Issue date
12 Mar 2001

On the brink of a new century

KEIR HARDIE, passionate advocate of a truly independent Labour Party, was always a rather unwelcome figure at the Trades Union Congress, which he ruthlessly and persistently attacked as having tepid policies and flaccid leadership.

There was, in fact, plenty to criticise. In the first thirty years or so after its foundation, the TUC, as such, could chalk up no more than two major achievements to its credit: the Repeal of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, already mentioned; and the introduction of the Fair Wages Clause.

The latter originated in a resolution passed by the 1888 Congress. It demanded, successfully, that a principle already practised by HM Stationery Office, which was by now allocating printing contracts only to firms observing trade union standards and conditions, should be extended to other Government departments and to local authorities.

On the debit side, the TUC had, in the eyes of its critics then and later, let a number of crucial issues go by default. According to GDH Cole, for example, the Parliamentary Committee's policy of non-intervention in demarcation disputes between one union and another was continued right through to the end of the century; by which time, demarcation disputes were causing havoc among the shipbuilding and engineering trade unions.

Then, in the last five years of the century, two things happened which further aroused the anger of the critics. In 1895, the TUC, excluded from Congress the local trades councils who had hitherto always been represented there as of right; because, said the TUC leadership, such representation resulted in duplicated membership. But some sceptics believed that the leadership felt that the trades councils were an awkwardly militant element.

Next, the Conciliation Act, which empowered the Board of Trade to appoint, on request, conciliators and arbitrators in industrial disputes, passed into law. The intervention of Government as a conciliator in trade disputes was a significant development in industrial relations to which Congress paid not the slightest attention.

All the same, the fact that unions were still prepared to pay affiliation fees to the TUC, suggests that Congress had a useful role in bringing the representatives of unions together once a year-and in drawing the attention of Governments and society to the social and economic needs of workers and their families. From this, at least, a vital sense of movement was already developing.

 

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