190 years ago today a bill to abolish the 1799/1800 Combination Acts was passed by the House of Commons.
The end of the 18th century had seen employers increasing their capital, with greater investment in plant and machinery. For the first time, by combining workers had a weapon that could hurt the superior forces of class and privilege. Combination was already illegal but the new laws offered a faster application of the law by providing for a trial before a Justice of the Peace (Magistrate) rather than wait for an assize. Although the Acts forbade combinations amongst employees and employers it was never used against the latter. When the employers began cutting wages and a few brave workers walked out they found themselves up before the Magistrates and imprisoned. Tin plate workers in the Wolverhampton ‘great strike’ of 1819 were arrested, tried, found guilty and transported to Tasmania. This did not prevent other workers taking action, often successfully after their masters refused to use the law.
In response to the attacks on their rights to collectively organise, workers continuously presented petitions to Parliament, but with no workers’ representatives the support from MPs was extremely limited. There were even moves by William Wilberforce to make the combination laws more drastic.
In the early 1820s, two MPs, Francis Place and Joseph Hume were successful in getting a Select Committee of Inquiry to examine the workings of the Combination Acts. This recommended repeal, which was carried out between 25 May and 5 June 1824.
It did not take the employers long to hit back. Workers organised ‘closed shops’ and demands for wage increases were backed up with strikes. A frightened ruling class demanded restoration of the combination laws. The result was a strengthening of the Conspiracy Laws in 1825, again limiting combinations and leaving trade union funds unprotected with their members liable to be sued for breach of contract. Picketing was made illegal and the employers again moved to prevent collective bargaining.