The Saw-Mill Check System by William Cowper Brann

Story type: Essay

The ICONOCLAST receives frequent complaints from laboring people in the lumber districts of Texas and Louisiana, that their employers are robbing them by compelling them to accept orders on mill stores, where they are charged exorbitant prices for all they purchase. I have been unable to visit the lumber districts and make personal investigation of these complaints, while letters of inquiry have elicited conflicted evidence. The following statement by a disinterested party, a gentleman of unusual intelligence who has traveled extensively in the lumber districts of the two states, is doubtless a fairly correct account:

The system of issuing checks to saw-mill employees, as practiced in some places, is, in my opinion, an advantage to the laborer. Each mill has a pay-day, monthly, and the checks issued at intervals between pay-days, redeemable in merchandise, pass current among merchants at par. You can buy a big glass of beer for a 5-cent check as you can for a nickel, and buy it anywhere it is sold. You can, in fact, buy anything at any place in these towns for mill checks. The merchants either use them in trading at the mill stores, which are large and complete, or sell them, at a discount of 5 per cent. to parties who engage in building and who use them in paying for lumber, which is sold at the same price for checks as for cash. No one is required to take these checks, which are merely in the nature of an advance payment on wages. Each employee can wait until pay-day and get all that is due him in cash. Many of the mills are large concerns with A1 credit, and being able to buy as cheaply as anybody, can, and I believe do, sell as cheaply. Such is the case with the Beaumont mills and the mills on the Sabine and East Texas road owned by Beaumont parties; but as much cannot be said for saw-mills at some other points. There are some saw-mills in Texas that never have a pay-day; they issue checks on the commissary and charge enormous profits, so that the people who work at these mills are virtually peons. A party told me some time ago that on the H. E. & W. T. railway mill checks of reputable institutions can be bought for 20 cents, 30 cents and 40 cents on the dollar. I do not know that this is so, but I believe it. As for the mills at Orange and Lake Charles, they have no commissaries attached, but I have been told that certain merchants in those towns pay the mill owners 10 per cent. on all orders sent them, and the mills go so far as to turn in each evening to the merchant the time made by each employee to govern them in giving credit. This looks like a fraud on the employee and it is wrong for the employer to pocket money which should rightfully go to his employee. But he reasons that he has an established pay-day, and if his employees will insist on demanding money or its equivalent every evening, and thus force him to retain an extra man to attend to the check-issuing business it is right that the employees should bear that expense. I believe the mills at Westlake have commissaries, but I know the mill-owners and do not believe they practice any extortion. They pay off in checks. They have a monthly pay-day, and if, like railway employees, these should wait until the first Saturday after the 5th or 10th of each month they could draw their wages in cash. No mill at either place mentioned pays off in checks. You might roast such mills as those on the H. E. & W. T. referred to, as they rob not only their employees, but, by thus being able to manufacture lumber cheaper than those who pay wages, force down the price in the open market and compel the honest manufacturer to meet it.”

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