THE CHAIN of cause and effect which led to the establishment of the Trades Union Congress can perhaps be most 'clearly traced in the course of events in Sheffield during the 1860s.
The dispute in the Sheffield file trades, which originated from a grinders' wage claim in September 1864, and came to a head with the grinders' strike of 1866, gradually revealed itself as a dispute which was basically not so much about wages as about the proposed introduction of new machinery for file-cutting, and the safeguards which the unions would deem necessary if they were to accept the new machines.
The Sheffield Trades Council (or Association of Organised Trades) realising that there was an important principle at stake, gave the file trade unions their full backing. The employers insisted on unconditional acceptance of machinery; and the men struck. The AOT, hard pressed to find the necessary dispute pay, appealed for wider support. Both the Junta and George Potter's rival London Working Men's Association sent funds. And the Sheffield Trades Council adopted a suggestion of the Wolverhampton Trades Council, for a national conference of trades' delegates in Sheffield.
That conference, which assembled in July - some six weeks after the file trades strike had ended, virtually on the employers' terms - established a "permanent" (though short-lived) body, called the United Kingdom Alliance of Organised Trades. But, meantime, the repercussions of the "Sheffield outrages" - aggressive acts which had been perpetrated by a handful of militants against non-unionists and which culminated in the use of gunpowder to blow up the house of one of them-had stimulated the outcry for an inquiry not only into these outrages, but into trade unions in general. Eventually the trade unions themselves, who were being increasingly accused in the newspapers of complicity in these outrages, felt obliged to ask for an inquiry in order to establish their innocence.
Accordingly, on November 17th a joint delegation from the Sheffield Trades Council and the London Trades Councils waited upon the Home Secretary with a request to that effect.
The special Commission to enquire specifically into the Sheffield outrages was not appointed until May 1867. But, significantly, the Government lost little time in setting up its Royal Commission of Inquiry into Trades Unions, which was appointed in February 1867.