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Thompsons: 100 years of the workers’ counsel

Trade union law firm Thompsons is marking its centenary. PETER LAZENBY speaks to chief executive CLARE MELLOR and former Thompsons lawyer turned MP RICHARD BURGON about a century of fighting for the rights of workers

“THEY make the laws to chain us well” is a line in a song written by singer-songwriter Leon Rosselson about the radical Diggers who established a socialist community at St George’s Hill in Surrey in 1649 after the English civil war.

Rosselson’s words expressed a political recognition reached by the Diggers’ leader Gerard Winstanley more than 350 years ago — that laws are used as a tool by the rich and powerful to control and exploit workers and the masses.

Winstanley declared his views more than 350 years ago, but they are apposite today.

In the last 40 years Tory governments have introduced raft after raft of laws to shackle trade unions and workers, alongside the state’s other weapons of repression.

If the level of trade union membership is seen as a yardstick of the Tories’ success in attacking workers’ organisations, the figures tell a grim tale.

Since the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, trade union membership has fallen from 13.5 million to less than six million, with 180,000 mineworkers among the fallen.

On top of laws restricting — and in some cases banning — strike action, legislation currently working its way through Parliament includes laws effectively abolishing the right to protest, though the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

In March next year the Tories’ Elections Bill, if successful, will disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of people, mainly from working-class communities.

Trade union and human rights law firm Thompsons has been at the heart of legal struggles on behalf of workers for a century.

One hundred years ago lawyer Harry Thompson established a law firm committed to giving working people access to justice — and winning for them. It never has, and never will, represent employers against workers.

Today Thompsons is employed by dozens of trade unions to fight their members’ cases in court.

The firm is also a campaigning organisation, opposing new laws which further suppress workers’ rights and their access to justice.

In 2017, with public-sector union Unison, Thompsons solicitors challenged and defeated Tory-imposed fees on workers taking cases to the employment tribunal — effectively denying workers access to justice on issues such as discrimination and unfair dismissal.

Thompsons chief executive Clare Mellor sees up close the effects of the invention by the Tories of new laws to control workers and their unions.

She tells the Morning Star: “In recent decades it has been absolutely relentless for a law firm like ours, the ongoing attacks on employment rights, against victims of injury, the opportunities for them to get access to justice.

“The balloting laws [on industrial action] have led employers to make more challenges against industrial action and overturn votes for industrial action on technical grounds.”

Labour MP Richard Burgon, who was shadow justice minister in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, worked for more than 10 years for Thompsons as an employment lawyer in Leeds, his home city.

“What we are seeing, and have been seeing for some time, is the Tory government trying to shut down all routes by which working people can fight back against unjust Tory policies; unjust trade union laws making it harder for workers to go on strike legally,” he says.

“There has been a sustained attack on people’s recourse to law and access to justice — employment tribunal fees, attacks on rights to a judicial review, attacks on legal aid. 

“All of these things have made it harder and harder for working people to have access to justice by the ruling class.”

Tory cuts in funding for legal aid have seen hundreds of law centres, where ordinary people could get free legal advice and representation, shut down.

Many law firms which relied on legal aid for work have folded. Access to justice for working-class people is being systematically wrecked. Tory cuts to funding of the justice system are adding to the problems of access.

Mellor says: “What we are experiencing at the moment with employment tribunals is a massive backlog of work that is certainly due to cuts across all the court system.

“Trade union members bringing claims are experiencing significant delays. Court fees in the civil courts have gone up hugely. To start a claim you could be looking at £10,000. It is a continued erosion of access to justice.”

Mellor and Burgon both recognise the dangers posed by forthcoming legislation intended to limit further the rights not only of trade unions, but of the wider public.

“Creation of public inconvenience” will be a sufficient cause for police to ban marches or rallies under the Policing Bill which is currently before Parliament.

It will be followed in March next year by the Elections Bill which will impose conditions on people’s right to vote at elections.

Burgon says: “What we are seeing, and have been seeing for some time, is the Tory government trying to shut down all routes by which working people can fight back against unjust Tory policies.

“There are three ways to fight against injustice: industrial action, at the ballot box, and through protests. Anti-trade union laws make it harder to go on strike within the law. The Policing Bill is about criminalising protest.

“Voter suppression through voter ID is about suppressing the vote in black, ethnic minority and working-class communities.”

Mellor says: “We are seeing a concerted effort to erode the right to protest, to demonstrate, to come together to seek change and to challenge. That is a concerted effort.”

Effectively, by the time the Elections Bill is introduced to withdraw voting rights from sections of the populace, the Policing Bill will already have made protests against the Bill illegal if the authorities choose.

As well as representing workers in the courts, Thompsons is involved in campaigns against the new laws.

Mellor says: “One of the things at Thompsons is that we recognise the link between law and politics and the role the law can play there.

“That is why we are so committed to working with politicians to effect change whenever we can.”

That has included helping draw up new laws to improve access to justice for working people and their organisations.

“There is the role we had with the Health and Safety at Work Act in 1974. We had a pivotal role in that legislation.

“There was corporate manslaughter in 2007, and ongoing work we do with the Labour Party, campaigning, giving evidence to select committees. The law is a piece of that overall picture.

“We think there is a lot we can do with the law but it is not the solution. We have a role to secure justice when we can but also campaigning on issues with the trade union and labour movement.”

Thompsons aims to continue its own role in fighting for justice for working people into its second century.

At a celebration of the firm’s centenary in the offices of the Greater Manchester Law Centre recently Mellor said: “Our vision is to be the leading legal adviser to the trade union and labour movement, and to the victims of injury.

“It is my absolute privilege to be leading a firm that has, for over the last 100 years, remained true to that vision. It has been so rewarding to sift through our history in preparation for these centenary events — remembering those cases that I learnt about as a law student at university, but more than that — recognising the shared values of the people who have worked for the firm over the firm’s history.”

Burgon adds: “Thompsons has a proud trade union and socialist history. It has only ever acted for trade unions, trade union members and working people. I am proud to have worked for Thompsons for more than 10 years.”

THOMPSONS was founded in 1921 by civil rights lawyer William Henry “Harry” Thompson.

The firm’s first major victory came when it represented Labour councillors during the Poplar rates rebellion over London’s poorest boroughs paying the same rates as the richest. 

The case resulted in the Local Authorities (Financial Provisions) Act 1921 being rushed through Parliament, changing the tax burdens.

Other landmark victories include: a ruling in 1937 that employers were liable for the safety of their workers; in 1950 Britain’s first work-related industrial disease case, for pneumoconiosis — a disease suffered by many mineworkers; the first successful case for compensation for asbestos-related disease in the House of Lords in 1972; involvement in drafting Labour’s Health and Safety at Work Act in 1984, Britain’s first equal pay for equal value court judgment in 1988; the first age discrimination case in 2007; compensation for blacklisting in the construction industry in 2016, working with Unite and recovering millions of pounds for hundreds of workers; and this year the first case in the Supreme Court relating to trade union bargaining rights, establishing that employers cannot bypass or undermine union bargaining procedures.

Today, the firm employs 800 staff working at 23 offices across the UK.

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