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Trade union mythology: suppression, disadvantage and struggle

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This is the next gripping episode in a series based on a paper concerned with eight myths about the trade union movement. The myths were spelled out in the first post along with a link to the full paper that subjects them to criticism.

This is the section of the paper devoted to the second, third and forth on the list.

The workers were frustrated and oppressed by the Combination Acts which were designed to favour the employers and to prevent the workers from forming associations.

Labour has an inherent disadvantage in the contest with capital unless the state intervenes to provide assistance, especially by protecting the right to engage in collective bargaining and strike activity.

Labour had to wage a bitter struggle to achieve improved pay and conditions.

According to the standard labour account, the English Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 were deliberately designed to favour the employers and to prevent the workers from forming associations. One of the often-repeated stories to support this perception is the fate of the Tolpuddle Martyrs who were transported to Australia. As will be demonstrated below, this story rivals the Sadler report for misrepresentation of the facts.

In the chapter “Labour’s Bitter Struggle” in The Strike Threat System (STS), Hutt sketched the history of the relevant legislation from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. The chapter is on line at this address.

From the thirteenth century, the conviction clearly emerged that certain antisocial practices affecting the pricing of products (including the product of labor) had to be restrained for the common good. Thus, practices known as ‘forestalling, engrossing and regrating’ were forbidden by ordinances and statutes because these were supply and pricing procedures which were perceived to be exploiting the common people through the contriving of scarcities of food and necessities. (STS, p 28)

In other words the clear intent of this kind of legislation was to control what we would nowadays call restrictive trade practices. Hutt cited numerous examples of the application of these laws: in 1298 an organization of coopers in London was prosecuted for having agreed to raise the price of hoops; in 1339 there were cases brought against London carpenters; in 1349 against shoemakers; in 1773 the publicans of Westminster were warned that if they raised the price of beer collusively they would be prosecuted for conspiracy. It is important to note that the merchant and craft guilds that were constituted by royal charter enjoyed the privilege of being above the laws that controlled restrictive trade practices by other people.

Hutt wrote “The Webbs suggest, however, that in the eighteenth century, the common law was ‘constrained’ to convict striking workers. They present no clear evidence of any such ‘constraint.’ The facts suggest (1) that the tradition of no discrimination against labor was maintained, and (2) that there was considerable leniency in the administration of the existing laws when the alleged offense occurred in the form of strikes or strike preparations.” (STS, p 30).

Against the undocumented claim of “constraint” Hutt cited numerous instances of strike activity where the managers and the authorities were slow to make recourse to the law and willing to settle on a compromise. In serious cases of provocation, when matters came to court and the offence was proved, the penalties were lenient by the standards of the time.

As to the idea that the Combination Act of 1799 and the amended Act of 1800 represented a carefully planned and premeditated onslaught on the rights of the workers, on Hutt’s account:

The 1799 Act came to be passed almost by accident…What actually happened in 1799 was that a bill, more or less in the form of the 40 or so other anticombination statutes already applying to particular trades, was introduced in Parliament. The original aim in 1799 was simply to forbid “conspiracy” on the part of millwrights. During the proceedings Wilberforce (the famous antislavery champion) suddenly and unexpectedly moved for an amendment to make the principle apply to all industries and occupations. There seemed to be no good reason for opposing this amendment and the bill became law…

Hardly a bad thing, given the intention to control restrictive trade practices.

The important point to remember is that the new combination laws did not make any activities illegal which had not already been criminal offenses for centuries…Yet they are described as ‘severe,’ as inaugurating ‘a new and momentous departure, ‘a far-reaching change of policy,’ an era of ‘legal persecution’ of would-be strikers or strikers. These are descriptions of the acts by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, in a seriously slanted work characterized at times by meticulous scholarship—a work which has had an enormous influence in spreading the myth. The truth is, however, that the Combination Acts were just as leniently, almost half-heartedly, enforced as the common law against conspiracy (and the various special statutes forbidding conspiracy or combination in particular industries) had previously been. (STS, pp 31-32).

Hutt cited a great deal of evidence to indicate that the masters and the authorities bent over backwards to avoid prosecutions. Then, as now, the masters and managers recognized that they were best served by a harmonious and productive workforce, not one that was alienated and embittered.

As additional evidence of an almost unbelievable leniency in enforcing the combination laws between 1800 and 1824, we can consider the calico printers. Unable to get any effective protection from the law, a calico manufacturer expressed his grievances in a pamphlet in 1815. Addressing the union, he charged:

‘We have by turns conceded what we all ought manfully to have resisted; and you, elated with success, have been led on from one extravagant demand to another, till the burden is become too intolerable to be borne. You fix the number of our apprentices, and oftentimes even the number of our journeymen. You dismiss certain proportions of our hands, and you will not allow others to come in their stead. You stop all surface machines, and to the length even to destroy the rollers before our face. You restrict the cylinder machine, and even dictate the kind of pattern it is to print…You dismiss our overlookers when they don’t suit you; and force obnoxious servants into our employ. Lastly, you set all subordination and good order at defiance, and instead of showing deference and respect to your employers, treat them with personal insult and contempt.’ (STS, p 35)

The most commonly cited case that has been used to demonstrate the “savagery of the legal repression” that was ushered in by the Combination Acts is the action against the Tolpuddle martyrs. For example Hugh Stretton in his recent book Australia Fair referred to “some Luddite defenders of their traditional rights [who] had been charged, convicted and transported to New South Wales”.

Hutt reported:

This case involved farm workers who were trying to form an organization to force up their wage rates. They had established the ‘Friendly Society of Agricultural Laborers’ for their village. Now as a friendly society, such an association was encouraged [by an Act of 1793] rather than discouraged by the law. But as a cloak for illegal activities (including “conspiracy”), it was not immune from prosecution. In the Tolpuddle case, however, the alleged crime was not conspiracy, but “unlawful oaths.” The society, which had an elaborate ritual and rather frightening paraphernalia—for example, a picture of Death, “painted six feet high”—was demanding loyalty through the administration of oaths. (STS, p 37)

Such preparations were apt to lead to the burning of haystacks (the equivalent of losing a banana crop, with no prospect of compensation from the governnment) and even murder. The Reverend Patrick Bronte, living on the outskirts of a Yorkshire village through the Luddit disturbances, slept with a loaded pistol at his bedside in case of attack. (Each morning he discharged his pistol through the bedroom window into the nearby cemetery). Still the local justices were reluctant to launch a prosecution and instead warned the conspirators that the penalty for their activities was transportation. Under the previous Act the penalty was death and Hutt suggested that the reduced penalty may have encouraged the conspirators in their defiance. They persisted with their activities and a case was brought against five of the leaders, though all those involved could have been charged.

It was proved that illegal oaths had been administered—in view of the explicit warning, it seems quite recklessly and defiantly…The law (wise or unwise) was clear-cut. The offenses were proven. The court had no option. Yet the Webbs describe the conviction of the Tolpuddle offenders as a ‘scandalous perversion of the law;’ and because the sentence to transportation was confirmed by the Home Secretary, the Webbs refer to his ‘policy of repression.’ (STS, p 37)

The Webbs apparently neglected to mention that five years of the seven-year sentences were subsequently remitted. Hutt noted that reduced sentences or quashed convictions were common in conspiracy cases. He also pointed out the need to see the sentences in the context of the times. The criminal law at that time imposed extremely harsh penalties for offenses of all kinds. Secondly, the official attitude from the government, down to judges and magistrates, supported by public opinion, was strongly influenced by the Terror after the French Revolution. People in England did not want to be so short-sighted and weak that fanatics could get out of control.

To summarise the results of Hutt’s research on this topic, there is no reason to believe that the workers, as distinct from groups participating in restrictive trade practices, were subjected to any novel or oppressive constraints under the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800, or indeed any other legislation, before or since.

More on Labour’s Disadvantage

The idea of the inherent disadvantage of labour has been a potent influence in gaining widespread acceptance of the systematic use of violence and intimidation to pursue industrial claims. The mythology of struggle, “us against them”, is explicit in the radical Marxist worldview and also in the militant but not necessarily Marxist sections of the labour movement.

The notion of disadvantage of labour versus capital is supposed to be self-evident, especially in the case of large firms, but it can be contested on the ground that the firm needs workers just as much as the workers need the firm, so it is just a matter of how much the firm is prepared to pay or can afford to pay in hard times. Commonsense suggests that firms, large and small, will do best with a productive, harmonious and healthy workforce, so there is no rational economic justification for managers to use high handed, unfair or unsafe practices.

Human nature being what it is, there is no doubt that cases of unfair treatment, including unfair dismissals, are going to occur. It is here that an association of workers has a role to play in providing advice, legal aid and assistance as required. There is a world of difference between the damage that is done in individual cases of unfair treatment and the mass unemployment and immiseration caused by the strike threat system in the course of obtaining better wages and conditions for the “bloody aristocracy” of labour.

Hutt challenged both of the myths (disadvantage and bitter struggle) in The Theory of Collective Bargaining (CB) and The Strike Threat System. It is not clear when there ever was disadvantage on the labour side because the history of industrial legislation from 1824 (repeal of the Combination Acts) is a record of the scales being tipped more and more in favour of labour at the expense of capital and managers. After the passage of the Combination Acts in 1799/1800 both the Tory and Whig Parliamentary representatives from industrial districts began to compete with each other in promises to abolish the offending Acts. This was achieved in 1824. The process of angling for the vote of the trade unionists became more intense each time the franchise was extended and in 1905 the Liberal Party under Lloyd George paid off its electoral debt by legislating to restrict the possibility of tort actions against trade unionists who caused damage in the course of industrial action. This probably paved the way for the British General Strike of 1926, essentially a declaration of war on the nation, a strike that was defeated but only at the cost of making the politicians too sensitive to union power to take the necessary steps to get the wheels moving during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Even without a leg up from the government, trade unionists soon learned to use a variety of techniques to obtain their objectives by destructive and productivity-eroding means: the strike in detail, when one competing firm after another is subjected to strike activity; the “go slow” or work to rule; bogus safety issues and outright sabotage at sensitive stages of work such as concrete pours, harvesting and the transport of perishable goods. The question has to be asked, what do they think they are achieving for the workers at large and the common good, by these tactics? Lady Barbara Wootton of the British Labor Party provided an answer, cited by Hutt (STS, p viii). It is “the duty of a union to be anti-social; the members would have a just grievance if their officials and committees ceased to put sectional interest first.” This brings us to the solidarity of the workers.


Written by Admin

June 19, 2006 at 2:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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