HL Deb 02 August 1859 vol 155 cc844-9

wished to know whether the attention of the Government had been called to the combination of workmen in the building trade which had taken place? For his own part, he deeply deplored that proceeding, and highly disapproved of it. If, as seemed to be the case, the object of the movement was to obtain, by means of combination, ten hours' wages for nine hours' work, nothing could be more utterly absurd and more inconsistent with justice as well as common sense. He now advised any persons concerned against any movement of the kind. And he spoke upon the subject with greater confidence, he gave his advice to the workmen with greater earnestness, because he had always been their steady and zealous supporter when they were in the right. They had always, as they well knew, a friend in him. He had consistently supported the abolition of the Combination Laws, and had done all in his power to make legal combination free, and to get rid of all the trammels to which workmen and employers had been previously subject. He had always maintained that workmen were entitled to combine for proper objects, provided the combination left all those who did not choose to join it free to work for such wages, and for as many hours and generally on such terms as they thought proper. But if he was correctly informed, that was by no means the plan of operation adopted by the parties who were at present combining. He hoped it was not true as he had heard from a highly respectable quarter, that improper influences were being exerted upon those who refused to join this combination. If it were true that a system of coercion was resorted to, such a circumstance was deeply to be lamented, and those who violated the law which protected workmen ought to be most severely punished; it would be most merciful, not only to those who combined, but to those who did not combine, to execute the law rigorously—mercifully, no doubt, but strictly and with severity. But he trusted that out of these calamities a very great good might come, which he had long been anxious to obtain. He had always regretted that certain alterations of the law which he had often propounded had not yet been effected—he meant Courts of Reconcilements. It was impossible to read the annual report of the French Courts of Conciliation without wishing to see some analogous provisions in our own law brought to bear upon these combinations and disputes which were sometimes carried to a great extent between master and man. He had in his hand a report of 1850 of the proceedings of the Conseils des Prud'hommes which were established in many manufacturing towns in France, and which regulated these disputes by consent of the parties. By seeing the parties, and by arbitrating between them, the Conseils des Prud'hommes regulated these disputes in a most happy manner. In 1850 they had no less than 28,000 disputes of all kinds before them, including disputes between masters and men. Of these no less than 26,800 were satisfactorily settled without any litigation. The remaining 1,200 cases stood over for a while, but before six weeks were over a great number of the parties came in and accepted the terms recommended. From another report he learned that only one-fourth of the entire number of cases brought before the Courts were left finally unsettled in accordance with their decisions. He had received many communications from those who were well acquainted with the various manufacturing districts in this country, for some of his informants were workmen themselves, who stated that there was a design on foot—if it were found that Parliament would not listen to a proposition to do it by law, and without saying that Parliament was not justified in that decision—to establish a general central association, with branches in different manufacturing towns, and to introduce by degrees the foreign system to which he had referred. He should give his entire countenance and favour to that proposal. He was told that there were 90,000 workmen affected by this strike— not all builders, but carpenters, painters, and others connected with the building trades. There was, therefore, great reason to hope that this strike would come to a speedy termination, and it was their duty to find some means which would prevent even the chance of such an occurrence in future.


said, that the attention of the Government had been drawn to this lamentable subject. It was, of course, the duty of the authorities to provide against anything like a breach of the peace, and so far as it was competent for the Government to interfere for the purpose of preserving peace and order they would do so. But this was just one of those cases in which speaking and writing could do more good than any action on the part of the Government, and he knew no one who had a better right to address the working classes on this subject than his noble and learned Friend, who had uniformly laboured to promote the legitimate interests of the working men of this country, and who had successfully exerted himself to amend the unjust legislation which formerly prevented any combination of workmen for equitable and reasonable objects. It was impossible to deny that the power which workmen now had to combine and to "strike" must exercise a wholesome influence on the masters. Still, the justification of any particular strike, like that of a war, depended on all the circumstances that belonged to it. It was criminal in men to strike without good and sufficient cause, because, if there was not good foundation for so doing, and grounds which enlisted popular support in its favour, they inflicted an injury not only upon themselves but upon their families and upon the whole community. He was not acquainted with the particulars of the dispute between the masters and men in this particular strike, but if the reasons put forward for it in public were the true ones, it was one of the most unjustifiable that could be imagined, and could only end in the infliction of very great injury on the operatives themselves. He said this after reading the very reasons that had been specially put forth to justify it. Their object was stated to be to reduce the hours of labour from ten to nine, receiving the same wages as if they had worked ten hours, and the object in view was to give labour to a largo number of the same class of workmen who were now out of employment. It was impossible to believe that any combination of this sort could succeed. If it did succeed what would be the result? Wages could only be paid out of the capital of the employers, and by diminishing the number of working hours and paying the same wages the employer could not afford an extra shilling to those who were now out of work. He believed that the men raised the objection that the master builders were making too large a profit. If that were so, did it not invariably follow that when persons engaged in a particular trade were making too large a profit other capitalists came into that trade? The result was that the competition for labour was increased, and the workmen were perfectly certain to have the wages to which they were entitled. If, on the other hand, they forced the capitalist to receive less than the profit made in other trades, what was the result? Other capitalists were deterred from coming into that trade, some who were already in it went out, and the whole available capital for carrying on that trade was diminished, and the demand for labour in that trade diminished. The noble and learned Lord had suggested as a sort of remedy for strikes the establishment of tribunals similar to the French Conseils des Prud'hommes. He (Earl Granville) was afraid, as far as this particular case was concerned, that those Conseils would not be applicable, inasmuch as their greatest use in France was in determining disputes relating to past contracts; but by their constitution they were precluded from taking into consideration any question touching future contracts. He might remind their Lordships that several Committees of the House of Commons had investigated this question. In one of those there was a division of opinion, and the majority of the Committee eventually adopted a report, drawn up by his (Earl Granville's) brother, who then represented a borough in Staffordshire, recommending the establishment of courts of arbitration, but strictly confining their functions and operation to questions turning upon past contracts. It was a question deserving the consideration of their Lordships whether it would be desirable to legalize such courts of arbitration. But he thought, after all, that they must rely for the prevention of strikes and the settlement of disputes between masters and workmen chiefly on the experience of the workmen themselves in matters so materially bearing on their own happiness, and still more on their progressive enlightenment as a body by means of an improved education. If the noble and learned Lord was rightly informed, that 90,000 working men would be affected by the strike in question, it was a deplorable circumstance, for each of those men would be, on an average, in the receipt of £1 a week at least, and many of them more than that, so that the loss in wages alone while the strike lasted, not to mention the loss of capital, would be at the rate of about £5,000,000 a year. He concluded by expressing a hope that those who by their position had influence over the men on strike would use it to moderate instead of stimulating their demands.


said, he was afraid it was impossible to prevent these unfortunate strikes. Nothing but the increasing knowledge and experience of the men themselves would put an end to them. When the operatives were better instructed in the circumstances affecting the relation between employers and employed they would know that the whole question was involved in the larger question of supply and demand; and that for masters to endeavour to diminish wages, or for the men to endeavour to raise them, contrary to that law, must ever be futile. He thought it would be desirable if they could establish some courts similar to the French Conseils des Prud'hommes, to consist of persons of different trades, for the purpose of deciding disputes between masters and men as to past contracts. He did not see how it was possible to arbitrate between masters and workmen as to future contracts; but for past contracts people in trade would be able to arbitrate on mere trade questions and technical subjects far better than the magistrates, who knew little or nothing of the subject in dispute. At all events he hoped that some plan would be adopted for the settlement of such questions.


said, that much would depend on care being taken to enlighten the workman, by giving him information that would be neither partial nor prejudiced. A great portion of the difficulties which had to be encountered under the existing state of things was owing to the ignorance of the working classes which left these unfortunate men in the hands, and he might say at the mercy, of a few leading agitators. The principle had been most accurately and justly stated by his noble Friend the Lord President; but the noble Earl would forgive him for saying that he had heard it laid down quite as distinctly and correctly at the last meeting of the Social Science Congress by a workman belonging to one of the midland counties. His opinions were embodied in the shape of an address to his brother workmen, with a view of dissuading them from certain strikes which they were contemplating; and in that very admirable pamphlet the subject was discussed on the soundest and fairest principles. Since then an answer had appeared from those who were in favour of strikes; and this same working-man, J. Hummer, had now come forward with a reply which left his opponents nothing to say, and which was quite equal in merit to the original publication.


said, where parties who were all free agents entered voluntarily into a strike they might be considered to do an act which was innocent in point of law. He was induced to say so much in explanation of a remark made by his noble Friend the President of the Council as to the innocence of strikes, which he was a little afraid might be misunderstood. Unfortunately, in many instances of combination among workmen, agitators who were in the majority obtained an ascendancy over their fellows, and in that way the minority were coerced, not only morally but physically, and men who would be otherwise disposed to work were prevented working at all, or, if they insisted on doing so, they were marked, and frequently assaulted. He would state to the House the opinion on this subject of one who was no enemy to the working classes—the late Daniel O'Connell. That gentleman told him confidentially, but in a melancholy tone, that strikes had been the ruin of Ireland; that in consequence of trade combinations manufactures could not flourish in that country; that manufactures had been going on prosperously till those trade combinations put them down, causing the ruin first of the employers and then of the people.