Sunday, 21 August 2016

The Taff Vale Railway Strike

Between 1893-98 coal mining strikes in South Wales brought suffering to railway workers and miners with the suspension of the guaranteed sixty hour week and lay offs. The Taff Vale railway workers moved a quarter of the eighteen million tons of coal dug out by South Wales miners. The Boer war increased the demand for South Wales coal and the miners won pay increases but rail workers did not even though the cost of living increased. Grievances running high  about wages and conditions, but also about a specific charge of victimisation against a signalman by the name of John Ewinfton,  General Manager of the Taff Vale Railway's  refusal to meet with their representatives the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (thw workers union),certainly did not help, so at  midnight of August 19th 1900  1,327 workers of the Taff Railway Company went on  strike. Richard Bell, ASRS general secretary, travelled to Cardiff to organise the picketing against scab labour. In the course of the struggle, tracks were greased, trucks uncoupled and locomotive engines put out of action.The picketing that took place is said to be the best organised in any railway strike in Britain with no coal trains running on the first day.At the height of the strike, a mass demonstration of around 12,000 took place at Cathays Park in Cardiff, organised by the Cardiff Trades Council, in support of the railway workers. The company drummed up strike breakers, known as blacklegs or scabs, through the National Free Labour Association and ordered strikers and their families to vacate rented company cottages.Finally furious employers plotted with the strikebreaking National Free Labour Association and the Employers Parliamentary Council to smash the strike with an injunction, which was duly granted. Although the strike was settled by mediation after only eleven days, the employers carried their legal case for compensation to the Lords and successfully sued for damages against the union to the tune of £23,000, with additional costs of £27,000 – a formidable sum at the time.
It also proved to be a landmark decision, as it shattered the belief that unions could not be held responsible for damages as a result of the actions of their members, this prosecution followed a decade of attacks on trade union rights and the verdict practically eliminated the strike as a weapon of organised labor. The newly formed unions for the unskilled workers had suffered loss of membership due to unemployment. Employers recruited the unemployed, including criminal gangs to break strikes, and a whole series of court decisions deprived the unions of the right to a closed shop and to refuse to deal with non-union firms.The Tory press launched a tirade against the unions, calling them 'our national mafia' and called upon the state to protect the public from 'working class tyranny'.
The Taff Vale case had an immediate impact it would help foster the growth of the recently formed  formed Labour Representation Committee. It was essential for the unions that legislation be put through Parliament to reverse this judgement and guarantee unions immunity during an industrial dispute. The lack of trade union support for the LRC changed. In 1900 it had less than half the trade union movement affiliated. Key unions like the Miners Federation saw the implications of Taff Vale for themselves and switched to Labour from supporting the Liberals. Within two years the affiliated membership of the LRC had doubled from 455,450 to 861,200.
The Taff Vale judgement helped make minds up in favour of a Labour Party in parliament which by now has been formed,. however at the 1906 general election three corner contests were avoided through agreements between the LRC and Liberal Party. It was a Liberal landslide including 29 LRC MPs. These 29 MPs were though able to exercise enough pressure upon the Liberal Government to pass the Trades Disputes Act of 1906. Legalizing peaceful picketing and restoring union immunity against actions for damages caused by strikes.The behaviour of one employer had been sufficient to cement the links between the trade unions and the Labour Party. The ruling class now had to face a labour movement which was going from strength to strength and able to exercise influence in Parliament as well as on the industrial front. The years of the Liberal Government saw increasing industrial militancy with disputes in all the major industries such as mining, the docks and the railways. A triple alliance was forged between the unions of the three main industries. Amalgamation Committees were set up and the number of trade unionists increased. The Labor Party though in parliament seemed to be irrelevent to union militants who turned to direct action and were being pulled towards revolutionary ideas such as syndicalism and workers control . The Taff Vale Railway Strike to be remembered as a landmark in the history of industrial relations in Britain not to be forgotten today as Tory anti-trade union legislation continues to set back trade union rights over one hundred years.

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