History and role of the Trade Union movement

PETER TURNER, born 1935 at Battersea, is a carpenter, an ASW steward, and a member of the Committee of 100.

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 19, 2018

IT IS VERY NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE TO TRACE the exact beginnings of the trade unions. It was in the early 18th century that they really started to make themselves felt, and although they were in existence previous to this, there had been up until this time no continuous association of workmen.

The unions often came about by the men in one particular trade meeting together in the evenings at the local public house. They discussed the situation in their own trade and how it affected them. Later on, these meetings were of a more organised nature and enabled the men to find out what vacancies were available in their trade. As they grew. contributions were collected which were used to pay sick and funeral benefits to members and their families. These types of associations or Friendly Societies, as they were called, were very widespread during the 18th century. In Nottingham, for example in 1794, there were 56 of them and every year they combined for a procession through the town.

With the increasing economic revolution of this period, more and more of the members of these societies, who had at first been independent, became wage earners employed by someone else. Due to the very low rates of pay, men and their families suffered great hardship, and with the frequent fluctuations in trade; wages were often cut, or the men found themselves without work.

As a result, the Friendly Societies developed to combat these changes. They became trade unions which aimed at defending and improving existing wages and conditions and were called “Combinations”. The employers made ever increasing complaints about these combinations to the House of Commons, to which the workers’ associations replied with petitions for wage increases and better conditions of employment. It seems that these early unions were effective to the extent that their activities caused Parliament to pass Acts against the formation of combinations in certain trades, this being extended to cover all trades in the Combination Acts of 1799.

Even before this Act was passed there had been successful prosecutions such as in the previous year, when printers in London were sentenced to two years imprisonment for conspiracy. Their conspiracy amounted to their meeting to discuss wages and conditions on the invitation of their employers. After the passing of the Act, the open bargaining nature of the trade unions ceased and they often disguised their activities as those of the Friendly Societies in order to escape prosecution. Due to this secrecy, the risk of informers was great.

On paper, the Combination Acts could be used against the employers, but of course, this was never put into practice and they only served as a weapon to break working class movements. For sometime the authorities succeeded and, although these were small local disputes, there was no large scale agitation for the improvement of the workers’ lot.

There were, at this time, certain acts in force such as the Elizabethan Statute of Artificers, which laid down conditions of employment and gave magistrates the power to decide what wages were to be paid. Workers, dissatisfied with conditions, sometimes made use of these old Acts, applying to the magistrates to look into their case. It was really up to the State to decide on wages and conditions, but in practice these old Acts were not used very much.

The Combination Acts, however, never really broke the growing trade union movement. The weavers, in 1805, formed a combine for the purpose of pressing Parliament, by the means of petitions, to pass the Minimum Wage Act. Some of the employers gave their support, but in 1808 the Bill was heavily defeated in the House of Commons, to be followed by the repeal of the Elizabethan Statute and similar Acts for the regulation of wages.

With this came the realisation that no help could be expected from the State and that it was up to the workers themselves to challenge the boss directly. The weavers did take action, striking and bringing the woollen and cotton industry throughout Lancashire to a standstill. They won their demands, but these were shortlived for wages were soon cut.

In 1824 the Combination Acts were repealed, but not before they had been used to break several strikes. One example was that of the Scottish weavers, who having had their claims rejected by the employers, applied, with great cost, to the magistrates to fix a wage scale. This was ignored by the employers and the magistrates chose not to enforce it. Consequently, the weavers withdrew their labour and at the end of three weeks, just as the employers were about to capitulate, the State stepped in and arrested all of the strike committee, giving them prison sentences ranging from four to eighteen months.

A number of strikes occurred after the repeal of the acts and the employers put pressure on the government to make amends. This resulted in the introduction of new Acts which allowed the formation of trade unions, but contained clauses about “conspiracy, intimidation, molestation or obstruction to coerce either employers or workmen”.

Although prosecutions continued after 1825, it was at least legal to form trade unions and, from then on, their growth was very rapid. Those disguised as Friendly Societies now came out into the open. In 1829 the first national trade union was formed under the leadership of John Doherty and had the long title of the Grand General Union of All the Operative Spinners of the United Kingdom. Later Doherty formed the National Association for the Protection of Labour, to which a substantial number of unions either joined or affiliated.

With the introduction in 1832 of the Reform Bill, which gave franchise to the middle class but left the working class still without the vote, workers turned their attention to the formation of larger unions based on industrial lines. These and other unions were federated in 1833 to form Robert Owen’s Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, whose programme contained not only higher wages and better conditions, but also Owen’s revolutionary ideas of Socialism. Each industry in the G.N.C.T.U. was to form its own co-operative with the purpose of negotiating contracts and eventually taking over the ownership of the means of production.

However, its strength was merely a paper one, for the individual unions clung to their authority and did not send in any funds. There was no united policy, making it easy for the government to destroy it. This was achieved in March 1834, when the six Tolpuddle labourers were arrested, prosecuted under an Act of 1797 for administering “unlawful oaths” and sentenced to seven years transportation. At this time, workers were being forced by their employers to sign the “Document”, a paper promising not to belong to any union, and refusal to do this resulted in their being locked out. The introduction of the “Document”, together with the lack of funds and loss of several strikes was the end of Owen’s union and it finally disappeared in the winter of 1834.

Other unions carried on, some only as Friendly Societies, others as bargaining unions. Some of them played a prominent part in the Chartist movement and in fact, a general strike took place in the North to back up a resolution to “recommend the people of all trades and callings forthwith to cease work until the Charter becomes the law of the land”. The military was called out and several men were killed. It was not long before the strikers returned to work, due partly to starvation and partly to the divisions that arose within the Chartist movement.

However, actions taken by the larger, amalgamated industrial unions often had the authorities worried. At certain periods there seems to have been genuine discontent, not only with wages and conditions, but also with the social status of the workmen. William Godwin’s book, “Political Justice”, was a great influence at this time, and although published at 3 gns., more than any worker could afford, copies were bought by making collections. G. D. Cole and Raymond Postgate, in their book “The Common People”, write of Godwin, “Among evil institutions, Godwin included not only government, but above all else, inequality. He believed profoundly that man’s productive powers were enough to provide a frugal sufficiency for all.” It was from Godwin that Owen later derived the major part of his ideas. There were also the writings of Tom Paine and the example of the French Revolution which must have inspired many with the desire for social change.

Here I think lie the vast differences between these and the later types of unions. The old type, although often badly organised and with very little money, did challenge authority. Most of them did not have any concrete idea of what they hoped to achieve, but there was a basic desire for a social change. The control rested in the hands of the membership and the executives were not the powerful bodies which are characteristic of our present day unions. Most of the funds were held by the branches with only a small proportion being sent to the central committees, which were often no more than clearing houses with the General Secretaries acting only in a corresponding capacity.


This form of organisation was charged with the advent of the new unions which came into being in the middle of the 19th century. R. Postgate’s “Pocket History of the British Workers”, gives an outline of their principles.

“1. Unions should be amalgamated into one financial unit. All power should be concentrated in the Executive, controlled by regular conferences. Lodges should never retain any but the smallest sums.
2. Agreement should at all times be sought with employers and strikes, as far as possible, ruled out.
3. High subscriptions and high “friendly” benefits (sickness, death, unemployment, etc.) should be the rule.
4. Members should improve themselves as craftsmen, and noncraftsmen should be kept out of the trade.”

The first of these new unions was the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, which was a combination of a number of the engineering craft unions. Another was the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners, whose Secretary was Robert Applegarth, the philosophical leader of this new form of unionism. Other trades that formed unions on this pattern were the bricklayers, shoemakers and ironmakers.

In 1852 the A.S.E. was involved in a ban on overtime, in reply to which, the employers locked them out. After three months they returned, defeated, to work, without gaining either a ban on overtime or piecework. This seemed to be the end of the A.S.E., but it survived and at the end of the year its funds had reached the very large sum of £5,000.

These new unions went from strength to strength, helped by the Reform Act of 1867, which gave the vote to town workers, and the flourishing trade of the period. Other unions followed this model and the Trades Union Congress started meeting regularly from 1868 onwards. The growth of these new unions did not mean an end to bitter industrial conflict.

There were still many sections of labour who were without trade union organisation, especially the non-craft workers, but later an Agricultural Labours’ Union was formed by Joseph Arch and within a very short time had 100,000 members. Robert Owen’s ideas were still being propagated and Lloyd Janes, an Owenite, used to tour the country urging trade unions to “commence production” for themselves. This was actually done by some unions, the Yorkshire and Durham miners having their own mines. These Socialist ideas spread, for many workers were fed-up with the “peace at any price” policy of the leaders of the new unions.
1888 saw an upsurge of industrial action. With the help of Annie Besant, the girls at Bryant & Mays match factory won increased wages and better conditions. The eight hour day was gained by London gas-workers without even striking, and workers in the docks, led by Tom Mann, Ben Tillett and John Burns, who later became an M.P., struck for 6d per hour increase and other improvements. They won their demands after a strike lasting a month, during which time £50,000 was collected for strike funds. Up until this time, the dockers had had very little union organisation.

In the early years of the 20th century, there had been a steady decline in the value of wages. Although the Labour Party had been formed and had members in Parliament, conditions for the workers steadily worsened and a fresh impetus was needed to prevent a further decline. This impetus came from the ideas of the French Syndicalists and the Industrial Workers of the World, a nation-wide industrial union in America.


Syndicalism is based on industries instead of the narrow craft basis and in France, it had succeeded by a long series of strikes, which became a “guerilla” war between the unions and employers. Sympathy action was taken by workers in other industries to support those in dispute. This resulted in great advances in pay and conditions and by continuing in this manner, the unions hoped to finally overthrow capitalism and take over the running of industry themselves.

A loose Federation of Transport workers, which had been formed in 1885, was joined by the water transport workers in 1910. At this time, it was led by Mann, Tillett and Havelock Wilson. In the following year the water transport workmen called a national strike of Sailors and Firemen for a wage increase. It was strongly supported and was later joined by the dockers in some ports, who came out in sympathy. They won their demands, but prior to the settlement, the railway workers, who for a long time had received low wages, also came out on strike. They, too, won their demands and forced the employers to recognise their union. There were many disputes at this time, not only for better economic conditions, but also for the recognition of the workers’ status.

In 1914, the Triple Alliance was formed. This linked together the National Union of Railwaymen, the Transport Workers’ Federation and the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain. Under this alliance concerted action was to be taken, but before this happened, war was declared. The Labour Party was, at first, opposed to war, but once it had been declared, they tamely supported the government, and the T.U.C. signed agreements not to strike.

The war did not mean the end of strikes, for unofficial ones often occurred and the position of shop steward gained much in importance. G. D. Cole and R. Postgate in their book “The Common People” write as follows:-

“But now, under the peculiar war-time conditions, the shop stewards acquired a new importance. Chosen by the men in the shops, and untrammelled by the agreements made by the Trade Union leaders, they could do things which were now outside the leaders’ power. Moreover, as the question of dilution* began to assume importance, new issues kept on cropping up almost daily, needing to be argued out and if possible settled on the spot, and in any event far too numerous for the small number of full-time Trade Union officials to attend to. In these circumstances, the shop stewards found themselves compelled, as the men’s representatives in the shops, to assume negotiating functions; and although at the outset each steward represented only his own union, it was inevitable that the stewards from different unions should take to acting together on matters of common concern.”

This pattern of organising still takes place in industry and in fact it is the life blood of the present-day trade union movement. The “new model” unions which were formed in the mid 19th century still exist today, under different names, but with the same policies. The A.S.E. is now the Amalgamated Engineering Union, whose president, Sir William Carron, is a member of the Nation.al Economic Development Council and on the board of the Bank of England.

The primary object of the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers. whose forerunner was formed in 1860, is according to the T.U.C. Dictionary of Abbreviations, “the raising of the status of the artisans engaged in these trades and generally to improve the social conditions under which they shall labour.” Improving pay and conditions under capitalism!

The old transport unions, which blazed such a militant trail before the First World War, now follow the same policies as the older craft unions. The old Federation, with other unions, was absorbed into the Transport & General Workers Union, which was founded in 1921. Its policy is “to assist members in cases of sickness, accident, disablement, unemployment, old age, trade disputes, and to give legal advice and assistance. To further political objects, and to promote the extension of co-operative production and distribution.” The last section refers of course to the return of a Labour government and nationalisation.

* The introduction and training by the Government of unskilled men and women, often not trade unionists, for jobs which until this time had been exclusive to the craft trade unionists. This occurred particularly in the Engineering trade.


This is what the unions stand for today. True they do, at times, offer protection against the employers and do gain improvements, but they can only work within the framework of capitalism. They have no policy of revolutionary change in society. Revolutionary change will not come from men who sit on Neddy or accept positions on Boards of Directors, neither will it come from the craft unions for their policies have never been revolutionary.

The narrow basis of organisation, with workers in one industry belonging to many different unions, makes it practically impossible to have a uniform policy of action against the employers. Each union bureaucracy is jealous of the others and there is often bitter competition for members. All this only serves to divide workers and drive a wedge between not only the different trades in an industry, but also between skilled, semi-skilled and non-skilled labour.

Industrial unions could be the answer to this problem, but only if they were run and controlled by the members themselves, could any real advance be made. It is no advancement to the rank and file to have the structure and control of the present unions transferred to industrial unions. The answer lies in the organisation of the shop stewards at the place of work. These are the real representatives of the rank and file, and, elected by the different union members, they get together to form joint shop stewards committees. These in their tum can link up with others in their industry, common problems and programmes of action can be discussed and finally these links spread to other industries until there would be a National Federation of Industries, an unofficial organisation of the rank and file.

The industrial unions, though someway off yet, will slowly emerge, and with their appearance this type of unofficial organisation might be possible. However, with the help of government legislation, the executive of these industrial unions might have the power to prevent the formation of a national rank and file movement.
If social change is not going to come about through the established unions, then new ways must be sought. The bases of the shop stewards committees offer a possibility, for they are not closed to ideas as the leaders of the trade unions are. All kinds of ideas and problems such as housing and workers’ control of industry could be discussed. In this way a real challenge could be made to the State, possibly leading on to a social revolution.