A Christmas Message from the Ghost of Labor Past

Editor’s Note: What follows is one of the earliest compositions attributed to the legendary Cape Breton labor leader of a century ago, J.B. McLachlan. Published in December 1906 as a letter to the editor in the Halifax Herald1 “The Merry Xmas Time for Nova Scotia’s $1.38 a Day Laborer and His Family”, Halifax Herald, 24 December 1906. Minor typographical inconsistencies are corrected. As indicated, one of the amounts in the family budget was not legible but the calculation allows $14.90., it was sent along to the Spectator by David Frank, author of JB McLachlan: A Biography (James Lorimer and Company, 1999), a new edition of which is expected this spring. Frank writes:

“These days, as we continue to wonder how anyone can survive on less than a living wage, here is McLachlan’s plea on behalf of the same concern. It gives people an idea of the compassion and politics that were at the heart of his dedication to the causes of trade unionism and social reform.We still have some distance to go.”


The Merry Xmas Time

James Bryson (J.B.) McLachlan

James Bryson (J.B.) McLachlan (Beaton Institute, Reference: CA BI MG 19.19)

As we approach December 25th, our minds turn to Him who is the greatest of all men who have appeared on this earth. His greatness appeared in this, that He refused to rise above His people in material things, and taught emphatically that no man had a right to ask other men to shoulder a burden that they themselves would not move with one of their fingers, and that those who were greatest ought to be servants of all. To teach economics of that kind is to preach the very antithesis of what is practiced today.

At this Christmas time, I want to put up a plea for a little more justice and mercy for the poor and heavy-ladened in this province who are known by the unkindly name of “cheap labor.”

Let us take a man that earns $1.38 per day. On such a wage a man with a wife and family of, say five children, must work every day he can. Let the number of days worked in the year be 300. That would give him $414.

Let us see how he lives, and how he fares on such a wage, and ask, which of his instructors—preacher or politician, who generally tell this poor man that it is his own thriftlessness and lack of industry that keeps him poor—would step into his overalls for one short year in order to give him a practical lesson in thrift, industry and economy? Or will either dare to say that they could teach this poor man anything about these virtues?

Three hundred days work at $1.38 per day gives $414.00. He spends on rent, each year, $30.00; coal and light, $16.00; insurance for seven persons, $10.00; taxes, $3.00; doctor, $4.60; postage and newspapers, $3.50; washing and laundry, $8.00; boots for man, $3.50; boots for woman, $1.50; boots for five children, $7.50; outside clothes for man, $8.00; outside clothes for woman, $8.00; outside clothes for five children, $15.00; underwear for man, $1.40; underwear for woman, $1.40; underwear for five children, [14.90?]; school books, $4.00; general household wear, $2.00. Total, $142.30, which leaves him a balance of $271.70 for food for one year. Or to each of this family of seven, $38.81. Or 10 1/2 cents to provide for each of these seven, for each day of the year. Or three meals a day at 3 1/2 cents apiece.

This man spends nothing on rum, church, theater, politics, or trades unionism. A daily newspaper for himself, a few toys for his children, or fifty cents spent on a little present for his wife, are luxuries beyond his reach. He leads a dull, joyless, laughterless life that is one tragic struggle against want. He generally occupies a house of the shack or hovel description, set upon the worst piece of land in his neighborhood.

Miners' Houses, painting, Lawren Harris circa 1925.

Miners’ Houses, painting, Lawren Harris circa 1925.

Not only is he robbed of the wealth that he creates, but is insulted by having free lectures thrust upon him about thrift and industry by trade union leaders and clergymen, who generally don’t get out of bed in the morning for hours after this poor man is in the harness.

It is said that “God giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not.” This province, on account of the “great need for cheap labor,” cannot afford to treat the dollar thirty-eight man liberally, nor can the preacher or the politician afford to let the poor man believe that his poverty is caused by anything else than his lack of industry and thrift. We trade unionists at least might refrain from asking this man to come into our union in order to get lessons on thrift and industry. We might leave to the men who never take off their coat the job of insulting this poor man by asking him to do the impossible.

To me it appears that Carlyle put such as this dollar thirty man in his right place, when says “Two men I honor, and no third. First, the toil-worn craftsman that with earth-made implement laboriously conquers the earth and makes her man’s. Venerable to me is the hard hand, crooked, coarse, wherein notwithstanding lies a cunning virtue, indefeasibly royal, as of the sceptre of this planet. Venerable, too, is the rugged face, all weather-tanned, besoiled, with its rude intelligence; for it is the face a man living manlike. O, but the more venerable for thy rudeness, and even because we must pity as well as love thee! Hardly-entreated brother! For us was thy back so bent, for us were thy straight limbs and fingers so deformed; thou wert our conscript, on whom the lot fell, and fighting our battles wert so marred.”

Sydney Mines, Dec. 18th, 1906


A note on the text from David Frank:

Cover: JB McLachlan: A Biography, David Frank, 1999Here we see McLachlan’s preoccupation with the family budget as an indicator of working-class conditions, in this case the challenge of supporting a family on a day laborer’s wage of the time. We note too his critique of sanctimonious judgements voiced by preachers, politicians and even union leaders. As an early statement of what he would later call “the economic gospel,” this outlook propelled McLachlan into labor activism within the Provincial Workmen’s Association and then the United Mine Workers of America.

The compassion voiced here derives from McLachlan’s early religious background and his reading of Thomas Carlyle, the social and moral critic with whom he shared a birthplace in Ecclefechan, Scotland. As cited in this letter, the whole of the quotation from Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, a book that was especially meaningful to McLachlan, remains incomplete. Carlyle goes on to honor “him who is seen toiling for the spiritually indispensable; not daily bread, but the bread of life” and then to praise the occasions “when I find both dignities united; and he that must toil outwardly for the lowest of man’s wants is also toiling inwardly for the highest. Sublimer in this world know I nothing than a Peasant Saint, could such now anywhere be met with. Such a one will take thee back to Nazareth itself; thou wilt see the splendor of Heaven spring forth from the humblest depths of Earth, like a light shining in great darkness.”2Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus ed. James Wood (London: J.M. Dent & Co., 1902), pp. 398-400.