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Raymond Challinor

Wrong on Roberts

(January 1991)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.138, January 1991, p.29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THAT ubiquitous correspondent Keith Flett is wrong (November SWR). He has not understood the main thrust of W.P. Roberts’ argument against registration under the Trades Union Act 1871. The Miners’ Attorney-General’s opposition arose because he considered what trade unions were gaining under this new legislation was less than what they were losing.

Keith Flett can look at pre-1871 labour history. The Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Glasgow spinners, the victims of the pitmen’s Bond – he will find countless examples of the savagery of the law towards working people. There is, however, one thing he will not find: a trade union being arraigned before the courts. Workers yes, workers’ organisations no.

The reason is quite simple. Pre-1871 unions were located in a limbo land between legality and illegality. They had no legal existence. Like the football crowd at Liverpool’s Kop, they could neither sue nor be sued as a collective entity.

But the 1871 act altered that. It began a journey that led to Taff Vale, where the NUR’s forerunner had damages awarded against it because its members had gone on unofficial strike, and ultimately ended up with the sequestration of all the NUM’s assets during the 1984-5 coal strike.

W.P. Roberts could foresee this harmful development happening. Therefore, he wanted to give as few hostages as possible to judicial misfortune. Presumably, the SWP acts on the same principle today: while having no illusions about the law, still it tries to order its activities so as to minimise the possibility of costly and damaging legal actions occurring.

Through the ages, right wing union leaders have had a rather different approach. One has only to look at the way they now do not want any future Labour government to repeal Thatcher’s anti-union legislation. It gives them a useful weapon with which to stifle rank and file activity.

Yet the law holds no fears for the union bureaucrats themselves. They may even be rewarded from on high for seeking to maintain ‘good’ industrial relations, i.e. tranquil conditions where profit making can continue unimpeded. As an unofficial dockers’ leader ruefully remarked in the 1970s, there were more noble knights on the TUC General Council than ever King Arthur had sitting at his round table at Camelot.

In W.P. Roberts’ times, the union hierarchy was just beginning to emerge, assert itself, establish control over the organisation, dominate the membership. Keith Flett should try to understand this fact dominated Roberts’ attitude to industrial legislation. It aided and abetted a process of differentiation that has led to a situation today where general secretaries of the TUC receive peerages while rank and file union members receive prison sentences.

This may appear quite appropriate to Lord Len Murray; on the other hand, the mass of miners fined and imprisoned may have a slightly different view.


Raymond Challinor
Whitley Bay

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