Section - "why not have a congress of our own?"

Issue date
12 Mar 2001

"why not have a congress of our own?"

THE WORDS were those of Samuel Caldwell Nicholson, President of the Manchester and Salford Trades Council, who, with William Henry Wood, secretary of the trades council, was later to send out the first summons to the first Trades Union Congress.

Both men were journeymen compositors. Nicholson Was treasurer, and Wood was secretary of the Manchester Typographical Society. Nicholson's momentous words were uttered on the spur of the moment, after he had heard from a brother compositor, William Dronfield, secretary of the Sheffield Typographical Society, an account of his frustrated and stultifying attempts to obtain a wide hearing for the trade union point of view through the medium of the Congress of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science.

The Social Science Association, as this middleclass body was commonly called, had for several years professed a sympathetic interest in trade unionism. Yet when, at the Association's Ninth Annual Congress; held in October 1865, Dronfield read a paper in defence of trade unions - after a ferocious attack on them by the previous speaker - not one word of Dronfield's paper, nor of the ensuing discussion in which a number of Sheffield trade unionists took part, was ever allowed to appear in the Association's report.

What then was the point, Dronfield pondered, of trade unionists going to these congresses of allegedly "progressive" middle-class organisations, if the views of working men. present were to be methodically suppressed? And from Nicholson came the epoch-making answer: "Why not have a congress of our own?"

Why not? There were other good and urgent reasons for the establishment of such a congress at such a time. Thus far, throughout the 1860s, the trades unions had had their backs to the wall. The Homby v. Close judgment had deprived them of legal protection for their funds. The trade slump of 1866 had given the press a pretext to denounce British unions for unpatriotically undermining Britain's trading position in the face of low-wage competition from "furriners". The "Sheffield outrages", perpetrated by a handful of extremists against non-unionists, had been publicised in a manner designed further to inflame public opinion.

Employers in Sheffield and elsewhere had developed the lock-out as a made-to-measure instrument for the disintegration of trade societies. And, early in 1867, the Government had appointed a Royal Commission of Inquiry into Trade Unions, whose eventual findings, it was feared, might put the clock back to 1824, when all trade combinations had been quite simply illegal.

Confronted by these recurrent onslaughts and by the menacing uncertainties of the immediate future, individual trade unions found themselves struggling on in vulnerable isolation, with no national representative body through which they could hope to speak and act in unison. '

True, as far back as the early 1830s Robert Owen and John Doherty had organised their own kind of national trades' conference; but this had borne no lasting fruit. And the National Association of United Trades for the Protection of Labour, which was founded in 1845, had failed to win the essential participation of most of the larger societies, who were preoccupied with their own individual trades and did not care for the idea of trades' federations or "general unions".

In fact, such wider inter-trades leadership of the working-class movement as existed in the years before the first Trades Union Congress was vested in the trades councils. Of these, the most influential was the London Trades Council, which had come into being after the London builders' strike over the nine-hour day, in 1860. This trades council was guided by men like Robert Applegarth, general secretary of the carpenters and joiners, a national amalgamated society; William Allan of the engineers, another national amalgamated society; and George Odger, an official of the ladies' shoemakers. These men, and a few other of their colleagues, were later to be given the name of the "Junta" by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who described them as "an informal cabinet of the trade union world".

The London Junta in the 1860s pursued a cautious and conciliatory policy where strikes and lockouts were concerned, but at the same time they led some vigorous campaigning for various political reforms, such as the right of the working man to vote; and they pressed for new legislation to regulate conditions in the mines, and for a Conciliation and Arbitration Act. They also backed the Glasgow Trades Council's energetic campaign for the reform of the Master and Servant Act, which made it possible for magistrates to threaten strikers with imprisonment for breach of contract, if they did not return to work.

In February 1866, following a lock-out in the Sheffield file trades, the Sheffield Association of Organised Trades, of which William Dronfield was secretary, sent out an invitation to all national " trades " and trades councils in the country to attend a conference of trades' delegates with the object of creating "a national organisation among the trades of the United Kingdom, for the purpose of effectually resisting all lock-outs".

In July 1866, 138 delegates, representing some 200,000 members, did attend this Sheffield conference, which, as William Dronfield remarked seven years later, "laid the foundations of the annual trades congresses".

But soon after the appointment of a Royal Commission of Inquiry into Trade Unions was announced, in -February 1867, it emerged that two rival bodies were aiming to present the trade union case to the Commission, as self-appointed representatives of the whole Movement. On the one hand, the Junta dominated Committee of Amalgamated Trades; on the other, the St. Martin's Hall Conference-Committee, so called after the conference of trades council and trade union delegates convened there in March 1867 by the London Working Men's Association, under the leadership of George Potter, whose militant policies in industrial disputes had antagonised the wary members of the Junta.

Two rival ad hoc committees, but no single genuinely representative permanent body had yet been elected or delegated to speak with one voice for the trade unionists of the country as a whole.

So . . . "Why not have a congress of our own?"

Once the idea had struck, Nicholson and Wood lost no time in planning the Congress, which they already envisaged as destined to become an annual event. The first circular, which seems to have been despatched in February 1868, was addressed to "trades councils and other similar federations of trade societies" only. The original intention was for the Congress to be held on May 4th; but this date was later postponed until June 2nd, "in order to afford sufficient time for all the various trade organisations to send delegates and prepare papers". And then a second circular was issued, extending a wider invitation, to individual trade unions.

In the event, thirty-four delegates, representing some 118,000 trade union members, and including William Dronfield, attended this first Congress, which was held in the Mechanics' Institute, David Street, Manchester, from June 2nd to June 6th 1868. Of the thirty-four delegates, only two were London trade unionists. But one of the two was George Potter, secretary of a local London society of carpenters and joiners (which was not affiliated to Applegarth's National Society) and who edited the militant and increasingly influential labour journal called the "Beehive". The London Trades Council, and the Junta had decided to coldshoulder the Manchester Congress, as seeming to be a potential rival to their own authority.

Never, perhaps, has such an historically pregnant event gone so scantily recorded. No pictorial record of the first Trades Union Congress, or of its two dedicated sponsors, Nicholson and Wood, seems to have survived. And most of the surviving written descriptions of the Congress are fragmentary. By far the best and most comprehensive of them is contained in AE Musson's booklet, "The Congress of 1868: The Origins and Establishment of the Trades Union Congress", published by the TUC in 1955.

The overall aim of the delegates-who met under the presidency of WH Wood, because Samuel Nicholson had felt obliged to go to Derby to attend a meeting of the Annual Moveable Delegation of the Order of Druids, of which he was general secretary - was to consider questions of outstanding importance to trade unionists and to give publicity to those considerations. Papers were read on most of the various subjects listed in the summons to the Congress. Each paper was followed by a discussion.

"The most important", writes AE Musson in his booklet, "were naturally those concerning the Royal Commission and the legal position of trade unions . . . the Congress expressed the `suspicion and disfavour' with which the great majority of trade unions regarded the Royal Commission, `both in regard to the unfair composition and also to its one-sided, and to a great extent secret, proceedings'. It pledged itself, in the name of the societies represented, `to aid the London Committee of Amalgamated Trades in their laudable effort to secure the legal protection of trade societies' funds' . . . ."

Thus, as Musson observes, the trade union leadership was still left in the hands of the Junta.

The first Trades Union Congress further resolved

"that the influence of this Congress shall be directed to aiding the London Conference of Amalgamated Trades in their endeavours . . . to amend the law in regard to conspiracy, intimidation, picketing, coercion, etc., which is . . . capable of such misconstructions that it is utterly impossible that justice can be done".

This first Congress did also pass a resolution "that it is highly desirable that the trades of the United Kingdom should hold an annual congress, for the purpose of bringing the trades into closer alliance, and to take action in all Parliamentary matters pertaining to the general interests of the working classes". And it was agreed that the next Congress should be held at Birmingham - the timing being left to the Birmingham Trades' Council.

These resolutions of the first Trades Union Congress, incidentally, set the theme of this present book's first section, which seeks to illuminate the development of the TUC's growth and activities from 1868 until the turn of the century; a period in which the TUC's principal efforts were directed-with limited and intermittent success-towards influencing successive governments to protect the trade unions as societies, and to protect the worker as an individual human being.

As Sam Woods, secretary of the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC from 1894 to 1904, put it:

"Notwithstanding all the teachings of political economists, all the doctrines taught by way of supply and demand, we say there is a greater doctrine overriding all those, and that is the doctrine of humanity."

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