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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 71

The free Labourer

The free Labourer.

The good old rule
Sufficeth him. The simple plan
That should take who has the power
And he should keep who can.

IIt is only a comparatively few years since the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed. The mere fact that such an Act was required to relieve a very large body of the people from civil disabilities is sufficient to suggest the state of society which then existed. About that period, too, the repressive laws which forbade combination upon the part of either employers or employes were repealed, and a new era of page 10 human progress began. Labour, upon the repeal of the combination laws, did not immediately enter upon the work of forging bonds union; education had not yet sufficiently advanced, and the strength derivable from combination of resources and unity of will was [unclear: vi] imperfectly iinderstood. At length it dawned upon comprehend and Unionism as a consequence developed. In 1859 the great strik in the building trades occurred, and a brief reference to the events the took place in Parliament on the subject will very well serve preses purposes. On the 2nd August in the year above stated, in the [unclear: Hora] of Lords (see Hansard, vol, clv., p. 846) Lord Brougham, amongs other remarks, observed:—

"If, as seems to be the case, the object of the movement (the strike) was to obtain by means of combination ten hours wages for nine hours' work, nothing could be more utterly absurd, nor nothing more inconsistent with justice as well as common sense. He [unclear: Doi]advised any person concerned against any movement of the kind. And he spoke upon this subject with greater confidence, because [unclear: b] had always been their steady and zealous supporter, when in the right They had always, as they knew well, had a friend in him. He had consistently supported the abolition of the combination laws, and [unclear: jj] done all in his power to make legal combinations free, and to get [unclear: hi] of the trammels to which workmen and employers had been previous subject. He had always maintained that workmen were entitled [unclear: i] combine for proper objects—provided the combination left those [unclear: who] did not choose to join free to work for such wages and for as many hours, and, generally, on such terms as they thought proper."

To the remarks of the noble Lord, Earl Granville, in the coursed his reply, said:—

"It was impossible to deny that the power which workmen not held to combine and to 'strike' must exercise a wholesome [unclear: induem] on the masters. Still, the justification for any particular strike, [unclear: lib] that of a war, depended upon all the circumstances that belonged [unclear: u] it. It was criminal in men to strike without good and sufficient cause because, if there were not good foundation for so doing, and [unclear: grouofc] which enlisted popular support in its favour, they inflicted a great injury not only upon themselves but upon their families, and upon the whole community. Their object, it was stated, was 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[unclear: i] large number of the same class of workmen who were now out of [unclear: a] ploymcnt. It was impossible to believe that any combination of this sort could succeed. Wages could only be paid out of the capital of the employer, 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 out of employment."

Now, although the speeches from which these quotations are made were delivered some thirty-three years ago, were any labour conflict [unclear: s] page 11 break out tomorrow the very same ideas would find expression, so little has the position changed. It will be observed that Lord Brougham, when he used the words, "Provided, the combination left those who did not choose to join free to work for such wages and for as many hours and generally, on such terms as they thought proper," makes acknowledgment of the right claimed on behalf the free labourer, aright—so called—which has been energetically and determinedly insisted upon by employers all over the world, and as determinedly repudiated by Labour Unions.

Lord Brougham did not pause to demonstrate upon what ground the right of the free labourer was based, neither has any employer nor employer's supporter taken the trouble to do so, apparently holding that the claim was so morally, abstractly and evidently just that to do so would be entirely a work of supererogation. On the other hand the supporters of Trades Unions have never very closely analysed the claim put forward on behalf of the free labourer, nor made it clear to the reasoning mind that, instead of being based upon justice and in fact an incontrovertible and just right, it was founded upon gross wrong, and that under the circumstances of the position the free labourer was not entitled to any consideration whatever. They have felt the action of the free labourer as an outrageous wrong; they have recognised him as one whose existence has not only irritated but called forth the most angry and vengeful feelings; but the reasons upon which others ought to hold him as a wrong have never yet been set forth to demonstration. This is the position, so far at least as this writer is aware, today.

Philosophers, jurists and legislators have, from time to time, written upon and attempted to define the rights of men from the moral government of God to the statute law in its latest development. In connection with the subject under consideration it is not required to extend attention beyond what are the generally allowed rights which pertain to the individual, rights with which neither despot, Parliament, vote by majority, nor any other authority has any allowable claim to interfere, until they have become forfeit (the first can never be forfeited) by the commission of crime. The natural laws comprehend—first, the right to render gratitude, thankfulness, reverence, worship to God according to conscience; second, the right to defend one's self from assault, to preserve home inviolate, to seek the acquirement of knowledge, wisdom, and virtue; third, the light to live, to the use of his limbs to go whithersoever he listeth, to the use of air, fire, and water, to eat, drink, and rest as he pleases, and to the produce of his personal labour. It is repeated that these comprehend the inalienable rights of the individual—they have been so held from very ancient days down to the present hour—but all rights and laws are overshadowed by that Divine command which should enter into the life of professing Christians everywhere:—Thoushalt do no wrong to thy neighbour, but love him as thyself.

page 12

As has been stated, a man has the right to the produce of his [unclear: own] individual labour, but lie has no right to take the produce of [unclear: other] labour without rendering consideration, or without consent; in other words, he has no right, without recompense, to gather of the crop [unclear: which] others have sown, to drink of the wine which others have produced Man, in his relation to his fellowman can only acquire rights [unclear: through] labour or sacrifice. Sacrifice is the foundation of all right. Such [unclear: is] the recognised and accepted moral law, and it must commend itself the reason and judgment of everyone who thinks.

Well, how does the case now stand?

It can scarcely be denied that, in nearly every branch of [unclear: labour] workmen, by combining their financial resources, taking [unclear: counsel] together, and by efforts sometimes entailing severe struggle and [unclear: much] suffering, have been successful in shortening the hours of labour, [unclear: and] maintaining, not infrequently increasing, the payment of wages. [unclear: In] all this, the free labourer has gained in common with all others. [unclear: He] has contributed nothing; made not one effort; stood aloof; but [unclear: when] all has been accomplished, he has serenely accepted his share of the advantages which others have won. He is in the position of one [unclear: who] has idly, economically, and safely stood aside—contributing [unclear: nothing] sacrificing nothing—whilst others have sown and reaped, milled [unclear: the] grain and baked the loaf; then, with much satisfaction, he has [unclear: eate] of the bread. Where is the moral law that will recognise such [unclear: a] "right" as this is claimed to confer?

As a matter of fact, however, the position of the "free labourer," as he has been sweetly named, is infinitely worse than this displays. The Unions, by effort and sacrifice, have been the means of giving [unclear: him] a better dwelling to live in, a more comfortable bed to sleep in, [unclear: and] better food than ever graced his table before; all these advantages [unclear: he] and his little ones enjoy, and—how does he repay his benefactors. By seeking to bring to the ground—even though it bury himself [unclear: and] all belonging to him in the ruin—the whole fabric that has been [unclear: raised] If the individual has the "right" to sell his labour on such terms generally as pleases him, without reference to any moral consideration as to how injuriously the exercise of that right is certain to [unclear: operate] against his neighbour, then it follows that the repeal of the [unclear: combination] laws was a cardinal mistake, and consequently, action should [unclear: be] immediately taken to ensure that henceforth all labour shall be [unclear: free] Were this done then, no doubt, very speedily the situation of fifty [unclear: years] ago, as it has been shown in these pages, would be restored. Who [unclear: is] the man who will venture to propose this logical solution?

Now, in order to bring this matter more closely home to [unclear: some] minds, let it be supposed that in a certain community there are 100 capitalists, and of these 1000 capitalists 800 agreed to form a company for the achievement of certain highly beneficial results. They held meetings, appointed a managing directory, subscribed capital, and [unclear: went] on exposed to public criticism, and not infrequently to vituperation page 13 The association, left be said, proved a success and a dividend was declared, in the payment of which the 200 who had not joined were included equally with those who had subscribed the capital and done the work. Again the company saw their way to stilt larger gains; again from amongst themselves the necessary capital was raised; again proceedings went forward, and again success attended them. Once again to the 200 who had not expended a penny nor raised a finger in support received their full share of the dividend in common with the others. Once more an effort is to be made, once more is capital subscribed, but this time the difficulties in the way of success appear to be insurmountable, and a severe and arduous struggle is imminent. Behold, in the forefront of the opposition appear the 200 capitalists who, without having paid one shilling of the calls have received fully of the dividends, and it is boldy alleged for them that in this matter they have "rights!" Through the action of the 200 non-subscribers there ensue failure and loss to the company, whose success would also have been theirs. Rights! of course they have rights. They have exactly the same right that the dynamitard possesses who enjoys your bed, eats of your table, drinks of your wine, and in gratitude leaves an explosive bomb behind him to blow you and your whole house into a thousand fragments. No sophistry can give to any one the right to inflict an injury upon his fellowman, more particularly when that man is one to whom he is under deep obligation, and when at the very moment when the injury is designed to fall upon him he is actually engaged in striving to benefit his wronger equally with him self. It is astonishing that it should be necessary to write of the bearing of the moral law at such a time in such a place as this!

Through Unionism the working man of to-day has undoubtedly secured for himself shorter hours of labour and higher rates of wages, and to him these gains constitute a property; they are asa house which he can contemplate with pleasure and under the shelter of which he finds health, rest, comfort, and satisfaction. The moment, however, he ventures to make an effort to increase the conveniences of his newfound dwelling, or stands up to protect it from the assaults of those from whom he has won it after long and arduous endeavour in the great high court of public opinion, his fellow labourer—who ought in such an emergency to be found standing by his side to aid him—appears with axe o'er shoulder ready to help to hew it down. However much others may question it, that is the position as it presents itself to him. Is it any wonder that, under such circumstances, the natural feeling of antagonism which the Unionist bears toward his legitimate opponents—whom he seeks to fight fair and honest—fades into insignificance and melts away under the influence of the great rage which swells in his heart and bums in his brain at sight of the traitorous blackleg whenever he makes his appearance on the scene? Is it any wonder that, notwithstanding his intelligence and law-abiding proclivities, the moment the blackleg shows himself be becomes lost in paroxysms of page 14 fury, saying and doing the things that would never suggest [unclear: themselves] to him in calmer moments? There is a degree of irritation [unclear: which] passes beyond endurance; as the proverb hath it:—Furror fit [unclear: lease] saepius patientia. Think of it fairly, O reader. Is it at all [unclear: reconcileable] to sense that (a comparative handful of inconsequential, [unclear: miserable] wretches excepted) the great body of the workmen of to-day, who [unclear: are] not entirely without reading and intelligence, would be found hounding down members of their own class, some of them saying things and [unclear: do] ing acts in violation of the law, exposing themselves to long period [unclear: of] imprisonment, shedding their blood and running the risk of [unclear: losing] their lives, if they did not regard what Unionism has won for them [unclear: as] a property to be defended and the free labourer as a traitor and a [unclear: the]—the most unequivocal scum of the earth?

Suppress the free labourer, and what would be the result? "Oh," shout some fear inspired people," the mob would be rampant, [unclear: the] working man would trample over everything, the Unions would [unclear: prove] inexorable tyrants, capital would be driven to the wall or out of [unclear: the] country, existence would become intolerable." Now, is this really [unclear: turly] Or merely the veriest rhapsody? Have the Unions ever put foward any claim which could be considered as wildly, atrociously [unclear: unreasonable], which, if granted would have been productive of great [unclear: social] misery? If they have, remember the fearful errors of which capital has been guilty before launching into too heavy condemnation, and consider that it is now proposed to establish courts of conciliation and arbitration, before which all future differences are to be taken. [unclear: It is] to be supposed that these courts, when they come into existence, [unclear: will] do strict justice in adjudicating upon the claims of either the capitalistic employers or the workmen of the Unions, when appeal is made [unclear: to] them. The workman represented by his Union, and the employes organisation will stand equally before the law, disputes will be settled justice will be done—where then, is the necessity for this third party the free labourer? What wrongs follow upon society through [unclear: his] obliteration? Surely he can be spared, and "never be missed. Abolish the Unions and what happens then? Labour at once [unclear: goes] back to the competition of individualism; the struggle for a [unclear: wretched] subsistence goes forward, until a return is made to the sweater in [unclear: his] garret, disease, infection, and all the evils of a devoutly to be wished forgotten past. Can anyone doubt that this would be so? [unclear: Under] such circumstances, is there any lover of his kind who is prepared [unclear: to] cast a vote for the suppression of the Unions? Are you, O [unclear: Reader] ready to vote so? If you cannot affirm that the Unions ought to be swept away, if you feel constrained to admit that Unionism is [unclear: a] necessary institution, why prate of the rights of the free labourer, [unclear: who] is an enemy of Unionism, seeking to bring its existence to naught?

Viewed in a true light the free labourer is a backslider, an [unclear: ingrats] and a traitor to his order; as such he is felt not only by the workmen of the Unions, but even by himself. He knows—none better—of [unclear: the] page 15 benefits he has received and the nature of the return he makes in the conduct he is pursuing. He knows—none better—that the indignation and the immeasurable scorn which his conduct excites is justly merited, and he dare not look his fellow labourer of the Unions fairly in the face, eye to eye. The free labourer is supported by the capitalist, and it is fair to say that the capitalist may quite believe that, at any time, and without any consideration for past or present circumstances, a man has a right to sell his labour as he pleases. This writer, however, is pursuaded that it would be extremely difficult to rind many—if any—capitalists, who would consent to accept for themselves a similar antagonistic position to the mass of their order, when banded together, that the free labourer does to his fellow workmen. To understand this matter accurately the position has to be brought home to one's self. To comprehend adequately the indignation which the thought-of the free labourer—the blackleg, as with a bitter scorn he is called—produces in the mind of the Unionist, one has to endeavour to realise the depths that Labour has risen from, all the gains that have by struggle been won, and the condition of things which "freedom of competition" in labour would inevitably bring about.