Trade Unions and the State

Trade Unions today are respectable organisations. Their leaders move in lofty circles, both nationally and internationally, and sit on royal commissions and boards of major charities. Unions, too, are to some extent partners with employers in the management of production, and are consulted to varying degrees by governments who need their advice and cooperation. But this situation is fairly recent: less than fifty years ago, union involvement with government was minimal. It is only just over a century since unions achieved any adequate legal status, and fifty years before that they were actually illegal.

It has been argued that the first unions were a response to the Industrial Revolution, so that their history should be dated from the late eighteenth century. An alternative view sees the unions as the descendants, albeit much altered, of the mediaeval craft guilds, which were transformed by the conditions of capitalist wage labour. This latter view has recently been supported by R.A. Leeson in Travelling Brothers’:

    “I would argue that the “trade unions” of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries derived a heritage from the earlier draft organisations by direct and indirect means, by links that were not only traditional and imitative, but also organisational. The unions in many trades have a pre-history as well as a history and a very long and proud one. Rather than being called “spontaneously” into existence by the Industrial Revolution, many of them were instead utterly transformed from what they had been before.”

So we must examine “what they had been before”.

Guilds arose from about the thirteenth century as a form of organisation among all those who in feudal society were neither nobles nor ecclesiastics. One type of guild (also called a craft, among other names) embraced all inhabitants of a town who followed the same occupation or trade. Such guilds established minimum standards for goods, and maintained strict regulations for apprenticeship (generally a seven-year term), as a way of controlling skills and reducing competition. In 1351 the Statute of Labourers was passed, laying down maximum wages in every trade. Labourers were supposed to remain in their town or village and accept whatever wages were offered, rather than move elsewhere in search of higher pay. Such regulations were, in theory, directed at all craft members, whether masters or “yeomen”, for both belonged to the guild. Gradually, however, the powers of the masters, or “livery”, increased to the point where the law could be called upon to protect their interests. A law of 1548-9 prohibited craft “confederacies” that tried to lay down the price for work (for a second offence, the punishment was a fine of £40 and the loss of the accused’s ears!). For the master guild members were now full-scale employers, breaking the guild rules by taking on, as a source of cheap labour, more apprentices than they were entitled to.

It was against a background of increased influence on the part of the guilds that the nation’s rulers passed in 1563 the Elizabethan Statute of Apprentices, popularly known as Queen Betty’s Law. Seven years’ apprenticeship was reconfirmed, as was the earlier law against “confederacies and conspiracies” on the part of the workers. The aim was to harmonise relations among the different groups within each guild and to ensure that the guilds as a whole were subservient to the crown and the landowning class. But the nature of society was changing: as the merchants and craft-masters grew more powerful, they bit by bit ignored and went beyond the Statute, seeing it as an obstacle to industrial development. In 1753 Parliament stated that attempts to control entry into a trade, along the lines of the guilds, were “contrary to the liberty of the subject”. The regulations regarding apprenticeship blocked the availability of cheap labour to the rising capitalist class; the Statute of Apprentices had become a restraint on capitalist development.

The journeymen of the crafts attempted to use the provisions of the Statute to defend their position. This was more and more necessary because of the increased migration, especially of rural labourers uprooted by enclosing landlords. Begging was illegal, and such people were forced to seek work in the urban manufacturing areas:

    “Thus were the agricultural people, first forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, then whipped, branded, tortured by laws grotesquely terrible, into the discipline necessary for the wage system.” (Karl Marx: Capital, vol. l, ch. 28)

The first half of the eighteenth century saw a number of laws aimed at controlling employees: for instance, in 1726, an Act against “unlawful clubs and societies” in the woollen trades. The journeymen’s clubs—which the guilds had now become — established inter-city links: a “tramp” system whereby a workman could travel from one town to another seeking work at the official rate (the public house connected with the trade often held a book listing vacancies) and, if successful, be lodged and given money for the next stage of his journey. And so local craft-based organisations began to be transformed into something closer to national trade unions.

This was the period of repression of popular movements: in 1795 Acts were passed making it treasonable to incite people to hatred of the government and illegal to hold meetings of more than fifty persons without notifying a magistrate. Demands by the employers for laws against workers’ organisations continued. In 1799 and 1800 they were rewarded with two Combination Acts, by which unions which had been at best tolerated by the powers-that-be and much circumscribed in their scope of activity, were made illegal. In 1814, the apprentice clause of Queen Betty’s Law was repealed, leaving the workers with neither legal nor organisational means of resisting the lowering of wages and the capitalists’ control over their working lives. But the Combination Acts did not in fact succeed in suppressing the trade unions which, during the period of their illegality, were comparatively flourishing. For one thing, it was the employers, not the government, who were expected to do the actual prosecuting, and this they proved reluctant to do. It was after the passing of the Combination Acts that the tramping system reached its height. It not only facilitated (and required) inter-town contact, but also kept the unions in existence, and frustrated the intentions of the law-makers, whose regulations could not affect the tramps. As one employer stated to a Parliamentary Select Committee:

    “The law cannot take hold of these men for they leave gradually, man by man and get employment in other places; thus the Combination Laws are by that means completely avoided.”

It was both because of their ineffectiveness, and because of the beliefs of some that the unions only existed on account of their illegality, that the Combination Acts were repealed, in 1824 and 1825.

Trade unions were now illegal, but their exact status and power were still unclear; attempts at combination could still fall foul of the law. It was after the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1834 that the Tolpuddle Martyrs were transported to Australia. They were trapped in a complex legal web, involving the 1797 Mutiny Act, and were in fact guilty of “administering an oath not to reveal a combination which administers such oaths”! Despite such difficulties, unions expanded in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. It is noticeable that the major legislation setting forth their legal standing all but coincided with the extension of the vote to urban male artisans in 1867.

Against this background, the government in 1866 convened a Royal Commission on trade unions. The following year, a court decision declared that unions were associations “in restraint of trade” and hence not able to claim the protection of the law for their funds, even if they were not exactly illegal. The minority report of the Royal Commission served as the basis for the 1871 Trade Union Act: unions were given adequate legal status and, importantly, their funds were protected. Picketing, however, was declared illegal. Unlike many other countries, no legal “right to strike” was established, the unions were simply given specific exemption from the penalties which they would otherwise automatically have incurred at Common Law, which looked with disfavour on those who interfered with the blind working of market forces. The 1871 Act formed the basis of labour legislation for exactly a century.

The Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875 made peaceful picketing legal, so that conspiracy for the purposes of a trade union dispute was not now punishable. This was a period of major change in the trade union movement, with the founding of many new unions, not based on craft lines or descended in any way from the guilds, and recruiting the unskilled and semi-skilled, regardless of trade or industry. At the same time, the tramp system was dying out. Going to another town in search of employment had some point when there was a good prospect of work being available, but was useless during periods of mass unemployment. Since the 1830s, some unions had allowed their members to stay at home and collect out-of-work benefit, rather than go on the tramp, and this system now became general. There were then no government labour exchanges, old age pensions, or sickness or unemployment benefits. Unions provided these services — for their members only, of course — at the cost of great strain on their financial resources. For the rest there was only the Poor Law.

Union members were at that time far fewer in number than today: even in the early 1900s union membership represented only fifteen per cent of the workforce, compared with the current figure of over fifty per cent. But the union leaders were becoming conscious of their potential power and influence, and of the need for a voice in Parliament. Consequently, in 1900 was formed the Labour Representation Committee, which in 1906 became the Labour Party. This founding of a party by trade unions was unusual: elsewhere in Western Europe it was precisely the other way round, with “left-wing” parties being founded first and later creating their own union movements.

“Rapid” growth

The first Labour MPs were among those calling for the state to take over the benefit scheme run by the unions. It was obvious that the unions could not administer these schemes efficiently, and that the interests of capitalism necessitated a reliable — though not too generous — system of sickness and unemployment benefit and of labour exchanges. William Beveridge, who was instrumental in the establishment of the “welfare state”, appreciated the need for a mobile and well-maintained reserve army of labour:

    “To be able to follow the demand (for labour) men must possess greater powers of intelligent movement from place to place; they must possess also power to move from trade to trade or . . . must have better guidance in the first choice of occupations. To be able to wait for the demand, men must have a reserve for emergencies; they must not be living from hand to mouth, they must through insurance or its equivalent be able to average wages over good and bad times and to subsist without demoralisation until they can be re-absorbed again after industrial transformations.”

Through Acts of 1909 and 1911, the government took on some of the benefits previously paid by the unions.

Elsewhere, however, the unions were coming into conflict with the state and its courts. The judgement in the 1900 Taff Vale case meant that unions could in effect be sued by employers for losses they had sustained as a result of strike action; in 1909 the courts declared that unions could not use their funds to support parliamentary candidates. Both judgements were reversed by Acts of Parliament. The unions were now rapidly growing in size, and their members increasing in militancy. Between 1910 and 1912 there were some major strikes, of South Wales miners and London dockers, and then a national miners’ strike. Even during the First World War, there were strikes in defiance of wartime legislation. In fact the war itself led to great advances in union membership, to eight million, about forty per cent of the workforce.

It was not to last. The twenties and thirties were decades of massive unemployment and a drop — almost a halving — of union numbers. In the aftermath of the General Strike, the 1927 Trades Disputes Act split unions in government service off from the TUC, restricted picketing and outlawed sympathetic strikes. (Incidentally, it also provided that trade unionists had to contract in to pay the political levy to the Labour Party; in 1946 the Labour government re-established the undemocratic contracting-out system.) After their 1926 climbdown, the TUC leaders were determined to avoid workers taking action on such a scale again and entered into talks with big employers. The TUC General Council stated that their policy was:

    “for the trade union movement to say boldly that not only is it concerned with the prosperity of industry, but it is going to have a voice in the way industry is carried on . . . The unions can use their power to promote and guide the scientific re-organisation of industry.”

The union bureaucracy was well on the way to collaboration with both government and employers. In 1931 J. H. Thomas, once General Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen, joined the National Government under Ramsay Macdonald and acquiesced in its policy of reducing railwaymen’s wages from forty-four to thirty-eight shillings a week.

However, it was during the Second World War that union leaders’ involvement in government, and hence their role in defending the communal interests of the capitalist class against the workers, became deeper than ever before. Ernest Bevin, General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, became wartime Minister of Labour, a post which gave him draconian powers over the allocation of labour to the war effort. There were legal restrictions on pay bargaining, including the outlawing of strikes, measures which a non-union minister might have had trouble in enforcing (though the laws against strikes were ineffective anyway). Some observers have eulogised this period and the role of the unions:

    “. . . the British trade union movement is miraculously capable of exercising a progressive and highly effective influence on this country. It was between the formation of the Churchill coalition in the terrible spring of 1940 and Labour’s great victory at the polls in July 1945 that a real and lasting social contract was forged between the unions and the. politicians.” (Robert Taylor: The Fifth Estate).

Taylor cites as fruits of this contract the “welfare state” and the commitment to peacetime full employment — neither of which could truly be characterised as “lasting”.

Since the war union membership has grown steadily, especially among white-collar workers, as has union leaders’ willingness to co-operate in government policies aimed at reducing working-class living standards. When a Conservative government was returned in 1951, the TUC General Council offered its support and co-operation. In 1961, a sterling crisis led to a six-month freeze on pay rises, and the government established the National Economic Development Council. The unions decided by a majority to participate in NEDC,

    “. . . the minority arguing that the government was only involving the unions in planning in order eventually to implicate them in incomes policy, a view for which there is considerable support.” (Colin Crouch: The Politics of Industrial Relations.)

NEDC has now become an important forum: six senior union leaders meet with cabinet ministers and representatives of the Confederation of British Industry and nationalised industries every month.

“In Place of Strife”

In 1965 there was another sterling crisis, and the government (now Labour again) asked the TUC to agree to some statutory control over pay agreements and to keep its own member unions in order. Another six-month pay freeze was then imposed, and since then there has been a more or less continuous series of incomes policies, whether statutory or supposedly voluntary, all with the aim of keeping down wages. In 1969 the White Paper In Place of Strife was issued by the Labour government, aimed both at placing various restrictions on unions and also at increasing the authority of the union bureaucracy: unofficial strikes were to be made subject to strict statutory limits (and currently about ninety-five per cent of strikes are unofficial). This never became law, but the Tories’ Industrial Relations Act did: again, among other provisions, unions’ powers over their members were strengthened, with unions being obliged to take disciplinary measures against members striking in breach of the procedures laid down in the Act.

The Industrial Relations Act was repealed in 1974, since when there has been a fair amount of labour legislation, covering areas such as health and safety at work, unfair dismissal, and sexual and racial discrimination. As a result, workers may not be quite so much at the mercy of their employers as they once were, but their subordinate position at the workplace, and in society as a whole, has not been altered one jot. The political and judicial representatives of the capitalist class, however, like to represent the unions as overly powerful enemies of freedom. For instance, in the course of one judgement in 1977, Lord Denning stated:

    “Parliament has conferred more freedom from restraint on trade unions than ever has been known to the law before. All legal restraints have been lifted so that they can now do as they will.”

This is a typical Denning remark: preposterous, class-biased nonsense. The Grunwick case is quite sufficient to show that unions cannot just “do as they will”.

One of the aims of recent legislation has been to increase the authority of full-time union bureaucrats over their unruly and allegedly strike-obsessed members But there is a paradox here. in that governments also believe that union leaders often force their unwilling members to strike: hence the call far compulsory strike ballots. The closed shop is another area where governments have contradictory policies: on the one hand, non-union members can lessen the effectiveness of a strike, but on the other hand all-union membership can make the job of controlling workers that much easier. This, then, is the kind of trade union movement that the capitalist class would like to see: one that exercises reliable control over its members and is both able and willing to water down their demands for higher wages and better working conditions. One way of achieving this is to have union leaders sit on government economic bodies and attain the trappings of some power or influence. With its annual economic review, the TUC is an economic and political pressure-group like so many others.

The unions are a necessary weapon that they help to prevent employers from keeping wages down too much but, because of the nature of capitalism, they are strictly limited in what they can achieve for their members. Their proper sphere of activity is that of defending workers’ conditions and standards of living, not in helping the capitalist class to administer their system. However, there is little point in leftists bewailing “betrayal” by the union leaders, for the unions can only be as good (as active, as militant, as democratic) as their members. In the absence of a class-conscious working class, trade unionists have the unions they deserve.

Paul Bennett

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