1871 Trade Union Act

When the head of the Conservative government, Earl of Derby decided to set up a Royal Commission on Trade Unions in 1867, George Potter, writing for the Bee-Hive, called for a working man to be included or a "gentleman well known to the working classes as possessing a practical knowledge of the working of Trade Unions, and in whom they might feel confidence." The government rejected the idea of a working man but they did ask Frederic Harrison to serve on the commission. Harrison was a very useful member of the commission, preparing union witnesses by telling them in advance what questions would be asked and rescued the from difficult situations during their cross-examination.

Robert Applegarth, the general secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners was chosen as a union observer of the proceedings. Applegarth worked hard checking the various accusations of the employers and providing information to the two pro-union members of the Royal Commission, Harrison and Thomas Hughes. Applegarth also appeared as a witness and it was generally accepted that he was the most impressive of all the trade unionists who gave evidence before the commission.

Frederic Harrison, Thomas Hughes and the Earl of Lichfield refused to sign the Majority Report that was hostile to trade unions and instead produced a Minority Report where he argued that trade unions should be given privileged legal status. Harrison suggested several changes to the law: (1) Persons combining should not be liable for indictment for conspiracy unless their actions would be criminal if committed by a single person; (2) The common law doctrine of restraint of trade in its application to trade associations should be repealed; (3) That all legislation dealing with specifically with the activities of employers or workmen should be repealed; (4) That all trade unions should receive full and positive protection for their funds and other property.

The Trade Union Congress campaigned to have the Minority Report accepted by the new Liberal government headed by William Gladstone. This campaign was successful and the 1871 Trade Union Act was based largely on the Minority Report. This act secured the legal status of trade unions. As a result of this legislation no trade union could be regarded as criminal because "in restraint of trade"; trade union funds were protected. Although trade unions were pleased with this act, they were less happy with the Criminal Law Amendment Act passed the same day that made picketing illegal.

Primary Sources

(1) Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz (1947)

Last spring the Germans had constructed huge tents in an open space in the Lager. For the whole of the good season each of them had catered for over 1,000 men: now the tents had been taken down, and an excess 2,000 guests crowded our huts. We old prisoners knew that the Germans did not like these irregularities and that something would soon happen to reduce our number.