The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 29
Actions at Law for the Recovery of Wages
Actions at Law for the Recovery of Wages.
"That, having both replies of the E.C. in reference to the cases of Brs. Williams and Turney before us, and seeing that they are in our opinion diametrically the opposite of one another, we, the members of the Birkenhead Branch, desire to record our utter inability to understand the ambiguity and apparent inconsistency of our E.C., as exemplified in the two documents referred to—in the one epistle stating that "the society never takes action for the recovery of wages due, unless there has been an attempt to reduce wages or infringe on the recognised customs of the trade," &C.; in the next, qualifying the first by stating that "where it is considered to be in the interest of the members, the E.C. sanctions the employment of a solicitor," and further stating that "in the case of one of our Walsall members, the solicitor engaged was paid from the funds of the society." We are of opinion that such vacillation on the part of our E.C. is calculated to do infinite harm, and to cause members to lose confidence in their decisions. For we, the members of the Birkenhead Branch, desire to state, in reply to the first communication, that there had been a deliberate and flagrant infringement of the recognised rules of the trade in the case herein referred to. Rule 7 of our working rules, agreed to so recently as last May, distinctly states that all employers must commence to pay not later than ten minutes after leaving-off time, and we are of opinion that where employers take ten days instead of ten minutes to commence payment of a week's wages, that it is, to all intents and purposes, a deliberate infringement of the recognised custom of the trade. Whilst, in reference to the second communication, we can conceive nothing of more vital importance and interest, not only to ourselves, but to the members generally, than the prompt payment of wages due to every man; and we are strongly of opinion that employers should be taught that they cannot with impunity act in this off-hand manner, at least with members of this powerful society. We would therefore respectfully request our E.C. to reconsider, not their decisions in the cases herein referred to (as they have been settled to the satisfaction of the members concerned), but the whole subject, with a view of enabling members—especially those who may be in poor circumstances—with the aid of the society, to take prompt action for the recovery of wages in all such cases, some of which are cases of peculiar hardship. A man with a large family might be out of employment through slackness of trade or sickness for a number of weeks, and at length obtain employment from some unprincipled scoundrel, who, when pay time came round, would coolly tell him "he had no money." What, we ask, under these circumstances, is a man to do? Go to a lawyer. Yes, but that means 6s. 8d. down on the nail—where is he to look for it? Go to his friends and tell his troubles, and thus raise the necessary funds. In our opinion this should not be; on the contrary, we are of opinion that a member of an association like ours ought to have a claim of this sort upon a society whose fundamental principle is that it is organised for the protection of our interests. We trust that our E.C. will give the subject their best attention."
Number of votes recorded in favour of the resolution, 54; against, none.
Reply.—There is not a single line in our rules which authorises the expenditure of the society's funds in legal proceedings instituted for the protection of our members in cases of dispute with their employers. But in the early history of the society an unwritten law gradually came into operation, which made it the duty of the society to bear the legal expenses of members who in a court of law might defend and maintain the privileges of the trade. The E.C., some years ago, saw that this custom, if not strictly regulated, might lead us into great expense, and might sometimes entail mischievous results. They therefore announced their intention to reserve to themselves the power of sanctioning or refusing to sanction the institution in any law court of legal proceedings at the society's expense. For their own guidance, they decided that whenever any branch could show that one of their members had a fair case, likely to be substantiated in court, of an attempt on the part of an employer to reduce wages, or to encroach on any of the recognised customs of the trade, the case should be taken into a court of justice at the society's expense, and that legal assistance should be secured whenever the case proved to be sufficiently important to warrant the adoption of such a course. But they have always regarded unpaid wages, whether for daywork or piecework, as a debt, which it was no part of the society's duty to recover. If this decision had not been steadfastly adhered to, we should frequently have been involved page 75 in intricate and costly questions connected with cases of liquidation and bankruptcy. But each succeeding E.C. has been consistent and unanimous on this point. They have agreed to sue for justice in any encroachment on the privileges of the trade, but not for the recovery of debt. In the case cited by the Birkenhead Branch, if it could be shown that the member had any reasonable chance, in accordance with local customs, of obtaining ten days' pay for the ten days during which he was kept waiting for his wages, the E.C. would have been willing to sanction legal proceedings for the recovery of the ten days' pay, but not for the recovery of the wages originally due. Such is the policy which the E.C. have pursued. They may have been obstinate in adhering to the lines laid down in the society's interests, but they certainly have neither been ambiguous nor inconsistent. There has been no more ambiguity in the policy of the E.C. on this question than there is in the wording of the various compliments paid to them in the pages of the present Monthly Report.