The notorious combinations legislation of eighteenth century Britain which culminated in the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800, rendered trade unions illegal while at the same time branding them as criminal conspiracies. In 1824 the combination laws were repealed following tireless work by the reformer Francis Place and by member of Parliament Joseph Hume who successfully smuggled the necessary legislation through the House of Commons. Despite the introduction of new but more lenient combination laws within a year, it was becoming clear that unions were not about to go away.
By 1867 Parliament had conceded the vote to the vast majority of Britain's male workers. It was only a matter of time before legislation with some semblance of even-handedness was introduced. The Trade Union Act of 1871 (otherwise known as the Charter of Trade Unionism) and the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act, 1875 represented Parliament's attempts to legalise trade unions. The Judges, however had other ideas. In 1901 two particular cases, Quinn V Leatham (involving the North of Ireland Operative Butchers Society) and the landmark Taff Vale judgement, demonstrated quite clearly that the politicians would have to produce watertight legislation before their lordships would bow to the 'anarchy' of organised labour. In the words of Justice Lindley in 1899, 'you cannot make a strike effective without doing more than is lawful'.
A Royal Commission was established in 1903 by the Tory Government of the day. Three years later the Trade Disputes Act was introduced on 20th December, 1906 by the Liberal Government elected in January of that year. This Act was to stand for 84 years as the legal basis for the bulk of industrial action engaged in by Irish workers up to and after the establishment of the Irish Free State.
Armed at last with real protection from legal persecution, the trade unions could now concentrate on the struggle for better working conditions instead of concerning themselves with judicial ambush from the bench. Such was the protection offered by the 1906 Act, that it prompted the Inspector General of the R. I.C. in Dublin Castle, Mr. E. Chamberlain, to refer to it in a report on 'The Recent Indiscipline of Certain Members of the Royal Irish Constabulary in Bel fast' Chamberlain attempted to explain away the behaviour of his men by referring to
"their being in daily contact with all the devices, either by way of speeches or the so-called 'peaceful picketting' which are immune under our present laws".
The significance of the Trade Disputes Act in Ireland can be gauged from Jim Larkin's distribution of copies of the legislation to striking dockers in Belfast during the docks dispute of 1907. To the delight of the striking dockers and the bewilderment of the military and police, Larkin was able to insist on the right of 'peaceful picketting'.
Employers were predictably uneasy. By 1913 the employers league in Dublin had decided that enough was enough. The Irish Transport and General Workers Union, Larkin, Connolly and all that they stood for would have to be crushed. The battle would not be fought on issues such as wages or working conditions, nor would it be fought on the issue of the right to belong to a trade union. The issue which was to cost James Nolan, a young Dublin worker, his life, would be the 'kind' of Trade Union a worker could join. Of course workers could join unions but not 'Larkin's Union'
The challenge to the ITGWU was met by Dublin's organised workers and the rest is history.
Today however, while the challenge is still there, it takes a much more subtle approach. From employers we get what is commonly known as 'Human Resource Management' . Its not about 'us' and 'them' , we're all in this together and we must learn to get along without involving outsiders, otherwise known as trade unions. From the trade union leadership we get the Programme for National Recovery (PNR) and the Programme for Economic and Social Progress (PESP). Need we say more And finally, from Government we get the Industrial Relations Act, 1990. A piece of legislation which is designed to curtail the activities of trade unionists and to bring about what government and employers constantly refer to as `good industrial relations.
For those of you who, like this writer, see good industrial relations' as no unemployment, a living wage for all and a peaceful and just society, let me disabuse you of any naive notion you might have that the Minister for Labour who introduced the Industrial Relations Act, 1990, Bertie Ahern, might share that view. A good industrial climate from where the Minister sits is one in which there are no strikes, no pickets, no occupations or otherwise 'bolshy' behaviour from workers who should consider themselves lucky to have jobs in the first place, and the Industrial Relations Act is designed to bring that about.
So the struggle continues. We must fight today, just as energetically as they did in 1913 for the right to join a union and to have that union recognised as the legitimate voice of the workers in question. The significance of the 'Pat the Baker' strike will not be lost on those trade unionists who are familiar with the principle involved. So lets be brave in the struggle. After all, we have the trade union leadership on our side. Haven't we ?