Léon Harmel: Pioneer of the Just Wage

You could call the nineteenth century stupid, but hardly dull. At its birth, it was the stage for Napoleon’s antics and for the heroism of the captains of wooden ships; at its death, the old Europe itself was giving way before the hard, cold era of aluminum, centralized planning, and the IRS. Sure, it was an age that liked its gauzy paintings and dolled-up houses, but this Victorian sentimentality can be understood as a kind of by-product, a clinging to comforting certainties amidst seismic changes. “To live is to change,” Newman once said, “and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

Of the many innovations of the nineteenth century, the least equivocal were in engineering, the most in the arts and philosophy. Thanks to Michael Faraday, among others, we have electric lights. Thanks to Beethoven and Nietzsche, among others, we have rock music and deconstructionism. Much harder to think through are the century’s innovations in the world of human organization and social life. In the wake of World War II, it was common for Catholics to view the nineteenth-century nation-state as a kind of political heresy. Today, however, some pine for the good old days of nationalism, seeing it as at least preferable to the etherized dreams and painful mandates of the world-planners.

leon harmelBuried deep within that confusing world of nineteenth-century political and economic organization is a man who, when remembered at all, is filed away as a conservative or a reactionary—and perhaps with some cause—but who by temperament and achievement should be lauded as a healthy innovator.  He was the modern re-inventor of the family wage, Léon Harmel, owner of the woolen mill at Val-des-Bois.

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Harmel (1829-1915) was born late in the reign of Charles X, the last of France’s legitimate kings. From his devout parents he inherited his conservative politics and also a factory, which he would manage, with the help of brothers and cousins, from 1854 until the German occupation in 1915. Located in the countryside just miles outside of Reims, the factory of Val-des-Bois was, for a season, a Catholic workers’ paradise. In an age that gave birth to such characters as Dickens’s Gradgrind and Hugo’s Javert, Harmel stood out for his humanity. He devoted his life to the well-being of his workers, materially, culturally, and spiritually, and rightly earned their admiration and respect.

It was no small task to run a successful textile mill in northern France in the second half of the nineteenth century. There was extraordinary competition near at hand; failed mills literally dotted the landscape, and those that survived bore their scars. Other challenges included such daunting factors as cheap English products, unreliable commodities—as during the American Civil War when cotton supplies all but dried up, a bewildering array of ever-changing tariffs and trade laws, at times an insufficient labor supply, near-constant technological change, and, finally, even fire. In 1874, Harmel’s factory almost burned to the ground, but the flames went no further than the feet of the statue of Notre-Dame de l’Usine (Our Lady of the Factory). Not only did Harmel have Our Lady to thank for having saved the part of the factory she did, but also for providing an occasion for him to modernize his operation, which may have saved the firm.

A businessman through and through, Harmel knew that profit was industry’s life’s blood: there could be no sustainable effort without it. He did not flinch from tough decisions and risks, trying out new products, making ventures into foreign markets—even once to Argentina, and sinking substantial investments into both capital improvements and the training of his workers. A brother with a knack for design supplied bright ideas in threads and cloth, but Léon himself used his gift of a lively moral imagination to shape the human side of the factory community.

To be a factory worker in those days was a tough lot. Early on in the French Revolution, the trade guilds of the Old Regime had been disbanded and a draconian law against workers’ associations passed. It remained on the books until 1884 and made collective bargaining impossible. Workers were very much at the mercy of their employers, who were, in turn, waging an increasingly bitter war for profits that led them to make demands that hardly seem human. How incredible it is that men really worked 15 hour days and women 13; that children slaved away almost as long and even before reaching adolescence; that it was ordinary for the interior temperature of certain parts of a textile mill to be over 100 degrees. And all this for a pittance in wages. Truly, the past is a foreign country.

And so, when we hear that Léon Harmel’s factory was kept at 75 degrees, that his workers toiled only 11 hours per day, and that many of them lived in company housing whose only adornment was a modest garden, we have a standard of reference. Still more important was Harmel’s dedication to the overall well-being of his laborers. He provided for their retirement, for the education of their children, for a suitable use of leisure time (with drama, symphony, and chorus), and, most importantly, he built them a beautiful stone chapel, where, within a decade and a half, he saw a 70% rate of Easter communion among his workers—an extraordinary figure for the working class at the time, and, crucially, achieved without compulsion. “Accounts are unanimous,” says Harmel’s biographer, Professor Joan Coffey, “that chapel attendance as well as participation in religious events in general was a matter of individual choice.”

Harmel’s goal was, as he once put it, to “baptize industry and make it the servant of Jesus Christ.” He pursued that ideal by a heroic practice of the virtue of justice. At the very center of that practice was his policy of a just wage, a wage that would be—again, in his words—“proportionate to [the laborer’s] work and as sufficient as possible to support his needs and those of his family.” This policy did not mean a fairy-tale pay scale. In point of fact, a man could earn more in nearby Reims, but only at the cost of either living in the city, which was more expensive, or trudging home to the countryside after a back-breaking work day that started at five in the morning. Not much of a choice. But the measure of his family wage can perhaps be seen in this fact, that over time his workers were able on average to put away 10% of their salaries for the needs of their retirement, and this in an age when workers’ savings were almost unheard-of. Harmel also rewarded merit with increased pay, and, as was customary, paid men significantly more than women. Finally, in the face of a downturn in the industry after 1900, he stood by his men, thinning the ranks of the factory mostly through retirement rather than lay-offs. The earthly reward of this justice? A good work is its own reward: he kept alive a factory employing between 375 and 675 people for over half a century. It was a solid achievement in a world characterized by flux and impermanence.

What was the secret of Harmel’s dedication? He was a devout man, to be sure. A Franciscan tertiary, he devoted himself single-mindedly to his children and his factory after the death of his wife when he was only 41. He took vows of chastity, obedience to his spiritual director, and poverty, which last he expressed by personal austerities such as giving up smoking, which had been habitual.

Yet we must not overlook this crucial fact: Harmel trusted in his people. In 1898 he gave a speech to the veteran laborers of his factory, praising them in these terms: “Thanks to your good spirit and your confidence in your leaders, we have been able to establish factory councils . . . giving you a real participatory role in the governance and the discipline of the establishment.” This was to take a great step and certainly a risky one. Was he similarly adventuresome with his management team? We will probably never know, but it seems that a man who became a diplomat of Catholic social thinking and organized and led worker pilgrimages to Rome—including one with 10,000 French laborers—was likely to have confided much of the day-to-day workings of the factory to the brothers and cousins who shared the management with him. What is certain is that Léon Harmel sought profit for his business for the sake of his people, for whom he generously poured out his money, time, and effort. And so, we can safely say that he possessed the essential and irreplaceable advantage shared by the best entrepreneurs: a trust in God’s Providence at work in the unpredictable power of human creativity.


  • Christopher O. Blum

    Christopher O. Blum is Professor of History & Philosophy and Academic Dean of the Augustine Institute. He is the editor and translator of St. Francis de Sales’ The Sign of the Cross: The Fifteen Most Powerful Words in the English Language (Sophia Press).

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