Grievances: A Closer Look


One of the demands of the Lawrence strikers was the "abolition of all bonus and premium systems." This demand was not conceded by the employers, but they did agree to allow premiums on earnings for a two-week period in all occupations in which the premium had previously been allowed on the earnings of a four-week period.

The premium system is in use in only two of the woolen and worsted mills in Lawrence for which the Bureau secured wage data. The principal occupations in which the premium plan is used are-

Weavers. Loom fixers.
Second hands in weave rooms.
Warp dressers.
Slashers. Menders.

The premium system, as actually worked out in the mills in which it is used, is somewhat complicated and is explained in detail for each occupation later in this chapter. The purpose of the system is to induce the largest possible output by each employee. The method of securing this varies. In some occupations a premium or a bonus in the shape of an amount of money in excess of the regular time or piece earnings is paid to each employee whose output exceeds some fixed standard. In some other occupations the premium or bonus is paid not directly on output, but for attendance-that is, it is paid any employee who has not missed more than one day during the four-week period.

In some instances the premium is invariable, the operative receiving a given bonus per unit on each unit turned out in excess of the minimum fixed for the attainment of the premium. In other instances the system is more complicated, a graduated premium being paid, increasing in rate as the earnings of the employee exceed the earnings fixed for the minimum premium. In the case of two occupations the premium is paid not upon the earnings of the occupation itself, but upon the earnings of another occupation. Thus, the loomfixer's premium is based upon the earnings of the weavers whose looms are in the charge of the loom fixer; and the premium of the assistant overseer of the room is based upon the earnings of all the loom fixers who are working under his direction.

As frankly admitted by the employer, the premium system is intended to increase the efficiency of the individual worker by offering a reward to encourage regular attendance and to induce an increase in output through steady and rapid work. It is also believed by the employer that the system attracts the steady and most efficient workers; and it is further argued that since full standard rates are paid for work in the occupation in which premiums are paid, there is no unfairness to the employees in these occupations, but merely an additional reward for regularity in attendance and efficiency in work.

On the other hand, the opposition of the employees to the system is based upon a conviction that it is a plan devised primarily for the purpose of speeding up the employees in the occupations in which premiums are paid. This tendency toward speeding up, they hold, is further accentuated in the case of the weave room by the fact that the premiums paid both to loom fixers and to assistant overseers is determined by the earnings of the weavers. Thus although the premium paid to the weaver appeals to his own self-interest to induce intensity of work on his part to secure the increased earnings, the payment to the loom fixer and to the assistant overseer of a premium based upon the earnings of the weaver tends to induce these two classes of employees to "drive" the weaver even beyond the point to which his self-interest would urge him.

In answer to the contention of the employer that the regular rate per unit of output is paid to the weaver, that he therefore loses nothing by the adding of the premium system, and that he is free to earn it or not, as he chooses, the employee argues that weavers who do not earn the premium and thereby fail to add to the income of the loom fixer and the assistant overseer can not long remain in the weave room.

A further objection to the system-and one that was partly met by the concession of paying premiums on two weeks' instead of four weeks' earnings-is that an employee might for a period of, say, three weeks or even more, work at high pressure and then, through illness or absence from other unavoidable causes, lose the benefit of his extra output during that period. Thus, in some occupations, it might easily happen that an employee by close application and energetic work for a period of 18 or 20 days could turn out, say, 10 per cent more than the amount necessary to be turned out each day to earn the premium if he worked the full month. If, however, he should be unable to work the remaining days and his earnings while at work did not total the minimum earnings fixed as the premium basis, he would secure no premium at all. He would, it is true, receive his regular rate for his additional output; but possibly the employee working next to him, whose earnings might exceed his own by only a few cents, and who reached the minimum earnings required for a premium by working a few days longer, would receive his full preniium. It is impossible to convince most employees that there is not injustice in such a system.

The employees were very emphatic in their claim that the premium system produces a tremendous nervous strain on the employee toward the close of the premium period through the fear that illness or trouble with his machine may prevent his reaching the earnings required to entitle him to the premium, and that unexpected bad luck of this kind in the latter part of the period may thus cause him to lose the benefit of his close application in the earlier period.

The employees also argue as a matter of equity that if the employer can afford to pay an advanced price for the increased output, he can also afford to pay at the same advanced rate for a slightly lower output. The employer's countercontention is that the capital invested in his machinery creates a fixed charge; that every idle day of a machine requires a proportion of the fixed charge represented by that machine for that day to be assessed on the product of the other machines, and that in the same way reduced output on any machine increases the fixed charge against the product of that machine.

The weavers in one of the large mills in Lawrence (Mill X) received premiums based on earnings for four weeks as follows:

In illustration of the above plan, a weaver who earned $39 during a 4-week period of 224 hours was allowed in addition a premium of 5 per cent of $39, or $1.95, which made the total amount paid him $40.95 ($39 plus $1.95); a weaver who earned $49 during a 4-week period of 224 hours was allowed in addition a first premium of 10 per cent of $49, or $4.90; and a second premium of 6 per cent on $53.90 ($49 plus $4.90), or $3.23, which made the total amount paid him $57.13 ($49 plus $4.90 plus $3.23).

If the mill or department was closed during any premium period, the earnings necessary to secure each of the premiums indicated above bore the same ratio to the earnings entered above as the hours the mill was in operation bore to 224 (full-time hours). If an employee was absent one day or more when the null was in operation, the earnings required to secure each of the premiums indicated above was 213.875/224 of the amounts entered above. The premium rule for weavers in that mill was as follows:

If a weaver is out not over 10 hours in any one month (four-week period), his premium shall be figured on a basis of the number of hours worked. If out exceeding l0 hours, no premium will he paid unless in time worked weaver earns 213.875/224 amount required either for regular or extra premium.

Above amounts are to be used for a month's (four weeks) work, consisting of 224 hours. If the mill should not run 224 hours, the premium shall be computed on the number of hours run. Ten cents are allowed to weavers short for the regular and the 5 per cent extra premium.

The premium plan is much the same in another of the large mills (Mill Y), excepting that several types of looms are used and the amount of earnings necessary to secure a premium varies according to the type of loom used, as follows:


Considerable difference of opinion existed as to whether there was a speeding up of machinery in connection with the reduction of hours on January 1, 1912, in order to increase the production per hour and thus to offset the effect of reduced running time on the output. Some employees claimed that the machinery was speeded up directly, while others claimed that beginning several weeks before the close of the year 1911 the machinery was put into better condition and thus the output increased. The employees also claimed that with the reduced hours the pieceworkers made every effort to increase their output in order to maintain their earnings, and that while the pieceworkers got the financial benefit of any increase in their output, the time workers in many occupations would be required to handle the same amount of material or do the same work in 54 hours as formerly in 56 hours, although their pay was reduced.

The employers state that the speed of the looms has not been increased for a number of years and that the speed (number of picks per minute) in January, 1912, was the same as in 1911. The record of five mills shows no change in speed of looms during the past two years.