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British Trade Unions can be divided, briefly into three categories: unions that cater for workers in one trade only, like the United Society of Boilermakers; unions that embrace all the workers in an industry, like the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Union of Railwaymen; and unions that enrol members from a wide variety of trades, jobs and industries, such as the Transport and General Workers’ Union and the National Union of General and Municipal Workers.

The tendency during the past few decades has been for federations and amalgamations to thin out the ranks of the smaller craft unions and to create, by a merging process, the large organisations that we know today.

This process has created problems of organisation. Unions with hundreds of thousands of members, many of them engaged in different trades and spread all over the country, have had to devise some complicated machinery for the management of their affairs, the formulating and carrying out of national policies. Most of them have constitutions that provide for control of policy by the membership, but in practice, this democratic control does not work out. The majority of trade unionists take no part in the formulation of their union’s policy. Of those that are active the larger number have little, if any, understanding of the society in which their organisation functions and, in consequence, have their ideas moulded by their trade union officials. Thus, the officials are able to impose a policy on the unions.

A book entitled Power in Trade Unions, A Study of their Organisation in Great Britain, by V. L. Allen, has recently been published by Longmans, Green and Co., at 25/-. Mr. Allen examines the constitutions of 127 unions and shows the policy-making process, the power of trade union executives and permanent officers and the disciplinary measures used to ensure obedience from the members.

A similar work was published, in 1952 by George Allen and Unwin, entitled The Government of British Trade Unions, by Joseph Goldstein. Mt. Goldstein limited his study almost exclusively to the Transport and General Workers’ Union and revealed how apathy destroys the application of democratic principles.

Both these authors have collected masses of figures and have compiled many charts to illustrate their revelations. For the student of Trade Unionism both books are worth reading, but if one had to be selected we would recommend Mr. Allen’s.

The History of Trade Unionism, by Sydney and Beatrice Webb, although it does not bring the picture right up to date, is still the classic history of the subject A useful little book that brings the subject right up to 1952, is British Trade Unionism, a Short History, by Allen Hutt, published by Lawrence and Wishart. for 12/6. Mr. Hutt’s political sentiments peep through in places, but his book is a good, interesting, short history.

A less useful, though very interesting book, is an illustrated volume in the Britain in Pictures series, published by William Collins. It is British Trade Unions, by Sir Walter Citrine.

Two books, useful to students, covering a wide study of Trade Unions in a limited number of pages are Trade Unions Today, by Henry Collins (Frederick Muller Ltd., 6/-), and British Trade Unions, by N. Barou. (Gollancz. Left Book Club).

This small collection of books should give a student a satisfactory grounding in the subject and should make him realise the limitations of trade union action in improving the lot of the working class. Capitalism sets the limits and the trade unions, products of that system cannot break outside it. Only by social revolution can the working class escape from the ills which they seek to palliate through trade union action.


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