THE LARGE SCALE unemployment which disfigured the face of Britain during the decade before the second world war did not prevent a substantial increase in trade union membership throughout a large number of industries.
The development of mass production consumer industries such as the clothing industry, and comparatively new industries such as the aircraft industry, as well as the expansion of services such as transport, and distribution where semiskilled and female labour abounded, were major factors in the growth of many unions.
During the inter war period, membership was doubled in the Tailors and Garment Workers Union; in the Electrical Trades Union and the Amalgamated Engineering Union; in the two main unions in the distributive trades, and in the Transport and General Workers Union which, in 1937, overtook the Miners' Federation, and, with a membership of over 650,000, became the largest trade union in the world. A similar growth in union membership was also adding to the strength of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers.
Yet this expansion was not without problems. Many, as Henry Pelling wrote in "A History of British Trade Unionism", "were caused by the fact that the expansion largely took place in parts of the country where unionism had previously been weak or non existent . . . . Other problems arose from the fact that in comparatively new industries, such as motor manufacture, there were serious demarcation conflicts between different unions, especially skilled unions, and there was little prospect of the emergence of a single bargaining agency 'for the whole industry. The unions, short of funds as they often were after the depression, were slow to take advantage of the opportunities in the new areas, and often it was a rank and file movement, not infrequently led by Communists, which led to the `capture' of new factories in the London suburbs, at Oxford, and elsewhere."
The growth and spread of trade unionism inevitably involved disputes and struggles for union recognition; and, in support of those struggles, strikes which were often led by shop stewards without the authority of the union.
In his "Post War History of the British Working Class", A. Hutt has given details of a number of these strikes: starting, way back in 1929, with the ten weeks' strike of girl workers in the Rego clothing factory in London for union recognition, and with the strike of 8,000 men three quarters of whom were unorganised at the Austin motor works, against piece work changes and regrading. The clothing industry in 1933-4 produced two more successful strikes for union recognition, at Coleman's Mantle Factory and at Fairdale's.
At this time the aggressive use of the stop watch to time jobs as a means of speeding up production provoked a crop of strikes, including ones at the Lucas Motor Accessories Works in Birmingham, at the Venesta Plywood Factory in East London, at Hope's Steel Window Works in Birmingham, and the Firestone Tyre Factory in Brentford.
Though many were unofficial, they normally resulted in substantial increases in union membership.
In 1935 there were more successful strikes for union recognition by provincial busmen and by workers in the Hawker Aircraft factories. In the following year, other aircraft concerns, such as de Havilland, Fairey, Handley Page and Parnall were affected by strikes which often centred on the recognition of shop stewards. And in December 1936 a national delegate conference convened by the Amalgamated Engineering Union resolved to press a claim for a national aircraft agreement, with wage increases.
And so, by 1938, not only had many individual unions made notable advances in membership, but overall membership of the trade union movement, which had fallen away in the slump which followed the General Strike, had now begun to climb once more to the six million mark, and beyond.
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printed 21 May 2013 at 13:53 hrs by 184.108.40.206