The Working Class

In Transylvania, much as in other regions of central and eastern Europe, the working class was an amalgam of several social strata and nationalities, of native-born people and newcomers. In the early post-revolution period, when industrialization proceeded but slowly, the majority of the working class was employed in the recently developed, small-scale industry. Only at the close of the century did a real industrial working class, based on large-scale industry and mining, become dominant. According to Josef Grimm, there were in 1850 some 25,000 craftsmen in Transylvania, with millers, blacksmiths, and cobblers amounting to around 10,000 of them. By 1860, industry and commerce had been essentially liberated from traditional constraints, but free competition was slow to induce the development of craft-based industry, and Saxon contemporaries bemoaned the impoverishment that marked the previous decade. What little growth was registered occurred mainly in the employment of workers in small-scale industry. Károly Keleti estimates that, in 1869, there were — on a slightly smaller territory — some 30,000 independent craftsmen and 34,000 employees; somewhat later, the Statistical Office enumerated 25,000 craftsmen {3-620.} and 32,000 employees. The number of craftsmen was reduced by the tariff-war of the late 1880s, then rose to around 40,000. Throughout the period, small-scale industry played an important economic role in Transylvania, as it did in the rest of the country; in some regions, such as Kis-Küküllő, the entire industrial workforce was employed in small-scale industry.

As industrialization gathered speed, the size of the workforce engaged in mining and manufacturing began to expand. The growth is revealed by employment data for the end of the period. Between 1850 and 1890, most miners and smelter-workers were employed in small enterprises, and their number held constant at around 10,000. By 1900, the balance had shifted in favour of mines and smelters that employed over a hundred workers, and it was in this sector that the highest growth rate was registered, bringing the total workforce to some 20,000 in 1914. Employment began to surge in all industrial sectors in the 1890s. Within a decade, the workforce trebled in the lumber industry and doubled in the chemical industry; there was also rapid growth in the paper and printing industries, in metallurgy and machinery production, and in the construction industry. Between 1867 and 1900, employment in industry and transport grew from 73,000 to nearly 150,000, although the latter number included over 10,000 'peasant and itinerant craftsmen.'

There were periods of economic recession and temporary un-employment, but between 1890 and 1914, the industrial workforce doubled in size and changed in its structure. The number of workers rose to over 10,000 in both the transportation and the forest and lumber sectors, outstripping the workforce engaged in metallurgy. In 1914, over 400,000 (including dependents) owed their livelihood to mining and industry in Transylvania. There was little medium-scale industry, and thus the workforce was concentrated at the two poles, in small enterprises and heavy industry. Despite a boom in the textile industry around 1900, the pattern of economic development in Transylvania did not generate the large skilled manufacturing {3-621.} workforce that was found in more industrialized countries. The low proportion of women employed in industry was exceeded somewhat by that of children; these two categories accounted for only 25,000 of the approximately 150,000-strong industrial working class. There were few women employed in manufacturing, other than in the tobacco and textile industries. In mining and metallurgy, women accounted for one percent of the workforce, and children for 8.6 percent. (In the Banat, the proportion of children under 14 years of age employed in this sector was twice as high.) In sum, the toiling proletarian masses that were found in western countries marked by the industrial revolution had no counterpart in Transylvania.

In terms of social origins, the new working class emerged from the strata who had laboured on crown lands and for guilds, from among poorer craftsmen, villeins, cotters, and the declassed petty nobility. A great many skilled workers came from beyond Transylvania's boundaries, from Hungary and farther afield. (The same was true of the Banat, where Czech, German, Moravian, and Polish miners and foundrymen were transplanted in the 1850s; much of the first wave perished in the mine disasters of the following two decades.) Most foreign workers were brought in by the large new enterprises (notably the Salgótarján and the Urikány–Zsil Valley mining companies), but even less prosperous iron smelters, like that at Szentkeresztbánya, imported skilled workers from Bukovina and other foreign parts. Foreign recruits accounted for a fifth of all miners in 1900, and a third in 1914. Paradoxically, industrial enterprises in the countryside generally faced a shortage of local labour. Even inefficient craftsmen's workshops took a long time to go bankrupt, and the peasantry did not generate a great supply of labour, least of all people suited to industrial jobs. Yet the expanding industrial plants needed experienced, skilled or semi-skilled workers; thus, at the turn of the century, many Czechs, Poles, Germans, Ukrainians, Slovaks, and even several hundred Italians, found a new home in Transylvania.

{3-622.} Workers of peasant origin gradually worked their way up to urbanized, industrial working class, beginning with seasonal work, tree-felling, loading, or carting. In mining areas, they preserved a dual lifestyle, retaining their links to the land, for several generations; around 1867, miners sometimes had to be given leave to tend their fields at harvest time. The conversion of farmers into industrial workers was not an easy process; nor was it irreversible, for even full-time workers would occasionally revert to farming. At the same time, even if many small-scale farmers, rural poor, and apprentices were reluctant to become industrial workers, they regarded such a move as a step up the social ladder in terms of lifestyle and knowledge; the move also brought an increase in real income for apprentices and, in all likelihood, for peasants as well.

The ethnic composition of the working class was determined by traditions, the location of new industry, and the social differentiation as well as level of social development of the several nationalities. According to the last prewar census, 55.71 percent of 'industrial employees' were of Hungarian mother tongue, 28.98 percent Romanian, and 15.3 percent German. The breakdown of the 50,000 small-scale craftsmen is similar, although the proportions in individual branches vary. More than half of miners and smelter-workers were Romanian, 40 percent were Hungarian, and only 5 percent were German. In transportation, there were three times as many Hungarians as Romanians, and hardly any Germans. In the age of nationalism, when ethnic communities tended toward mutual isolation, the working class was the only sizeable social stratum in which people of different ethnic backgrounds came together.

Although conditions of life for workers underwent great change, they remained hard and full of struggle. In the absolutist period — and for many years thereafter — employers set working hours arbitrarily, the only mitigating factor being the weight of tradition. Guild apprentices worked 12–14 hours a day, and as much {3-623.} as seventeen hours when urgency demanded it. The situation was better in large enterprises. A 10–12 hour working day was common in mines and smelters; it is noteworthy that night shifts were rare. The practice of eight-hour shifts round the clock was introduced at the state-owned non-ferrous metal and salt mines (and at the STEG in the Banat); working hours were longer at all the open pit mines. Although working conditions were not generally subject to state intervention, some official measures did have an impact. In 1854, the employment in underground mines of children under twelve years of age was prohibited, and the Factory Act of 1859 forbade the employment of children under the age of ten. Children under fourteen were not allowed to work more than ten hours, and those between 14 and 16 years of age could not be assigned night shifts. These restrictions, along with safety regulations, were routinely violated by the employers — with the involuntary concurrence of the employees. If working conditions improved in the later years of the dualist system, this was due less to legislation than to the modernization of industry. The Factory Act of 1872 was true to economic liberalism and did little to regulate working hours, and the 1884 act was only slightly more forthcoming. It left the matter of working hours to be settled by 'free agreement,' although it did prescribe short rest breaks. The law further restricted the working time of apprentices, to eight hours a day for those between twelve and fourteen years of age, and to ten hours for those between fourteen and sixteen. Some health regulations came into effect, and women were granted a month's maternity leave.

The observance of regulations was verified by the authorities on their quarterly visits to enterprises and thus, through compromises between the law and local reality, working conditions slowly improved. Nevertheless, the whole period was marked by excessively long working hours, the exploitation of children, and frequent avoidance of legal prescriptions. In smaller factories and workshops, even minor legal restrictions remained a dead letter. {3-624.} Shoe-makers and carpenters in Kolozsvár worked 15–16 hours a day at the beginning of the century, while bakers in Brassó laboured 12 to 16 hours, and those in Nagyszeben, 14–18 hours a day. In comparison, the more strictly regulated, large enterprises seemed like paradise.

Only in 1891 was Sunday decreed a day of rest. The provision was frequently flouted, and not only in industries (such as smelters) where there was a need for uninterrupted production. Until the end of the century, the rest from work was provided mainly by a large number of statutory and religious holidays. The emerging labour movements did help to shorten the working day; in 1900, half of the industrial labour force in Transylvania worked less than ten hours a day, while most of the other half worked less than twelve hours. Still, neither the employers' stake in efficiency nor labour's pursuit of its own interests produced a major reduction of the long working day, which was a holdover from earlier patterns of exploitation.

The workers' own mutual-aid funds did not suffice to remedy the health problems resulting from poverty and from the hard and unhealthy working conditions. Prior to 1856, according to the chief physician of the STEG plant in the Banat, one in four children died before they reached their first birthday, another quarter before the age of ten, and nearly a quarter of adult workers died between the ages of 30 and 50. The situation was somewhat better in Transylvania, but the death-toll was high among workers in open-pit and underground mines alike; widows presumably found little consolation in the fact that, by the turn of the century, the ratio of accidents to coal produced had decreased. The maturing of the working class, along with the long-term interests of employers, impelled the state to develop a social security system for industrial workers. Beginning in 1891, employers had to contribute a third of the payments to the workers' insurance funds. In 1907, the benefits were extended to more workers, accident insurance became compulsory, and the latter had to be included in the calculation of production {3-625.} costs. The regulations provided that medical benefits be financed in equal parts from employers' contributions and from a four percent wage deduction; and the workers, through their elected representatives, had the right to participate in the management of the funds. The system did not solve all problems, but it did make workers eligible for up to twenty weeks of medical treatment, for medicine, for a sickness benefit amounting to half the wage, for six weeks of maternity leave, as well as for medical care for their dependents. By the 1880s, when industrial workers ceased to be treated as servants — and when their corporal punishment was finally abolished — a social order based on more enlightened values had started to emerge. The creation of a social security system was a major step in the direction of recognizing the equal human worth of workers.

There are no reliable statistics on the intensification of labour's productivity. In the mining and metallurgical industries, the piecework system was introduced in the absolutist period; bonuses were paid for difficult, dangerous, or urgent work, and as a reward for high-quality output. However, paying day-wages was the more common practice, especially in the case of women and children. Wage rates varied greatly between industrial sectors and even within enterprises. Even before the Compromise, wages were determined by the market value of labour. Thus foundrymen, turners, and locksmiths commanded the highest rates; their wages in Transylvania were generally lower then in the Banat, but consistently higher than in the Nagybánya district. Within Transylvania, wage-rates were higher in modern factories and mines than in the older and smaller ones. The Székely workers of Szentkeresztbánya earned one third less, and the Romanian workers of the even poorer Érc Mountains, 50 percent less than the workers of all nationalities at Govasdia or at Stájerlakanina in the Banat. Imported workers, mainly because of their higher qualifications, earned more than local ones.

{3-626.} Available data does not enable a precise calculation of the long-term changes in real wages. There was a slow increase in nominal wages from the mid-1850s onward, with occasional setbacks, notably that occasioned by the economic recession in 1873. Employers periodically recalculated the minimum wage-rate required to retain their labour force, and thus they made some adjustments to rises in the cost of living. In this respect, wage raises were not as significant as the fact that during the 'great depression' that stretched from 1875 to 1896, the prices of agricultural products and, to an even greater extent, of certain industrial products and textiles, fell by 25–30 percent. For many, the resultant lower costs signified an increase in real income and in their standard of living. These tendencies were replicated in Transylvania, although wages there were some 25 percent below the national average. The wage rates for women and children were half those for men; and wages were subject to various deductions and the withholding of occasional fines. Where workers were paid partly in kind, notably in mining areas, the normal procedure was that they would buy foodstuffs at the company store on credit and then have the amount deducted from their wages. There is some evidence that by the early 1900s, the workers' real income was not keeping pace with rising food prices, and the slower growth in the price of manufactured products was not sufficient to compensate for this loss in purchasing power. Only after 1907 were wages raised to make up for some of the loss, and the economic recovery was accompanied over several years by a fall in real wages. Workers thus had to make an extra effort to preserve their gains.

The workers' life remained one of relative deprivation. The family's survival required that at least the sons soon join their fathers in the labour force. Károly Keleti's observations about miners, written in 1872, offer a vivid illustration: 'The miner's son is in his early youth, still of school age (and the children of miners are more likely to attend school than those of many other groups) when {3-627.} he is drawn into the working world of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. He is taught to sort stones, to identify ores ... later he works in loading, then ends up handling a pick-axe like his father, and works underground to earn the daily bread for himself and his family; for his short life must be fully exploited, and he must start his own family, so that the next generation can carry on mining — provided that his widow is able to bring up the small tykes.'[41]41. K. Keleti, Hazánk és népe, a közgazdasági és társadalmi statisztika szempontjából (Budapest, 1889), p. 184.

After the turn of the century, the workers' diet gradually im-proved and became more balanced. A family's weekly consumption of meat was at the most two to three kilos, along with some 750 grams of bacon; even so, many manual workers rarely saw meat on their table. Milk and eggs, though comparatively inexpensive, played a small role in their diet. The workers' staple foods were still bread, fat, onions, potatoes and various flour products; for many people, mainly in the Romanian areas, corn porridge and hoecake remained the basic dishes. Very little sugar and coffee were consumed. In 1914, it was estimated that a working class family of modest but decent circumstances could subsist on 25–30 crowns a week, which covered rent and clothing as well. Yet less than ten percent of workers earned this much; two-thirds of them earned under 20 crowns a week. (A brick factory worker in Kolozsvár earned 1–1.2 crowns a day, while a bricklayer could sometimes make that much in two hours.) Thus a family needed two wage earners to ensure an adequate income, of which 50–66 percent went on food, and 15 percent on rent. That left no more than 100–200 crowns a year — mainly in the higher-wage industrial sectors — for clothing, culture, entertainment, family emergencies, or savings. The lower price in Transylvania of certain basic foodstuffs, such as meat, and particularly mutton, helped workers to maintain a precarious balance between income and expenditures. To make ends meet, many families relied on complementary activities. Although, by the end of this period, most industrial workers no longer disposed {3-628.} of a plot of land or vineyard, diligent housewives would make a material contribution to the family's standard of living by taking on part-time work, as well as by breeding poultry and pigs at home, and by growing vegetables, thereby creating a semblance of independence from the food market.

The housing conditions of industrial workers and miners underwent major, though highly differentiated, change. There were precedents for the provision of workers' housing, but the first major housing projects date from the absolutist period, when companies establishing mining and smelter operations in new industrial areas were compelled to provide lodgings for the workers they had brought in. In Transylvania, miners' settlements began to expand in the 1880s, and by the turn of the century thousands of foundrymen and coal-miners were living on the new estates. In the Zsil Valley, the Salgótarján Company initially allocated single-room apartments to families; unmarried workers were housed collectively in ten-by-fifteen metre rooms (much like the servants' quarters on large estates), equipped with a stove on which the cook, hired by the workers, would prepare their meals. By the early 1900s, the company was housing 3,426 workers in 1,515 dwellings; these included wooden barracks and extended houses as well as 788 units comprising four apartments, each with a room and kitchen. A similar housing development accommodated 925 of the Urikány–Zsil Valley Company's 1,040 workers in 1898; some of the single workers simply rented a bed from families. The low rent of company housing helped to keep the workers loyal to their employer.

In the larger towns, there was a greater variety in workers' housing. A study, conducted by the sociographer Róbert Braun, of 260 working-class families in Marosvásárhely at the beginning of the century reveals very crowded living conditions. One quarter of the workers had a house of their own. Half of the families lived in buildings with three to five apartments opening onto a common yard. Thirty percent of apartments had a garden, but two thirds consisted of just one room and a kitchen, and only half the apartments {3-629.} had a wooden floor. Nearly half of the apartments were inadequate from a middle-class point of view. The average apartment encompassed no more than 47.53 square metres; another indication of crowding is that 1,052 persons shared 452 beds. The contrast between the housing of different social strata was even sharper in Kolozsvár, where the shortage of space became more acute after the turn of the century; in 1914, some five hundred families lived in conditions that were decidedly unhealthy. On the slopes of the picturesque Sáncoldal, the little houses spread uphill like swallows' nests; a space of six square metres would count as a room, and people would pay as much as 120–160 crowns a year for a house with a 35 square metre yard and a pigsty. The working-class slum around Györgyfalvi Street, where small, neglected, tumble-down houses stood on what had once been a pasture, was regarded as shameful even by the middle class; the residents owned only the house, not the land, and thus could not raise mortgage loans, while the land-owner received an annual rent of 1,200 crowns per cadastral acre (0.57 hectare). Better-paid workers lived in the district around Holdvilág Road, where the houses, packed fairly close along tree-lined streets, were in good repair and had fenced yards. Workers' housing was an issue that gave some concern to the city's elite after the turn of the century, but no major building projects were initiated.

Family ties in the working class were subject to numerous disruptive forces. Migrants from rural areas felt uprooted. Children were often left without parental supervision, in a neighbour's care or locked inside the house. Boys became wage earners at the age of 16–17, and if they left home, they could no longer contribute to their families' support; they spent most of their spare time on the streets, in pubs or clubs, at parties, or at their girlfriend's home, and soon founded their own families. Newly married couples could maintain an adequate standard of living as long as the husband was employed and the wife took on part-time jobs — at least until the arrival of their first child.

{3-630.} It took rare good luck to move up the social ladder; workers dreamed of becoming independent craftsmen, but only well-paid, skilled workers had a real chance of reaching that status. As a class, workers received few benefits from the state apart from compulsory education at the primary level. High society and the urban middle class isolated themselves from the workers and had little understanding of that class's problems and conditions of life. The promotion of the working class's interests was left to its own organizations and associations, and later to the social democratic movement.

Labour organizations were formed quite early, but they took a long time to become effective, large-scale institutions. There were occasional strike movements in the 1850s — notably that of shoemaker's apprentices at Nagyszeben in 1853 — but conflict over wages remained rare and seldom went beyond the submission of a petition; more commonly, workers would simply leave their employer. The labour movement became more active after 1860. Agitation for higher wages sometimes brought results, resistance to employers' arbitrariness stiffened, and success in these areas inspired greater efforts at organization. Printers in Kolozsvár and Brassó established mutual aid societies. The workers would involve themselves in politics only rarely, and then within the existing middle-class party system; even this occurred mainly beyond Transylvania's boundaries, in the Banat and around Nagybánya. Workers protested against military conscription in 1859, and their voices were heard during the parliamentary elections in 1865–66. Beginning in 1868, a great number of associations were founded, mostly as joint endeavours of the middle and working classes serving general welfare purposes; the first craft unions evolved from these associations and were eventually exposed to marxist ideas. In late 1869, a General Workers Association (Általános Munkás-egylet) was formed in Kolozsvár to represent workers in all branches of production; it had a liberal intellectual leadership but included {3-631.} adherents of the First International's proletarian line. The Association aimed at the development of a comprehensive welfare system, including consumers' cooperatives, health insurance, as well as the provision of medical care, public baths, and even such middle-class facilities as a rifle range and a fencing room.

It was through their welfare associations that workers first came into contact with marxism — first in the Banat, then, in the 1870s, in Transylvania itself, beginning with the printers and bricklayers. From the mid-1880s, labour organizations took on an explicitly social democratic aspect, and thus came to perform a dual function, by voicing political as well as social demands, such as universal suffrage, ten-hour working days, and free Sundays. The welfare associations and craft unions that began to proliferate in Transylvania made the transition from traditional interest-representation to political activism in 1890–91. Inspired by the new Inter-national, they staged in 1890 the first celebration of May Day. The following year, some of them endorsed the marxist manifesto and, on May 8, the Kolozsvár branch of the Hungarian Social Democratic party was formed under the leadership of Sándor Magyar. The party soon acquired a considerably membership and busied itself organizing trade unions and strikes, and launching newspapers. By the turn of the century, Transylvania's social democratic movement, centred at Kolozsvár, had caught up to that in the rest of the country. Thus industrial workers developed a consciousness of their class-based interests and as well as of their historical function.

Initially, Transylvania's multi-ethnic working class had Germanic character, but over time its Hungarian members became the dominant force. Many, including the Social Democratic party, looked upon the urban, industrial working class as a promoter of Magyarization. In fact, the workers' communities, which included German, Hungarian, Romanian, Czech, Polish and Slovak names, were not so much the agents of linguistic Magyarization as the {3-632.} bearers of a new form of Hungarian patriotism touched with internationalism. They felt a kinship with Europe's working classes and looked forward to a more egalitarian Hungary, one that was free of class oppression and nationalism. That goal was in each worker's vital interest, as well as being a historical necessity.