1960s >> 1964 >> no-721-september-1964

Trade Unions in 60 years

When the present Declaration of Principles of the Socialist Party of Great Britain was drawn up at the Party’s formation in June, 1904, it was not considered necessary to include reference to trade unions: Socialist principles had been agreed, their application to some specific issues remained to be worked out Meetings were called to discuss the trade unions, and the results of those discussions came up for resolution at the first annual conference in April, 1905. But in the first issue of the Socialist Standard, in September, 1904, the broad lines of the Party’s attitude were set out immediately following a description of the exploitation of the working class:—

So long as this lasts—and it will last as long as the capitalist system of society—it will not be possible for the workers of any trades union organisation to more than slightly modify their condition, and their power in this direction is becoming every day more limited by the combinations among employers to defeat the aims of the working class.
Then, too, the magnitude of industrial operations, ever tending to increase by the inherent tendency under free competition of the large producer to crush out his smaller trade rivals—the joint-stock company takes the place of the large individual capitalist, the trust the place of the joint-stock company. The worker is thus brought face to face with an ever greater foe.

At the 1905 Conference there were two main points of view. The first would have committed the Party not to recommend its members to join any union unless the union was organised on definite Socialist lines and it envisaged the future formation of Socialist trade unions. This was defeated and Conference adopted a resolution which called on Party members in trade unions to oppose all action not based on the principles held by the Socialist Party of Great Britain. In a supporting speech J. Fitzgerald said: —

Craft divisions would have to be broken down, skilled and unskilled, brain and manual workers, have to join hands. The tendency of economic evolution should be pointed out, and the changes rendered necessary in the economic organisation.

That was sixty years ago. What has changed in the trade unions in that time? In externals some of the changes have been remarkable. Membership has grown from under two million to nearly ten million, and Trades Union Congress membership from 1,200,000 to 8,300,000; but more than half the workers are still outside trade unions. There was at that time only one union, the South Wales Miners with a little over 100,000 members; now there are eighteen, and the largest, the Transport and General Workers Union, has 1,330,000.

Responding to the growth and centralisation of capital the number of unions has declined by amalgamation from 1,211 to 623. Half of all trade union membership is now in the eight unions with above 250,000 members, and the 18 unions with over 100,000 members make up four-fifths of the total. Parallel with current negotiations to unite the three big organisations of employers, active discussions for more trade union amalgamations are under way.

Some of the changes in size of unions have followed the growth or decline of industry; the expansion of engineering and allied trades and the decline of cotton; but trade unionism has made its way or expanded enormously in fields from which it was once wholly or largely absent. Central and local government accounts for well over a million members, insurance, banking and finance two hundred thousand, and education over four hundred thousand.

The number of strikes each year has increased greatly (355 in 1904, which was typical of the period, compared with 2,067 in 1963), and far more workers are directly or indirectly involved, but the total number of days lost through strikes has grown little, the reason being that long strikes by large numbers of workers are now comparatively rare. Exceptional in recent years was 1962, when engineering strikes pushed the total number of days lost up to 5,798,000.

More disputes are now settled without the threat to strike becoming an actuality—due largely no doubt to the low levels of unemployment for most of the time in recent years. The year 1904 came at the end of an eight-year period in which prices were rising—a total rise of about twelve per cent.—but unemployment was also high by comparison with the present levels. In 1904 it was 6 per cent. The consequence was that in those eight years wages rose by only half as much as prices. In recent years, with periods in which unfilled vacancies have exceeded registered unemployed, wage rates have gone ahead of the retail price index.

The position of the T.U.C. in the trade union movement has not changed much, unlike some other countries in which the central body directly conducts wage negotiations. Attempts to increase the powers of the T.U.C. have been going on for half a century but so far with not much result.

Legally it would have been said a few years ago that the position of the trade unions was firmly established, but recent court decisions have shaken this confidence and opened the threat that the unions will be back to the uncertainties that were their concern early in the century.

Some events of the past sixty years have left their mark on the unions. The defeat of the General Strike in 1926 and of other big strikes in the years after the first world war have undoubtedly induced a more cautious view of the usefulness of mass, prolonged strikes.

In 1904 there had not yet been a Labour Government—the T.U.C. in 1904 sent a message of congratulation to the Australians on their having made history by a Labour Government which lasted only a few weeks. It cannot be said that trade unions in the mass have abandoned faith in Labour Government and turned their hopes to Socialism, but certainly there is less belief now in the merits of nationalisation, or state capitalism than in 1904. The very large proportion of strikes that occur in nationalised industries has had its effect on misguided enthusiasm.

A glance at the 1904 T.U.C. is of interest. Proceedings began, as today, with a formal welcome from the local Mayor, but delegates now are spared the burden of a special service at which a parson delivered a long sermon. The 1904 Congress heard fierce denounciations of Britain’s little wars, in Tibet and Somaliland, but also passed a resolution protesting about the Government’s action in allowing “cheap Chinese labour” into South Africa.

One note from the 1904 T.U.C. is right up to date in this year when Postmen, for the first time since 1890, have come out on strike claiming, among other things, that the Government have ignored the Report of a Committee set up to consider Postmen’s pay.

The T.U.C. in 1904 passed a resolution protesting against the action of the Tory Government which, after setting up a committee to consider the pay of Postmen and other Post Office Workers, refused to concede in full the pay increases it recommended on the ground that the Committee had failed to carry out its instructions, which was to fix Post Office pay by comparison with pay in outside occupations.

Edgar Hardcastle