A beginner’s guide to the history of unions



A short and very personal illustrated history of the British trade union movement . 

Organisations to defend the rights of paid workers, usually set up just for one-off problems, are very old indeed. But it was not until the development of modern capitalism that increasingly larger numbers of people became employees. Now the overwhelming majority of people in Britain are paid workers. Despite many setbacks in recent years, the unions are still the largest voluntary body in society and their influence in bringing about a better life and a more respectful attitude to working people has been huge. The effect of what is usually called the Industrial Revolution on the people of Britain was dramatic. Millions were forced off the land and herded into cities to form the workforce in factory, mill and mine. Even children were worked in the new environment.

An early 19th engraving of the inside of a factory, an example of the oppressive conditions workers were subjected to; children were even made to work in coalmines; unions were depicted as a drunken mob.

Long hou
rs and harsh conditions for some children were finally accepted as improper only in the report of the 1842 Royal Commission, an official way of looking into something without doing very much!

Children had been taken into mines to work as early as four years of age, sometimes at five and between five and six. The ruling elite of Britain were violently hostile to what was known as `combination’ of workers, or unionisation, to control such excesses.

This country was not as we now know it. Freedom of the press was much limited (then as now!), since newspapers were not only very costly – it was a bit like buying a book to buy a `paper – but they were generally owned by rich people and viewed as a business. Much of the press was just as hostile to unions as they have been ever been. A cartoon shown here – though not very easy to see – supposedly shows what a strike was like – nothing but a drunken rabble – but it’s likely to be as accurate as some red top newspapers today! 

For a quarter of a century the Combination Acts had kept unions illegal and small. There were about 30 small unions, most trades – coachmakers, brushmakers, mechanics and so on, had a secret society. This could not be ignored and unionism was becoming a more dangerous force an illicit movement. A campaign to abolish the anti-union laws succeeded in 1824. Once the lid was off, many groups of workers acted and a wave of strikes took place to win better pay and conditions.Housing conditions were appalling. Marx’s collaborator, Fredrick Engels, wrote a book about Manchester’s working class districts in 1844: whole districts have fallen into a state of dilapidation, discomfort and misery. Engels thought it all an ever present pool of stagnant desolation, starvation and degradation. 

A 19th century black and white engraving of the view across the back gardens of slum houses

No worker had the vote and only the very well off acted as representatives in Parliament. A tremendous struggle to change Britain into a democracy partially succeeded in 1832. But the bulk of ordinary people still had no vote. Unions began to try to win things, causing a big fight back from the masters, as the bosses were then called. Deference was expected towards the rich and powerful from the ordinary people. You had to `know your place in society, or suffer the consequences. There were few rights and charity was the main form of social welfare.

`Doffing’ the cap to a `gentleman’ on horseback. 

In the disillusionment with politics that followed the realisation that the 1832 reform of voting had only favoured the well off, especially the new class that owned industrial manufacturing, workers once again turned to the notion of trades unionism.

The first big general union, at once a federation of older trade societies and a vehicle for the organisation of the new working class, was founded in 1833 – the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union.As the GNCTU grew massively, the masters in Derby planned a showdown. All trades unionists were locked out of their workplaces, until they were prepared to give up their allegiance to unionism. After almost a year of starvation, the workers of Derby conceded defeat.

Symbolic of the resistance by working people was the deportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834 (left). Six farm labourers from the village of Tolpuddle were sentenced by a court to be sent to Australia for seven years, then a very harsh punishment, considered to be a preferable alternative to the death penalty. The excuse was that they had made an illegal oath, a binding promise. Such oaths had been declared illicit during the struggle against France, in the wake of its revolution. Only an oath to the monarch was deemed acceptable. The successful prosecution of the men of Tolpuddle suggested that unions were illegal bodies.But the deportation of these ordinary workers was highly contentious and unpopular. Over a quarter of a million people signed a petition for their release and a similar number turned out for a massive demo in London in Copenhagen Fields. 

A contemporary illustration of the demonstration.

The establishment of workhouses in 1834 was part of a new system designed to intimidate what was a new class, the working class, into accepting the factory system. The penalty for rebellion in the workplace and consequent joblessness was dire. But unions were still being formed and were growing.

In 1837, workers put a new set of six demands – the Charter. Supporters became known as Chartists and their demands were:

  • Universal manhood suffrage  This was considered rather bold to suggest women could vote – only toffs and businessmen were voters!
  • Annual parliaments  Governments could carry on more or less as long as the monarch allowed it with a new election; this is the only demand not yet won, governments carry on for ages now (well it seems so, anyway)
  • Secret ballots  Amazingly (!) people who had a vote stuffed their papers into an open box; there was a lot of bribery voters were treated to a big piss up and voted for the best party (yes, I mean party!)
  • Wages for MPs  It was not a fulltime job and unless you had wealth you were stymied.
  • Abolition of the property qualification for voting  You had to be worth something to get a vote.
  • Equal electoral constituencies  Some seats had tiny numbers of voters, a few hundred or even less, whilst other, especially in the new northern industrial towns were massive.

Six million signatures were collected in a massive petition, an extraordinary feat in a time of minority literacy. Detractors claimed that this petition was largely phoney. Perhaps there was the occasional equivalent then to signing `Micky Mouse (!) but there is no doubting the strength of the campaign. Imagine the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, to win the vote for ordinary (black) people there and you will gather the intensity of the fight. Only a minority of working class people could read but those that could read out subversive tracts and newspapers to collections of working people, often in a small community pub! Millions heard the good news of hope for change.

In Newport in South Wales there was even an armed uprising in 1839 in support of the Charter and the first ever General Strike took place in 1842. Whilst it was poorly organised and co-ordinated, in parts of the north, it was massively supported. Despite the attempts of the newspapers of the day to cast the peoples’ struggle as a violent one, it was mostly relatively peaceful. There were differences in tactics and strategy that weakened the movement, even so it was undoubtedly the most successful `single issue’ campaign Britain has ever seen and forced the pace of democratic reform. 

Chartism laid the ground for a new approach. To prevent revolution, the elite sought a new strategy. Between 1850 and 1880, Britain became `the workshop of the world. Such expansion of production created jobs and helped prevent the fear of unemployment and poverty. The policy needed more certainty about ensuring plentiful markets for Britain’s goods abroad.

How the press wrongly portrayed the Newport events.

The expansion of the British Empire was the result. The potential profits were huge and some could be shared with troublesome sections of the working class.The craft societies that had supported GNCTU and the Charter continued as these movements had formally faded. Whilst working class campaigns for the vote continued in other forms.

A picture of a massive demo in 1866 for electoral reform, led by unions.

The pressure for electoral reform was great, one demonstration of 200,000 was indicative of the strength of support. With the danger of revolution faded, political parties sought support from the ordinary people. Further reform of the electoral system was won for male working class householders in towns in 1867.

Chartism had expressed the interests of the whole working class. It had been a political, social and economic movement, even the first party of the working class. Now, there were only the Tory and Liberal parties to choose from.Governments tried to curb the newly acquired powers of unions by legal restraint. Leaders of unions sought to enter parliament after the 1867 Reform Act, as Liberals, so as to influence this process.

The Durham and Northumberland miners were to the fore in this. But tailors, clerks, agricultural workers, chain makers and many others were all involved in action to extend working peoples rights.Nonetheless, unions began to organise collectively in localities to maximise their effect. No les than 300 candidates at least pledged themselves to seriously consider the demands of trades unionists.After 1850, trade unions only largely fought for the interests of skilled workers only. They also had limited aims – wages, working hours and conditions of work. Typically, unions were more interested in the benevolent society side of their activities; strikes were much less common than organising benefits for their members. National unions began to be formed by the process of local societies pooling resources.

The National Association of Operative Plasterers (NAOP) was set up in 1860 but it roots went back to 1832. (A century later, the union merged with the T&G.)

Unions like these gave their members certificates of membership such as the one illustrated.

Members would proudly display these, framed, in their best room at home. It was a sign that they were skilled workmen; generally it implied a guarantee of employment if their health held up.These trade societies were not really mass organisations. In 1850, the United Kingdom Society of Coachbuilders had only 1,500 members. Although skilled tradesmen’s unions prized their craft above their class, this did not imply industrial peace forever. A big engineering workers union, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers brought lots of small bodies together in 1851, after the masters locked their employees out of work, demanding they accept wage reductions. There were lockouts in cotton in 1853, in building in 1860 and again in engineering in 1871.

One of the largest groups of workers in Britain was agricultural labourers, who repeatedly tried to establish union organisation; they, too, were attacked by the bosses in 1872 and 74.The next image you can load is a cartoon from the 19th century that imagines the reality that the fabled county agricultural shows and their prizes should really reflect. The sheep, pigs and cattle get better prizes than the poor farm labourer. Even when in work, he and his family only just about get by. The bounteous harvest that nature provides ought to be shared fairly but the ragged farm labourers and his family are only `treated to unemployment and poverty by the portly farm own. Rebellious behaviour of any kind is rewarded with arrest and gaol; emigrating to somewhere like Canada is the best option.  Evictions of farm labourers and their families from their cottages, which were tied to their employment, were a powerful deterrent to union organisation. Until the 1880s, such workers were excluded from the right to the vote by virtue of not being `householders. The grimness of this existence is reflected in this even harsher cartoon. The `happy ploughboy, much lauded in English folk song, is contrasted here with the rich farmer. 

A Royal Commission investigated trades unionism in 1867, as these organisations became increasingly effective. The TUC was founded as an umbrella organisation – tiny at first – in 1868. In 1871, a new Trade Union Act gave unions recognition in law. The 1870s were a boom time and unions began to grow. The TUC formed a special committee to liaise with MPs and was able to win more legislation giving union rights within only a few years.Unions would now become a force even amongst the unskilled working class.

There was even a name for this new trend – `New Unionism. This was not just a movement to bring trade unions to the unskilled and unorganised workers; it sought a different type of union. A return to the fighting back model became popular. Organising unions was not easy, despite a later image of absolute power, the miners had to fight desperately hard to form themselves in the strong force they did eventually become. This was based on more than one generation of intense struggle amidst absolute determination, that forged deep unity but it was often only based at a county level.

A contemporary image of a mass meeting in Durham during a miners strike in 1876- even the intense rain did not dent their resolve.

Coal produced power that was key to building Britain’s manufacturing capacity but its ports were absolutely central to the functioning of its economy. The importation of raw materials from the colonies and the export of finished goods were central to the wealth of what was then the biggest empire in history. Yet the workers that laboured to load and unload the massive number of ships involved in this trade were treated appallingly. The work was particularly hard and dangerous, yet it was poorly paid and dominated, especially, by Irish labour it was a despised and unionised workforce. But efforts began to change things, notably in the east end of London, where the Port of London had its docks and the bulk of the dockers and their families lived in cramped and damp conditions.

But it was the `girls employed by the Bryant and May match factory in the east end that provided a signal for action. Their strike of 1888 won massive publicity for the cause of better pay and conditions. Horrifically unsafe working arrangements generated sympathy for the `girls even outside of the working class. Their spirit of defiance inspired millions of other workers and a wave of militancy spread.

Here is a famous picture of the match girls.

A big strike of London dockworkers in August 1889 followed. This famously and more importantly successfully demanded a `tanner (six old pence) an hour pay rise. The struggle was intense and involved the whole community in the East End of London. The dockers’ processions were, at times, almost like gigantic community carnivals.

The dockers struggle was a major turning point for the organisation of unskilled workers and would subsequently and directly lead to the formation of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU or T&G) three decades later. This single strike symbolised the birth of this new mood and many other struggles ensued. Unions could be not just for skilled tradesmen but also for labourers and even women!

Aping the style of the craftsmen’s unions, the Dock, Wharf and Riverside and General Labourers Union produced membership certificates of equal beauty and force for supposedly unskilled labourers. It is important to realise that many of these port workers were highly skilled in what they did. They were as proud of their hard work and grasp of the essential requirements of their labour as any time served craftsman. They were proud of their union too.

Demands for union organisation and recognition grew. Attacks from the bosses on New Unionism and the solidarity that came from shared struggles saw a rise in interest in the ideas of socialism. All of the new unions were open to all sorts of new ideas. The gains for some were stupendous.

An image of Father Neptune leading a procession during the docks strike! A copy of the DWR&GLU membership certificate, a procession of the Stevedores Branch of the Labour Protection League, and another of the London dockers march. 

Gas workers, who came out on strike the same year as dockers won a reduction in hours from 18 to 8!! The National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers was formed at a meeting in Canning Town Public Hall on 31 March 1889, illustrated here.
Addressing the meeting is gasworker, Will Thorne. Ben Tillett and Social Democratic Federation members also spoke. Within four months, the union had 20,000 members and the gas employers were forced to accept the workers’ demands for eight hour shifts. The Gas Workers and General Labourers Union would form the basis of the present day GMB. Workers sought the eight-hour day most workers had to work for fourteen hours a day – and a basic minimum wage.

It was as part of the campaign for the eight-hour day that an international decision was taken by socialist parties to celebrate May 1st as Labour Day. The date commemorated the bloody suppression of a peaceful march in Chicago.Many of the leaders of the dock strike were not dockers but socialists such as John Burns and Tom Mann of the Battersea branch of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). 

John Burns had led a demonstration in London against unemployment that resulted in a riot. Burns was arrested and charged with conspiracy and sedition but acquitted. In 1887, he was arrested during a famous demo dubbed Bloody Sunday on account of the violence and sentenced to six weeks in prison. 

Tom Mann was photographed when he went to Australia to help set up unions there. 

In June, 1889, John Burns left the Social Democratic Federation after a disagreement with the party’s leader, H. Hyndman. Like Tom Mann, Burns was now convinced that socialism would be achieved through trade union activity rather than by parliamentary elections. When the London Dock Strike started, dockers’ leader Ben Tillett asked John Burns to help win the dispute. Burns, a passionate orator, helped to rally the dockers when they were considering the possibility of returning to work. He was also involved in raising money and gaining support from other trade unionists. During the dispute Burns emerged with Ben Tillett and Tom Mann as the main leaders of the strike. (Unlike Mann, who later joined the Communist Party when it was founded, Burns ended up a Liberal and a cabinet minister!)

John Burns speaking at a May Day demo in Hyde Park. 

Trades unionism spread to all kinds of, mostly, manual workers. Tram workers, even when they were employed by local councils, were very poorly paid and treated. Even they began to form unions from the 1880s as this form of cheap public transport began to be established in every town.

A contemporary illustration: A conductor reads the resolution to the meeting some of the men. 

Railway workers also organised, their struggle became intense as the private owners resisted organisation but this group of workers increasingly became very militant.

An image of how the press saw a rail strike in 1890, the scenes of confrontation at Motherwell station.

At the end of 1889, union membership had doubled in a single year to two million. May Day marches were an opportunity to show solidarity and pride in workers organisations. The first May Day procession took place in London in 1890, when around a quarter of a million trades unionists marched to Hyde Park.

An early photograph of a May Day march in London: below

Working class agitation visited every town and village, new found mobility from cheap railway tickets and the new fangled bicycle enabled people to move around more easily; the movement found pride in demonstrating its existence and ordinary people found personal advancement in reading and music – but such cultural expressions were highly collectivised experiences.

To some extent, unionisation was a response to this, a need to defend whatever modest gains had been won from prosperous times was as important as gaining new rights. A cycle of booms and slumps took place as competition for markets abroad grew. This would lead to rivalry between the big powerful countries, a process that ended to the 1914-18 World War.The employers’ response to all of this was an offensive against organised labour. In 1896, lockouts against union organisation spread across industry.

In 1901, in a vitally important court case, the Taff Vale Railway Company won damages off the rail workers union for loss of revenue during a strike. Judge made law such as this threatened the very vitality of the new unions by hitting at their financial strength. It effectively questioned the legal right of unions to exist as a powerful force. Unions became desperate to influence parliament once again to change the law in their favour and, in 1900, formed the Labour Representation Committee to support trades unionists, who were all workingmen in their endeavours to stand for Parliament. Demonstrations continued as ever.

But many felt that only by getting a voice in Parliament would the unions really be heard. By 1906, the LRC had won 26 MPs and began to call itself the Labour Party. But it was still a federation of interests. You could not join the Labour Party as such; you had to join a union to gain involvement in this new political force. Many unions still had links with Liberals. 

An early photograph of a union demonstration with brass bands and proud workers with their cycles.

This had been so since the end of Chartism. For some the argument to keep this link was strong. The Liberal government of Lloyd George brought many changes in 1906. It introduced controls over working hours, state pensions, and immunity from breach of contract for unions reversing the Taff Vale judgement. From 1910 prices rose dramatically and workers fought hard for better wages.

In 1911 Liverpool dockers were locked out in an intense struggle with the bosses and the government responded by sending 7,000 troops and even two gunboats to the port city! 25,000 troops were also mobilised against London dockers during their 1911 strike. In 1912, the first ever truly national miners strike, for a minimum wage, took place. 5,000 troops were placed in the coalfields but entire communities backed the miners’ fight for victory. Without the support of their families, especially the women, success could never have been contemplated. Support for women’s involvement in politics was not by any means confined to middle class suffragette movement, as is often suggested, nor was it merely fixed upon the need to extend the franchise! Nonetheless, this period saw an intense struggle for votes for women.

Colliers’ wives in County Durham being summonsed to a mass meeting to support their menfolk in a strike wave. Working women began to organise in unions and there was even a special union just for women. They also fought for the right to votes in campaigns, long before the middle-class suffragettes emerged.

Between 1888 and 1918 unions grew at the fastest rate they ever have done. Union membership grew from about three-quarters of a million to about six million by 1918. Inspired by the successes of the women match workers’ strike at the Bryant and May factory in 1888, trade unionism among those who were not apprenticed craftsemen spread rapidly.

Although the number of women in trade unions massively increased, 90% of all trade unionists were still men and over 90% of women workers remained unorganised. Of the 10% of organised women, almost half were members of unions in the textile industry, the only industry with a constant demand for female labour. A high proportion of the remainder were members of teaching, clerical and shop workers unions.

The task of organising women was mainly carried out by women. themselves. The Women’s Trade Union League (formerly the Women’s Protective and Provident League founded in 1874) became more militant and abandoned some of the policies of its predecessors. The first successful equal pay resolution was proposed at the 1888 Trades Union Congress (TUC).  But, although there was some fighting for it at the end of both world wars in the 20th century, when women were extenstively used in the workplace. (It was the 1960s and beyond that saw the most important advances.) WTUL was dissolved in 1921 when the TUC formed its Women Workers’ Group.  The National Federation of Women Workers was founded in 1906 but, in little time at all, specialist women’s unions were absorbed by mens’ and most women were forced out of work and into the home. 

The fight for the vote had united many women and women’s suffrage had a mass following among working class women. Many of its leaders were well known as socialists and worked through various labour movement organisations.  In 1903 the Pankhurst family had formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). In its early years the WSPU had strong labour movement connections but increasingly it concentrated its efforts on ‘well placed’ women. Sylvia Pankhurst was expelled from the WSPU in 1914 because of her support for labour movement causes and for her activities among working class women in the East End of London. [Many thanks to Stella Perret for permission to include her illustration of women’s unionism. 


In the four years before World War One, a general trend towards militancy saw unions almost double in size to four million members. Indeed, this tremendous struggle would now doubt have continued but for the outbreak of war in August 1914.Strikes were made illegal under wartime regulations. In time, as officials unions observed the ban, workers looked to rank and leaders. The shop stewards movement was born, initially on the Clydeside, in Sheffield and Coventry. A fifth of a million Welsh miners struck in 1915, as did 80,000 engineering workers on and around the River Clyde. Socialism became increasingly popular.

But, unlike on the mainland of Europe, the British socialist movement followed the creation of trade unions and was to some extent inspired by it. The Social Democratic Federation (SDF – first called the Democratic Federation), which was a Marxist group, was the first body to survive for an extended period. But it was a largely propagandist sect and was not close to trade unions. The SDF changed its name to the Social Democratic Party in 1908 but this did not make it in the least bit like the group of the same name form the 1980s! This SDP was affiliated to the Labour Party and changed its name to the British Socialist Party in 1911. It mostly retained its Marxist character but a chauvinist trend kept caused difficulties. The BSP kept its affiliation but the rightists left in 1914 and became rather like the later day SDP!The Socialist Labour Party (SLP), which was especially in strong in Scotland, Derby and Manchester was a Marxist group with very strong links to the working class, especially the new shop stewards movement.

Groups like the Clarion Cycling Club and other social and cultural movements became very popular.The Independent Labour Party (ILP) was a socialist trend within the Labour Party, founded long before it and affiliated to it for most of the modern period except for a short period in the 1930s, when it moved sharply to the left.Socialist organisations were mostly against the war. Opposition to the war grew, although the official union movement and the Labour Party continued to support the war. Munitions workers in Coventry led the city into mass strike action. The government `bombed the city with propaganda leaflets dropped by the newly formed Royal Air Corps. Sheffield was closed down in a localised general strike.

Glasgow saw a massive mobilisation of working people over this period. From a major rent strike, led by women, in 1915, to shipyard and engineering strikes. In 1919, the city was on the verge of revolution and the army was even mobilised. In 1918, the Labour Party formally declared itself a socialist party. It opened itself to individual membership but retained its federal character with unions and socialist societies being able to affiliate. The TUC was now 6.5 million strong and the period 1919-21 saw a high peak of struggle.

The impact of the Russian Revolution is difficult to understand at this distance in time. It was the first time ordinary people, not aristocrats and millionaires, had run a government. The impact of the revolution on Britain was profound. The councils of action that had been set up in 1920 to oppose a war on Russia were a good example of what, in Russian, was meant by the word `soviet’. In 1920, most of the socialist groups came together to form the British Communist Party. The BSP, the South Wales Socialist Society and large sections of SLP merged. The ILP stayed aloof but many of its members, especially in the late 1920s and early 1930s came into the CP. Communist ideas were so influential many trades unions supported them (see the miner’s banner with its picture of Lenin) and many Communists were members of the Labour Party, with some even being councillors and MPs, or candidates.  

The early 1920s saw a big trend towards major union amalgamations. The mood for unity brought many new unions about. The United Kingdom Society of Coachbuilders (UKSC) had been in existence since 1832. For much of the 19th century it was not much bigger than a couple of thousand members. It was revamped as the National Union of Vehicle Builders in 1919 and was to merge with the T&G in 1972.

A picture of a former UKSC banner, with the NUVB name attached to the top. 

The engineering AEU and the Transport & General Workers Union (both part of today’s UNITE), and the NUGMWU (today’s GMB) were formed. The AEU was founded in 1920, NUGMW in 1921 and the TGWU in 1922.

The campaign to found the T&G was rooted in the unity forged in struggle between the members of the Transport Workers Federation, themselves founder member of what is now the global alliance, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF). The notion harked back to the spirit of militancy generated in 1911-12 and the dream of total working class unity in `One Big Union’. 

A poster featuring the One Big Union slogan in the campaign to win members of the independent transport unions to found the TGWU.

The amalgamation call to form the TGWU was highly political in its insight:

CAPITAL IS WELL ORGANISED EVERY TRADE IS INTERWOVEN AND INTERLINKED. The great industries on the employers’ side stand together! Labour must do likewise. The (amalgamation) scheme allows for the creation of a GREAT and POWERFUL UNION. NOTHING CAN PREVENT IT only two things can hinder it namely VESTED INTEREST AND APATHY.

The T&G was made up of 19 original unions but well over a hundred eventually joined up to form the One Big Union. Some of the first were the Amalgamated Society of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames (founded first in 1872), the United Carters and Motormen’s Association of England and the Amalgamated Association of Tram and Vehicle Workers.

In 1929, the TGWU was joined by the Workers Union, founded by Tom Mann. Consisting largely of all grades in the engineering industry, and general labourers in textiles and building materials manufacture, the WU had become the third largest of the big general unions. Only major financial trouble had caused the takeover and what had been largely a dockers and drivers union would explode into every sphere of working life as the alliance gave new life to the TGWU.

Pictures of the badges of some of the component parts of the TGWU follows as does a picture of the 1921 banner of the Derby District Workers Union, overprinted in 1939 with the name of the TGWU. Note the epigram on the front: `Labour is the source of all wealth, a Marxist concept.

The 1920s and 1930s often saw long periods of depression. But there was also much struggle to defend new gains by working people. In 1921, a Triple Alliance between transport and railway workers and the miners was formed. This saw a tremendous victory for solidarity in what became known as Red Friday. But there was massive unemployment, especially of men who had only a few years before been in the armed forces.

Pictures of Labour Party posters from 1923 that reflect the bitter irony felt by those who had fought for their country, only to find on their return that their country had little to offer them.  `Yesterday the trenches – Today unemployed’. 

The young Communist Party was at the forefront of creating solidarity between workers in struggle. The state knew that a showdown with the unions was imminent and carefully prepared for it. The miners would take the brunt of the manufactured conflict but they had not choice but to defend the important gains they had made. The Tory government planned to take these away from them and their case became a test of whether working class advancement would continue or whether the new found power of the unions could be damaged. A determined effort to squash the small but virile Communist Party was made in 1925.

The 12 defendants in the 1925 trial of Communist Party officials, for seditious libel and incitement to mutiny, following a police raid on the offices of the Communist Party, the Young Communist League and the Minority Movement.

Attacks on wages were common, across the board. But the struggle between colliers and the mine owners that took place from the end of the war to 1926 was legendary. That year, Britain saw an awesome expression of working class solidarity, the like of which was never quite attained again until the early 1970s. The TUC called a General Strike in support of the miners’ demands to loose not a second of the day, not a minute off the pay. Since all print workers came out in support of the miners and the government produced its own propaganda sheet, seeking to sap confidence in the strike, the TUC even produced its own strike bulletin, the `British Worker’ but it told people to stay indoors and even hinted at victory, when in fact a settlement was simply an unconditional surrender.

But not before millions has walked out; and millions more waited patiently for a call that never came. Solidarity action with the miners was swift and popular. The TGWU sent telegrams out, calling on its tram membership to stop work.  


The strike saw workers effectively take control of their localities and the state mobilised it forces in a tense stand off. Everyone thought they were going to beat the Tory government. But the government saw the strike as an opportunity to deal organised labour a deadly blow that they were not to really recover from fully until the Second World War and the
TUC leaders were fearful of the intensity of the action and sought a way out. The militancy display by millions of workers and the threat of force from the state simply frightened them!

The Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, claimed the strike to be illegal. After ten days, the TUC leadership called off the General Strike. Tens of thousands of workers were still pouring out of workplaces to join the solidarity action. Most strikers could not believe that the strike had been called off; most assumed that a clear victory must have been won. Most workers were in support of the miners, the problem was to keep them coming out in the ascending waves that had been planned. The movement was not so much defeated as let down. 

The TUC had called off the strike just as it was becoming most effective, hinting that they had won a decent settlement for the miners, when they had done no such thing.

The TGWU alone paid out £291, 869 in dispute benefits in the first week; this is a colossal sum, perhaps equivalent to 20 times that amount today. It virtually bankrupted the new union and turned the leader of the T&G, Ernie Bevin, away from a leftish figure into a much more cautious, increasingly right wing figure. The extraordinary power that turning much of the Transport Federation into a single union was concentrated in his hands and the fall out from the strike was to condition the way the union faced for a generation. The miners were left alone to fight their own corner. They were lucky to have a marvellous leader in Arthur Cook, General Secretary of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, seen below speaking in Trafalgar Square.

Armoured vehicles and armed men escorted strike-breakers, or scabs. Most were upper class young men. 

A J Cook, as he was more usually and formally known, was inspirational in the great struggle. It is not too much of an  exaggeration to say that he was able to keep hundreds of thousands of miners out in the long months they were alone almost single-handedly by virtue of the punishing schedule of mass meetings he kept up day and night in a never-ending tour of the coalfields. Born in 1883, the miners’ leader had first held office in the South Wales Miners’ Federation in the Rhondda. An anti-war activist, he was imprisoned for sedition. A founding member of the Communist Party, he played a leading role in the Miners’ Minority Movement. He was General Secretary of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain from 1924 until his death in 1931. The Communist Party successfully sought to maintain strong links with him during and after the strike, although he had joined the Independent Labour Party. 

When the strike was over, there were 100,000 more T&G members on strike than at the beginning. But victimisation by the employers of strikers was widespread. A great struggle ensued to get decent return to work conditions. Of the 353,000 T&G members who were called out all but 1,500 were able to return to work eventually.

Communist Party members were extraordinarily active in strike committees and the local councils of action, which had been set up to coordinate the strike. Scores of full time party speakers were organised to tour the country a quarter of a million leaflets were issued in a two-week campaign in the coalfields. This ferocious defence of the miners earned the Party a big increase in its membership, which rose from 5,000 before the strike to 10,000 by September 1926. Many were unable to stay in membership and were victimised and out of work for years. But Party influence grew phenomenally in many mining villages for a generation and more to come. Even so, the miners had battled on alone for a further seven months until hunger brought defeat.

Arthur Cook speaking in Trafalgar Square in 1926

The outcome of the General Strike and the miners’ defeat led to the vindictively strong anti-trade union legislation in the 1927 Trade Union Act; sympathetic strikes were outlawed and, to make it more difficult to build up big political funds, trade unionists had to opt in rather than opt out of the political levyThe policy that the working class must pay for the economic crisis that arose from the failing British Empire continued viciously, despite the election of a Labour Government in 1929. By 1931 there were three million unemployed.

A famous picture that came to symbolise the despair of unemployment in the 1930s.

The Labour government then split over the cutting of benefits to the unemployed and right-wing Labour joined with the Tories and Liberals to form a National government. Official Labour candidates opposed the National Labour, Tory and Liberal candidates but only very few were returned. The Means Test brought fear into the very homes of ordinary people.

The National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) had been struggling since the early 1920s for the rights of unemployed workers and their families. It had become a household name, especially over the organising of `Hunger Marches’ that often were able to extract real concessions over benefits.

A picture of the women’s contingent of the 1934 March, which started from Derby. 

The main section of the 1934 march started out from Glasgow on 22 January 1934 and reached Hyde Park on 25th February. As with all the later NUWM marches neither the Labour Party nor the bulk of the national union movement supported it. But local union branches and many co-operatives did help out. Where this was not forthcoming, marchers slept and ate in workhouses, making this an occasion for local campaigning.

Police harassment of the march as it came into London led to the formation of the National Council for Civil Liberties, today’s `Liberty. Concessions were won by the massive sympathy for the NUWM’s struggle, including the reinstatement of the 1931 cut in unemployment benefit.The small town of Jarrow in the north east of England symbolises in retrospect the acceptable face of the unemployed movement. With massive unemployment in the town a massive march to London in 1936 received enormous sympathy. This is the one march most well known to history. But it was the smallest, least effective and rather apolitical. Workers certainly knew much poverty. Some turned back to old certainties. The union could see them through the worst. A local union banner (below) puts two sides of the question in the iconography used. Here the benefit and health insurance side of unionism is returned to. The organised worker was much more affluent than the unionised worker. 

The 1930s was a period well known for the intense anti-fascist struggles.

Unquestionably, the most significant in British terms was the fight, led by Communists in London’s east end, to stop fascists from marching through a staunchly left-wing area, populated by many Jewish families. The battle of  Cable Street in 1936, illustrated by this modern mural was a big step forward in the struggle to defeat fascism.  

More deeply influential was the international battle to save the democratically elected government in Spain, which some see as the first step in the second world war.

Fascists in and out of the armed forces of Spain launched a vicious civil war to overthrow the Republican government. This was not an especially left wing government, forces ranging from the strong but relatively small Communist Party to what we might think of as something like a Liberal Democrat were united in the Popular Front that had won the election. Though the agreed programme would have seen many benefits to ordinary people and it is more than evident that the steadfastness of the Communist in the struggle in Spain and in its defence caused a massive rise in their popularity and support both in Spain and across Europe. In contrast, the British government tacitly aided Spain’s military and both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy send massive armed forces to assist in this process.

The governments of the west adopted a studied `neutrality’ that saw a refusal to sell military supplies to the legitimate government of Spain, a stance that effectively gave Spain up to Fascism. But not before thousands of progressives from across the globe volunteered to fight in Spain in assistance of the extraordinary resistance of the ordinary Spaniard. Some two thousand Britons fought in the International Brigades, most of them unemployed workers or trades unionists, contrary to a perception that these were mostly intellectuals. Most of these had been mobilised by the Communist Party and it was even illegal in Britain for its citizens to enter the war.

The plight of the Spanish people disturbed people everywhere, especially when the German Luftwaffe – following the example of the Japanese war on the Chinese people – treated the war as an experiment on how to conduct air raids on civilian population. Lessons they learned in the application of such terror methods were later to be employed across Europe, including Britain.

Because of the policy of non-intervention, the Republic of Spain even tried to stimulate a response of even-handedness from powers like Britain and France by withdrawing the International Brigades. It would do no good, by the beginning of 1939, Spain was broken and the world was headed for war. But none of those who were present to hear the powerful words in tribute to the Brigades spoken by the extraordinary and world-famous Communist leader, `La Pasionaria‘, or Dolores Ibarruri, would ever forget the experience. Famous sayings of her’s, such as `they shall not pass’ and `better to die on your feet than live on your knees’ resonated throughout the world across the next decade. Many like Jack Jones, a future leader of the TGWU, returned to their own countries determined to fight for a better world.

 Dolores Ibarrurri, Spanish Communist leader – known to all as La Pasionaria; a parade in aid of Spain in Manchester.

The Second World War (1939-1945) brought new problems but also opportunities as unions became central to winning the war. Joint production committees in every workplace accepted the vital role of workers’ representative bodies for the first time. The Herculean struggle against Fascism had been presented as a fight for democracy. Millions of people had been inspired by the Red Army and by anti-fascist resistance groups. It was inevitable that voters would translate their recollection of the horrors of the pre-war period into hopes for the future.

In 1945, Labour won a commanding majority and proceeded to introduce a free National health Service, public ownership of the railways, coal, gas and electricity, a free education system and fairer national insurance, welfare and unemployment benefits. Labour’s mandate was to introduce the Welfare State that would protect every person, from `the cradle to the grave’. These were enormous gains for working people.Nationalisation was seen initially by many working people, especially miners and railway workers, as a step forward. But the form public ownership took was bureaucratic and mirrored private industry. Most nationalised concerns were ones that capitalism could not run at a profit and still deliver proper public service.

A worker paints out the private company logo, GWR, from a lorry now owned by the people. 

Regrettably, the machinations of international power politics saw the US and Britain lead a trend to break up the wartime alliances. The Cold War set in from 1947. Trade unions became pawns in the larger game. Anti-communism became frenetic; it was not only in Hollywood that a witch-hunt ensued. In Britain, civil servants lost their jobs because of their politics and most unions brought in bans and proscriptions on Communists holding office in the union, even as a shop steward. This weakened working class unity.Trade unions stabilised and grew phenomenally, as part of the fabric of British civil society in the long period of what was largely a post-war consensus on industrial relations.

A picture of a typical mass meeting of factory workers, a basic form of trade union collective democracy in the late 1950s and early 1960s. 

The right wing in the Labour Party had relied upon the block vote of the unions, wielded by powerful union leaders during the 1950s and early 1960s. But things changed, when a new generation of trade union leaders who sought to respond to their members’ needs emerged. The T&G saw new left-leaning leaders, firstly Frank Cousins and then Jack Jones, and, in 1968, got rid of their bans on Communists holding office.

A picture of the T&G’s leaders of the 1960s and 1970s – Jack Jones, Frank Cousins, Harry Nicolas.

Increasing problems relating to a major restructuring of the British economy saw, from the late 1960s onwards, governments seeking to minimise the power that a trade union movement of between 11 and 13 million members had gained. Trade unions fought off many attempts to cripple them. Indeed, struggles to retain free trades unionism dominated the period from 1968 to 1974. 

Trade unions demonstrating against state interference in union democracy and practice in 1971 and were able within three years to make the laws inoperable. 

Other than 1926, the only other official general strike that Britain has experienced in recent history has been the one that didn’t really happen, in 1972.  Several one day unofficial mini-general strikes had already happened – against Tory anti-union laws. Then the celebrated Pentonville Five were imprisoned.

When an attempt to free them, legally, failed the TUC General Council by 18 votes to 7 (with 6 abstentions) acted to head off massive and rising unofficial strike action by calling the 20th century’s second general strike for Monday 31st July 1972. This did not go ahead due to a sleight of hand legal release of the five dockers.  It had been unofficially co-ordinated and channelled spontaneous strike action that shifted what were relatively left-wing union leaders into action, not the other way around.

The last two decades of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st have seen many more major forms of generalised action than did the 30 years from the general strike onwards.  In 1979, a `general industrial strike’ of 1.5 million workers in engineering saw some 16 million working days lost with a series of weekly one-day strikes in support of cutting hours from 40 to 35 hours per week. The dispute was steered through by the affiliates of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, many of which are all in today’s Unite. 

Although a settlement brought in a 39-hour week, this became standard across most industries. More significantly, the dispute proved the virtuosity of a strategy of pulling selected plants out on strike and collecting a levy from all members to fund the strikers’ losses. A national settlement was enforced and, even today, some £15m still stands in the fund, unutilised.

In 1980, the TUC organised a “day of action” against Tory plans to introduce the first of successive pieces of existing anti-union legislation, along with its economic and social policies. Newspaper owners got injunctions to stop action but ITN was blacked out and BBC TV gave no less than 11 minutes coverage!

In 1982, a common claim unusually united 15 NHS unions in a variety of national bargaining units against an attempt to divide the various grades. The TUC co-ordinated industrial action but only called on those covered by the claim to back a 24-hour national stoppage in May, other than demonstrating in a NHS Day of Action.

This was followed by two-hour stoppages organised locally every Thursday. Midwives and nurses were a spearhead of the dispute. Fleet Street electricians followed the call by striking in solidarity on the Day of Action, ignoring an injunction. Fines ensued but were paid anonymously. Not to be outdone, Yorkshire miners had three full days of solidarity action!

Since then, there have only been focused disputes; that involving the widest groups being the so-called Winter of Discontent public sector disputes in 1978-9 of 1.5 million workers.  The 1984-5 miners’ strike saw around 30 million days lost and whilst there was a lot of sympathy and finance, no solidarity action by others at all. It seems as if solidarity has become something associated only with trade union history.  

In a similar vein to the CSEU approach, from 1984 for nearly 19 months, a Scottish teachers’ dispute ran for nearly 19 months when the Tory Secretary of State, set up an independent committee of inquiry that led to a satisfactory settlement.

The biggest disputes of recent times have been co-ordinated action over public sector pensions. But, like much else, modern government statistics are not necessarily a good guide.  The Office for National Statistics (ONS) conducts its strike surveys in a very different way to other data sets in that it these are entirely voluntary and details of disputes are picked up from reports in the “mainstream media and newspapers” and “directly from the employer”.

The numbers for the last big day of action – November 30th 2011 – suggest a deficient approach, with the action of many public sector workers unrecorded. The survey “tries to record all strike action … except for those disputes involving fewer than ten workers or lasting less than one day”. Yet, on N30, in some cases a stoppage of only a quarter of an hour took place (effective though that was) and, in some districts, many small groups of workers – like school meals service – were solid.   

Even so, even according to the ONS, nearly 1.4 million working days were lost to industrial action in 2011 – almost four times as much as the previous year and the highest number since 1990.  Actually, some two million workers probably took action of some kind.

So given all we have now reviewed, what scope is there for thinking more action is possible against Tory cuts, assaults on wages, and jobs? That it is needed will surely be underlined by the savageness of the attacks still coming, and rising, against ordinary people.

Instead of a minority slice of organised trades unionists combining on a single issue, albeit of great relevance to them, such as LGPS, or one of its equivalents, ought the movement not be learning lessons from history?

All mass actions before 1978 were about collective concerns, or acts on behalf of group that needed support. Perhaps we should get back to that and focus on the attack coming from the ConDems who have no electoral mandate for their assault.    

But, during the 1980s and 1990s traditional industries were killed off by Tory governments that reversed many of the gains of the post-war period. Unfortunately Blair’s New Labour did little to change what even they called the `flexible’ workplace. Despite the difficulties, unions have remained as massive voluntary organisations of working people. The problem has been less the unpopularity of unions but more the temporary and casual nature of employment, which tends to make it easy for employers to keep unions away from their employees and inhibit the ability of workers to build strong workplace organisations that guarantee rights.  

Much remains to be done, for working people still have to struggle to safeguard their interests. Poor working conditions, dictatorial bosses and low pay are more than still with us. The challenges may be different but we cannot fully understand our future without understanding our past. Workers,  especially young workers, have in the past found new ways to organise. Every quarter or half century or so a major rebellion seems to emerge with new generations. Perhaps we are on the threshold of just such a wave of change right now?

For more information about the origins of specific unions, go to: