Meet the British New Unionists of the 1880s and 1890s, who advocated rather more industrial action than some of the older labour organisations. In 1891 they proposed that all unions should support the campaign to demand a maximum eight-hour day from employers. The response of Punch Magazine in ‘The Modern Bed of Procrustes’, a cartoon and a poem, was to decide that the oppressors in this story were the New Unionists. Punch likened these activists to the Greek mythical villain Procrustes, who had stretched or cuts off parts of all his victims to make them fit the same iron bed. The argument was that they were curtailing the freedom of choice of other citizens, who, Theseus-like, might fight back. The bed of Procrustes has long been a powerful symbol of arbitrary measurement, and here the bed bears the sign: ‘eight-hour day..!’ suggesting that the New Unionist call for universal maximum hours for workers of all industries was as unrealistic as it was undesirable for employers.
To shorten the long, and to lengthen the short,
May have made the Greek robber-chief excellent sport;
But the Stretcher’s strange pallet-rack seems out of date
In the land of the free, ‘neath a well-ordered State….
The plan of PROCRUSTES has obvious charms:
“Cut ’em down to our standard, chop legs, shorten arms!
Bring us all to one level in power and pay,
By the rule of a legalised Eight Hours Day!”…
So the plan of PROCRUSTES, my boys, will not work,
Or will benefit none save the sluggard or shirk….
New Unionist Titan and Stentor in one,
To pose as PROCRUSTES may seem rather fun;
When it comes to the pinch of experiment, then
You may find that some millions of labouring men
Of all sorts and sizes, all callings and crafts,
The toilers by furnaces, factories, shafts,
The thrall of the mine, and the swart stithy slave,
The boys of the bench, and the sons of the wave,
Are not quite so easy to “size up” all round
To that comfortless bed where you’d have them all bound,
As the travellers luckless who fell in the way
Of the old Attic highwayman THESEUS did slay.
Though your voice may sound loud and your thews look immense,
You may fall to the THESEUS—of Free Common Sense!
For the full poem please visit p.138: Punch vol.101 on Project Gutenberg.