Issue date
12 Mar 2001

Ever since 1916, forward-looking spirits had been casting around for some form of organisation to provide the TUC with a more effective instrument than the Parliamentary Committee for the promotion of common action by the whole trade union Movement on general and national questions.

In his presidential address to the 1916 Trades Union Congress, Harry Gosling had said:

'The Trades Union Congress is without question the largest and most influential body in reflecting the aims and aspira­tions of Labour, not only in Great Britain, but in the whole world. Most of us whose connection with the Congress as delegates goes back for 20 years or more know how the work has increased in volume and importance, and yet no real provision has been made to meet the increase. Whilst we have improved in our office accommodation the staff is practically the same; the affiliation fees which were fixed fourteen years ago are still in operation, and only amount to a payment of 1d per annum for every three members affiliated. Fortunately we have one of the best men in the Movement as our Secretary, C. W. Bowerman, to whom nothing but praise is due for the devoted way in which he serves us. He, together with his clerk, compose the whole of the staff employed in this great work!

'We see on all hands that the employers are hastening to put matters right so far as their own particular interests are concerned. The employer's interests in the near future will be protected by powerfully organised and well directed associations. This Congress will have to undertake still greater responsibilities. Its work will be even more important and far reaching in character than anything it has yet attempted. The work of the Parliamentary Committee will be greater than ever. Its offices and its staff must be added to, and the affiliation fees - if they are not sufficient - must be increased. We must not be satisfied until organised Labour is as important in its greater and more national aspects as any Department of State, with its own block of offices and Civil Servants, commodious and well appointed.'

Harry Gosling then mooted the appointment of a sub‑committee of the Parliamentary Committee to examine the alternative possibilities.

The next big stride forward was taken in the autumn of 1919, after a strike by the NUR. which was settled on satisfactory terms as a result of the efforts of a Mediation Committee representing other unions affected by the strike. The success of this operation pointed the need for what B. C. Roberts called a 'permanent General Staff' for the trade union Movement. And the Parliamentary Committee set up a Coordination Committee to consider how this could best be achieved.

In due course, the Co-ordination Committee produced its report and recommendations for the creation of a General Council of the TUC, with responsibilities far wider than those with which the Parliamentary Committee had been endowed. Apart from keeping watch on all industrial movements and co-ordinating industrial action, the General Council would be expected to use their influence to settle actual or potential inter-union disputes; they would also help trade unions to organ­ise and would enter into relations with the trade union Movements of other countries.

These recommendations aroused in various unions some anxieties about their future freedom of action. To assuage these anxieties the Parliamentary Committee consented to a preamble para­graph which read: 'Subject to the necessary safeguards to secure the complete autonomy of the unions and federations affiliated to Congress:' This meant, in effect, that the General Council were to be given larger responsi­bilities than the Parliamentary Committee, without the increased co‑ordinating powers which would be necessary to enable them wholly to meet these responsibilities. The point was immediately grasped by Ernest Bevin who, while diplomatically commenting that 'there is no finality in our conception of organisation' declared forthrightly: 'What I want to do is to create a greatly improved equipment and efficiency.'

The General Council eventually came into being along the pragmatic lines already adumbrated, in 1921. In addition to all its other functions, the General Council were now to set up, in conjunction with the Labour Party Executive, joint departments for research and information, press and publicity, and international matters, which were to be run by paid and full-time officials.

Such vastly increased responsibilities and activities called, in the view of Gosling and others, for the institution of a full‑time chairman of the General Council, to be elected by Congress. Some unions felt that this would be putting too much power into the hands of the TUC at the possible expense of individual unions. For the same sort of reasons, the same group of union leaders secured the rejection of a resolution which would have given the TUC authority to try and achieve a just settlement of a major dispute before there was an actual stoppage of work.

Nevertheless, the General Council played an influential part, both by convening conferences of unions and by giving moral support, in the forthcoming renewed movement towards amalgamation and the formation of general unions. (It was perhaps significant that the foundation of the Amalgamated Engineering Union in 1920, and its subsequent refusal of the employers’ proposed wage reductions in the follow­ing year, led to the national engineering lock-out of 1922.) The trend towards the amalgamation of existing unions, which had reappeared with the founda­tion of the British Iron, Steel and Kindred Trades Association in 1917 was strengthened in 1922 with the momentous Bevin - inspired merger of fourteen separate unions into the Transport and General Workers Union. Amalgamations were also taking place in the Civil Service: the Union of Post Office Workers was formed in 1920 and by 1926, unions in the Post Office had recruited 100,000 out of 190,000 postal workers; whilst on the clerical side a number of union amalgamations led in 1922 to the setting up of the Civil Service Clerical Association. In 1918, the National Amalgamated Union of Life Assurance Workers developed out of the National Union of Insurance Workers which, like the Association of Engineering and Shipbuilding Draughtsmen, had come into being around 1913. Even more significant was the creation, in 1920, of the National Federation of Professional Workers, whose representatives in 1923 joined with the TUC in forming a Consultative Committee - known today as the TUC Non-manual Workers’ Advisory Committee. Another amalgamation brought into being the National Union of General and Municipal Workers.

This was at a time when the trade union Movement as a whole was losing members at a frightening rate. Total membership figures, which in 1918 stood at 6,533,000, had moved up to 8,348,000 by 1920. But by 1922 they were down to 5,625,000. This situation seemed to call for at least some measures of consolidation.

Meanwhile, between 1918 and 1921, the TUC's income had jumped from £9,000 to £37,000. This enabled the general secretary to begin to appoint specialist staff of the kind so long advocated by the Webbs.

In 1925, the General Council proposed to the Congress that the current arrange­ments with the Labour Party, under which Joint Press and Publicity, Re­search and Information and Inter­national Departments were maintained, should now be terminated. The Council considered that the now rapidly expand­ing work of the TUC could only be carried on effectively if the General Council had entire control of their own Publicity, Research and International Departments. By the following year, this had been accomplished.

 

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