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Chapter 28

They had come to a remote place in the canyon, and found themselves seats on a flat rock, where they could talk in comfort.

"Put yourself in their place," said the organiser. "They're in a strange country, and one person tells them one thing, and another tells them something else. The masters and their agents say: 'Don't trust the union agitators. They're a lot of grafters, they live easy and don't have to work. They take your money and call you out on strike, and you lose your jobs and your home; they sell you out, maybe, and go on to some other place to repeat the same trick.' And the workers think maybe that's true; they haven't the wit to see that if the union leaders are corrupt, it must be because the bosses are buying them. So you see, they're completely bedevilled; they don't know which way to turn."

The man was speaking quietly, but there was a little glow of excitement in his face. "The company is forever repeating that these people are satisfied--that it's we who are stirring them up. But are they satisfied? You've been here long enough to know!"

"There's no need to discuss that," Hal answered. "Of course they're not satisfied! They've seemed to me like a lot of children crying in the dark--not knowing what's the matter with them, or who's to blame, or where to turn for help."

Hal found himself losing his distrust of this man. He did not correspond in any way to Hal's imaginary picture of a union organiser; he was a blue-eyed, clean-looking young American, and instead of being wild and loud-mouthed, he seemed rather wistful. He had indignation, of course, but it did not take the form of ranting or florid eloquence; and this repression was making its appeal to Hal, who, in spite of his democratic impulses, had the habits of thought of a class which shrinks from noisiness and over-emphasis.

Also Hal was interested in his attitude towards the weaknesses of working-people. The "inertia" of the poor, which caused so many people to despair for them--their cowardice and instability--these were things about which Hal had heard all his life. "You can't help them," people would say. "They're dirty and lazy, they drink and shirk, they betray each other. They've always been like that." The idea would be summed up in a formula: "You can't change human nature!" Even Mary Burke, herself one of the working-class, spoke of the workers in this angry and scornful way. But Olson had faith in their manhood, and went ahead to awaken and teach them.

To his mind the path was clear and straight. "They must be taught the lesson of solidarity. As individuals, they're helpless in the power of the great corporations; but if they stand together, if they sell their labour as a unit--then they really count for something." He paused, and looked at the other inquiringly. "How do you feel about unions?"

Hal answered, "They're one of the things I want to find out about. You hear this and that--there's so much prejudice on each side. I want to help the under dog, but I want to be sure of the right way."

"What other way is there?" And Olson paused. "To appeal to the tender hearts of the owners?"

"Not exactly; but mightn't one appeal to the world in general--to public opinion? I was brought up an American, and learned to believe in my country. I can't think but there's some way to get justice. Maybe if the men were to go into politics--"

"Politics?" cried Olson. "My God! How long have you been in this place?"

"Only a couple of months."

"Well, stay till November, and see what they do with the ballot-boxes in these camps!"

"I can imagine, of course--"

"No, you can't. Any more than you could imagine the graft and the misery!"

"But if the men should take to voting together--"

"How _can_ they take to voting together--when any one who mentions the idea goes down the canyon? Why, you can't even get naturalisation papers, unless you're a company man; they won't register you, unless the boss gives you an O. K. How are you going to make a start, unless you have a union?"

It sounded reasonable, Hal had to admit; but he thought of the stories he had heard about "walking delegates," all the dreadful consequences of "union domination." He had not meant to go in for unionism!

Olson was continuing. "We've had laws passed, a whole raft of laws about coal-mining--the eight-hour law, the anti-scrip law, the company-store law, the mine-sprinkling law, the check-weighman law. What difference has it made in North Valley that there are such laws on the statute-books? Would you ever even know about them?"

"Ah, now!" said Hal. "If you put it that way--if your movement is to have the law enforced--I'm with you!"

"But how will you get the law enforced, except by a union? No individual man can do it--it's 'down the canyon' with him if he mentions the law. In Western City our union people go to the state officials, but they never do anything--and why? They know we haven't got the men behind us! It's the same with the politicians as it is with the bosses--the union is the thing that counts!"

Hal found this an entirely new argument. "People don't realise that idea--that men have to be organised to get their _legal_ rights."

And the other threw up his hands with a comical gesture. "My God! If you want to make a list of the things that people don't realise about us miners!"

Upton Sinclair