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December 2006   

Interview: Flying High
The Australian international Pilots Association has rejoined the ACTU and president Ian Woods is taking it into new airspace.

Unions: TUF on Toll
As transport giant Toll expands across the region, unions are working together to boost their bargaining power, writes Jackie Woods.

Industrial: Forward to the Past
Anti-union building laws draw their inspiration from a century ago, writes Neale Towart

Economics: Debt and the Economy
Household debt is at record levels. Interest rates are rising. Production of real things is not increasing. The military generates most demand. How long can it go on?

Obituary: The Charlatanry of Milton Friedman
Evan Jones busts some myths about the grand-daddy of free market economics

Environment: Low Voltage
Nuclear Power and Prime Ministerial Pronouncements are seriously short of a few volts, writes Neale Towart

Legal: The Fair Deal
Anthony Forsyth proposes a social partnership agenda for Australia

Review: A Little History
The Little History of Australian Unionism is exactly that; fifteen thousand words on the topic, writes Rowan Cahill.


The Soapbox
Address to the Nation
ACTU secretary Greg Combet's speech to the National Day of Action

The Westie Wing
Ian West recalls a time when the earth was flat, unions ran the country and Honest John Howard was the workers’ best friend.

Sick System
Punitive IR laws and a commercially-driven workers compensation scheme are conspiring to bully injured workers, writes Dr Con Costa.


Seven Year Itch
For the past seven years, over 335 issues, Workers Online has been chronicling events in the labour movement and passing our judgments on all things union.


 Global Campaign for Jailed Iranian Union Leader

 Bully Tactics Can’t Dull Protests

 Which Bank Slashes Work Rights?

 Sunday’s The Day For Future Rallies

 Carmel Saves Job, Loses Bonus

 Case Dismissed: No Justice in WorkChoices

 China (S)trains Procurement Policy

 Contracts Out on Sole Traders

 Car Companies Do The Dirty

 Historic Case Restores Security

 Final Hurdle for Medibank Sell-Off

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 Boss With a Heart
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Forward to the Past

Anti-union building laws draw their inspiration from a century ago, writes Neale Towart


The ABCC and other legislative shackles placed on building workers in 2005, combined with the Workchoices legislation of 2006 has exposed unionists and unions to damages claims, almost exactly 100 years after union workplace and political action overturned the power of British employers to do just that.

The Trade Disputes Act of 1906 was a remarkable stepping stone on the way to gaining legal and political rights for trade unions and their members. Looking at this act provides another picture of the Howard government's attacks on modern workers as he returns us to serfdom. Hayek claimed socialism was the road to serfdom. The reality is now upon us that neo-liberalism and the individualism advocated by Hayek have brought us to that point, just as that same ethos has brought the planet to the brink as far as human society goes.

Jim Mortimer has written a short pamphlet for the British Institute of Employment Rights on the 1906 Act.

The origins of the 1906 legislation was in the agitation beginning in 1899 by railway workers employed by the Taft Vale Railway. The company was doing very well at the time as the demand for coal for the Boer War was doing wonders for profits. The company was very anti-union. The workers were part of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) and a regional official of the union was very supportive of the workers. They were not making much progress however. The main union office was more cautious and actually got a delay in strike action, despite the clear position of the men that it was needed. The local official in the meantime did succeed in getting wage settlements for workers on other railways.

The strike of August 1900 was precipitated when one of the signalmen was discriminated against by the company and this, combined with the wage claim lead to 1200 workers stopping work. Almost half gave no notice and many gave inadequate notice (as required by trade union legislation of the time).

The company then recruited strikebreakers and was helped by so-called "free labour" associations. Picketers persuaded many of these workers to desist. The company attacked strikers who lived in company owned railway cottages by giving them immediate notice that they were to be evicted.

The ASRS Executive, after hearing from strikers at Taft Vale, voted 7 to 5 to condemn the conduct of the workers. They also criticised management for its action against the signalman and agreed to support the strikers financially. After 11 days a settlement was reached with all strikers returning to their jobs, arbitration for the signalman, pension rights guaranteed, legal proceedings stopped and a Conciliation Board was to hear the wage claim.

However a judge, on the day the strike ended, granted an injunction against the ASRS General Secretary and against the regional official restraining picketing and seemed to indicate that the union could be held financially responsible for the actions of its agents. The union appealed and won in the Court of Appeal. The company kept going to the House of Lords which ruled in favour of the company. So Taft Vale was able to claim £23,000.00 from the union, which equates to over £3million today. The dispute between the branch and the head office was also shown by the union secretary insisting on conducting a separate case from the regional official, who had a far more radical view of the union role.

This decision overturned previous conventions. It had been though you could sue union officials but not the union for civil damages. This 1900 decision was a successful attempt by an employer to sue a union.

Push Political Representatives

This saw the new century start with unions seeking to overturn such constraints and the decision to seek independent political representation in Parliament, as Australian unions had decided to seek in the early 1890s. Certainly this idea had its origins with the Chartists of the 1830s, gained ground in the 1870s and saw the formation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1893.

At the 1899 Trades Union Congress a decision was made to hold a conference of co-operatives, socialist, trade union and other worker organisations to devise ways of getting more direct worker representation in Parliament. The union movement remained divided about this approach however. The threat that became so apparent with the Taft Vale decision gave a surge to the movement aimed at political representation. The Labour Representation Committee (LRC) that was formed from the conference increased the numbers of unions affiliated to 165, with 176 trades councils representing 965,000 workers.

The canvassing of MPs. public meetings and electoral committees were the major actions taken from 1904. By the time of the general election of 1906 the need for legislation on this was a major election issue. Many Labour candidates stood with Liberal Party support. The election result saw a landslide for the Liberals with a huge majority of Liberals, LRC members (now referred to as Labour Party members) miners' representatives and Irish Nationalists. In 1900 the Conservative Party had 402 elected. In 1906 they were reduced to 157, with 536 anti-Tories.

Legal inquiries into trade union laws had begun already. A committee was appointed in 1903 with no union members but with some support for them from Sidney Webb of the Fabians. The TUC did not co-operate however. Webb was scarcely a friend in some matters and believed unions should be liable for damages.

The Liberal PM Bannerman was sympathetic to the TUC position and the Bill, whose second reading was in April 1906 covered 4 major points at issue. The issues were laws relating to conspiracy, picketing, trade interference and whether trade unions should be considered as corporate bodies.

The speech of the Solicitor General indicated that most were in agreement about the disability imposed on trade unions by the laws which were very destructive to any combinations upon which "freedom and prosperity of the industrial classes of this country depend".

The treatment as corporate bodies was the most divisive issue. If unions were to have that sort of liability then they should also have incorporation privileges, such being able to enforce contracts with members. Thus unions should, for example, be able to have a contract with each member to ensure that they did not return to work from a strike without the consent of the majority. The Solicitor General also argued against the use of laws regarding conspiracy against union members (as in the Tolpuddle Martyrs case). The importance of the right to picket was also defended, with the Solicitor General saying that unions were "an essential safeguard against this country's being turned into the paradise of the sweater" (he didn't mean a wooly jumper).

Their are stark contrast with Australian and British laws of 2006. The law on secondary action or boycotts (Australian Trade Practices Act s45D) places severe restrictions on solidarity or sympathetic action. This was allowed in 1906. Strike action is very restricted now and unions can be sued and unionists sued (the WA 107 case). Secret ballots were not required in 1906, they are now. Picketing is a tricky business now if doing it as a union. So we have moved to the 19th century as we chart a course in the 21st.

The 1906 legislation in the UK was part of a broad social movement for change that saw the rise of a labour party, work hours reforms, attacks on sweated labour, fair wage laws, workers compensation, universal male and female suffrage. Movements developed that gave a stage to many important activists. Some such as Tom Mann (who went to Australia around this time) decided after observing arbitration and conciliation systems in Australia and New Zealand that the parliamentary road was the wrong one and industrial unionism was the only way to achieve real gains for workers. Colleagues of his such as Burns, Tillet and other unionists endorsed the Parliamentary approach.

That road was taken and workers conditions did improve with the sort of legislation mentioned above. The question of the role of labour parties remains. Worker gains have been legislatively supported by the labour parties but broad based workplace and social actions are the real drivers, not the political parties. We should not forget that when the ALP makes lots of promises.

Jim Mortimer (2004) The Trades Disputes Act 1906. London: Institute of Employment Rights. see their website:

The Australian Institute of Employment Rights has been established in Melbourne:


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