The Right to Strike: A Review in Historical Studies in Industrial Relations

Submitted by carolyn on Thu, 12/07/2007 - 08:27

The Right to Strike is an important study of the Trade Disputes Act, 1906. The Act was in full operation until the Thatcher era, other than in the world wars and the periods of the post General Strike Trade Union Act, 1927 (1927-46) and Ted Heath’s Industrial Relations Act, 1971 (1971-74). A fresh study of this pillar of the British voluntaryist system of industrial relations is to be greatly welcomed. Much of the book is excellent.

Part of its strength comes from the Keele School of research into the history of industrial relations. Dave Lyddon and Paul Smith have set high standards with Historical Studies in Industrial Relations meeting the expectations of both industrial relations and history specialists. Their journal has succeeded where others have failed in providing analyses of industrial relations, which genuinely combine careful, thorough and reflective historical research with a strong grasp of all the relevant industrial relations literature. The arrival of John McIlroy at Keele has further strengthened the reputation of Keele for such work on the historical dimensions of industrial relations.

John McIlroy’s essay on Quinn v. Leathern is a lucid and comprehensive study. It examines the sectarian and other social contexts of the case concerning Henry Leathern, a butcher of Lisburn, Northern Ireland. Hitherto, one has drawn on Ken Brown’s briefer discussion in a broad essay on trade union law. Professor Brown, incidentally, has lived in Lisburn for some forty years. Professor McIlroy’s essay is notable for its research not only into the legal background of the case but also into Lisburn and Belfast sources for the social context.

Graeme Lockwood in dealing with the much better-known Taff Vale case builds on Philip Bagwell’s major work on the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants. While the author begins his essay by proclaiming the need ‘to have a basic understanding of its history’ in order to appreciate its history, the author uses too broad a brush on the general historical background (‘Between 1810 and 1875, all trade unions were expanding at an unprecedented rate amid boom conditions’, p.13). His survey concludes with a call to trade unionists to mobilise ‘to change Conservative anti-trade union laws to at least gain the freedoms enjoyed from 1906’ (p.28).

The core study of the trades Disputes Act, 1906, is a major essay by John Saville, first published in Historical Studies in Industrial Relations. This essay was a fresh look at the legislation and its context, following on from the major work by Henry Phelps Brown, Clegg, Fox and Thompson (collectively) and Fox as well as himself. John Saville rightly pointed out, ‘What is often missed in the discussion of the Taff Vale case is that other unions began to be mulcted for damages in cases brought against them’, p.96. The freshest aspect of John Saville’s essay was to provide the most detailed examination of the Parliamentary support and discussion of the making of new trade union legislation.

Saville’s essay is followed by two fascinating essays on legal cases. Keith Ewing provides a masterly analysis of the trade union membership case in the South Shields shipbuilding industry, Conway v. Wade, 19087, a notable precursor of the Rookes v. Barnard judgement, 1964. The surprising verdict, apparently undercutting the 1906 Act, encouraged some in the trade union movement to question the way the jury system then operated. The TUC did not wish to reopen the 1906 settlement but, as Professor Ewing observes, it was ‘the time to hold what you had’ (p.118). The Liberal government rejected employers’ attempts to undo the 1906 Act.

Douglas Brodie provides a study of a 1938 clash over Crofter Hand Woven Tweed, where the island producers and transport workers blocked cheaper imported material. In this instance at no level did judgement go against the trade union, even if there were some very bizarre assessments of trade union motivation made by judges.

The perversities of judges when assessing trade union action is given much merited attention by Roger Welch in his essay ‘Judicial Mystification of the Law: Rookes v. Barnard and the Return to Judicial Intervention’. This makes many good points, not least in contrasting the worst possible interpretations given to trade union actions with Lord Halsbury’s sympathetic handling of commercial competition between trades (p.118). The judges’ attitudes might be compared to those of the French, where ‘liberté, fraternité, egalité’ was interpreted by the judge and middle classes as protecting the individual from trade union coercion.

It also is at one with the individualistic Liberalism expressed in the late nineteenth century by Herbert Spencer and others, as exhibited in the 1891 volume of essays, A Plea For Liberty, produced as a riposte to Fabian Essays In Socialism, 1889. Such individualistic libertarianism, with its hostility to growing powers of the state and to trade unionism, became a major strand of British Conservatism. Roger Welsh’s nineteenth century examples of the judiciary being savage in dealing with pickets can be complemented by memorable examples in the Webbs’ History of British Trade Unionism.

The legal history of the 1906 Act is surveyed in two essays, one by Dave Lyddon and Paul Smith on the first fifty years, the other by Bob Simpson on the period from 1952. The Lyddon and Smith essay rests on substantial national and local archival research, and as a result it is a considerable contribution to the study of British industrial relations. The use of Home Office, Ministry of Labour and Liverpool material provides fresh details of the authorities’ attitudes to picketing.

While the historical studies add to knowledge, the book as a whole makes a case for a Trade Union Freedom Bill. The final two essays make a strong case for the Bill drafted in 2006 with the assistance of John Hendy, QC. A third essay, by Brian Bercusson, is on the conflicting concerns of European law on free movement and the rights of working people to take collective action. The European Court of Justice’s verdict on this conflict, as Professor Bercusson notes, ‘may transform what has been the pattern of British industrial action during the past 100 years’ (p.222).

The book would have benefited from an index. Otherwise, it is highly commendable. It is a substantial volume in content as well as size. It should be read by all interested in current and past issues concerning the right to strike in Britain.

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