Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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CONSEILS DES PRUD'HOMMES, is the name given to a class of tribunals established by law in many of the important cities of France and Belgium, for the speedy and inexpensive settlement of certain specified industrial disputes, and the execution of certain laws and regulations affecting manufacture and trade. These tribunals are the outgrowth of the trade guilds that existed in France for centuries, and regulated trade and labor. These guilds shared the fate of all corporations during the French revolution, their suppression being decreed by the national assembly in 1789. Lyons alone retained some semblance of the old jurisdiction in its "common tribunal;" and out of this, forced by the confusion that followed the suspension of the guild function, grew the first "Conseil des Prud'hommes," which was established at Lyons by a decree of Napoleon I., dated March 18, 1806.


—Under this decree, with but few material modifications, the conseils have acted until the present. The most important change has been in the relative influence of employers and employed, the preponderance, until 1848, being with the former, and then for five years, until June 1, 1853, with the latter. By a law passed at this date, under which the conseils now act, the perfect equality of employer and employed in the organization and working of the conseils is secured. In the earlier conseils, also, the officers were elected, in the latter, appointed, as stated below.


—These conseils are judicial tribunals, established under the authority of the minister of commerce, upon the request of the chamber of commerce, indorsed by the municipal council of the city where the proposed conseil is to be located. The request sets forth the need of a conseil; the trades that will be represented in it, divided into categories of cognate trades; and other facts that guide the minister in deciding upon the application. The municipal council promises to provide for the necessary expenses of the conseil—The officers of the conseil are a president and vice president, named by the chief of state, who hold office for three years; a secretary, appointed and removed by the prefect; and a certain number of members termed prud'hommes; the number in any conseil being not less than six, half of whom are employers and half employed, each class electing its own representatives. Certain qualifications as to ability, experience, age, residence and character, are required to be possessed, both by the prud'hommes, and, in a less degree, by those who elect them. The prud'hommes hold office for six years, and, together with the officers, are re-eligible. The members of the conseils serve without pay.


—Each conseil is divided into two chambers, called the private bureau and the general bureau. The sole duty of the former, which is composed of two members only, and before which the proceedings are quite informal, is to conciliate, if possible, the members who come before it and settle disputes without a formal trial. Failing this, the case is taken before the general bureau, where an attempt is again made to settle the trouble by agreement; and this again failing, the case is tried and judgment given. The relative importance of these two bureaus is seen in the reports of cases settled, given below.


—Not only does the jurisdiction of the conseils extend to all questions that may result from the relations of employer, employed, foremen and apprentices, but they are charged with the execution of the trade-mark laws, the inspection of factories, and the general laws and regulations affecting manufacture and trade and its police. While certain disputes and differences growing out of industrial relations are excluded from its jurisdiction, even many of these may by consent be considered. There is no limit as to the amount of the claim in dispute that may be brought before the conseils.


—The methods of procedure in the general bureau are those of a court, much simplified, and with no delay. The parties to a dispute can, by common consent, refer the dispute to the conseil for settlement; but generally cases are brought before it on complaint of one or the other party. A letter of invitation similar to a summons is sent to the party defendant. The case may be heard on statement or pleadings, or witnesses may be examined. A majority of the prud'hommes present decides the case. The decisions in which the amount in dispute does not exceed 200 francs are without appeal. In cases involving more than this, an appeal can be taken to the tribunal of commerce, or, in arrondissements in which no such tribunal exists, to the civil courts. The decisions have all the authority of a court, and are enforced by the same means as those of all other courts of law in France. The costs are very light in most cases, being, in those in which only the letter of invitation is issued, not over six cents.


—The workings of these conseils, though they are confessedly imperfect and have some grave faults, have been of the highest value to French industry. In 1847 the 69 conseils then in existence had brought before them 19,271 cases, of which 17,951 were settled by conciliation in the private bureau, 951 more by advice of the conseil, and, in only 519 cases, was it necessary to enter formal judgment. In 1878 the number of cases brought before the conseils was 35,046. Of these, 18,415 were settled in private, 9,076 in the conseils, and formal judgment entered in 7,555. Of the causes of dispute in 1878, 21,368 were relative to wages, 4,733 to dismissals, and 1,795 to matters affecting apprentices.


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