Issue 178 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

A powerful combination

The Criminal Justice Bill is the latest in a long line of attempts to restrict our freedom to organise. Lee Humber shows how the democratic gains won in the past were always bitterly fought for, never granted to us willingly by governments

The strike for the dockers' tanner galvanised the East End
The strike for the dockers' tanner galvanised the East End

Union organisation was illegal from the start. Evidence of unions--or 'combinations'--dates back to the 18th century. Much of industry was centred on large, compact villages where most people worked for a very small number of capitalists. This often led to a high degree of cohesion and united action and strikes, often accompanied by rioting, arson and machine breaking.

In the Nottingham framework knitting industry there were riots in 1783, 1787 and 1791. In the Norwich worsted area and among the miners of the north east coast strikes and riots occurred in 1765, 1771 and 1794, during some of which stocks of coal were burnt or pithead machinery destroyed. London too was a centre of protest.

Levels of organisation were low but energy and determination high. With no regular organisation or funds to provide strike pay, riot and sabotage were the only weapons left in disputes which necessarily had to be won quickly.

Other workers were more organised. Leicestershire woolcombers in the late 1700s for example held regular collections to help unemployed or sick woolcombers, enforced a closed shop with a strictly enforced minimum wage rate throughout the industry in the area. They established links with other centres of the industry to support workers if they had to go 'on the tramp', looking for work in other parts of the country. This was all too much for the bosses.

Combinations such as these came under concerted attack from the bosses through the Combinations Act of 1799. The owners of industry used the law to try to turn the tide. The bosses were shaken by the widespread and increasing militancy of the period, and the fact that these new levels of union organisation were often coupled with the political radicalism wafting over the channel from the revolution in France deepened their fears.

The master millwrights of London complained:

The class interests behind the act could not be more naked. The first general anti-union law was rushed through parliament between 17 June and 11 July 1799, outlawing any combinations or even meetings likely to form combinations. Offenders could be brought before a magistrate and imprisoned for three months. One clause, for the first time ever in English law, removed the right to silence. The ruling class hasn't tried such a thing again--until now.

The new law was initially met with a wave of protest, and 25 years later it was annulled with union organisation much stronger than before. Though the law and the threat of the law remained there for employers to use, whether they used it or not was determined largely by the strength of workers' resistance.

In area after area there are records of workers organising to resist the new laws and build unions. Though often going down to defeat, the need for organisation and the determination to build it deepened during the period.

Workers' organisation was often driven underground. The Luddite movement, which began amongst Nottingham knitting frame workers around 1811 and spread throughout the country, is one example of secretive clubs organising resistance to the bosses. The Luddites forged a highly organised movement against the starvation wages paid by the large owners of the knitting industry. Machine wrecking was their method of protest, not their final political goal. By the beginning of 1812 delegates from all over the country were meeting in Glasgow to plan their campaign. Neither the drafting of 12,000 troops into Nottinghamshire--a larger force than Wellington took to fight Napoleon--nor the passing of an act making the destruction of machinery punishable by death could suppress them.

This first period of trade union illegality led to new tactics, the combining of legal and illegal methods, the development of a firm solidarity, the readiness to fight back in the face of all risks. Above all, it showed very clearly that the fast developing state, far from being neutral was--as it remains--an instrument of the employing class. Laws aren't made to keep society from anarchy but to maintain the rule of one class over another.

By the end of the 19th century a new phase of militancy was growing in the period often called the age of new unionism. By this time socialist agitators and organisers influenced wide layers of workers. The mid-1880s saw a vast expansion in the numbers and membership of workingmen's radical clubs.

One early victory came in 1885 at Dod Street in Limehouse, east London. Socialist speakers had been repeatedly arrested by police when giving lectures to workingmen's clubs in the open air. On one occasion police charged a crowd and broke up a meeting saying it was illegal. In response workers and clubs from around the capital called a joint meeting at Dod Street. This time the crowd was too big to allow the police to charge or arrest the speaker, the famous radical William Morris.

The following Sunday a march was organised along the street. As a contemporary put it, 'Never has the East End been so famous. The crowd was so great that it filled the entire street and overflowed into Burdett Road.' The successful battle to establish the right to free speech in the East End inspired many such battles up and down the country.

Around this time, the unemployed mounted protests and on one occasion rioted after a march from Trafalgar Square. Workers were sick of ill treatment and the patent corruption of local and national government. In response the ruling class upped the repression, among other things banning meetings in Trafalgar Square. Instead of stemming the tide, the repressive measures helped to weld all the different strands of resistance together.

In November 1887, 100,000 people with bands and banners defied the ban on meetings in central London and marched on Trafalgar Square. Over 4,000 police smashed up contingents of marchers as they approached, setting off the first great battle in the square, the militancy of which was not to be repeated until the great poll tax demonstration of 1990. Out of the demonstration of 1887 a Law and Liberty League was formed, which agitated and led action to secure by 1892 the right which we still enjoy today to hold meetings in the square.

How many of the young workers on the demonstration that year went back to their workplaces radicalised to help organise the new union which swept across the country, changing the face of trade unionism over the next few years?

In 1848 Karl Marx had talked of the 'immense physical, moral and intellectual benefits' factory workers had gained by winning the Ten Hours Act that year which set the legal limit on the working day. The shortening of the working day brought improvements in working conditions, but was also indispensable for workers' political advancement. Now, in the 1880s, large groups of workers coalesced, very often led by socialists, and organised around the demand for an eight hour day.

In March 1889 a meeting was held by the Gas Light and Coke Company's stokers in London to form a union to fight to reduce the 12 and 18 hour shifts they had been working, to eight hours. The workers were led by Will Thorne, a socialist. Marx's daughter Eleanor became a member of the executive of the union, inspiring workers up and down the country to join and fight. Within two weeks 3,000 had joined. At mass meetings, without secret ballots or prior notice to their bosses, workers decided to withdraw their labour until they got what they wanted. The Gas Light and Coke Company gave way without a fight.

Within months the dockers of east London, long used to living and working in conditions of abject poverty and insecure work, struck and built unions around the demand for a decent wage, the 'dockers' tanner'. Central to the dispute were Ben Tillett and Tom Mann, both socialists. The strike soon gripped the whole of the Thames side, involving 30,000 dockers and 30,000 other workers. The barriers between the different sections, particularly between organised and unorganised, were quickly broken down--the stevedores and lightermen, who had strong unions, also joined the strike. Over 50 miles of docks were picketed by 16,000 strikers despite the legal uncertainties of such actions.

Intimidated by the state and the law, ignored by the old union leaders, young workers came together in mass struggle to fight for decent pay and establish their right to belong to a trade union. Out of the struggle the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers' Union was formed with Tillett and Mann at its head, claiming 30,000 members.

Important lessons can be learned both from this wave of militancy but also from the period when the level of struggle died down. With the dockers' victory still smarting, the ruling class made a number of legal judgements that set the unions on the defensive and tried to limit their effectiveness.

By 1896, due to several court judgements against them, unions had become liable to damages from bosses. By 1897 legal picketing had become almost impossible. These developments were not properly reversed until the next great outbreak of workers' struggle between 1910 and 1914, the period of the Labour Unrest.

As soon as workers' guards are down, the ruling class will always try to move back on to the offensive, to tip the balance of the class struggle their way. They have used and will use their servants in the law courts to try and maintain their rates of exploitation of workers. And if we let them they'll get away with it. This has always been the case, it will remain the case until the capitalist state has been overthrown.

The history of the trade unions also shows that when workers are sufficiently determined and organised, no laws can withstand them. Then they are able to win victories they were always told by their moderate leaders were impossible. When it comes to defeating the Criminal Justice Bill we have to harness the same power--we cannot rely on the judges or MPs to do it for us.


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