by Elizabeth Gaskell
First published, serialized, 1854-1855
[The workers in a textile mill of the early industrial revolution are calling for a strike. The following two passages tell how the mill owner and the workers each perceive the upcoming conflict.]
[The mill owner, talking with his mother]:
“…It is too bad to find out that fools − ignorant wayward men like these − just by uniting their weak silly heads, are to rule over the fortunes of those who bring all the wisdom that knowledge and experience, and often painful thought and anxiety, can give. The next thing will be − indeed, we’re all but come to it now − that we shall have to go and ask − stand hat in hand − and humbly ask the secretary of the Spinners’ Union to be so kind as to furnish us with labour at their own price. That’s what they want − they, who haven’t the sense to see that, if we don’t get a fair share of the profits to compensate us for our wear and tear here in England, we can move off to some other country; and that, what with home and foreign competition, we are none of us likely to make above a fair share, and may be thankful enough if we can get that, in an average number of years.”
“Can’t you get hands from Ireland? I wouldn’t keep these fellows a day. I’d teach them that I was master, and could employ what servants I liked.”
“Yes! To be sure, I can; and I will, too, if they go on long. It will be trouble and expense, and I fear there will be some danger; but I will do it, rather than give in.”
[And here, the union leader’s daughter, Bessy, while talking with her naïve neighbor, Margaret, is interrupted by her father, Nicholas, a union activist]:
“Yo’d ha’ been deaved out o’ your five wits, as well as me, if yo’d had one body after another, coming in to ask for father, and staying to tell me each one their tale. Some spoke o’ deadly hatred, and made my blood run cold wi’ the terrible things they said o’ th’ masters — but more, being women, kept plaining, plaining (wi’ the tears running down their cheeks, and never wiped away, nor heeded), of the price o’ meat, and how their childer could na sleep at nights for th’ hunger.
“And do they think the strike will mend this?” asked Margaret.
“They say so,” replied Bessy. “They do say trade has been good for long, and the masters has made no end o’ money; how much father doesn’t know, but, in course, th’ Union does; and, as is natural, they wanten their share o’ th’ profits, now that food is getting dear; and th’ Union says they’ll not be doing their duty if they don’t make the masters give ‘em their share. But masters has getten th’ upper hand somehow; and I’m feared they’ll keep it now and evermore. It’s like th’ great battle o’ Armageddon, the way they keep on, grinning and fighting at each other, till even while they fight, they are picked off into the pit.”
Just then Nicholas Higgins came in. He caught his daughter’s last words.
“Ay! and I’ll fight on too; and I’ll get it this time. It’ll not take long for to make ‘em give in, for they’ve getten a pretty lot of orders, all under contract: and they’ll soon find out they’d better give us our five per cent than lose the profit they’ll gain; let alone the fine for not fulfilling the contract. Aha, my masters! I know who’ll win.”