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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 76


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It may be granted that the Boards of Conciliation have not done all that was expected of them, but this has arisen from causes easily defined, and therefore as easily capable of amendment.

One principal cause was the contempt with which employers treated the whole subject. When the Act of 1894 came into operation, the employers ignored it. Though the Act contemplated the formation of unions of employers they formed none, and consequently sent no representatives to the Board. The gentlemen who were nominated by the Government in default of nomination by the employers (speaking now of the facts as disclosed in Dunedin) were conscientious men, and their published remarks show that they were speedily impressed with the justice and moderation of the claims advanced by the workers, who put forward their contentions with altogether unexpected ability. Consequently the demands were very largely acceded to.

There has never been a case before any of the Boards in which the demands of the workers were flouted. A comparison of the records would show that the recommendation of the Boards conceded to the workers nearly, if not quite the whole, of their demands. Still the employers held aloof; and compelled the workers to invoke the aid of Arbitration. It is interesting at this stage to recall some of the arguments advanced against the Bill when it was first mooted. Compulsory arbitration was held to be a self-contradiction, and it has been found that this has been verified from the consistency with which the employers did—nothing. They merely sat tight, and compelled the unions to put the machinery in motion. Instead of cheerfully accepting the Act in the spirit in which it was framed, they have all along adopted the air of contumacious defendants. In spite of the Act and of the advanced opinions that now govern the relations between the employer and employed, they regarded, and still secretly regard, the claims of the workers as a piece of preposterous impudence, and are shocked at the temerity of any one who would dare to inquire into the profits they were making, and to ascertain whether capital was not taking an undue share.

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As the 'Bulletin' neatly puts it in a recant shocking case of sweating in Sydney, the agitation is not between the workers and the law of supply and demand, but between the workers and the infamous exaction of 25 per cent profits. The injudicious and partisan action of certain Boards outside of Dunedin helped to bring Conciliation into disrepute, until it really is the case, as Mr Macgregor says, that the Boards are merely courts of first instance. Employers now use them to feel the strength of the case against them. But it does not therefore follow that the Boards should be abolished. It might assist to establish confidence in them, and inculcate respect for their recommendations, if their personnel were changed so as to have skilled persons sitting in every particular dispute, and it ought to be possible to group unions in allied industries so as to avoid the needless irritation of citing one employer in as many cases as he has branches in his business, but when it is found that the Court of Arbitration gives substantially all that the Board recommends, which has been the result so far, then employers will recognise the fairness of the Boards, and abide by their recommendations.

It is something extraordinary that enemies to the worker like Mr Macgregor should be permitted to traduce the labour courts with impunity. It is impossible to conceive courts more fairly constituted, and their pains-taking impartiality has been manifest, yet the impression has been sedulously fostered that they are the creatures of the workers, and have entered into a conspiracy with Parliament, and with some parson or persons unknown, to rob the innocent capitalist of his wealth and to divide it among a number of corrupt and designing persons called unionists Language like this regarding the Magistrates' Court, or the Supreme Court, would lead to speedy punishment. In a lawyer it would probably lead to suspension. Even if it were true, no person would be allowed to say it in public; how much less should it be tolerated when it comes from a pen charged with the gall of party and the bitterness of the discomfited politician.

"But," says Mr. Macgregor, "the unions have divorced the Act from its real purposes as disclosed by Mr Reeves." Yet if we refer to Mr Reeves' speech, as quoted by the critic, and read the parts not quoted by him, we shall find that Mr Reeves actually cited cases where the details of industries were brought up for amendment. Indeed, it is impossible to conceive a lab our court that shall not be competent to deal with the details, thus according to Mr Macgregor "creating disputes," It is page 7 impossible even to discuss a measure of the kind [unclear: without] contemplating the very things that the unions have done. In the New South Wales House, Mr Neilson pointed out that a grave defect in the Arbitration Bill was the absence of provision for sending an industrial dispute to arbitration ere it occurred. It was well known, he said, that in certain occupations the main difficulties which may arise are not difficulties as to wages or hours but as to the conditions under which men are compelled to labour. A dispute may arise in regard to those conditions, and the Bill states that until the dispute has been decided by the court in one way or other, the men must continue to work under them, however vile they may be. In this way the conditions in intermittent employment would never be ameliorated. The Act, or any such Act, is created for the express purpose of bringing the conditions of labour under review for adjustment by a competent court. To bring these conditions under review they must be formulated Yet when the unions formulate the conditions under which they wish to work, they are violating the spirit and intention of the Act, and "creating" disputes. Argument of this kind is reminiscent of a kitten chasing its own tail.

Mr Macgregor refers in various places to the "iniquitous" demand for preference to unionists, and in this portion of his attack is absolutely dishonest. He conceals the very important circumstance that Mr Justice Williams, before it was quite clear that the original Act did not confer upon the court the power to give such preference, yet did award preference as a matter of equity. He said, in effect, that the unionists had incurred the trouble, expense, and odium of coming forward to obtain better conditions. The whole body of workers benefited by the advantages obtained, and it was only just that those who had been instrumental in obtaining them should have the preference It is further, characteristically left unmentioned by Mr Macgregor that any award giving preference to unionists is conditional only. Take any award you please, and you will find something like this:—It and so long as the rules of the union permit any person of good character upon a payment of 5s, and of subsequent contributions at a rate not exceeding 6d per week, without ballot or other selection to become members, employers shall employ members of the union in preference to non-members, if they are equally qualified. It is also further provided in all awards that if any workman deem himself incompetent to earn the minimum wage ho may be paid such wages as may be agreed upon between the union and the employer, with the chairman of the Conciliation Board in reserve in case of dispute.

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What, than becomes of Mr Macgregor's philanthropic baker and the starving young non-unionist? If he is not a myth, he must be a sneak, who is ashamed to come before the Union and show cause why he should accept less than the ruling wage. Of all men it ill becomes a member of the legal profession to malign arbitration and conciliation, and one of its consequences preference to unionists. The profession is the closest union that can be found. The rates (minimum wage) are laid down by rules that cannot be evaded under pain of expulsion. The fees that may be charged are laid down in an Act. No doubt many get much more than is laid down. Eminent jurists like Mr Macgregor no doubt laugh at the petty restrictions, because they move in a higher plane, where the fees are lordly, but then all workmen do not assess their services at the minimum wage. The law says that a competent workman shall not receive less than a given wage. Ha gets as much more as he can—just like a lawyer. Volumes might be written about the iniquity of the closeness of the union of lawyers, but it has been exposed so often that this is unnecessary.

Medical men are also bound in a union. Surveyors, accountants, almost all the professions, have bound themselves similarly, and for precisely the same reasons that actuate workmen. The ostensible reason with professional men is the public advantage, but the real one is their own advantage. They must not be blamed for this. Neither should the workers be blamed, and indeed they are not blamed except by some malcontent whose reasons if carried into effect would lead to anarchy in respect of associations. If the principle underlying industrial association is bad, then the principle underlying all professional associations is also bad and if one should be abolished, then the other should also be destroyed.