Taff Vale Case

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Taff Vale Case

Great Britain 1900-1901


The Taff Vale case centered on a brief but bitterly fought strike waged by the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) against the management of the Taff Vale Railway Company in South Wales in August 1900. The company took the ASRS to court and was awarded £23,000 in damages and £19,000 costs. This ruling threatened to destroy the unions' ability to wage effective strike action; the need for political redress led to a sharp increase in the rate of trade union affiliations to the Labour Representation Committee (renamed the Labour Party in 1906). The Trades Disputes Act of 1906 overturned the court decision by legalizing peaceful picketing and restoring union immunity against actions for damages caused by strikes.


  • 1880: Cattle drives up the Chisholm Trail in the western United States reach their peak.
  • 1890: Congress passes the Sherman Antitrust Act, which in the years that follow will be used to break up large monopolies.
  • 1896: U.S. Supreme Court issues its Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which establishes the "separate but equal" doctrine that will be used to justify segregation in the southern United States for the next half-century.
  • 1900: China's Boxer Rebellion, which began in the preceding year with attacks on foreigners and Christians, reaches its height. An international contingent of more than 2,000 men arrives to restore order, but only after several tens of thousands have died.
  • 1900: Sigmund Freud publishes The Interpretation of Dreams.
  • 1900: German physicist Max Planck develops Planck's constant, a cornerstone of quantum theory.
  • 1901: Guglielmo Marconi makes the first successful transmission and reception of a radio signal.
  • 1901: U.S. President William McKinley is assassinated by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt becomes president.
  • 1901: Austrian-American immunologist Karl Landsteiner identifies A, B, and O blood types.
  • 1903: Henry Ford establishes the Ford Motor Company.
  • 1907: U.S. markets experience a financial panic.
  • 1911: Turkish-Italian War sees the first use of aircraft as an offensive weapon. Italian victory results in the annexation of Libya.

Event and Its Context

The Industrial Context

The roots of the Taff Vale case lay in the particular nature of the railway industry and in the evolving character of the trade union movement in the late nineteenth century. Public safety concerns and industry's economic significance meant that the railways were subject to stringent government regulation. Parliament had limited employees' hours of service and in 1888 and 1894 stipulated uniform schedules of charges for railway services. Rising costs and increased competition in the 1890s led to a squeeze on profits and strengthened the companies' resistance to union demands. Railway managers also believed that union demands infringed upon their responsibility for railway safety. Many railway companies prided themselves on offering high wages and fringe benefits but, whereas company paternalism resented the disruption that was threatened by union activists, in the view of union members, such paternalism slid easily into authoritarianism. As profit margins fell in the 1890s, the Railway Companies' Association agreed on concerted action to oppose union recognition and to maintain services and income in the event of strike action. Many companies subscribed to the National Free Labour Association that was formed in 1893 to supply nonunion labor to strike-affected industries.

Traditionally, trade unionism had been a weak force in the railway industry. In 1890 only 13 percent of the railway workforce (48,000 out of a total of 381,000 workers) were union members. The railway unions, however, shared in the general upsurge of union membership and militancy that occurred between 1889 and 1891. In August 1890 an eight-day strike against the Taff Vale Railway Company achieved reduced hours, a guaranteed weekly wage, and de facto union recognition.

Although Taff Vale management respected the letter of the agreement, the arrival of Ammon Beasley as general manager in 1891 signaled a new, more combative phase in unionmanagement relations. Beasley came from the Great Western Railway with a reputation as a harsh disciplinarian, and he refused further bargaining with the railway unions. The company itself, long the beneficiary of a profitable local monopoly on coal transport, was suffering increased competition and declining profits.

The genesis of the Taff Vale dispute offers, therefore, a cameo of the wider patterns of industrial relations that were operating within Britain at the time. The brief success of the ASRS in the 1890 dispute and its subsequent forced retreat reflected contemporary developments in the broader union movement. Union growth and militancy, symbolized by the 1889 Dock Strike, resulted in employer backlash in the 1890s. The creation of employers' confederations; the establishment of the National Free Labour Association; and lock-outs directed against bastions of union power in the cotton, coal, and engineering sectors in 1893 and 1897-1898 all signified a new-found determination among British industrialists to assert their power at a time of growing concerns over the competitiveness of British industry. Newspaper campaigns, notably in The Times, bolstered the position of the industrial power base by criticizing union power and obstructionism. A series of legal cases, most notably Lyons vs. Wilkins in 1896, which greatly restricted picketing rights, also seemed to reflect "Establishment" hostility to trade unionism.

The Taff Vale Strike

The situation at Taff Vale came to a head in 1900. The railwaymen's bargaining position has been strengthened by the Boer War (reservists had been called up, and the company was an important supplier of coal to the navy). James Holmes, a militant local organizer of the ASRS, took the opportunity to challenge the power of the Beasley, who was known as the "Taff Vale dictator," in an open letter in the September 1899 edition of the ASRS's Railway Review. The letter berated the craven attitude of local railwaymen. A mass meeting calling for improved conditions followed, but the subsequent strike ballot was indecisive. In June 1900 Holmes disseminated a circular to the workforce, which was well received in part because of the alleged victimization of John Ewington, a Taff Vale signalman and union activist who had been relocated 16 miles to a new place of work. On 19 August a mass meeting of the ASRS's Pontypridd branch voted for immediate strike action. Against Holmes' powerful local leadership, Richard Bell, the more moderate General Secretary of the ASRS, was unable to contain what he felt to be a precipitate move and he was sent to Taff Vale to take charge of the dispute. The union's national committee narrowly gave official sanction to the strike by a vote of seven to five. The 350 signalmen, guards, and brakemen who originated the strike were reinforced by drivers and firefighters until some 800 workers were involved in the dispute.

The strike itself was bitterly fought. The company maintained surveillance of union meetings and kept files on strike ringleaders. It also contacted the National Association of Free Labour, which supplied 197 workers to take the place of those on strike. The unions dissuaded one-third of these from taking employment, but Beasley was careful to ensure that those who did work signed contracts of employment. Union members picketed and took additional direct action to prevent the Company from operating. Strikers greased the railway tracks to prevent traffic and on one occasion diverted onto a siding and detained a carriage containing blackleg labor. Local courts issued 400 summonses against the strikers. The company also secured an injunction against Holmes, who had published an article in the local press that was critical of the replacement workers. Taff Vale was able to maintain a level of passenger service, but its freight operations were effectively halted, causing a loss of some £20,000 in revenue.

Nevertheless, the balance of power lay with the employers. The strikers returned to work on 1 September, believing the scab, or blackleg, workers would be dismissed and a Conciliation Board established to adjudicate issues of dispute. In practice, management was less conciliatory—blackleg workers retained their employment and, although most strikers were allowed back, they returned in humiliating circumstances. The company did drop some summonses for intimidation but charges of criminal damage and assault were allowed to stand.

The Taff Vale Case

The ultimate significance of the Taff Vale case to the British labor movement was the company's determination to pursue the union for damages. In the initial hearing, Justice Farwell held that the unions were indeed corporations that were liable for the unlawful conduct of their officials and members. This was overturned in the Court of Appeal, but in July 1901 the House of Lords, the highest court in the land, upheld and reaffirmed the original ruling. The five law lords concurred with the Lord Chancellor, Lord Halsbury, that Parliament, having legalized trade unions as corporate bodies, must have intended them to be suable under the law. Politics and class prejudice played a part in these decisions, which also reflected a widespread antipathy within the legal establishment to the unions' unique legal immunities.

Beasley sought damages against the union for "having conspired to induce the workmen to break their contracts, and also for having conspired to interfere with the traffic of the company by picketing and other unlawful means." Beasley's case against the ASRS reached the courts in December 1902 and the Company was awarded £23,000 in damages plus £19,000 in costs.

Impact of the Decision

The Lords' decision was a bombshell to the British union movement and its implications were stark: the courts had in effect abolished the unions' right to strike or, at any rate, their right to strike effectively and without crippling financial cost. Though a few union leaders initially held that the ruling might have some beneficial impact in curbing the "hotheads" of the movement, most realized that legislation overturning the verdict was essential if the union movement hoped to retain any power to influence industrial relations. A significant decline in industrial action between 1903 and 1907 seems to reflect fears of the Judgment's implications.

The Conservative Government set up a Royal Commission to investigate but made it clear that it had no intention of reforming the law to the unions' benefit. The Liberal Party appeared to lack either the ability or the will to secure redress. In these circumstances, Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald, and other leaders of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), which was formed in 1900 as an amalgamation of socialist and trade union interests seeking to secure independent labor representation in Parliament, were quick to argue the LRC's essential role. Trade union affiliations to the LRC rose sharply. Between 1900 and mid-1901, 41 unions had joined the LRC, for a total membership of 353,070; between February 1902 and February 1903, 127 additional unions joined, bringing the LRC's membership to 847,315. At this point, 49 unions were affiliated to the LRC, representing some 56 percent of the membership of the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

A Liberal landslide in the 1905 General Election secured the conditions for legislative reform. The Royal Commission's Majority Report in 1906 proposed the legalization of peaceful picketing and the protection of the unions' welfare funds. The general and strike funds, however, would remain vulnerable to legal action. The Labour Party greeted this limited reform, which had been endorsed by the new Liberal government, with hostility. Protest by Labour Members of Parliament (MPs) and sympathetic Liberals, coordinated by David Shackleton, led the government to backtrack. It agreed to take over a bill that had been tabled by the Labour Party along lines suggested by the TUC. The Trades Disputes Act of 1906 granted complete immunity to union funds from legal actions for damages and affirmed rights of peaceful picketing. This act remained the essential charter of trade union rights until the reforms of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

Key Players

Bell, Richard (1859-1930): Born in South Wales, he began work on the railways at age 16. He became an organizing secretary for the ASRS in 1893 and its general secretary in 1898. He served as Labour MP for Derby from 1900 to 1910 but remained essentially a Liberal in his politics. He worked for the Government Board of Trade from 1910 to 1920.

Hardie, James Keir (1856-1915): Hardie began work in Glasgow at age eight. He became a miner at 11 years of age but was later dismissed for his role in organizing a union and strike. He became secretary of the Scottish Miners' Federation and, having abandoned Liberalism, was elected Britain's first socialist MP in 1892. A founding member of the Independent Labour Party in 1893, Hardie was a leading figure in the formation of the LRC in 1900 and Labour's parliamentary leader between 1906 and 1908.

MacDonald, Ramsay (1866-1937): The illegitimate son of aScottish maidservant. An early member of the Fabian Society and Independent Labour Party, he became the secretary of the Labour Representation Committee. MacDonald was a Labour MP (1906-1918 and 1922-1931 and National Labour MP from 1931 to 1937) and was elected Labour leader in 1922. He served as prime minister in 1924 and 1929-31. MacDonald was an increasingly "respectable" moderate who opposed the 1926 General Strike and became leader of a "National" coalition government from 1931 to 1935.

Shackleton, David (1863-1938): A Lancashire weaver who rose to become president of the Amalgamated Weavers' Association from 1906 to 1910. A member of the TUC's Parliamentary Committee (1904-1910), an MP (1902-1910), and a member of Labour's Executive Committee (1903-1905), Shackleton was important as a trade union moderate who built support for the Labour Party. He worked in labor-related civil service positions from 1910 to 1925.



Clegg, H. A, Alan Fox, and A. F. Thompson. A History of British Trade Unions since 1889. Volume I, 1889-1910. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964.


Alderman, Geoffrey. "The Railway Companies and the Growth of Trades Unionism in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries." The Historical Journal 14, no. 1 (1971): 129-152.

Harvey, Charles, and Jon Press. "Management and the Taff Vale Strike of 1900." Business History 42, no. 2 (2000): 63-86.

McCord, Norman. "Taff Vale Revisited." History 78 (June1993): 243-260.

Additional Resources


Adelman, Paul. The Rise of the Labour Party, 1880-1945.3rd ed. London, New York: Longman, 1996.

Bealey, Frank, and Henry Pelling. Labour and Politics,1900-1906: A History of the Labour Representation Committee. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982.

Browne, Harry. The Rise of British Trade Unions,1825-1914. London: Longman, 1979.

Pelling, Henry. A Short History of the Labour Party. 11th ed.New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

—John Boughton