With Len McCluskey, general secretary of the union Unite, keen to ensure ‘his’ members choose the next Labour leader, and the rail union RMT planning a full-blown strike, the trade unions are again doing what they do best. The Romans knew how to handle them.
Romans were always suspicious of gatherings of people on the grounds that they might foment trouble. Nevertheless, from early times, collegia (‘legal unions’) had been allowed to develop. All had different functions, but one branch was a form of trade guild. Their purpose was not to improve workers’ conditions but to foster goodwill and general friendliness among members. Some acted largely as dining clubs or burial clubs, ensuring members were bid farewell with all due ceremonial and their memory preserved. Many attracted wealthy senators as patrons, who could benefit politically from the connection.
But in 58 bc, during the breakdown of the republic, one Claudius, a noble from an ancient family who became a plebeian in order to gain political power (he changed his name to the plebby Clodius), set up collegia of thugs to do his bidding on the streets. A law of 55 bc ended them, and from then on collegia needed specific state approval.
The result was wholly beneficial. Even the lowly could look for status and position inside these socially valuable organisations which released the talents and altruism of the poor, freedmen, women and even slaves to serve the community. We hear of collegia of merchants, wood and metal workers, scribes, shoemakers, weavers, painters, teachers, doctors and so on across the Roman world, from Britain to Asia Minor, though some were disallowed. Pliny was forbidden to set up a fire-fighting collegium in his province in Asia Minor because he could not guarantee to control it.
Time, therefore, for the unions to reinvent themselves and look to serve the whole community. Len McCluskey would surely make a splendid funeral director.