50 years of TUC Cymru: A guiding light for Welsh devolution

Published date
50 years ago, the union movement in Wales gathered in Aberystwyth to enact a plan that had been years in the making. The outcome of this meeting would reshape the trade union movement in the UK, and be a guiding light for the path of Wales as a nation.

As a key crucible of trade unionism and socialist radicalism for generations, trade unionists in Wales had a unique identity. An identity that sometimes felt out of step with UK union structures. Growing out of this gap between Wales and the wider UK movement, came a burgeoning sense that Wales needed its own national forum. It needed its own union structure to properly address the challenges facing workers in Wales. 

Trade union leaders shaping a new structure  

Tom Jones, 1974
Tom Jones, 1974

Trade unions in Wales held the inaugural Wales TUC conference in 1974. This constitutionally established Wales TUC as a distinct and autonomous part of the wider Trade Union Congress.

The meeting was spearheaded by Tom Jones and George Wright of the Transport and General Workers Union, Dai Francis of the National Union of Mineworkers, and Harold Jones of the Plaid Cymru Trade Union group.  

Going strong for 50 years, you would be forgiven for thinking that with our modern-day experience of devolved powers and government, forming a Wales TUC would be straightforward exercise. This was not the case.In the early 1970s, there appeared to be little appetite for any move away from London-centralised power. Even amongst sections of the trade union movement.  

Bringing power closer to the people works 

Through disquiet and fierce opposition from all sides, trade union activists in Wales campaigned relentlessly for the establishment of a Wales TUC. Their hard work and perseverance was rewarded in the creation of Wales TUC in 1974.

Their legacy is a strong and enduring organisation that brings together unions in Wales to fight for workers across the nation. As pivotal as this moment was, Wales TUC went beyond carving out a place for itself in constitutional union structures. It proved and continues to prove that bringing power closer to the people works.  

It enables the union movement in Wales to feel the heat of worker issues and to adapt and react better than a union bureaucracy entrenched in an office hundreds of miles away. 

Putting Wales on the map 

Wales TUC also became totemic to the cause of devolution, demonstrating how devolving power can be successful. Commenting on its significance, George Wright, later elected as the first Wales TUC General Secretary, said: 

“I’m a firm believer that the creation of the Wales TUC was the first act of devolution in Wales. We put Wales on the map.” 

George Wright
George Wright, 1974
George Wright, 1974

5 years before the failed 1979 devolution referendum and long before the 1999 referendum, Wales TUC had secured devolved power and shown Wales and the rest of the UK that it could be done.  

Bold, pioneering, and determined, the creation of a Wales TUC was an important event, not only in trade union history, but for the history of Wales. 

From the dust, toil and filth of Victorian era industry, to the precarious, technology-driven work of the 21st Century, there has and will always be a need for a worker voice. To fight injustice and injury done to workers. To uphold decency and dignity at work. And to keep pushing for a better tomorrow for working people everywhere. 

This is as true today as it was on that pivotal  day in Aberystwyth in 1974. The challenges we face may have changed, but the challenge itself remains.  

So as we celebrate 50 years of Wales TUC, we give thanks to those dauntless trade unionists who paved the way. We take inspiration from their fight and continue to stand up for workers and be the voice for Wales at work.