trade union and legal history

I'm currently working my way through some monographs and articles on nineteenth century trade unions and the law. The main theme that is coming through is that trade unions and labour combinations were able to develop much more sophisticated and prolonged forms of resistance from the time of the Combination Acts of 1799-1800, through their semi-repeal in 1825, and during the difficult conflicts of the 1840s. This is resistance using the tools of the law, both against employers in the courts, and by looking to parliament for legislative support.

Christopher Frank's new book, Master and Servant Law, powerfully explains in much detail how the most successful tools trade unions had were not physical acts of protest, but legal knowledge and clever lawyers. He focuses on the Chartist solicitor William P Roberts, who defended hundreds of unionists prosecuted under the Master and Servant law for breaking their contract. He shows how Roberts and the unionists were able to succeed because their challenges came at a time when the Queen's Bench was trying to codify and constrain magistrates' powers of summary jurisdiction.

These studies are helping me define collective action in broader and more complex ways. Protest on the streets in this sense is different from resistance. Resistance in the courts, using the power of the law, was arguably more successful or effective than intermittent strikes or demonstrations. Challenging employers using the law and appealing to parliament for legislation or protection were the everyday and constant form of collective action. As historians such as Peter Jones have found with regard to paupers manipulating the language of the poor law in their letters for relief, and E. P. Thompson hinted in his examination of the reciprocal relationship between plebeians and the law, law could facilitate agency. Roberts also puts me in mind of Thomas Erskine, and other lawyers who successfully defended radicals. Trade unions also were more effective in organising regionally and pan-regionally.

One notes, however, that when legal challenges did not succeed, or when the heat of the moment found the courts too slow, the protest tactics of trade unions were often much more violent than those of radical or other political groups. Trade unionists evolved innovative and often brutal forms of protests viz the body. Pickets, breaking machinery, marching, all used the body. Whereas other protests would focus on property, it was not uncommon for unionists to attack physically blackleg strike breakers or employers.

  • Christopher Frank, Master and Servant Law: Chartists, Trade Unions, Radical Lawyers and the Magistracy in England, 1840-1865 (Ashgate, Abingdon, 2010)
  • James A Jaffe, Striking a Bargain: Work and Industrial Relations in England, 1815-1865 (Manchester, 2000)
  • Michael Huberman, Escape from the Market: Negotiating Work in Lancashire (Cambridge, 1996)
  • John Batt, 'United to Support but Not Combined to Injure' Public Order, Trade unions and the Repeal of the Combination Acts of 1825-1800', International Review of Social History, 31: 2 (1986)


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