19 MAY 1860, Page 13


THE question discussed by the letter-carriers of the General Post Office at a public meeting on Monday, is of the deepest import to the interests not only of that particular class of the working-class generally. In the discussion, however, those who took the lead, and appear to have had possession of the meeting—that is to say, those who represent the particular body of men and a large pro- portion of the working classes, appear to us entirely to have mis- conceived the grounds on which the question must be settled, and not less to mistake the permanent interests of their own order.

The complaint- of the letter-carriers is, that they have to keep their families, which cannot be done on eighteen or nineteen shil- lings a week ; that honesty cannot be provided at that sum,— men receiving such wages being under too severe a temptation to take money from letters ; that "the system of promotion by merit is nothing more nor less than a gross system of favourit- ism" ; that "boys are placed over the head of men who have grown old in the service" ; and that "men are driven and goaded through their heavy work." Mr. Shaw, whose statement of grievances we have endeavoured to follow in its most salient points, seems to us to have misapprehended the whole position. The Post Office is not established for the maintenance of letter- carriers and letter-sorters. If the whole work could be done by purely mechanical means, with equal or greater celerity and a less cost, so much the better. The department is one which is established, exclusively, to perform a given service for the community, and if the end could be attained without the employment of men, the service would be relieved of a cost and a hindrance. If the managers of the Post Office find that they can procure the labour to be executed at a given rate, and in a given time, it is their business to pay no more than the wage ne- cessary and to allow no more than the time inevitably required. In regard to promotion, the one permanent object of selection must be so to place the men as to procure the best execution of the work. " Seniority" is no ground of promotion. Mere fidelity is one good ground, but not the only one ; for merit is still stronger, and points more positively to advancement more rapid. "Merit" does not consist in the possession of moral qualities ; it is in fact a very vague expression, changing its import as it is ap- plied to different purposes. In the Post Office, we conceive, merit does not mean even cleverness, promptitude in sorting, rapid pace in walking, or accuracy of memory ; though all those qualities might so far help to facilitate the promotion of a letter-carrier or letter-sorter. In the eye of Post sDffice management, merit must consist in the possession of whatsoever qualities render a man most tractable and available for any of the department. That set of men by whose instrumentality the business of the depart i - ment s executed with the greatest smoothness and completeness,

at a minimum of cost in time or money, is the most meritorious set Ifelitiull.; and any set of men who occasion difficulty, incom- ple cost, are proportionately a less meritorious set of lees "merit,' and are less suitable for promotion. speaks as if the letter-carriers and letter-sorters were an beings pre-destined to service in the Post Office. m as a great tragio poet might lave regarded a

classic hero ; or as an historian might have regarded certain classes of serfs and villeins in our feudal ages. There is no com- pulsion on the letter-carriers and sorters to remain under the au- thorities of the Post Office. They are free to accept the work with its conditions, or to reject it. And per contra, any work not malum in se, nor contrary to general laws, may be offered on any conditions that an employer may devise. He cannot compel acceptance ; but if the work be accepted, the fulfilment of the I conditions becomes a part of the contract; and it must always be presumed that those who undertake the contract do so in view of the conditions. If the working classes disapprove of the system in St. Martin's-le-Grand, all they have got to do is to stop away from the place. I Nay more, if Mr. Shaw's statement be absolutely true, and if the men employed in the Post Office cannot live on the rate of wages and under the conditions prescribed in that department, they will of course die at their work, or, what is snore probable, they will leave it before that fatal result ensues. The mere fact ' that the vacancies are filled by men who seek the employment is a sufficient refutation to Mr. Shaw's statements.

We are well aware that this aspect of the subject will be con- sidered inhuman ; but those members of the working classes who shrink from a rigid anatomizing of social questions, are like patients who shrink from a probing of their wounds ; or rather nervous persons who cannot study anatomy from feelings of tenderness, and thus refuse to acquire a knowledge which would enable them to protect health against disease. Free-trade applies to labour as much as to corn. It may be perceived at a very early stage of the investigation that conditions imposed upon the per- formance of labour, however they may at first be intended for the protection of the labourers, soon become instruments available for the restraint of labour, since they are hands of the more powerful order of employers. What the labouring class should seek is, no renewal or maintenance of restrictive laws, but rather the removal of all the restrictive laws that remain, including every species of interference with " combinations " as such. We are well aware

that the paper which appeared in our journal on the of February, "The Story of a Cork and a Candle," shocked some of our friends who are interested in the working classes, because we took no sufficient account of the corkcutters who might be thrown out of employment by the improved machinery ; which will most certainly come into use though the adoption of the particular ma- chine we were discussing may be retarded by the accidental death of the agents in this country, for they perished in the outward voyage to America. The United States are the country in which labour is most rapidly rising above the depressed level in which it has been kept even to modern times in Europe ; and one of the appliances through which this elevation is proceeding is the im- provement of mechanical substitutes for hand-labour. We are not aware of any such improvement in industry which has not almost if not directly benefited the working classes very generally, even in this country ; with one single exception, in the case of the wool-oombers, whose work was unquestionably superseded. In every other case of which we are aware, the direct results have been to cheapen the cost of the given product, to extend its use and consumption in a far greater ratio, and, therefore, in a pro- portionately greater ratio to enlarge at once the employment for the labouring class, and to raise the remuneration for that class. But this is not all. The benefit which the increase of skill re- quires,—higher test of education,—calls forth higher faculties. Thus the mere labourer becomes the artisan ; the calling of the artisan becomes a profession. The process is going on before the eyes of us all—in many branches of industry. Now the most powerful means to arrest it, to keep down the working- classes into the quasi-slavery which they complain through their poverty, their faulty education, and their helplessness would be to arrest the progress of mechanical improvement and the extension of trade.

We are well aware that in the first steps of most improvements painful effects fall upon individuals ; and here, it appears to us, the working classes have at once a claim and a duty. It is not only the duty but the interest of the entire community to dimi- nish any mischief falling upon individuals through improvements which benefit the rest. The principle of compensation is recog- nized in most cases. The nearest to the performance of that duty are usually the members of the class whose labour is extended • and amongst the many advantages derivable from a restoration o those guilds by which the working classes were able to promote th own interests and to protect each other, is the assistance afford to those who suffer from change of trade as well as bad health old age. If the working classes were thoroughly combined hr means of such corporations, they might obtain such complete ino, formation as to the course of industry, the progress of =prey ment, the arising of new wants, as to effect a much better dis bution of their gross number, though that number be rainier* And, in that event, we might have found such very effective dis- tribution of the army of industry as places men with large fami- lies to do the work of younger men at eighteen or nineteen shil- lings a week. •