Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

Blacklegs and Boomerangs

(July 1959)

From The Newsletter, 18 July 1959.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

Martell’s most notorious predecessor in the scab-herding business was William Collison, known in his day as ‘the king of blacklegs’. His cynical memoirs, The Apostle of Free Labour, appeared in 1913.

Collison’s ‘Free Labour Association’ was founded in 1893, with money supplied by a body called the Employers’ Parliamentary Council, whose chairman Lord Wemyss later admitted that it was ‘an artificial body which we provided with almost all its funds; but we have tried to give it the appearance of independence in order to be able to be able to influence public opinion’.

The FLA recruited men who were prepared to go anywhere and break strikes, and it was extensively used by the employers in the 1890s and early 1900s in their counter-offensive against the militant ‘new unionism’.

Collison himself was a minor renegade trade union official, inspired by the exploits of the Pinkerton Agency in America. Like Martell, he ran a paper – the Free Labour Press.

Collison’s scabs went down to South Wales to break a strike of railwaymen on the Taff Vale lines.

The pickets dealt briskly with them – for instance, they greased the track on inclines so that trains were brought to a standstill through the engine wheels slipping, enabling pickets to uncouple trucks and let them run back to the bottom.

The railway company sued the union for damages and won its case – the famous ‘Taff Vale judgment’ of 1901, the effect of which was to bring into active support of the newly-founded Labour Representation Commitee a number of unions which had not seen till then the need for independent working-class politics.

Martell’s activities and the clashes which they are provoking will serve in our generation to show up the class issues even more starkly than did Collison’s.

The Free Press judgment

This column’s heading in The Newsletter of October 25, 1958, was Mr Justice Ron and the Pickets.

It told how a police officer had ruled that two pickets were sufficient for a certain entrance to the Shell-Mex site on South Bank. That, he explained, was how the police ‘interpreted’ the law permitting peaceful picketing.

Now a magistrate has upheld this interpretation, in a judgment that should be seen as another ‘Taff Vale’, tending to hamstring the whole trade union movement.

Last updated on 12.10.2011