Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

This new history of British trade unionism offers the most concise and up-to-date account of 300 years of trade union development, from the earliest documented attempts at collective action by working people in the eighteenth century through to the very different world of `New Unionism' and `New Labour'.

Table of Contents

1. Learning the Game

Abstract
A number of historians have tried to make a distinction between early forms of workers’ organisations emerging in the eighteenth century and the later forms, using epithets like ‘primitive’ to describe the earlier activities and following the Webbs in perpetuating a Whig interpretation from ‘barbarism’ to ‘a more civilised society’.1 There is little justification for such an interpretation. There are very few aspects of modern trade unionism which are not apparent in the earliest years of its existence. Journeymen craftsmen combined to provide mutual aid in the form of cash payments in sickness or for widows and orphans. They devised mechanisms to assist those who were out of work to find a new job. They combined to exert pressure on employers to protect earnings and, occasionally, to try to improve hours of work or push up wages, while also trying to devise rational and fair procedures for settling differences. They sought to control who could enter the craft and be employed. They joined workers in other crafts to campaign for or against legislation and, occasionally, they took to the streets to protest and demonstrate. By the end of the eighteenth century they were providing financial support to one another across craft divisions in industrial disputes.
W. Hamish Fraser

2. The Rise of National Unions, 1850–80

Abstract
As economic conditions picked up towards the end of the 1840s a number of unions were putting in hand changes to make their organisation more effective. But such changes were not easily achieved. Local societies did not like to abandon their independence and branches did not like to lose control over their own funds. It was difficult to persuade workers with grievances of their own to subordinate themselves to the needs of other workers at the other end of the country. Yet, faced with growing signs of employers’ collaboration and, in almost all industries, pressure for change in work patterns, there was a recognition that co-ordination was necessary.
W. Hamish Fraser

3. The Coming of Collective Bargaining, 1850–80

Abstract
It would be ridiculous to deny that there was a marked change in the tone of trade unionism in mid-century. What is debatable is how extensive the change was, how far a change of tone covered continuity in tactics and what caused whatever changes there were. As Royden Harrison has pointed out, however, ‘whether or not one discerns a basic continuity in trade union history during the second and third quarter of the nineteenth century largely depends on what one is interested in’.1 An examination of leading trade unionists and employers can come up with a very different picture from a study of the work-place and, as Kitson Clark has said, despite all the protestations of the leaders, at the work-place the squeeze was still applied to employers wherever possible.
W. Hamish Fraser

4. Revival and Confrontation, 1880–98

Abstract
Following the Webbs, most historians have continued to see the emergence of what they called ‘new unionism’ at the end of the 1880s as evidence of new directions in industrial relations. Clegg, Fox and Thompson began the multi-volume History of British Trade Unions in 1889 and called ‘new unionism’, ‘one of the most colourful and baffling phenomena in British trade union history’. Many other historians, like the Webbs, tend to link it to the re-emergence of socialist movements in the 1880s and suggest that much of the new movement was shaped by socialist sympathisers. As Sidney Pollard has pointed out, all kinds of people had a vested interest in presenting the short sharp expansion of unionism as something distinctive. Older unionists, who had spent decades polishing a public image of moderation and reason, wished to distance themselves from what seemed to be the newer, more aggressive tones of the emerging unions. Many of the early writers on the period were at pains to show that socialists played a key role in organising the unskilled and that the upsurge of unionism was the evidence of a new class consciousness, which inevitably led on to independent labour and the demand for socialist policies. Later historians, in their search for the elusive class consciousness, latched on to this.1
W. Hamish Fraser

5. The Intervening State, 1893–1914

Abstract
Gladstone’s decision to dispatch Lord Rosebery to try to settle the 1893 mining dispute was a new departure. Neither employers nor unions were enthusiastic about state involvement in industrial relations. Arbitration Acts from previous decades had proved to be largely dead letters. In 1886, however, the Board of Trade began to collect statistics on aspects of labour1 and in 1893 a Labour Department of the Board was formed. Its main task was still the collection of statistics and it added information on unions, strikes and lock-outs to what it already had on wages and hours. In addition it immediately became interventionist and unofficially mediated in major disputes. The Royal Commission on Labour, by far the biggest inquiry into trade unions and industrial relations yet carried out, reporting in 1894, gave every encouragement to the Board to extend this role. It talked of the need for ‘partnership’, of ‘common interests, by employers and workmen’ and looked forward to workers’ organisations having ‘a consultative voice in the division of the proceeds of industry’. The Government’s role, according to the Commission, was to encourage strong voluntary organisations of both employers and workers.2
W. Hamish Fraser

6. Workers, War and the State, 1914–21

Abstract
Few historians have doubts about the size of the impact of the First World War on British society and therefore on British industrial relations. In these, as in other areas, it can be debated how far the war actually created new conditions and how far it merely speeded up developing trends. But its effect was massive. Government needed the support of the trade unions to get the necessary increase in the production of war materials. Therefore, trade union leaders were called into consultation with government in a way they had never been before. The pressure from government on employers, to ensure that production was not disrupted, intensified and unions gained recognition in areas where they had never done so before. Government itself was directly involved in manufacturing. Not only were government departments providing the bulk of the contracts to private industry, but they controlled the railways, took a measure of control over coal mining and in munitions established ‘national factories’ to expand the production of war equipment. By the end of the war five million workers were employed in state-controlled establishments. But to achieve the necessary war production required changes in the work-place, and the war accelerated many of the technological and managerial developments which had been proceeding relatively slowly before 1914.
W. Hamish Fraser

7. The Industrial Relations of Depression, 1921–33

Abstract
By the winter of 1920 there were clear signs of an economic depression setting in. Unemployment took a sharp leap in December and short-time working began to spread. By March 1921, unemployment had reached over 10 per cent by one measure — 15 per cent of insured workers. The miners’ lockout from April pushed the figure up to over 20 per cent of insured workers. Union membership which peaked at 8.3 million in 1920 fell by 1.7 million in a year. By 1926 three million members had been lost and not until 1935 was the downward slide to be halted. A union density of 45.2 per cent in 1920 had become 22.6 per cent in 1933. It was a period of disastrous decline and often misdirected effort and one in which workers lost out badly, both in terms of wages and in struggles over the ‘frontiers of control’ in the work-place.
W. Hamish Fraser

8. Renewal, Regulation and Consolidation, 1933–51

Abstract
The economic upturn after 1933 gave most unions the opportunity for growth. By 1940 union membership was back to the level which it had reached in 1921, over 6.5 million, including once again over a million women workers. The war years gave membership a further boost to nearly 8 million and a steady rate of growth was to continue through until 1948 when numbers reached 9.4 million. From roughly one in four workers unionised in 1931, 45 per cent had been reached by 1951. Some areas had well over that. Coal mining and the docks had a union density of over 90 per cent; engineering struggled back to the 50 per cent it had achieved in 1921; cotton, post office workers and printing reached 80 per cent; footwear, gas and electricity over 70 per cent. The weak areas remained the financial sector, retailing, food and drink, agriculture and parts of the building industry.
W. Hamish Fraser

9. Policies and Power, 1951–74

Abstract
The Labour Government in its last years had been looking closely at ways of using legislation to prevent strikes in the essential services and at the possibility of making an extended Order 1305 a permanent feature. The new Conservative Government which came to power in 1951, in contrast, was determined to avoid any politically inspired industrial conflict. As his Minister of Labour Churchill appointed the conciliatory and mild-mannered barrister, Sir Walter Monckton.
W. Hamish Fraser

10. Decline and Fall? 1974–98

Abstract
The Labour Party had already made it clear that there would be no statutory incomes policy. Instead, what was offered as an answer to rising inflation, the balance of payments crises and anarchic industrial relations was the ‘Social Contract’, a trade union agreement to curb wage rises to no more than the increase in the retail price index in return for a government commitment to social policies, including improved employee protection. The Government started to deliver. Michael Foot at the Department of Employment quickly brought the month-long miners’ strike to an end. The 1971 Industrial Relations Act was repealed, thus ending the National Industrial Relations Court, the Commission on Industrial Relations and the process of registration. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) took over the role of the Department of Employment’s long-established conciliation service, but with the intention of its being free from government interference. It was also expected to encourage union recognition by employers and develop good codes of practice in industry. Its director, Jim Mortimer, had long advocated that British trade unions should be pressing for the legal right to recognition.
W. Hamish Fraser
Additional information