From Socialist Voice, November 2007

Legislation and trade unions: A brief history

Part 1

There are plenty of histories of the generals and politicians but few histories of the people, the plain people [Brecher, 1977]. This is no accident, as the establishment has recognised that such histories are more than a record of the past but are also a source of strength and direction, which “must be denied to the millions of men and women who labour for a living. Hence, the record of their past achievements is deliberately obscured in order to dull their aspirations for the future” [Addes and Thomas, 1947].
     This denial arises, among other reasons, because the state in capitalist societies is caught in a contradiction between the encouragement of private profit and the legitimisation of private profit. This requires that the victims of profit accumulation be protected if the system is to survive with their support [Hyman, 1975; Kelly, 1998]. Miliband [1994] argues that “conservative governments have viewed reform as a means of preventing radical transformation from occurring by buying social peace with concessions. But even where reforms have been undertaken by social democratic governments, they have not resulted in the abolition of the essential features of capitalism. Nor is this remarkable, since such abolition was seldom what was intended.”
     According to the liberal theory of industrialisation, employers’ and state hostility to trade unions in the early stages of industrialisation results in union demands becoming more utopian and eventually revolutionary, and this spiral of politicisation is broken only when a class compromise is achieved. The French Revolution prompted the British government to enact anti-union legislation, known as the Combination Acts (1799 and 1800), because they saw all workers’ organisations as a potential source of Jacobin revolution [Flanders, 1970; Wedderburn, 1986].
     The existence of the United Irishmen further alarmed the British government about working-class unrest in Ireland [Boyle, 1988]. Eventually, capitalists recognised that the Combination Acts were counterproductive and that their reform would be more useful in eliminating unions, in that freedom of combination would weaken the attraction of combination [Flanders, 1970; Wedderburn, 1986]. The Philosophic Radicals went as far as to argue that if unions were legalised their “total ineffectiveness” would become obvious, and workers would cease to be tempted by them [Hobsbawm, 1969].
     The Repeal Act (1824) and its modification in 1825 effectually concluded what the trade union historians Sidney and Beatrice Webb called the trade unions’ “struggle for existence” [Jackson, 1991]. Salamon [1998], however, has argued that it was not until the 1870s that there was real change in the legal status of unions, as after 1824 they could legally exist though they could not legally pursue their objectives, as it was a criminal offence to engage in “restraint of trade” or an act of conspiracy.
     The criminal aspect was removed in the 1870s; nevertheless the Trade Union Act (1871) and the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act (1875) still exposed unions and their officials to civil action, as in the Taff Vale case of 1901, which effectually eroded the legal status of trade unions. Surprisingly, this was remedied with the passing of the Trade Disputes Act (1906). This was described as “a legislative coup of the greatest proportion for the trade union movement” [Kidner, quoted by Kerr and White, 1985]. This British legislation was to remain in force in Ireland until it was repealed by the Industrial Relations Act (1990). Bertie Ahern, then Minister for Labour, when speaking in Dáil Éireann on the act is quoted as stating: “Our trade union leadership is very responsible and we don’t need to take power away from them. In fact what I am trying to do is put power in the hands of the leadership so that individual work-places will not suffer because one or two people are abusing their powers as shop stewards” [Fennel and Lynch, 1993].
     Hyman’s [1989] theory that “responsible” trade unionism can provide the state and employers with some degree of disciplinary control over the rebellious tendencies of their membership is thus validated. So, if collective labour law dressed up as reform is due to the ulterior motives of damping down workers’ mobilisation, it is not too great a step to suggest that social partnership likewise performs such a function. But that is another story.

• In part 2 I will discuss individual labour law and in particular the legislation dealing with dismissals.


Addes, G. F., and Thomas, R. J., introduction to H. Kraus, The Many and the Few, Los Angeles: Plantin Press, 1947.
Boyle, J. W., The Irish Labour Movement in the Nineteenth Century, Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1988.
Brecher, J., Strike, San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1977.
Fennell, C., and Lynch, I., Labour Law in Ireland, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1993.
Flanders, A., Trade Unions, London: Hutchinson University Library, 1970.
Hobsbawm, E., Industry and Empire, Harmondsworth (Middx): Penguin, 1969.
Hyman, R., Industrial Relations: A Marxist Introduction, London: Macmillan Press, 1975.
Jackson, M. P., An Introduction to Industrial Relations, London: Routledge, 1991.
Kelly, J., Rethinking Industrial Relations: Mobilization, Collectivism and Long Waves, London: Routledge, 1998.
Kerr, A., and White, G., Irish Trade Union Law, Oxford: Professional Books, 1985.
Miliband, R., Socialism for a Sceptical Age, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994.
Salamon, M., Industrial Relations: Theory and Practice (third edition), Trowbridge (Wilts): Redwood Books, 1998.
Wedderburn, B., The Worker and the Law, Harmondsworth (Middx): Penguin, 1986.

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