trades union congress: no saviours from on high

A piece by Clifford Biddulph, part of a debate on the TUC

When the Communication Workers’ Union executive unanimously called off the postal strike on the government’s terms without an agreement,  the continuing success of the employer’s neoliberal offensive  was due in no small measure to the behind the scenes role of Brendan Barber and the Trades Union Congress. Barber had previously played a part in encouraging the CWU leadership to accept the ‘modernisation’ – or neo liberal – agenda in principle. The leader of the TUC was not acting as an advocate of the trade union movement or the interests of workers but as a servant of the state. Tony Blair once described the leader of the TUC as a government colleague.

But it would be more acurate to use John McIlroy’s assessment  that “the TUC acts not as an alternative to the state, but as an arm of the state.” (‘Ten years of New Labour’, p283-313 British Journal of Industrial Relations, June 2008). Recently millions of pounds of government money has been poured into the TUC  to provide services for the government including the recent supply-side skills training to promote business productivity. Jobs are linked to the success of free market enterprise. The TUC echo New Labour propaganda about partnership between employers and trade unions which covers up the unequal relationship between capital and labour. In hiding the dominance of the employers the ideology of partnership helps to provide the bosses with the whip hand.

Historically the TUC was not an organisation formed as part of the class struggle against capital or created to organise class struggle.  It emerged as the parliamentary committee of the Manchester and Salford Trades Council in 1868 as a respectable voice to influence parliamentarians to moderate anti-union legislation. Its aim was to form parliamentary opinion, not fight the state. In 1919 when there was an explosion of workers’ militancy of revolutionary proportions, the TUC parliamentary committee became the TUC General Council but, despite illusions to the contrary, did not become the general staff of labour. To become generals of a revolutionary army was contrary to its nature. The great labour unrest of 1910-1914 owed nothing to the direction of the TUC and everything to the creativity of workers in unofficial channels. The fight for New Unionism at the end of the 19th century or the struggle for mass trade unions outside the narrow craft unions was led by communists such as Eleanor Marx who in effect led the gasworkers’ union. William Morris described the policy of the TUC at the time as contemptuous inactivity.

The true nature of the TUC was plainly exposed  in 1926 when the General Council, frightened by the solid response to its call for a national strike, called it off after nine days before the General Strike could develop a momentum of its own outside the tight bureaucractic straitjacket of the official movement.  The miners were left isolated to go down to defeat in their defensive battle for ‘not a penny off the pay, not a second on the day’ in response to the government and employers’ demand for wage cuts to solve their economic crisis. The miners’ principled demand was cynically dismissed by the General Council as a mere slogan. Although a special conference of trade union executives had authorised the council to call a national strike, the leaders of the TUC had no intention of leading a fight against the state but acted to defend the constitution. When Stanley Baldwin, the then prime minister, rhetorically asked the council if they were ready to take over, the response of Jimmy Thomas the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers and leading member of the General Council was a heart felt cry of ‘God help us if we did’.

Thomas was on the right wing of the TUC, but there was no fundamental difference between the right and the left in the Council. The TUC decision to call off the strike on the government’s terms, without any gains, was unanimous. The Samuel Report – composed of two Liberals, a banker and a cotton boss – calling for cutting the wages of miners, was accepted by the council. The Communist Party of Great Britain and the national Minority Movement looked to the top of the official  movement, particularly the left leaders who had been friendly to the Soviet Union.   Their tactic was to put pressure or demands on the TUC. ‘All power to the TUC’ was their slogan. The CPGB stuck close to the officials and their structures. The instructions of the Minority Movement to its members in workplaces and trades councils was to carry out the instructions of the General Council and union executives and on no account to take over the functions of the  official movement.  Peter Kerrigan, a leading member of the CPGB and chairman of the Glasgow central strike committee, said the possibility of the TUC calling off the strike never crossed his mind. The CPGB was feeding off illusions and feeding illusions in their demands on the TUC. An historic  lesson for today.

The background to the general strike was the consolidation and growth of the trade union bureaucracy or officialdom during the collaboration with the employers and the state during the First World War and after as unions amalgamated from above in response to the industrial unionism from below. Growing unemployment and an employers’ offensive which inflicted serious defeats on the organised workers, such as the engineers’ lock-out in 1922, weakened grass roots trade union activists and organisation in the workplace. The TUC’s voluntary surrender in 1926 served to strengthen the hold of the officials on the trade unions. The Second World War saw the CPGB in a coalition with the state and employers in the productivity committees as officialdom became closely associated with the state. Recently, following the defeat of the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 in which NUM leader Arthur Scargill pleaded in vain for effective solidarity from the TUC rather than appeal to the rank and file over the heads of their leaders, officialdom has once again generally kept a tight grip on the trade unions and workplace organisation has been weakened.

But it has been argued within The Commune that the tactic of placing demands on the TUC to lead the class struggle is still applicable since the TUC called a one day general strike in 1972 following the imprisonment of five dockworkers who led unofficial and illegal strike action against the wishes of their union leader, Jack Jones of the TGWU. But there was already a strike of national proportions: the dockers simply walked out on strike and demonstrated outside Pentonville prison. They directly called on other workers to take solidarity action. Fleet Street printers, airport workers, London bus workers, Sheffield engineers and many other organised sections where grassroots organisation was strong came out, completely bypassing the TUC and not waiting for top officials to approve the action through procedure. There was panic in government. The balance of class forces was not favourable to the state which was unprepared. The government and the TUC could not take on the strikers head on. The influence of the revolutionary left was feared and the strikes were getting out of control. In an attempt to tame the movement the TUC endorsed a strike call for one day. But the government  played safe to fight another day and organised or invented a government official to free the Pentonville Five. The TUC was not  the leader of mass struggle. It took place independently of the TUC. The solidarity strike was one of the highlights of the great wave of rank and file trade militancy 1968-74.

The trade union bureaucracy embodies the function of trade unions as organisations which negotiate the terms of workers’ exploitation: organisations which are rooted in wage slavery or tied to the wages system.The rationale of trade union officials is to improve workers’ conditions within capitalism, but only when that is posssible or affordable and only if the movement is kept within safe channels. Trade unions in themselves cannot  be reliable vehicles for transcending capitalism. They do have a predetermined objective form as sellers of a commodity – labour power. As Marx wrote “The value of labour power constitutes the conscious and explicit foundation of trade unions” (Capital Vol 1 p1069 Penguin Books 1976).  But the grass roots or rank and file trade unionists in the workplace face the direct effects of capitalism and in that sense Marx called trade unions the schools of socialism, the elementary combination of workers as a barrier against the intrusions of capital.  That is why The Commune stands with the postal worker facing longer hours, more work or the loss of his/her job, rather than the CWU Executive.

7 thoughts on “trades union congress: no saviours from on high

  1. Clifford’s article on the TUC makes a number of important points about the involvement of ‘rank and file’ shop stewards in the struggle against the Industrial Relations Act. This is important as to omit these struggles from the record could leave the impression that the defeat of the Act was purely as a result of pressure from the top of the TUC.
    In their book Glorious Summer Lyddon and Darlington point to the important role played by unofficial and political strikes in achieving the release of the Pentonvile five which was a key milestone in rendering the Act unworkable and eventually led to the Conservative Government of Edward Heath putting the legislation on ice. So let’s agree with Clifford that this action as well as the rising tide of official industrial act during this period played an important part in the defeat of the 1971 Act.
    However to only emphasise this aspect of the struggle is only to tell part of the story. The TUC leadership did play an important part in defeating the legislation of the time. They did this by running a campaign against the legislation that would put the current leadership of the TUC and their passive and inactive record on the current anti union laws to shame.
    The campaign was of course not only a reflection of the move to the left of the TUC during this period but the rise of a new generation of left wing Trade Union leaders; some of whom had made their reputations on the back of their record of building and fighting to build workplace trade unionism, Jack Jones being the obvious example. Indeed the Act was primarily directed against the growing power of shop stewards and represented an attempt by the state to undermine this growing movement of workplace trade unionism.
    In the face of this onslaught the campaign by the TUC was extremely impressive in leading the fight against this legislation, which in many respects can be looked at as a continuation of the struggle it led against the Wilson Governments far less draconian in Place of Strife white paper. The activity of the TUC in resisting the legislation again contrasts starkly with its current supine practices following the recent BA ruling, it included
    •The organisation of a high profile campaign against the bill
    •A conference of union officers called in November 1970
    •The TUC education program produced a Kit that was used to train tens of thousands of union officers and lay officials in regional programs
    •TUC regional conferences were held
    •118 Trade Councils called protest meetings against the bill
    •Two major national demonstrations were called against the bill the one in Hyde Park attracting over 140,000
    •A national petition to parliament containing over a half a million signatures
    •Press advertisements costing tens of thousands of pounds
    •The production of propaganda that included publications, films and a record from the General Secretary of the TUC.
    The TUC also developed policies that defended and attacked the role of the state in interfering with collective bargaining, these policies included
    •A call for the early repeal of this legislation
    •Refusing to use some of the dispute resolution machinery the act created
    •A rejection of the Code of Good Industrial Practice produced under the act
    More significantly the TUC led a campaign against registration under the act despite the fact that this would cost the unions over 5 million pound a year in Tax relief. In a move led by the leader of the engineers Hugh Scanlon a resolution passed by the TUC substituted ‘instruct’ for ‘strongly advised’ unions not to register under the Act. This was to make the act virtually unworkable.
    The strong pursuance of this policy was to lead to the expulsion of over twenty unions for resisting the TUCs Instruction. Indeed this strong action was seen by two Socialist commentators of the time, Coats and Topham as being a key factor in the defeat of the bill. As they commented, ‘the strong exercise of TUC authority had been effective in rendering most of the act inoperable, and had dissuaded many faint hearts amongst the unions from collaborating with its various mechanisms’.
    Thus it was a combination of activity on the ground and determined leadership that in the end defeated the bill. To omit either part of this from the record is to tell only part of the story. The lessons from this are clear. Who leads our movement is an important issue for trade unionists who want to fight back against draconian anti union laws,and one that Socialists can’t afford to abstain from.


  2. Were there saviours from on high against the industrial relations relations act and the precursor In place of strife in the wilson years of the mid 60’s proposed by Barbara Castle? Did Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon save the workers movement?Did these lefts on high make a fundamental difference?

    An insight into the motivation and intentions of the leaders of the TUC In the 1960’s can be gleaned from the political diaries of Barbara Castle. When In place of strife was drawn up against the growing influence of shop stewards and rank and file unoffical action, Barbara felt confident that she could consult with Mr Woodcock the leader of the TUC, in private, over dinner about the new proposals. She knew Woodcock did not approve of the growing confidence of workers in the workplace to take action independent of important leaders at the top of the “movement”. But In case there was any hesitation on his part she would hint she had him in mind for an important Job on the leading committee of a government quango. There was no need for her to hint about the prospect of a nice little earner with all the prestige associated with it since Woodcock who was not a militant leader who had led any mass strike agreed to help her behind the scenes. The Tuc had denounced unofficial action and irresponsible shop stewards .when she hinted about the prospect of the job she records his eyes lit up.

    But did the terrible twins Scanlon and jones save the workers movement? well the CPGB and other reformists looked to these broad lefts on high for deliverance. But what they delivered for the state and employers was deliverance from mass militancy of 1968/74 with their social contract with the Labour government. This brought a the most significant drop in workers living standards for many years, a huge decline in strikes and an end to the growing power of the workplace based militancy.

    Jones had opposed the decisive action to free the pentonville dockers leaders. Unofficial solidarity action. The dockers went on indefinate unoffical strike aganist the wishes of Jones. Had the dockers and other rank and file workers appealed to Jones and the TUC to take action from on high no decisive action would have taken place. Given the balance of forces some bosses leaders such as the director general of the confederation of British industry at the time Cambell Adamson favoured the collaboration of jones and scanlon to confrontation and the industrial relations act. Scanlon Delivered for the state. Hence the Knighthood. He had already delivered for the bosses in the first world war in collaborating in productivity committees with the bosses. That is where he made his trade union name.

    What was decisive in 1972 in the battle of saltley gates was not TUC publicity but mass solidarity action from Birmingham engineering workers. Scargill recalls that the miners mass picket had still not succeeded in closing the gates when on the 10th of february a banner suddenly appeared at the top of a hill and scagill had never seen so many people following a banner. Over 20,000 blocked the gates and the police closed the gates. An historic workers victory had occured without the TUC in sight.


  3. It’s not quite true that “the TUC called a one day general strike in 1972 following the imprisonment of five dockworkers who led unofficial and illegal strike action against the wishes of their union leader, Jack Jones of the TGWU”

    The International Marxist Group did claim that the the TUC had been “pressured” into calling a “one-day general strike.” “Force the TU lefts to fight” was the magic slogan which was supposed to deepen the “crisis of leadership” and allow the trotskyists to take over. I think the Cliffites were more circumspect; it wasn’t in their nature to give the TUC credit for calling for anything as drastic as a general strike, especially when the TUC hadn’t. You will find no record of anyone on the TUC CALLING for a general strike, even for one-day.

    Strange that the Labour Party hasn’t figured in this debate. The most prominent Labourite opponent of anti-union legislation was one James Callaghan, prime minister, 1976-79. His government abolished the Tory
    legislation, as promised. Then he introduced massive cuts in public
    expenditure, not as promised, but as ordered to, by the IMF, and supported by Messrs Jones and Scanlon as well as (tacitly) by the CPGB. Then the Winter of Discontent (economism with no politics), and then the winter without end under Thatcher – economism WITH politics, and class-struggle politics at that.

    If the cuts introduced by the next goverment, whether Tory of Labour, aren’t deemed savage enough for the needs of capital then the international credit rating agencies will pull the plug on the “recovery”. As the “unions” no longer have any alternative economic strategies they remotely believe in, they will do what they did in 1976 (this time without a debate) and tell their members to eat shit, in the knowledge that their “betrayal” won’t be followed this time by a winter of discontent consisting of union-led strikes, because now they’re illegal (or soon will be).

    Bureaucracies don’t break laws; they enforce them.


  4. Hi Dave

    The call for a one day national stoppage was made by the General Council of the TUC on Wednesday 26th of July 1972 after five days of unofficial action . See page 169-175 of Dave Lyddon and Ralph Darlington Glorious Summer for an account of this.


  5. The fundamental and decisive force in the upsurge period is clearly the strength of the rank and file, networks shop stewards even such a through the IS, CPGB etc. It was not black and white, some shop-stewards structures were organised top down by union leaders, and obviously took on a life of their own. It was the strength of the movement which brought about a more left reflection in the heirarchy unions such as the TUC. Lets be clear people like Jones are no angels, even though he backed the Institute of Workers Control etc. But compare such leaders to what is considered left and even right-wing today – is that not a measure of retrogression.

    The TUC congress policies on the Heath Industrial Relations Act were for non-cooperation etc. It was way ahead of the Blackpool congress decisions fo 1980 – but what was the real contrast was the ability of the union members and individual unions to implement the policy and defy the law.

    Dave is right to point out the Callaghan government repealed the Tory anti-union laws, a victory for the upsurge of the movement along with a number of other progressive laws of the period. What happened under the Labour Govenment is however instructive – why our movement was so disorientated and tied to Labourism during the Social Contract. Why did the upsurge of the winter of discontent which bust the Labour government not translate into defeating Thatcher?


  6. Barry when commenting on Clifford Biddulph’s article No Saviours From on High mentions the dubious role of the former TUC General Secretary George Woodcock in the Wilson governments attempts to shackle workplace trade unionism with its In Place of Strife white paper.

    It was Woodcock who seriously underestimated the effect that the introduction of the penal clauses would have in the trade union movement in galvanising opposition to the government’s proposals. This attitude gave Barbra Castle the then secretary of state the wrong impression of the TUC reaction to the white paper . Indeed it was Woodcock who described her white paper Place of Strife as ‘excellent’ and maintaining it violated no trade union principles in a private conversation with her.

    Clearly then Barry’s analysis of the role of Woodcock in this episode has some validity. However this is not the whole story. For the TUC and indeed the parliamentary Labour Party did play an important part in defeating Castle’s proposals.

    Yes they were defeated. By a trade union movement that at least appreciated then that anti union legislation which restricted the ability of unions to take industrial action and which imposed penal sanctions on its members could do serious damage to the movement.

    Indeed following Woodcocks resignation the TUC campaign accelerated with the role of Jones and Scanlon became more prominent. Indeed Wilson, according to the Guardians political correspondent at the time Peter Jenkins was incandescent with rage at the ‘ intransigence and arrogance’ of these two leaders in fighting against his government’s proposals.

    Peter Jenkins was to write a book on the defeat of this legislation called the Battle of Downing Street in which a detailed account of the TUCs role in the defeat of this legislation was given. Interestingly It recounts a meeting between Scanlon and Wilson in which the union leader commenting on the government’s proposals said to Wilson ‘ We don’t want you to be another Ramsey MacDonald’ to which Wilson Replied ‘ I have no intention of being another Ramsey MacDonald. Nor do I intend to be another Dubcek. Get your tanks of my lawn Hughie’.

    The campaign against the white paper accelerated after Woodcocks departure in March 1969. With the TUC publishing its own counter proposals and organising a special conference of the TUC in opposition to the Governments proposals in the Fairfield Hall Croydon in June 1969. Following this the leadership of the TUC held 14 meetings with the Government in which it outlined its opposition to In Place of Strife . A process that was to lead to the withdrawal of the proposed legislation following a revolt by the governments own back benchers many of whom had been lobbied by their unions and the TUC.

    Any chance of this happening now? I don’t think so. The current leadership of the TUC has done very little to fight the present New Labour Government over its retention of the anti union laws. But this was not always the case. There was a time to quote Jenkins when ‘the old cart horse snorted and was seen to move’. Now it is doing nothing- As our right to take lawful industrial action is being diminished and undermined.


  7. There was some movement in the TUC carthorse in favour of collaboration with employers and the state rather than than confrontation and legal restraints in the context of the post war settlement. Ruling class opinion and government policy tended to rest on the helping hand of the trade union Bueaucracy and parliamentary labour leaders.

    But as the Bretton woods arrangements and the long boom began to unravel the medium and long term interests of capital were seen as taking steps to take on or roll back the working class gains of the boom and the strengh of the workers at the grass roots level. It was not the movement of the carthorse which stood in the way, but the faster more threatening movement of the flying pickets,solidarity strikes and the movement of the militants in the workplace

    In place of strive was one of the beginnings of the attempt to stabilise capitalism at the expense of the workers by bringing the state into industrial relations and the class struggle. To change the balance of class forces away from working class Militancy. This was followed by another attempt in the 1970’s by the Heath government. But whether it was Heath or Wilson the pattern was clear. But there were difficulties in taking a confident and well organised working class head on. There were differences of opinion in capitalist and government circles. This was reflected in the TUC Labour party and trade union Bureaucracy.

    The pressure to take further action intensified following the disintegration of the Bretton woods arrangements and Britains finacial crisis in 1976 which signified the party was over as Dennis Healy put it or the post war settlement had to be brought to an end. The resurgence of Mass pickting in 1979 served to highlight the need for the state to take tougher action to deal with the threat from below. By the time Thatcher began to impliment the strategy the working class had been severly weakened in terms of militancy,politics and unemployment through the social contract and other government actions.

    In that sense the TUC Carthorse and Scanlon and Jones had pulled capitalism out of a tricky situation.

    Understanderbly the Wilson Government was split on the in Place of strife proposals in 1968. In the short term collabortion with the labour and trade union leaders rather than state confrontation was sucessfull. Hence the Doubts at the top. Could the government face down the mass militancy from below? Unofficial action led by political left brought a few hundred thousand workers on a one day strike. Other strikes and demonstations followed. The Wilson government looked to the TUC For a solution.

    Initially both George woodcock and vic Feather gave their support to Barbara Castle in confidential discussions, but feather reluctantly put forward counter proposals in which the union leaders would discipline their own militants. This was not entirely a fudge since action was taken by leaders against key workplace organisation and socialists such as Alan Thornett and Bob Fryer. Bob and Alan were removed from their Trade union positions.


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