1871 Trade Union Act

When the head of the Conservative government, Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th 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 Thomas Anson, 2nd 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a single person; (2) The common law doctrine of restraint of trade in its application to trade associations should be repealed; (3) That all legislation dealing with specifically with the activities of employers or workmen should be repealed; (4) That all trade unions should receive full and positive protection for their funds and other property.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) Eric Hopkins, A Social History of the English Working Classes (1979)

Eventually the government was prevailed upon to put its proposals into two Bills which became the Trade Union Act (1871) containing the major and beneficial changes, and the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1871) prohibiting picketing. This left the trade unions free to concentrate on getting the second Act repealed. In the 1874 general election, the Parliamentary Committee asked candidates certain Test Questions on their attitudes to trade unions, and members were urged to vote for or against them on the basis of their replies. Two trade unionist candidates, both miners, were actually elected in this election - Alexander MacDonald at Stafford, and Thomas Burt at Morpeth. The new Conservative government appointed another Royal Commission, this time on the Labour Laws, but it was boycotted by the Parliamentary Committee, and it achieved very little.

Yet the campaign to get the Criminal Law Amendment Act repealed gained a surprising success when in t875 the government introduced the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act which legalized picketing again. It also redefined the legal position of trade unions so that, for example, striking could not come under the law of conspiracy. In the same year the Employers and Workmen Act replaced the 1867 Act so that imprisonment for breach of contract was abolished altogether, and employers and workmen became equal partners in a contract of employment.