The shipyard painter, political activist and razor-sharp cartoonist Bob Starrett has just written a new book The Way I See It on his eventful life and times. Below we reprint one of his stories and review an essential read
Steve Allen, who worked for Thompsons solicitors for 32 years, claims provocatively at the beginning of his book that to work anywhere else would be a step down.
To back up his assertion, he devotes the first section to an account of the life of the remarkable Harry Thompson, the firm's founder, who set up a trade union practice in Staffordshire in 1909. Refusing to be conscripted in the first world war, he was in and out of prison for two years.
In 1919 he set up practice in London assisting labour movement causes including the Poplar borough councillors who in 1921 were battling for improved rate support to one of the poorest areas in east London.
He defended communists accused of sedition and was a key supporter of Labour Research and the National Council For Civil Liberties, now Liberty. When he died in 1947 his practice was the major trade union legal firm in England.
His two sons Robin and Brian continued to build the firm, opening offices throughout Britain, and the firm has become a major institution. It handles countless thousands of personal injury cases, trade union litigation, criminal cases arising from disputes and employment cases largely involving dismissals and discrimination.
Thompsons supports international causes and writes a regular law report in the Morning Star and its banner can be seen on demonstrations.
The firm's goal, as stated in its constitution, is to "assist trade unions and their members. It shall not be an object … to earn for partners the maximum income." In practice this means that lawyers are retained by the nature of the work and support staff by good pay and conditions.
With such ideals, internal tensions were inevitable and in 1973 Thompsons split into two.
But, unlike many schisms on the left, the break left no bitterness and relations improved. The firms shared a finance department and in 1996 they amalgamated again.
The book is a good read with much of it direct quotes from participants - though details of who moved to which office and when are likely to interest only those directly affected - and there are summaries of the important cases.
Apart from Thompsons staff, it's a book which has an obvious appeal to union activists and labour and civil liberties lawyers but, more importantly, it will appeal to union officers deciding which lawyers to engage.
Its two messages are that Thompsons are not just good but very good and the firm's heart is firmly on the side of the workers.