Compositors and the Linotype
(30 September 1899)
The Workers’ Republic, 30 September 1899.
Reprinted in Red Banner, No.17 (PO Box 6587, Dublin 6).
Transcribed by Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
We have ere now pointed out in the columns of the Workers’ Republic that the ordinary capitalist press can find time and space in its pages to chronicle anything and everything, except those matters which are of the most importance to the wealth producers. In considering this phenomenon we are often at a loss to determine whether such neglect of matters affecting the social welfare of the vast majority of the race is malice aforethought, is the product of a desire to please the capitalist paymaster to whom the journalist has sold his pen – and his conscience, or is only the offspring of a real, though disgraceful, ignorance upon all such matters. We might be inclined to attribute this boycott of the graver issues of life to the latter cause, ignorance, rather than to the former, deliberate malice, were we not deterred from taking this charitable view by remembering the fact that the journalists in question can always be depended upon to gravely undertake to act as instructors-general to the working class, during every crisis in our history, be the crisis political or industrial. As the assumption of the functions of instructor precludes the possibility of taking shelter behind the plea of ignorance we feel constrained to regard capitalist journalism as an effective weapon in the hands of a well-informed, but utterly unscrupulous, enemy, rather than merely as an unbiassed, but ill-informed, recorder of passing events.
Those reflections are suggested to us by a consideration of the absence from the columns of our Irish newspapers of all reference to the present state of the printing trade, and especially to that branch of it represented by the caseroom, viz., the compositors. This once flourishing and all-powerful trade is now practically ruined. In Dublin alone, we are informed, there are something like 140 members on the books as unemployed , and a like state of affairs is also reported, not only from every other centre of the trade in Ireland, but from Great Britain and America. In fact, in the last named countries the outlook for compositors is even blacker than at home, as the introduction of linotype machines has set in longer, and is therefore at the present time much more general than in Ireland. But a perusal of the advertising columns of our daily papers will show that scarcely a week passes without some fresh printing office adopting the machine and discharging its hand compositors, so that we may fairly expect that in a very short time, as far at least as newspaper work is concerned, hand-setting of type will only be a memory. The effects of such a change will be far-reaching and, for the men, disastrous. No trade union can long stand the strain on its resources of such a large proportion of its members as are now being thrown upon the out-of-work funds of the Typographical Society. Interested officials, or optimistic members in employment, may shut their eyes to the danger or question the inevitableness of the coming crash, but the most far-seeing and wisest of the craft readily recognise the gravity of the approaching crisis, and readily recognise also that no power within the scope of trade union action can avert it.
We have said that the near future will possibly see the entire displacement of hand-setting for newspaper work, and the members of the Typographical readily concede the point, but what they do not so readily concede is that hand-setting for jobbing work is equally threatened with ruin. Their failure to perceive this is due to their inability to conceive how the intricate, and at times almost artistic, work involved in display advertisements and certain kinds of book work, etc. could be satisfactorily performed by the machine. We readily grant that in its present state the linotype could not perform such work, but we see no reason why the perfectioning of the machine to the point where it could perform such work should be considered impossible when we bear in mind the wonderful fact of the machine itself. Even as some optimistic compositors now say that a machine can never perform jobbing work, so a few years ago most compositors thought, and asserted, that a machine could never satisfactorily perform compositor work of any description. We have seen the one dream rudely shattered, may we not also see the other as ruthlessly dispelled? But, apart altogether from the danger involved in a further development of the powers of the linotype, there is another danger arising out of the wholesale displacement of news hands which directly affects the prospects of the whole trade. It lies: First, in the exhaustion of the funds of the Trade Union, and consequent weakening of its power of resistance to the encroachments of the employers: Second, in the competition for work on the part of the cleverer of the news hands, who could, in a few months at most, adapt themselves to the requirements of jobbing work: Third, all apprentices to the trade will henceforth betake themselves to the acquirement of the technical knowledge necessary for the practice of the more intricate forms of the typographical art: Fourth, that because of all the foregoing reasons there will soon be a practically unlimited supply of labour seeking employment at the one branch of the trade not yet touched by the linotype, and in face of such a congestion of the labour market no trade union can possibly keep up wages against the downward pressure of capitalist greed.
We are now speaking of the crisis as if it belonged to the future, but in a very real sense it is already with us. Some of the most important printing firms of Dublin have already utilised the linotype to enable them to completely discard their trade union employees – Messrs Healy and Co. furnish a notable instance, other and smaller firms have been encouraged by their success to follow their example without the aid of the linotype, and the daily and weekly newspapers have reduced their staff of hand compositors to such small dimensions that the statement that these journals are produced by “trade union labour” has no longer any serious meaning.
In view of this grave state of matters in the printing trade we would ask our friends of the Typographical what do they mean to do? They must see that all the miseries that are come upon them are the result of a logical adherence to the rules of business prescribed by capitalism; that the master class in all they have done have only acted as their class interests impelled them, and finally that non-political trade unionism has no remedy for this intolerable evil. For, what is the evil? It is the displacement of labour by machinery, the performing by a machine of work hitherto done by human beings. It is not the machine, nor its inventor that is at fault. The fault lies in the system which permits private individuals to own the machine, and use it to destroy the happiness of the workers, instead of making it the public property of society, to be used to lessen the labour whilst increasing the comforts of all. In other words, the machine itself might be a blessing, but the private ownership of the machine has made it an unmitigated curse. Thus when the compositor thinks of the linotype let him remember that it is only as an instrument in the hands of the master class it is to be execrated; as an instrument in the hands of emancipated Labour it would be hailed as a glorious achievement for lightening toil and increasing pleasure.
And remembering this, let them rally to the support of the Socialist Republican Party, the only party in Ireland which stands for the interests of the working class, seeking to capture the political power necessary to make the instruments of Labour the property, not of a class, but of a free people in a free social order, the Socialist Republic.
1. That is, members of the Typographical Society claiming unemployment benefit from the union.
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