A WORKING-CLASS GRIEVANCE. T HE Conservative party, or that section of
it which is unconditionally opposed to an extension of the suffrage, has repeatedly asserted—and never more frequently than during the late Reform debates—that the legislation of the existing House of Commons in respect of the relations between capital and labour is more equitable and enlightened than any that would be enforced by a Parliament partly composed of working men. When we pass a law, they said, affecting the positions of employers and employed, we have regard not only to the interest of the former class, but to that of the latter ; and what the interest of the latter class is we can surely learn readily enough from the member for Lambeth or the member for Brighton. But, as Mr Mill so clearly pointed out in his late speech, it is impossible for any man belonging to the upper or middle class, no matter how well-intentioned, how anxious to learn, or how free from prejudice he may be, to enter completely into the opinions of, or to be in entire sympathy with the working men. Their desires are not our desires, their theories are not our theories, nor can we be certain that those theories and desires are correctly interpreted to us even by Mr. Hughes or Mr. Fawcett. The various questions at issue between employers and employed are quite as much questions of feeling as of strict justice, Unless that feeling be represented in Parliament, our legislation, though it maybe guided byprinciples of rigid economical truth—we do not say that it has been so hitherto—will be cold and lifeless ; it will fail, as it has so often failed, to conciliate the labouring population of this country, and it will continue to be looked on with a not unnatural suspicion. We desire to see working men speaking in the House of Commons on behalf of their class, and though perhaps we could comply but in few cases with their full demands, we have little doubt that a spirit would pervade our laws on the subject of labour very different from that which prevails now, in an assembly of employers. A case which has lately occurred illustrates in our opinion very forcibly the necessity for such a reform. We do not mean to accuse the administrators of the law, but the law itself of injustice ; and if working men had a share, however trifling, in the government of the country, we believe the rigour of the enactment would probably have long ago been modified. The facts are very simple, but are worthy the notice of those who take an interest in the position of the labouring classes in England.
On the 5th inst. a case was tried at the Brentford Petty Sessions which, though immediately affecting only one person, concerns indirectly a very large proportion of the labouring population of this country. The prosecutor in the case was Mr. Burchett, a brickraaker of Heston, who employs by contract a large number of labourers as brick-moulders. Some time since Mr. Burchett, it appears, had entered into a contract to supply 19,000,000 of bricks by a fixed date. He had thereupon entered into another contract for the term of one year with the brick-moulders summoned, and among them the defendant, that they should mould bricks for him at the rate of 4s. 4d. per 1,000. This contract was in writing. It was alleged, however, on behalf of the defendant, and ad- mitted by the prosecutor, that at the time of signing this agreement an oral understanding was entered into between the parties by which Mr. Burchett bound himself to give an increase of 6d. per 1,000 upon a certain contingency. What this contingency was is matter of dispute, the master assert- ing that he had merely promised that if any one of three neighbouring brick manufacturers gave an advance he would follow their example i • the workmen, on the other hand, affirm- ing that no individuals were named, but that the compact was that if the price were raised in the neighbourhood Mr. Bur- chett would also raise their wages in the same proportion. In the middle of last month some brickmakers near Heston, not, however, any of the three said to have been named by Mr. Burchett, raised their moulders' wages 6d. per 1,000. The de- fendant Avery, with the other workmen in the same brickfields, immediately applied for an equal increase, which Mr. Bur- chett refused. The men thereupon declined to furnish any more bricks at the contract price. Mr. Burchett instituted a prosecution against Avery and others under the Masters and Servants' Act, 4 Geo. IV., c. 34, s. 3. The case was heard before a full bench of magistrates, and though some objec- tions were raised by the defendant's attorney, Avery was sen- tenced to two months' imprisonment. The magistrates hav- ing refused to state a case for the superior Court, a motion was made in the Queen's Bench on Monday last to compel them to do so. The first point of law raised is that Avery was not merely a labourer or artificer, but a contractor, and hence the penal provisions of the statute do not apply to his case. It is quite true that a brickmoulder is in a small way not only a contractor, but an employer. Besides himself, a moulder employs a gang, consisting of an off-bearer, a temperer, and a pug-boy. But notwithstanding we fear he is not excluded from the penalty. The words of the Act are sufficiently vague to include him. If this should be decided to be the law, then undoubtedly that law as it stands is a hardship to the class of working men re- presented by Avery. It is clearly unfair that while Mr. Burchett, should he not keep his agreement, is only liable to damages for breach of contract, Avery, who is quite as much a contractor, though on a smaller scale, is in a like case subject to a penalty of three months' imprisonment, with hard labour. A working man would tell you that the reason is not far to seek, and it should be our study to take away every excuse for this belief, however groundless. He would say, "In England you have one law for the rich, and another for the poor. If working men were themselves in part framers of that law the accusation would lose its sting. The second point of law raised by Mr. Montagu Chambers on behalf of Avery is, that an oral agreement for an increase of wages, though not competent to override a written contract in a civil case, is a "lawful excuse" upon a criminal charge. What the legal weight of this objection may be we cannot decide, but it appears to have a basis of common sense. We shall be glad to hear the authoritative decision of the superior Court in this important case ; but whatever that decision may be, it still remains clear that until there is a substantial representation of the working classes such questions will be a perpetual source of distrust and angry feeling. We do not assert that the law is intentionally unjust ; but we do assert that its provisions press un- fairly upon one class, without conferring any commen- surate benefit upon another. We are clearly justified in assuming that had this law been discussed previous to its passing by the persons who were likely to be subject to its penalties, it could not have been what it is. If we thought that any good result would follow, we would commend this subject to Lord Elcho's Committee, but we do not think so. We despair of seeing any change for the better in the rela- tions of capital and labour, until the latter element of wealth is represented in Parliament as efficiently as the former.