Issue date
12 Mar 2001

George Woodcock's foreword

THIS BOOK shows how a small debating assembly grew into the national representative body of British trade unionism, sharing in the making of government policies, taking part in administering major social services and meeting on equal terms with the spokesmen of the nation's employers. In the course of that evolution the TUC has been instrumental in provoking crucial developments in the structure and purposes of British governments, a radical transformation of British society and fundamental changes in the structure of British industry.

Intended to be a forum where trade unionists could discuss their common problems and a shop window for trade unionism, the annual Trades Union Congress soon became a focus for the views of working people about all the questions affecting their working lives. Britain's workers made the TUC the vehicle by which their views could be conveyed to Ministers. Slowly the TUC gained competence in articulating those views; slowly and hesitantly, though speeded intermittently by the urgencies of two world wars, governments recognised the essential contribution which the TUC could bring to the conduct of national affairs, by reason of its capacity to represent the collective industrial experience of working people and to apply that experience realistically in the resolution of national industrial, economic and social questions. Slowly and hesitantly, too, employers similarly accepted the TUC's right and competence in industrial affairs.

The TUC's assertion of a right to share in the government of the nation inevitably involved an obligation to assume some share of responsibility in implementing policies agreed with governments; and the fulfilment of this obligation equally inevitably tests the TUC's representative capacity. Created and sustained by autonomous trade unions to serve their common national interests and precluded by its nature from the exercise of executive power, the TUC has been compelled, in order to perform the tasks which unions have placed upon it, to develop an unequalled capacity for leadership by consent. Gradually, and sometimes painfully, despite setbacks and disappointments, by patient and unspectacular resource and practical good sense, it has gained the respect and loyalty of unions to an extent which permits it to act effectively on their collective behalf. As governmental policies encroach increasingly, at the demand of trade unionists, upon the conduct of industrial affairs, and in so doing intrude into matters within the domestic autonomy of unions, the TUC's proper acceptance of a share of responsibility in those policies tests its capacity for leadership as it enters its second century more severely than at any time since 1926.

The TUC and its affiliated trade unions form a single entity. But the history of the TUC while embracing in the past hundred years the development of trade unionism in Great Britain, is something more than the sum of the histories of its constituent trade unions. This book describes the origins and growth of the TUC's unique contribution to British trade unionism and to the creation of modern Britain.

George Woodcock was General Secretary of the TUC in 1968 when this book was published.

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