Creative disruption and relentless retribution

Strikes are annoying to everyone: employers, customers, and – last, but certainly not least – their employees.

Annoyance quickly leads to anger, and anger quickly leads to advocacy for acts of retribution for a perceived injustice – retribution that in many cases is not at all proportionate to what is at stake, partly as a means to seek by force what was denied at someone’s request, partly as a deterrent for others who might consider to follow suit.

An instructive example for that comes – once again – from the Greek-speaking east of the (late) Roman Empire – from the city of Sardis, to be precise.

We do not know what bugged the local building workers of Sardis. What we do know is that clearly they were not very happy about something, and that they were beautifully creative (or infuriatingly obnoxious, depending on one’s viewpoint) in their attempts to undermine the position of their employers.

So what did they do?

There are no independent sources. All we have is a long legal text, preserved in an inscription from Sardis itself, giving the ‘official’ version (I. Sardis 18 cf. SEG 52: 1177; transl. W. H. Buckler – D. M. Robinson).

In this text, the following accusation is made:

. . . that they take in hand pieces of building work, leave these unfinished and obstruct the employers . . .

The employers sought remedy and retribution, and they therefore approached the local provincial government. And the government’s response, administered by Sardis’ commissioner and defensor, one Aurelianus, was nothing but draconic.

The entire local corporation of building artisans was subsequently forced to undertake the following, rather devastating, conditions – under oath:

(1) That we will complete all pieces of work given out to us by any one of the employers, provided the employer is prepared to pay us the wages mutually agreed upon;

(2) Should the man undertaking the work have any plea on which he declines it for some reason of his own either private or public, another artisan from among us shall take his place and shall entirely complete the work under construction, on the distinct understanding that the man declining it, whether he be the artisan who began it or the man who shall have taken his place, is one of ourselves and that no reason of our own stands in the way of the work;

(3) Should the man undertaking the work once hinder the employer in any way while it is, as we said, under construction, if he who either began it from the beginning or shall have taken the place of any artisan is one of ourselves, we shall for such hindrance pay indemnities according to the contract between the individual employer and the individual artisan;

(4) Should the employer show indulgence, if he be for seven days hindered from working, the work shall be left to the artisan undertaking it;

(5) Should the artisan fall ill, the employer shall wait twenty days, and if after such indulgence for twenty days the man should get well, but show no disposition to work at that time, another shall take his place on the terms stipulated by us as to the man who declines;

(6) If, when the man undertaking the work declines it, some one of us be found neither doing anything nor performing work in accordance with the provisions herein written, we promise and agree that we will make payment by way of fine to be used for the city’s public works, and that the defensor shall forthwith exact eight pieces of gold, and notwithstanding and even after exaction of the fine, shall prosecute under the divine edicts on the charge of wrong-doing; the present agreement remaining firm, unbroken and undisturbed in perpetuity, and being irrevocably carried out in strict conformity with all things above determined and promised by us;

(7) And for the full discharging of the fine we pledge, under a lien both general and individual, all our property present and future of every kind and sort.

And when to all things above written the question was put to us by your excellency, we gave our assent to this agreement and declaration under oath on the day and in the consulship above written [i. e. in A. D. 459].

Many present-day employers would probably be delighted to be granted so powerful an injunction to break industrial action.

It is useful to remember, especially when threatened with carefully composed, deliberately bullying employer’s rhetoric, that, though workers’ rights have been strengthened for decades and centuries as a result of collective action, current rights are not a given.

Defend them or lose them.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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