, "Mr. McGinnis is right in asking for definiteness. My answer is that we must trust this committee to do what is wise and reasonable, and we must accept their decision as final in every case."

Thereupon McGinnis rose and expressed an earnest desire for a tragic and unhappy and age-long fate if he would consent to any such proposition. With terrible swiftness the spirit of the meeting was changed. The moment of lofty emotion and noble impulse passed. The opportunity for reason and fair play to determine the issue was lost, and the old evil spirit of suspicion and hate fell upon the audience like a pall.

At this point McNish, from whose face all anxiety had disappeared, rose and said:

"For my part, and speaking for the working men of this town, I am ready to accept the proposal that has been made. We have no fear for the justice of our demands like some men here present. We know we have the right on our side and we are willing to accept the judgment of such a committee as has been proposed." The words were fair enough, but the tone of sneering contempt was so irritating that immediately the position assumed by McGinnis received support from his fellow employers on every hand. Once more uproar ensued. The mayor, in a state of angry excitement, sought in vain to restore order.

After some minutes of heated altercation with Mr. McGinnis, whom he threatened with expulsion from the meeting, the mayor finally left the chair and the meeting broke up in disorder which threatened to degenerate into a series of personal encounters.

Again McNish took command. Leaping upon a chair, with a loud voice which caught at once the ears of his following, he announced that a meeting was to be held immediately in the union rooms, and he added: "When these men here want us again, they know where to find us." He was answered with a roar of approval, and with an ugly smile on his face he led his people in triumph from the hall, leaving behind the mayor, still engaged in a heated argument with McGinnis and certain employers who sympathised with the Irishman's opinions. Thus the strike passed into another and more dangerous phase.