Speech on the Suppression of Industrial Combinations
I am here to support the amendment of my honorable friend, M. Morin; I cannot support it without also examining the proposal of the committee. It is impossible to discuss the amendment of M. Morin without entering involuntarily, so to speak, into the general discussion; this requires us to discuss the committee's conclusions as well.
In fact, M. Morin's amendment is more than a mere modification of the principal proposition; he is opposing one system to another system, and, to decide between them, we must compare them carefully.
Citizens, I do not bring into this discussion any partisan spirit or any class prejudice. I shall not seek to play upon your emotions, but the Assembly sees that my lungs cannot struggle against parliamentary tumults; I need its kindest attention.
To evaluate the committee's system, let me recall some words of its honorable reporter, M. de Vatimesnil. He said: "There is a general principle in Article 44 and those that follow it in the Penal Code; namely: Combination, whether between employers or between workers, constitutes an offense only when an attempt or a beginning has been made to put it into effect." This is written into the law, and it is this that gave rise to an immediate response to an observation concerning it made by the honorable M. Morin. He said to you: "The workers, then, cannot join together, cannot come to their employer and honorably discuss their wages with him!" (That is the expression he used: "honorably discuss with him.")
"Pardon me; they can join together," interjects M. Vatimesnil; "they can decidedly do so, either by all coming to the employer together or by naming committees to come; the offense, according to the terms of the Code, begins only when an attempt or a beginning has been made to effect a combination, that is, when, after having discussed the conditions, and despite the spirit of conciliation that the employers in their own interest always bring to this kind of thing, the workers say to them: 'Since you will not give all that we ask of you, we are going to quit, and, by using our influence, by exerting pressures that are well known and that depend upon our identity of interests and our comradeship, we are going to get all the other workers in other shops to go on strike.' "
After reading this, I ask myself what the offense consists in; for in this Assembly there cannot be, it seems to me, what is called a systematic majority or minority on such a question. We all wish to repress offenses; we all aim at not introducing fictitious, imaginary offenses into the Penal Code, just to have the pleasure of punishing them.
I ask myself what the offense consists in. Is it in the combination, in the strike, or in the pressure to which allusion has been made? It is said: "It is the combination itself that constitutes the offense." I cannot accept this doctrine, because the word combination is synonymous with association; it has the same etymology and the same meaning. Combination in itself, aside from the end it aims at and the means it employs, cannot be considered as an offense, and the honorable reporter feels that himself; for, replying to M. Morin, who asked whether the workers could discuss wages with their employers, the honorable M. de Vatimesnil said: "They certainly can; they can come separately or all together to name committees." Now, to name committees, they must certainly come to an understanding, plan together, associate; they must form a combination. Strictly speaking, then, it is not in the mere fact of combination that the offense consists.
Nevertheless, some would like to make this the offense, and they say: "A beginning has to be made in effecting a combination." But can the fact of beginning to put an innocent action into effect render that action culpable? I do not believe so. If an action is bad in itself, certainly the law cannot deal with it until it has been begun. Indeed, I say that it is the beginning of the action that brings the action into existence. Your language, on the contrary, is tantamount to saying that a look is an offense, but it does not become an offense until one begins to look. M. de Vatimesnil himself recognizes that it is not possible to seek for the thought behind a culpable action. Now, when the action is in itself innocent and is manifested by innocent deeds, it is evident that it is not incriminating and cannot change its nature.
Now, what is to be understood by the words "beginning to effect a combination"?
A combination can occur, can begin to be put into effect, in a thousand different ways. But no, the concern is not with these thousand different ways, but with the strike. In that case, if it is the strike that is necessarily the beginning of the combination, then say that the strike is in itself an offense, punish the strike, and say that the strike will be punished, that whoever refuses to work at wage rates that he does not accept will be punished. Then your law will be honest.
But is there any conscience that can admit that the strike is an offense in itself, independently of the means employed? Does a man not have the right to refuse to sell his labor at a rate that does not suit him?
The reply to me will be: "All this may be true when only a single individual is involved, but it is not true when men have associated together for this purpose."
But, gentlemen, an action that is innocent in itself is not criminal because it is multiplied by a certain number of men. When an action is bad in itself, I admit that if that action is performed by a certain number of individuals, one may say that it is aggravated; but when it is innocent in itself, it cannot become criminal because it is the deed of a great number of individuals. I do not understand, then, how one can say that a strike is criminal. If one man has the right to say to another: "I don't want to work under such and such conditions," two or three thousand men have the same right; they have the right to quit. This is a natural right, which should also be a legal right.
However, my opponents need to impose a stigma of criminality on the strike. And how do they go about it? They slip between parentheses these words: "Since you will not give us what we ask of you, we are going to quit; we are going, by exerting pressures that are well known and that depend upon our identity of interests and our comradeship...."
This, then, is the offense: the well-known pressures—violence and intimidation. This is the offense; this is what you ought to punish. And, in fact, that is precisely what the amendment of the honorable M. Morin does. How can you refuse him your support?
But they adopt another line of reasoning and say: "Combination has two characteristics that can put it in the category of offenses; combination is culpable in itself, and it produces consequences that are harmful to the worker, to the employer, and to the whole of society."
In the first place, that combination is culpable is precisely the point in question, quod erat demonstrandum; it is or is not culpable, depending on the end it proposes and, above all, on the means it employs. If the means are limited to mere inertia, to passivity, if the workers are in accord, have reached agreement, and say: "We do not want to sell our merchandise, which is labor, at such a price. We want another rate; and if you refuse, we are going to return to our homes or seek work elsewhere," it seems to me that it is impossible to say that this is a culpable action.
But you contend that it is harmful. Here, despite all the respect that I profess for the talent of the honorable reporter, I believe that he has ventured into a type of reasoning that is confused, to say the least. He says: "The strike is harmful to the employer, since the absence of one or of several workers is troublesome for him. A strike has an adverse effect on his production, so that the strikers violate the freedom of the employer, and, consequently Article 13 of the Constitution."
This is, in fact, the complete reverse of the truth.
I meet with an employer, we discuss the rate of pay, what he offers me does not suit me, I commit no violence, I leave—and you say that it is I who infringe on the employer's freedom, because my refusal to work on his terms has an adverse effect on his production! Note that what you proclaim is nothing else than slavery. For what is a slave, if not a man forced by law to work under conditions that he rejects? [The Left: "Hear! Hear!"]
You ask that the law intervene because I violate the property rights of the employer; do you not see that, on the contrary, it is the employer who violates mine? If he has the law intervene to impose his will on me, where is freedom, where is equality? [The Left: "Hear! Hear!"]
Do not say that I misrepresent your reasoning, for it is there in its entirety in the report and in your speech.
Next, you say that the workers harm themselves when they combine, and you conclude from this that the law should prevent strikes. I am in agreement with you that in most cases the workers do harm themselves. But it is precisely for this reason that I desire that they should be free, because freedom would teach them that they harm themselves. Yet you deduce the consequence that the law must intervene and bind them to the workshop.
You thus force the law to enter upon a very broad and dangerous road.
You accuse the socialists every day of wanting to make the law intervene in all things, of wanting to abolish personal responsibility.
You complain every day that wherever there is evil, suffering, or sorrow, man constantly invokes the law and the state.
I, for my part, do not want the law to say to a man, because he strikes and thereby consumes a part of his savings: "You must work in that shop, although they will not give you the wage rate that you ask for." I cannot accept such a theory.
Finally, you say that the strike has a harmful effect on the whole of society.
There is no doubt that it does; but the reasoning is the same: a man judges that, by quitting work, he will obtain a better rate of wages in a week or ten days; undoubtedly this involves a loss of labor for society, but what would you do? Do you want the law to cure everything? It is impossible; in that case, we must say that a merchant who waits for a better time to sell his coffee or his sugar harms society. Then we must always invoke the law and call upon the state to intervene.
Against the proposal of the committee an objection has been made that, it seems to me, has been treated too lightly, for it is very serious. It has been said: "What is the issue? On the one side are employers, and on the other, workers; what is in question is the determination of wage rates. Evidently, what is desirable, if wages are determined by the natural play of supply and demand, is that the demand and the supply be equally free, or, if you will, equally constrained. To this end there are only two means: either we must allow combinations perfect freedom, or we must suppress them completely."
It is objected—and you admit it—that it is absolutely impossible by means of your law to hold the balance equal; for combinations of workers, since they are formed on a very large scale and in full view, are much more easy to deal with than combinations of employers.
You admit the difficulty; but you also add: "The law cannot stop to consider these details." I reply that it should stop to consider them. If the law can repress a supposed offense only by committing the most shocking and enormous injustice against an entire class of citizens, it should stop to consider what it is doing. There are a thousand analogous cases which the law does stop to consider.
You admit yourself that under the rule of your legislation supply and demand are no longer on an even footing, since combinations of employers cannot be apprehended; and it is evident that if two or three employers dine together and form a combination, no one knows anything about it. That of workers, on the other hand, will always be perceived, since it is made openly.
Since one side escapes your law, and the other does not, the law has the necessary consequence of bearing down on supply, but not on demand, i.e., of changing, at least in so far as it is effective, the natural rate of wages, and this in a systematic and permanent manner. This is what I cannot approve of. I say that since you cannot make a law equally applicable to all interests involved, since you cannot give them legal equality, then allow them freedom, which includes equality.
But if equality is not actually attainable as a result of the committee's proposal, is it at least achieved on paper? Yes, I certainly believe that the committee has made great efforts to attain at least apparent equality. However, it has not yet succeeded; and, for us to be convinced of this, it suffices to compare Article 414 with Article 415, that which concerns the employers with that which concerns the workers. The first is exceedingly simple: there can be no mistake; justice when it pursues the offender—and the latter when he defends himself—will know perfectly what the rule is.
"1. Any combination between employers of workers that tends to force the lowering of wages, if an attempt or a beginning has been made to put it into effect, will be punished."
I call your attention to the word "force," which gives great latitude to the employers' defense. "It is true," they will say, "that two or three of us united; we took steps to lower wages, but we did not try to force the issue." This is a very important word that is not found in the following article.
In fact, the following article is extremely elastic; it comprises not just one act, but a great number of acts.
"Any combination of workers to stop work simultaneously, to forbid work in the shops, to prevent appearing there before or after certain hours, and, in general, to suspend work in order to influence or raise the price of labor [it does not say 'force'], if an attempt or beginning has been made to put it into effect, etc...."
And if it be said that I cavil about the word "force," I call the attention of the committee to the importance that it has itself given to this word. [Uproar.]
[A member on the Left]: The Right will not grant you silence. When good things are said, they always interrupt. Say something false, and they will listen to you.
M. Frédéric Bastiat: In its desire to arrive at a certain impartiality, at least on paper, since it is impossible in fact, the committee had two ways to take in regard to the expressions "unjustly" and "abusively" that Article 414 contains.
Either the words that open so wide an area of defense for employers must evidently be suppressed in Article 414, or they must be introduced into Article 415 to open the same door to the workers. The committee has preferred the suppression of the words "unjustly" and "abusively." On what basis has the committee taken this action? Precisely on the basis of what immediately follows these words—the word "force"; and this word, underlined five times on one page of its report, proves that the committee attaches great importance to it. Indeed, the committee has expressed itself categorically on this point:
When an agreement for measures contrary to law has been made to force the reduction of wages, it is impossible to justify it. Such a deed is necessarily unjust and abusive; for to force the reduction of wages is to produce, by a pact as illicit as it is merciless, a reduction of wages that would not have resulted from the circumstances of industry and free competition; from which it follows that the use of the words "unjustly" and "abusively" offends good sense.
Thus, how have they justified the elimination they have made of the words "unjustly" and "abusively"? They have said: "The words are redundant; the term 'force' replaces all that."
But, gentlemen, when the workers were concerned, the word "force" was no longer inserted, and hence the workers do not have the same chance of defense; it has merely been set down that the workers cannot raise wages, no longer unjustly and abusively by forcing the raise, but solely by raising them. There is again, at least in the drafting, a flaw, an inequality, which has simply been grafted onto the greater inequality that I have just spoken of.
Such, gentlemen, is the system proposed by the committee, a system that, in my opinion, is vicious in every way, vicious theoretically and vicious practically, a system that leaves us in complete uncertainty as to what the offense is. Is it combination, is it striking, is it abuse, or is it force? We are not told. I defy anyone, even the most logical mind, to see where impunity begins and where it ends. You say to me: "Combination is an offense. Yet you may name a committee." But I am not sure of being able to name a committee and to send delegates when your report is full of considerations from which it follows that combination is the very essence of the offense.
Next, I say that from a practical point of view your law is full of inequalities; it is not applied exactly and proportionately to the two parties whose antagonism you would like to abolish. A peculiar way to abolish antagonism between two parties, to treat them in an unequal manner!
As for the system of M. Morin, I shall not spend much time on it. It is perfectly clear, perfectly lucid; it rests on an unshakable principle, admitted by everyone: freedom for use and suppression of abuse. There is no intellect whatsoever that does not give its assent to such a principle.
Ask the first comer, whomever you will, whether the law is unjust or partial when it confines itself to repressing intimidation and violence. Everyone will tell you: "These are the true offenses." Besides, laws are made for the ignorant as well as for the learned. Men's minds must instantly grasp the definition of an offense; the conscience must give its assent. While reading the law, one must say: "Truly, that is an offense." You speak of respect for the law; this immediate response is a constituent of that respect. How do you expect people to respect an unintelligent and unintelligible law? That is impossible. [Approval on the Left.]
What is happening here, gentlemen, seems to me to derive some importance from the perfect analogy with what has happened in another country of which M. de Vatimesnil spoke yesterday, England, which has had so much experience with combinations, labor disputes, and difficulties of that nature. I believe that that experience is worthy of being considered here.
You have been told of the numerous and formidable combinations that have appeared there since the abrogation of the relevant law or laws; but you have been told nothing of those that took place formerly. We must speak of them too; for, in order to judge the two systems, we must compare them.
Before 1824, England had been desolated by combinations so numerous, so terrible, so violent, that thirty-seven statutes were passed against this scourge in a country where, as you know, tradition constitutes, so to speak, a part of the law, and where even absurd laws are respected just because they are ancient. That country must indeed have been exhausted and tormented by the evil of combination to decide to pass one after another, and in a brief period of time, thirty-seven statutes, each more forceful than the one before. And what was the result? They did not achieve their end; the evil became more and more aggravated. One fine day they said to themselves: "We have tried many systems. Thirty-seven statutes have been passed. Let us try to see whether we can succeed by a very simple means: justice and freedom." I should like to see this reasoning applied to many questions. Then their solution would not be so difficult as is thought. In short, this time such reasoning prevailed and was applied in England.
Hence, in 1824, a law was introduced in accordance with the proposal of Mr. Hume, a proposal that resembled very strongly that of Messrs. Doutre, Greppo, Benoît, and Fould: it decreed the total repeal of the laws on combinations that had been passed up to that time. Justice in England thus found itself disarmed in face of combinations, even against violence, intimidation, and threat—deeds which, however, aggravate combination. To these deeds, only the laws relating to threats or to incidental street brawls could be applied; so that the next year, in 1825, the Minister of Justice asked for a special law that would allow complete freedom to combinations, but would increase the punishment for ordinary acts of violence. This is the essence of the law of 1825.
Article 3 declares: "Whosoever by intimidation, threats, or acts of violence does.... etc..... will be punished by imprisonment and a fine, etc.....
The words "intimidation," "threats," and "acts of violence," reappear in each phrase. The word "combination" is not even mentioned.
And then come two other extremely remarkable articles that would probably not be allowed in France, because they are virtually comprised in the maxim: "What the law does not forbid is allowed."
The law of 1825 says: "Those who unite or combine to seek to influence the rate of wages, or those who enter into verbal or written agreements, etc..... will not be subject to this penalty."
In short, the broadest and most complete freedom is expressly granted there.
I say there is an analogy in the situation, for what the committee proposes for your consideration is the old English system, that of the statutes. The proposal of M. Doutre and of his colleagues is the proposal of Mr. Hume, which repealed all the statutes and allowed no increased penalties for acts of violence that were planned in common; although one cannot fail to see that acts of violence planned by a certain number of men involve more danger than individual acts of violence committed in the street. In short, the proposal of the honorable M. Morin corresponds perfectly to the one that brought forth in England the definitive law of 1825.
Now, you are told: "Since 1825, England has not fared well with this system." It has not fared well with it! I can only say that, for my part, I think that you make pronouncements on this question without having pondered it deeply enough. I have traveled through England several times, and I have asked a great number of manufacturers about this law. I can assert that I never met a person who did not praise it, and who was not quite satisfied that England in this case had dared to adopt freedom. And it is perhaps because of this that later it dared again to adopt freedom in regard to many other questions.
You cite the strike of 1832, which indeed was a formidable one; but we must take care not to present facts out of context. That year in England was one of scarcity: wheat was worth ninety-five shillings per quarter; there was a famine that lasted for several years.
M. de Vatimesnil, reporter: I cited the strike of 1842.
M. Bastiat: There was a famine in 1832 and another, severer one, in 1842.
Reporter: I spoke of the strike of 1842.
M. Bastiat: My argument applies with even more force to the year 1842. In times of scarcity like those, what happens? The income of nearly the whole population is used to buy necessities. They do not buy manufactured goods; the workshops are idle; many workers must be laid off; the labor market is glutted; and wages are lowered.
Indeed, when a great fall in wages occurs, and when this is connected with a terrible famine, it is not astonishing that in a country of complete freedom combinations are formed.
This is what took place in England. Did they change the law because of that? Not at all.
They knew the causes of these combinations, but they faced them. They punished threats and acts of violence wherever these appeared, but they did nothing else.
A frightful picture of these associations has been presented to us, and it is said that they tended to become political.
Gentlemen, at the time of which I speak, England was concerned with a great question, and that question was made more critical by the circumstances, by scarcity. There was a struggle between the industrial population and the landed proprietors, that is, the aristocracy, which wanted to sell wheat as dearly as possible, and therefore prohibited the importation of foreign wheat. What was the result? Those unions which yesterday were genially called "trade-unions," those unions which enjoyed freedom of combination, seeing that all the efforts made by their combination had not succeeded in raising the rate of wages....
A voice: That is what is bad.....
M. Bastiat: You say it is an evil; I say, on the contrary, that it is a great good. The workers perceived that the rate of wages does not depend on the employers, but on other social laws, and they said to themselves: "Why have not our wages risen? The reason for it is simple: it is because we are forbidden to work for export or at least to receive foreign wheat in payment. It is, then, wrong for us to blame our employers; we must blame the aristocratic class, which not only owns the soil but makes the laws, and we shall have an influence on wages only when we shall have won our political rights."
[The Left: "Hear! Hear!"]
M. Bastiat: Really, gentlemen, to find something extraordinary in this very simple and natural conduct on the part of the English workers is almost to bring to this tribunal a protest against universal suffrage in France. [More approval on the Left.]
It follows from this that the English workers have learned a great lesson by virtue of their freedom; they have learned that their employers are not always responsible for raising or lowering the rate of wages. Today England has just passed through two or three very difficult years following the potato blight, the poor harvest, the mania for railroads, and the revolutions that have desolated Europe and closed the outlets for England's industrial products. Never has it passed through such crises. Yet there has not been a single reprehensible act of combination or one deed of violence. The workers have renounced such acts after their experience; we have there an example to cite and to ponder on in our country. [Approval on the Left.]
In short, there is one consideration that strikes me as more important than all the rest. You want respect for the law, and you are quite right; but we must not obliterate the meaning of justice among men.
We are confronted by two systems: that of the committee and that of M. Morin.
Imagine alternatively that, by virtue of one or the other system, the workers are indicted. Suppose the workers are indicted in accordance with the present law on combinations. They do not even know what is required of them; they believed they were right up to a certain point to combine and to plan together, and you recognized it yourself in a certain measure. They say: "We have gone through our savings; we are ruined. It is not our fault; it is that of society which torments us, of bosses who harass us, of justice which pursues us." They come before the tribunals with resentment in their hearts; they present themselves as victims; and not only do they resist, but those who are not prosecuted sympathize with them: our young people, always so ardent, as well as the leading publicists, take up their cause. Do you believe that this is a good situation, favorable for the justice of the country?
On the other hand, prosecute the workers according to the system of M. Morin. Let them be indicted; let the Prosecutor of the Republic say: "We do not prosecute you because you combined; you are perfectly free to do so. You demanded an increase in wages; we said nothing. You planned together; we said nothing. You wanted to strike; we said nothing. You tried to use persuasion on your comrades; we said nothing. But you used arms, violence, threats; we have indicted you."
The worker whom you prosecute thus will bow his head, because he will feel he is wrong, and will acknowledge that the justice of his country has been impartial and equitable. ["Well said!"]
I will conclude, gentlemen, with one further consideration:
In my opinion, there are a number of questions now being discussed among the working classes about whose deep importance the workers are being misled. I call your attention to this point: whenever a revolution breaks out in a country where there are different ranks and classes and social strata, and where the uppermost class has arrogated to itself certain privileges, it is the class next lower in the social scale that gains the ascendancy; naturally, it calls the others to its aid by appealing to notions of fairness and justice. After the revolution, the second class comes to power. Usually it too is not long in granting itself privileges. The same is true of the third and the fourth class. All this is odious, but it is always possible, as long as there is a lower class that can pay the costs of the privileges involved.
But as a result of the February Revolution, the whole nation, the whole people, including the lowest strata of the population, reached the point, or could reach it, through election, through universal suffrage, where it governed itself. And then, in a spirit of imitation which I deplore, but which seems to me natural enough, the people thought they could cure their sufferings by granting themselves privileges too; for I regard the right to interest-free credit and the right to employment and many other demands as really privileges. [Unrest.]
And in fact, gentlemen, these privileges can be granted to it, if there is beneath it, or within sight, another, even more numerous class, three hundred million Chinese, for example, who can bear the costs of it. [Laughter of agreement.] Now, such a class does not exist; that is why each of the privileges will have to be paid for by our own people, out of their own pockets, not only without any possible profit to them, but by means of a complicated apparatus of which they will have to bear all the cost.
Thus, the Legislative Assembly may be called upon to struggle against these demands, which it must not treat too lightly, because, after all, they are sincere. You will be obliged, I say, to struggle. How will you do so successfully if you refuse the working class when it asks only what is reasonable, when it asks purely and simply for justice and freedom? I believe that you will gain great strength by here giving a proof of your impartiality; you will be looked upon as the guardians of all classes and especially of this class, if you show yourselves completely impartial and just towards them. [Strong approval on the Left.]
To sum up: I reject the committee's proposal because it is only an expedient, and the characteristic of all expedients is weakness and injustice. I support M. Morin's proposal because it is based on a principle; and only principles have the power to satisfy men's minds, to win their hearts, and to gain the consent of their consciences. They have asked us: "Do you wish to proclaim freedom simply out of platonic love of freedom?" I, for my part, reply, "Yes." Freedom may entail trials for nations, but it alone enlightens, teaches, and edifies them. Outside of freedom, there is only oppression; and friends of order should bear in mind that this is no longer the time, if there ever was one, when the union of classes, respect for the law, security of interests, and the tranquillity of nations can be founded on oppression.