George Carter was tired.
In fact he was so tired that he felt he needed, and deserved, a holiday. Sadly for him his employer, the North London Metropolitan Tramways Company thought otherwise. Workers had no statutory right to any holiday before 1938, and even that (one week a year) was hard fought and well below the minimum the Trades Union Congress had campaigned for. By contrast today the law states that ‘almost all workers’ are entitled to 28 days of annual leave.
The only way George Carter could get the rest he felt he required was to effectively quit his job, or at least stop working for a while. So on the 1st November 1875 George, who worked as a conductor collecting the fares on the trams, met with his supervisor and told him he was taking some time off. Mr Thomas Bradley, his inspector, said he found have to place someone else on his route and demanded he hand over any outstanding fares.
Carter was holding onto £3 15s 6d of the company’s money but he wanted to know what would happen if he left to have his well-earned break. Would he be discharged, he asked? If so he was going to keep the money.
At the Worship Street Police Court, where Carter appeared to answer a summons from the tram company, it was revealed that it was company policy to extract a £5 deposit from all the conductors prior to them starting their service. Presumably they were a distrustful lot and didn’t like the idea of their staff walking away with their money. Mr G. H Smith, the manager of the company, had declared that he would be sacked and his wages and depots forfeited. It was this that had prompted the summons and the court case.
So inspector Bradley already had George’s money, indeed he had more than the £3 15s he was demanding he hand over. Moreover the tram company’s employees were forced to sign a document that made the bosses the ‘sole judges in any dispute’ and gave them power ‘to order the forfeiture of the deposit-money and all wages due’. Even in a world with zero-hour contracts and firms like Uber this was a terribly uneven distribution of power between employers and employees and the magistrate was appalled by it.
‘it was ‘very one-sided’, Mr Hannay said, ‘putting the men in the position of slaves without hope of redress in a court of law’, and it had been remarked upon a number of times in that court.
But there was nothing in law to stop the tram company setting the rules as it had; trades unions hardly operated effectively in the period and it wasn’t until later in the century that they began to flex their muscles with any real hope of success. So all George Carter could do was withdraw his labour and hope to be reemployed at a later date by someone, if not his current employers.
Mr Hannay opted out of the debate; he said he had no power to adjudicate here and so dismissed the summons. As far as he could see the company had Carter’s £5 and he was hanging on to a ‘lesser sum’. If they wanted to pursue him for the fares he retained then they would have to do so in the county court, at their own expense. It wasn’t exactly a victory for the ‘little man’ but it was reported as an example of sharp practice by an employer than many people reading this would have been family with.
Whether that inspired them to look for alternative forms of transport in the future is questionable, but the publicity was hardly good for Mr G. H. Smith and his company were tainted by it, just as Mike Ashley’s appearance in front of the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee in July 2106 did nothing for the reputation of Sports Direct.
Trades Unions get a lot of stick, much of it well deserved. But we should remember that every single right that workers have today – to holidays, sick pay, pensions, safe conditions at work, training, and equal opportunities, have been extracted from the capitalist class by determined workers backed by union representatives. It is not for nothing that nearly every Conservative government since the second world war has attempted to curb the power of the unions in some way or another. Despite their claims of ‘one nation Toryism’ the Conservative and Unionist Party represent the ‘haves’ (like G. H. Smith) rather than the ‘have-nots’ (like George Carter).
[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, November 14, 1875]