Jack Fitzgerald

The Fiftieth Trade Union Congress

Source: Socialist Standard, September 1918.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain
HTML Markup: Michael Schauerte
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

There has been a Jubilee at Derby. Fifty years ago the Trade Union Congress was inaugurated at Manchester, and this year celebrated its golden anniversary. How far have the organised workers travelled in their struggles, their views and their understanding of the position they occupy in society in this stride of time? A brief glance at this year’s gathering may help us to answer this question.

In point of numbers the Congress was the largest representation of organised workers in the world, as the affiliated membership totalled over four and half millions. Compared with the 118,367 at its first meeting this looks a splendid advance. But these numbers alone do not necessarily mean progress.

Then take another view. In 1868 the trades unions had not a single member in Parliament; at Derby there were 17 M.P’s., members of trade unions, amongst the delegates. Even more important in the eyes of the man in the street real, live, Ministers of Government, receiving real, live, salaries were present as delegates of their trade unions. Mr. Clynes, the Minister for Food, was supported by Mr. Roberts, the Minister for Labour, while Mr. Hodge, the Minister for Pensions, certainly added weight, if nothing else, to the Ministerial bench. There were others willing—nay, anxious—to become M.P’s and Ministers, but the Paper Restriction Order presents us publishing so long a list.

These M.P’s. and Ministers, however, hold their positions as gifts from the master class, and they have to dance to the tune the masters play. They thus testify rather to the masters’ fear of the working class awakening to their slave position than they do to the awakening itself.

If we turn to matters that should form the real work of such a congress, such as the co-ordination of the views of its constituent bodies into a sound policy of action for the whole, the solidifying and strengthening of the structure of organisation, and the working out of the adaptation of methods and scope of organisation to meet the changing conditions of production, we find scant time given to these things. There were two resolutions on the agenda dealing with amalgamation and Industrial Unionism that were combined and presented as one composite resolution by a grouping committee. But Industrial Unionism as such was not discussed at all, and the phrase was merely used as a peg on which to hang the old quarrel as to which of the existing unions a worker should pay his dues to.

Evolution in the means of production is breaking down the old lines of demarkation between occupations, and the so-called “skilled” unions are endeavouring to maintain their position by trying to draw in the kindred workers. The so called “unskilled” unions who catered for these kindred workers fight hard to retain them. In these fights the weaker unions appeal to the Congress to curtail the operations of the stronger unions so that the officials of the former may be able to continue their official existence. The “unskilled” unions often carry the fight into the “skilled” unions’ camp. Thus the Workers Union, disdaining the silly limitations of either craft or industry, cheerfully grabs up members in any and every occupation, irrespective of whether unions already exist there or not.

In some parts of the country a fight is going on between the Workers Union and the Agricultural Labourers Union as to who should have the right to organise the agricultural labourers. The Gasworkers and General Labourers Union, feeling the effects of this competition, have lately changed their title to “The National Union of General Workers,” and follows the same path. While it was fiercely debated, as to whether a clerk should be a docker or an engineman a miner, the important points of the best form of organisation for the workers, and how to reduce the confusion and chaos among the plethora of existing organisations were hardly touched.

Mr. Elvin (Clerk’s Union) in seconding the resolution referred to, knocked the bottom out of its “Industrial Unionism” by pointing out that capitalists are organising beyond the “industrial” limit and seeking to control processes from the acquisition of the raw materials to the finishing of the product, and said the workers must organise in line with this development.

Yet two days before he had been fiercely attacking an organisation formed on this basis—the Amalgamated Union of Co-operative Employees—because it cut into the ranks of his own and other craft unions. One of these was the Shop Assistants Union, and it was interesting to see John Turner, one-time Anarchist, pleading for loyalty to the employers in this particular quarrel.

Thus from the standpoint of helping the workers in their struggle with the master class on the economic field, the Trades Union Congress is a farce. The reasons for this are easy to see.

The majority of the trade unions take little, if any, interest in the Congress, and their ignorance of their slave position in society prevents them seeing how this apathy leads to their own injury.

Year after year, the same permanent officials attend the Congress and in the vast majority of cases do not even go through the formality of being elected to it by their members, but draw their representation from their official position. This necessarily results in the fixing of the old methods and makes it almost a hopeless task, while such conditions exist, to use the Congress for the benefit of the workers. The old quarrels are maintained, the old intrigues carried on, the old bargaining for offices and endeavours to obtains advertisement are perpetrated. New delegates, especially if they are not officials, are unable to “catch the Speaker’s eye” because it is filled with the “hardy perennials” and “big guns.”

If the rank and file of the trade unions desire the Congress to become a useful gathering, they must drop their apathy, take an interest in its actions and, above all, send representatives from their own ranks instead of the case-hardened officials with their dirty tricks and old ambitions, who use the Congress to crawl further into the graces—and the jobs—of the master class. Only by so selecting men from their own ranks, men who have no “official” interests to support, and over whom the membership have complete control, can the organised workers ever get these problems of organisation settled in their own interests, and achieve the unity vital to the successful struggle on the industrial field.