Ancient and modern

Lessons for Red Len

Trade unions were better in ancient Rome

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

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.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • BoiledCabbage

    Len should stand for Labour leader himself. What’s he scared of?

    • Jules Wright

      Quite. But like the hate preacher who radicalises, he prefers other people to immolate themselves in his name.

  • Trade unions began to stop themselves being worked to death literally and being maimed by total lack of their working safety.

    A boss wants a slave not an employee.

    Even the posh IT trade has a workaholic boss who expects 24/7 working, when this damages the worker in stress injury.

    Even a robot needs downtime and planned maintenance.

    But human beings need to go to the bog regularly, work but 8 hours in a day. eat, drink, and have rest periods. Sleep deprivsaton kills just as much as working without breaks.

    A worker needs long weekend breaks about every 60 days, and the basic 4 weeks holiday spread throughout the year. It takes about 2 days to start to get the benefit of being away from work, as long as you switch off the works mobile and tablet.

    People over 40 doing night shifts or too long shifts get sicker than the younger, but even the younger die from overlong work by sudden heart death without any heart disease present.

    Irregular shifts cause sleep deprivsation injury.

    We have not beaten the night, as our metabolism remains the same it always was.

    Burnout can cause lifelong amnesia.

    And Romans did something else.

    The Emperors gave free bread to each citizen each morning, as they rightly knew that a hungry population is a dangerous one.

    Never mind the trade unions.

    The people are going to march again and again and again. Watch the marches get bigger and bigger.

    We’re coming.

    • Ivan Ewan

      How will you do that? Will funding from the EU fill the hole left by your previous benefactors in the Soviet Union?

    • Caractacus

      How many chuggers and call centre operatives have voluntarily joined Unions?

      All the above are covered by perfectly good employment laws.

      The Romans could afford free bread. They’d conquered North Africa, the breadbasket of the Empire.

      You’re c*mming over your picture of Lenin? Won’t that spoil the paint?

    • Tom M

      “…Never mind the trade unions….”
      That I agree with. If all of your complaints had been addressed by worker’s representatives instead of Unions you might be in a better position than you claim to be.

  • Terry Field

    It is wonderful to see the syndicalist hoods destroy their fag-end political microbiome so comprehensively.
    Thank you Len.
    Now join the other extinct megafauna.

  • Roger Hudson

    Len, looking (and sounding) more like Bumbly No1 every day.

  • scampy

    Mc Cluskey is a fat ugly semi literate drunk who must yearn for the charisma and oratory of the late great Jimmy Reid?

    • Tom M

      or the common sense of Frank Chapple.

      • Richard

        A wash and a shave would do him no harm.

  • John Carins

    Send him to Scotland.

  • Icebow

    He should be transported; not sure where to.

    • William Clark


      • Icebow

        Expensive (must come out of Unite funds), not to mention fatal.

    • freddiethegreat

      Robben Island was always good for this type

  • thomasaikenhead

    Peter Jones has conflated traue union reform with the selection process for the next leader of the Labour Party.

    As major financial backers, trade unions have a natural interest in selecting which candidate who will best reflect the needs of their members.

    “Time, therefore, for the unions to reinvent themselves and look to serve the whole community.”

    That is not, and never has been, the role of trade unions, their jobs is to serve the interests of their members.

  • justejudexultionis

    Socialist trade unions are a necessary and rational corrective to the excesses of so-called ‘free market’ capitalism. A society that does not have trade unions does not have liberty.

    • JSC

      We don’t have free market capitalism, nor is it likely to happen any time soon, so are they really necessary in today’s day and age?

  • Robin1946

    So , Brothers , and erm …… Sisters .
    Apart from economic stability , GDP growth , plummetting unemployment , more people working since records began , a steadily reducing deficit and reduced taxes .

    What have the Tories ever done for us ?

  • Ayako_sSMorin

    ✥❋▩❉❊❶❷❸…Moreable person wants to Earn money At home .. Its best opprutunity for you,,, i just got paid 160 usd per day …Make A huge profit just doing Simple Tasks……. Last saturday I got a great Alfa Romeo after I been earning $9498 this past four weeks and a little over 10k lass month . with-out a doubt this is the nicest-work Ive ever had . I actually started 4 months ago and pretty much immediately began to make more than $89.. per-hour . find out here now ->

    Going Here ,.,..

    you Can Find.,,, ->



  • freddiethegreat

    Is this an article by a journalist (presumably with training and education) or someone they picked up on the street? There is no such dating as ‘bc’. Try ‘BC’. And get a sub-editor who can read.