Edgar Hardcastle

The Founding of the Trades Union Congress

Source: Socialist Standard, June 1968.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain.
HTML Markup: Adam Buick
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2016). 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.

The Trades Union Congress was founded in the Mechanics Institute, Manchester, on June 2 1868 by thirty-four delegates who had responded to an invitation sent out by the Manchester and Salford Trades Council. In every way the aims of the founders were strictly limited, and in some important respect those limitations are still to be found in the TUC to-day, in spite of its vastly greater representative capacity and the widening of its activities.

This was not in any sense a revolutionary body and even its structure reflected a falling away from earlier attempts to form a unified National Trade Union body with power to act in strikes. The delegates came together only to discuss matters of mutual interest. It was, as George Woodcock describes it in the recently published History of the TUC 1868-1968, no more than "a small debating society".

In the letter of invitation sent out by the Manchester and Salford Council it was called a "Proposed Congress of Trades Councils and other Federations of Trades Societies". This form of organisation was preferred because it would cost less to have delegates from Trade Councils than to have delegates from separate unions.

Its aims were to enlighten public opinion about trade unionism, and to try to influence Parliament in the matter of trade union legislation. It was to be modelled on the area meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, with the reading and discussion of papers on trade union problems, "with a view of the merits and demerits of each question being thoroughly ventilated through the medium of the public press". Twelve subjects for papers were suggested in the letter of invitation, ranging from trade union law and the Royal Commission on Trade Unions then sitting, to "the effect of trade unions on foreign competition", "Limitation of Apprentices", "The Regulation of the Hours of Labour" and "Arbitration and Courts of Conciliation".

The immediate background of the formation of the TUC was provided by three events then much discussed. The first was a short trade depression in 1966-7 which gave rise — as it does to-day — to complaints by business men and politicians that British goods were being priced out of markets by "high" British wages — hence the proposed discussion of foreign competition at the Congress.

The second was the blowing up of a non-unionist's house in Sheffield in 1866 which led to a storm of abuse of trade unions generally. The unions were anxious to present a collective view repudiating violence, in evidence to the Royal Commission which was considering this and other aspects of trade unionism. (Actually the evidence was presented by the group of trade union officials in the London Trades Council, most of whom were no more than lukewarm about what they regarded as a rival movement from Manchester).

The last event which stirred the unions into activity was a ruling by the High Court in the case of Hornby v Close, which meant that trade union, though not criminal organisations, were still illegal and consequently not protected (as they had thought they were) by the Friendly Societies Act 1855. In particular they could not take court action to protect their funds from defaulting branch officials.

It was in these fields that the TUC claimed to have been successful in the early years of its history, in the shape of a series of amendments of trade union law, growing acceptance of the "responsibility" of trade unionism, and the extension of the franchise.

The early TUC can be seen in perspective by comparing its outlook with, for example, that of the Chartist Labour Parliament held in Manchester in 1854, attended by trade union delegates from all over the country. Marx and Louis Blanc were elected honorary delegates. They did not attend but Marx sent a message in which he expressed the view that the proceedings should be aimed at organising the working class for the conquest of political power and taking over ownership of the means of production by the workers. The letter was read at the conference.

The TUC did not even try to put into practice what had been attempted unsuccessfully by the Sheffield Association of Organised Trades in 1866, who had called a conference to form a National Trade Union organisation to give financial and other support to workers locked out by their employers.

The early attitude of the TUC is largely to be explained by the fact that the dominant unions represented only part of the working class. B. C. Roberts wrote of this:

The TUC . . . was representative of little more than half a million skilled artisans. The remainder of the working class the millions of unskilled workers, were, with the exception of the cotton industry and a few other rare exceptions, unorganised, and for the most part barely taken into consideration by the Parliamentary Committee. Its policy reflected the philosophy of unions whose members were craftsmen, conscious of their skill, and standing in the community as worthy, respectable and independent citizens. (The Trades Union Congress 1868-1921.)

Engels referred to this in a letter to Bebel (28 Oct. 1885), pointing out that the craft unions in the TUC deliberately kept the "unskilled" workers outside their ranks.

But do you suppose the unions ever dreamt of doing away with this silly bunk? Not in the least. I can never remember reading of a simple proposal of the kind at a Trades Union Congress.

If anything else was needed to mark the contrast between the socialist outlook and that of the founders of the TUC it is only necessary to recall the paper Marx submitted to the Geneva Congress of the First International in 1865 (Value Price and Profit) in which he called on the unions to give up the motto "a fair day's work for a fair day's pay" and adopt instead "abolition of the wages system".