The second phase in the development of the Trades Union Congress really begins with the crippling House of Lords Taff Vale decision in 1901 and ends with the General Strike in 1926.
During the early years of the century the TUC was still anxious to influence the Government with a view to protecting trade unions and the individual worker. The most important success at that time was the passing into law of the Trade Disputes Bill, the main Charter of Trade Unionism. In the following years, the TUC began to be called into consultation by Cabinet Ministers about projected government legislation. The TUC was consulted by Winston Churchill about the establishment of a system of Labour Exchanges, and by Lloyd George about his scheme for social insurance. And the TUC was not only consulted; it was also invited to participate in the administration of government by nominating men to help operate both these schemes.
But alongside these developments in the TUC's functions there also developed in the trade union Movement, during the middle years of this period, the growth of the challenging syndicalist idea that it could be the destined eventual role of trade unions (and of the TUC or some alternative leadership) to take over and embody in themselves the key political powers of government. The success of national strikes before the First World War, and the rise of the shop stewards' movement during it, seemed at first to lend some substance to this shadowy vision of ultimate workers' control of both industry and the State.
Back in 1901 however, the urgent need for legislation to reverse the Taff Vale Judgement and its brutal threat to trade union funds seemed to many trade unionists to demand above all the immediate formation and support of an independent political party, representing the interests of the whole working class movement, whose elected Members of Parliament would spur on the House of Commons to pass this crucial piece of legislation.
Such a party had been advocated by Keir Hardie on his first appearance at a Trades Union Congress, in 1887. Six years later, the project had received a resounding boost from Sidney Webb and Bernard Shaw who, in an historic article, To your tents, O Israel, argued that trade unionists would never get things done through the Liberal Members of Parliament whom they were at this time supporting, since the Liberal Government had proved itself unwilling to meet the fair claims and grievances even of its own employees.
But it took the menacing potentialities of the Taff Vale Judgement to persuade the trade unions to accord to this idea, and to its current incarnation, the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), some measure of active support.
In fact, the LRC had itself stemmed from the persistently frustrating Parliamentary situation, which had been described thus to the 1899 Congress by the Parliamentary Committees:
'Committee again wish to point out that with the present mode of procedure of the House of Commons it is almost impossible to get any useful Bill through the House, unless the Government allow it to pass by withdrawing its opposition; and, in their opinion, if any remedy is to be effected, it must be done by the working class at the polls'.
At the 1906 general election, the working classes at the polls gave the House of Commons a refreshingly new look. And the 29 Labour Representation Committee MPs, together with Members sponsored by the Parliamentary Committee, were able to apply enough pressure to induce the Liberal Government to base its Trade Disputes Bill on the principles which the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC had itself laid down, for the purpose of reversing the situation arising out of the Taff Vale Judgement.
Even during the difficult last months of the previous Conservative government the Parliamentary Committee had promoted, and intensively lobbied MPs for, a whole series of useful Bills, dealing with such things as workmen's compensation, traffic regulations, compulsory weighing where workers were paid by the ton, and 'textile workers' weekend holidays. But the Trades Dispute Act of 1906 was the Parliamentary Committee's culminating achievement at this time.
The drafting and promotion of these Bills involved a great deal of work for the Parliamentary Committee's legal adviser Mr. Edmond Browne, who had been appointed in 1900; and particularly for the Secretary of the TUC and his one clerk. So much so that, in 1904, when Sam Woods of the Miners' Federation (who had been elected Secretary of the TUC annually in each of the previous 10 years) was forced to resign through ill-health and was succeeded by W. C. Steadman of the Barge Builders' Union, Congress at last took the view that the post of Secretary should be both a permanent and a full-time one.
With this re-inforced support behind them, the LRC MPs and those sponsored by the Parliamentary Committee, now all known as The Labour Party were able between 1906 and 1911 to press the Liberal Government to pass several Acts dealing with subjects which had been consistently canvassed by the TUC, such as the limitation of underground work in coal mines, the establishment of labour exchanges, the fixing of legal minimum wages in sweated industries (which employed a very high proportion of women workers) and old age pensions.
But the fact that these Acts seldom dealt really adequately with the problems concerned caused many of the more militant trade unionists to grow increasingly cynical about the efficacy of parliamentary action, and, indeed, about the usefulness of political parties. It was thus that, in 1910, the syndicalist Tom Mann, and visiting American emissaries of the Industrial Workers of the World, and British Guild Socialists were able to obtain an eager, though limited, hearing for their passionate views on industrial unionism, or on National Guilds; and for their visions or fantasies of workers' control - control, first, of industry, and ultimately of the whole State machinery of government.
Pure Syndicalism was the subject of serious debate inside the trade union Movement - and chiefly in the mining and transport industries - for scarcely more than three years. But the rise of the shop stewards during the First World War gave the general cause of industrial unionism a considerable lift. The Webbs have recorded 'the rapid adoption between 1913 and 1920 by many of the younger leaders of the movement . . . and, subject to various modifications, also by some of the most powerful Trade Unions, of this new ideal of the development of the existing Trade Unions into self‑organised, self‑contained, self‑governing industrial democracies, as supplying the future method of conducting industries and services. The schemes put forward by the NUR, the Miners Federation and the Union of Postal Workers differ widely from the revolutionary Syndicalism of Mr Tom Mann and the large visions of the Industrial Workers of the World .... In fact, they limit the claim of the manual workers merely to participation in the management, fully conceding that the final authority must be vested in the community of citizens or consumers'.
In fact, the syndicalist's aspects of industrial unionism were destined never to become a dominant factor in the British movement.
The attitude adopted to this question by the majority of trade unionists was probably best expressed by Harry Gosling of the Lightermen's Union, in his presidential address to the 1916 Congress, in which he also forecast the need for greatly increased responsibilities, facilities and powers for the Parliamentary Committee, or some equivalent body, in order to match the growing strength of the organised employers' associations.
'We do not seek', said Gosling, 'to sit on the board of directors, or to interfere with the buying of materials, or with the selling of the product. But in daily management of the employment in which we spend our working lives, in the atmosphere and under the conditions in which we have to work, in the hours of beginning and ending work, in the conditions of remuneration, and even in the manner and practices of the foreman with whom we have to be in contact, in all these matters we feel that we, as workmen, have a right to a voice - even to an equal voice - with the management itself'.
In December, 1919, the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC having followed up the main refrain of Gosling's speech, reported to Congress the need 'for the development of more adequate machinery for the co‑ordination of Labour activities, both for the movement as a whole, and especially for its industrial side'.
So, in 1920, thanks largely to the continuing dedicated efforts of Harry Gosling, who was warmly supported by Ernest Bevin, the General Council of the TUC was brought to birth.
One of the first problems they faced was falling trade union membership. The massive wartime growth could not be sustained in the face of mounting unemployment - and given the consequent popular feeling in favour of co‑ordination policies, the General Council were able to encourage several important amalgamations between different unions within a single industry. In the first half of the 1920s - before, during and after the short‑lived first Labour Government - the TUC improved its headquarters organisation by setting up a number of different departments; and in 1925 it for the first time entered the main educational area.
One fundamental issue in public education policy between the two world wars was the extension of secondary education, towards which both governments' and local authorities tried fitfully to move. Most politicians and public servants thought of education chiefly as an area in which economies in public spending could, when desirable, be suitably made.
The TUC strenuously resisted what it called 'these false economies' and kept pressing for general educational reform. In 1925, the TUC for the first time gave evidence to the Consultative Committee of the Board of Education, about the education of adolescents. Later, that Committee, in its most distinguished report - the first Hadow Report - endorsed the TUC's view that all children should have secondary education in purpose‑built secondary schools.
So the General Council's responsibilities and field of activities had become very wide; but the powers which they had been accorded by the unions in Congress were still limited. Some of those limitations were exposed in the course of the General, or national, Strike of 1926, in which the TUC's powers to co-ordinate industrial action, including action for the settlement of disputes, were shown to be still incomplete.
At that time, when the miners themselves had failed to make any headway towards the settlement of their claims, a Conference of Trade Union Executives was called by the General Council, to consider co‑ordinated action in support of the miners, and to give the TUC authority to handle the conduct of the dispute. Mr Herbert Smith, for the Miners, said they understood the position was that all negotiations would now be carried on through the General Council but that they, as the Miners' Federation, would be consulted.
The General Council came within an ace of negotiating a fair settlement; but when printers at the Daily Mailrefused to print the paper because of a leading article hostile to the strike, the Conservative Government - whose brutally deflationist back‑to‑the‑Gold‑Standard policy had led up to the situation seized the opportunity to break off negotiations with the General Council.
The National Strike began; and, as it proceeded, it became clear that the question of who was entitled to agree a settlement on behalf of the striking unions had not been explicitly decided in advance. The General Council and the Miners' Federation each claimed that theythemselves were the only people so entitled.
Both sides stuck to their guns, which by now were pointing in quite different directions. And so, in this disastrously uncoordinated situation, the General Council called off the General Strike, on Wednesday May 12 and the miners were left to go it alone.
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printed 21 May 2013 at 22:12 hrs by 22.214.171.124