Christopher Smith

The Trade Union Bureaucracy in Britain


The Years of Revolt

(June 1971)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.48, June/July 1971, pp.18-22.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Unions continued, in the main, to be controlled by those who accepted the liberal ideology of the ‘partnership of Labour and Capital’ until the end of the nineteenth century. The strikes of 1889-90, particularly the famous dock strike, produced a massive growth of ‘New Unions’ of unskilled workers. Militants with socialist beliefs and a perspective of class struggle played an important part in this movement. But the unions where they were most involved ‘collapsed very badly in the depression of the early 1890s.’ [1] Even after the foundation of the Labour Representation Committee (fore-runner of the Labour Party) the prevailing ideology of nineteenth century liberalism, or at best mildly reformist socialism, continued to be dominant.

Yet it was less and less in accord with the realities of life experienced by many working class people. From the turn of the century onwards real wages began to undergo a continual decline. Among the mass of workers the response was an increased turning towards trade union organisation. Between 1905 and 1908 trade unions grew in size by 25 per cent, to a total of 2½ million members; in 1908 the number of days lost through industrial disputes quadrupled. In this period too a thin new layer of militants began to form. Many rejected completely the old ideology of the trade union leaders, as well as the newer ideology of labourism, and were attracted to the ideas of the Industrial Workers of the World, the Socialist Labour Party, the Marxist Labour College Movement, or syndicalism. [2]

Such were the first rumblings of an explosion of militancy which was to occur between 1910 and 1914. Suddenly all the precedents of a trade union movement built upon compromise were to be ignored in a massive strike wave that was to hit virtually every industry. In 1910 there were strikes in the mines and the shipyards and a lockout in cotton. In 1911 a strike of seamen spread to dockers and from there to the railwaymen of the north-west until the railway union’s executives felt compelled to call a national strike. The next year a million miners were to be out for five weeks; the total number of days lost through strikes was to reach 38 million. Nor was there to be any abatement of the wave in 1913; more and more workers with little previous experience of trade unionism were drawn in, as with a rash of strikes among non-skilled workers in the Midlands engineering industry between May and July.

Trade union organisations were completely transformed by this new insurgency. In purely numerical terms the change was enormous. Total union membership shot up from 2½ million to four million in just three years. The railway unions more than doubled their membership. One union, the Workers’ Union, which had had only 5,000 members in 1910, counted 143,000 at the outbreak of the World War.

The existing trade union leaderships were confronted with both a threat and an opportunity. The new movement threatened many of the bureaucratic habits they had developed over the years, and there was always for them the alarming possibility of it boiling over into something more radical than a strike wave. At the same time, however, it offered them the opportunity of becoming more powerful within existing capitalist society than any of them had previously dreamt possible. Furthermore, the mushrooming of organisation meant that many new personnel, much more associated with wage militancy than the old, were pushed up into the ranks of union officialdom.

The dilemma of the official leaderships was how to benefit from the increased status and prestige which would follow from the increased importance of trade unionism, without being faced with a wave of radicalisation among workers that might get out of hand.leading workers to throw off completely the bureaucratic crust.

The outbreak of world war in the summer of 1914 was to provide a temporary solution to this dilemma. Much of the working class was drawn into the general chauvinistic fervour, and it became possible for the union leaderships to collaborate with employers and government under the guise of patriotic duty. At the national level, union leaders were invited onto all sorts of government committees; in the localities full-time officials found a new respectability as they collaborated in the war effort with those who had previously reviled them.

The lull in working class unrest was not to last long. By the second year of the war unofficial movements were developing, and getting a considerable response from workers, in a number of industries. In engineering the shop stewards’ movement led substantial struggles in Glasgow, Sheffield and elsewhere. In the South Wales and Scottish coalfields Miners’ Reform Movements developed. On the railways unofficial ‘vigilance’ committees became of growing importance.In all of these movements militants influenced by prewar Marxist and syndicalist ideas played a key role. The ground was being prepared for a new wave of activity and organisation when the war ended.

The Post-War Struggles

After the first world war the British ruling class found itself facing major economic problems long before the world economic, crisis of 1929. Britain’s pre-war economy had been built at a time when it was the only manufacturing economy (1840-60) and retooled and expanded at a time when it was the manufacturing country with the first and largest empire (1860-1900), Both these periods had meant guaranteed markets especially for coal, shipbuilding, iron and steel, engineering and textiles. But rising competition from other manufacturing countries began to bring this uniquely advantageous situation to an end. From 1910 onwards the problem for Britain’s rulers was whether they could effect a transition through economic crisis to a refurbished economy without the working class successfully making a bid for power.

The war staved off the rising tide of industrial unrest for a time, but the overall economic decline of British capitalism could not be stopped. Harsh reparations imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles meant that countries such as France and Italy could obtain free from Germany goods which they would otherwise have had to buy from Britain. Moreover, the war had led to the building up of vast surplus productive capacity in heavy industry, and a subsequent reluctance to invest in more modern equipment.

As if these problems were not enough, the ruling class also faced a massive growth in working class organisation, combat-ivity and self-confidence. Workers used the advantages of a brief postwar boom to build up their forces as never before. In a series of massive confrontations they squeezed concession after concession from the government. At the same time their organisations underwent a fourfold development: The trade unions once again underwent enormous growth – this time reaching a level of eight million members; The Labour Party for the first time became a viable, independent national organisation, operating as a genuine electoral alternative to the old bourgeois parties (previously it had been based on agreements with the Liberals) and with an individual membership; Councils of Action were created in the most important localities to defeat government plans for intervention against Russia; and finally, the revolution in Russia gave the impetus towards the bringing together of the various revolutionary groups to form, for the first time in Britain, a revolutionary party with some conception of how to carry through meaningful revolutionary intervention in the trade union struggle.

In this situation the strategy of the ruling class was to try and restore its fortunes by turning the clock back to pre-war Britain. Unable to control any other factor except wages and conditions of labour, it had to attempt to reduce these to pre-1914 levels. The decisive question was whether it would be able to do so.

The struggles of these years began with a wave of working class offensive militancy (1918-20) and then continued with three waves of ruling class counter-offensive. The first was the attack of workers in the export trades, above all the miners and engineers, in 1921-2. The second was the attack on workers in trades catering chiefly for the home market-in transport, the railways, distribution and building – in 1924. The final, and decisive one, was the renewed attack on the miners in 1925-6, of which the General Strike was the culmination.

The Workers’ Offensive, 1918-20

During the first world war the cost of living had soared.Between 1914 and 1918 prices had doubled and food prices had trebled by the end of 1920. So great was the inflation that real wages only reached the pre-war level in the middle of 1919. Further, most of the increases workers had managed to achieve were in the form of temporary ‘war bonuses’, that were supposed to end after the armistice. Wage cuts were meant to be the basis of a return to pre-war costs and prices.

But the conditions of 1919 made this impossible as an immediate aim for the ruling class. Throughout the world the working class movement was in ferment. The successful revolution in Russia was followed by abortive revolutions in Germany and Hungary; in Italy the factories were occupied; in Ireland the guerrilla war was gathering momentum; in India and China the first struggles for national liberation were developing. The combination of general discontent after four years of war and the example of Russia had jts impact in Britain in this period too. There were local mass strikes in Glasgow and Belfast for a shortening of the working week, struggles in engineering, mining, railways and transport, mutinies in the army and a strike by the police. Indeed, had there developed previously anything like a coherent revolutionary party to bind together the militants in different industries and to draw these various spontaneous actions into a single movement with a national strategy, the British ruling class would really have been threatened for the first time since the decline of Chartism.

As it was, the working class organisations made enormous advances. The growth in union membership was paralleled by a series of union amalgamations that seemed to overcome the traditions of craft exclusiveness and sectionalism that had so often prevented united action in the past. The modern AEU was formed from the merger of the old Amalgamated Society of Engineers and nine other unions (six at the time, three later); the unions of the Transport Federation together came to form a single centralised union, the T&GWU; the Bricklayers and Stonemasons combined to form the AUBTW; the Carpenters and Joiners to give the ASW. Consolidation also took place in the distributive trades, iron and steel, woollen textiles and the Civil Service. One of the central aims of pre-war militants, for the workers to create by amalgamation single unions in each industry, seemed on its way to realisation. Indeed, the moves towards unity went further. A pre-war agreement for joint action between the Transport, Railway and Mining unions, the ‘Triple Alliance’, was revived. And the delegates to the Trades Union Congress for the first time agreed (in 1920), under pressure from the left, to the setting up of a body with a limited central authority over themselves, the General Council of the TUC, which was mandated to ‘promote common action by the trade union movement on general questions, such as wages and hours of labour ...’

The ruling class had to make large concessions to the workers if they were to save their skins. In 1919 ‘in virtually every industry the working day was cut from nine hours to about eight, and 46½ to 48 hours became the standard working week, at no loss of wages ...’ [3] The attempt to attack the war-bonus was abandoned temporarily. Simultaneously, there was an extension of various welfare services. An ‘Out of Work Donation Scheme’ was started so as to ‘avoid the political and social danger of throwing large numbers of returned soldiers and munitions workers on Poor Law institutions ... The total cost of £66m seemed a small price to pay for social peace at a critical time’ [4]; unemployment insurance was extended to all workers; the war-time rent restriction measures were kept in force. The overall result was that ‘while in 1913 the working classes received less in social services than they paid in taxes, by 1925 they only paid 85 per cent of the costs’. [5]

The government was frightened of the prospect of facing a united movement of different sections of workers at a time when even the forces of the state could not be relied upon. The concessions were used together with fraudulent promises of greater concessions and very real threats of physical force, in order to divert any such danger, to allow the government time to strengthen its position and to allow the bureaucratic leaders of the unions excuses for inaction.

The challenge was greatest in February 1919. The miners had given notice of a strike for a thirty per cent wage increase, the six hour day and nationalisation of the mines. There was a desperate coal shortage, and the other unions of the Triple Alliance, themselves negotiating for demands similar to the ‘miners’, seemed prepared to take action. The government responded on the one hand by making it clear that it was prepared to use troops against the miners, on the other by appointing a Royal Commission (the Sankey Commission) to investigate the situation in mining. The exertions of the Miners Federation’s leaders, headed by Robert Smillie, were just able to persuade a delegate conference to postpone strike action.The ruling class gained the time it needed. Although the miners obtained the seven hour day and some wage increases, by the summer the government felt strong enough to reject the Commission’s recommendation of nationalisation.

Meanwhile, the government had prevented the railwaymen’s claim coming to a head simultaneously with the miners’ by a policy of deliberately dragging out negotiations. Then, at the end of September, it provoked a strike at the point when it thought itself most likely to win. The NUR leader, Jimmy Thomas (who had been offered a position in the war-time coalition government and rejected it – because it was not at a high enough level) did his best to cool the situation down by refusing to call in the other members of the Triple Alliance. Nevertheless, the government had miscalculated. After ten days it had to admit defeat.

The working class movement continued to be on the offensive through into 1920. In the summer of 1920, Councils of Action with a degree of official union support, were formed throughout the country to take direct action, if necessary, against any further British attacks of the Russian revolution. A conference of all trade union executives agreed to ‘instruct their members to "down tools"’ if these occurred.

The industrial struggle also continued. The miners put in a further demand for wage increases, and called upon the other members of the Triple Alliance to back them up. But the government’s policy of using concessions to enable it to take on one section of workers at a time was having its effect. The leaders of the other unions felt strong enough to reject the miners’ call (although a ballot of railwaymen, for example, showed a considerable majority for strike action). After a few days of strike action by themselves, the miners settled for a compromise which gave them a temporary wage increase.

With this the workers offensive began to flag. Concessions had been forced out of the employing class in industry after industry. But that class had survived one of the most trying periods in its history with its power intact. And with its power it retained the ability to launch future counter-offensives against the workers’ gains on a terrain of its own choosing.

The Employers’ Counter-Offensive, 1921-3

The predominant idea the British ruling class held to in the years 1921-9 about its economic problems was that they were temporary, caused by the dislocation of the first world war. Their entire strategy, and somewhat grim optimism, was based on this notion. They thought that if the pre-war world could be reconjured Britain could lead the re-establishment of world trade and regain her old place. The City and the Treasury in particular (some industrialists were doubtful but offered no alternative) aimed at re-establishing a world without tariffs and protective barriers,controlled by the self-regulating mechanisms of the gold standard. It was with this end in mind that they finally put Britain back on the gold standard, at the pre-war parity with the US dollar in 1925. But they had to deflate by at least ten per cent before prices would be competitive on the world market, and deflation in a period of contracting markets meant higher unemplovment.

Furthermore, the problem of wages and conditions had to be tackled urgently. In 1921 the value of British exports fell by half. By March of that year 1½ m people were registered as unemployed. Production in heavy industry was falling. For capitalists in the export trades it was imperative that wages be brought down. It was therefore in coal, engineering, shipbuilding and cotton that the attacks on wages and conditions began.

The first decisive struggle was in the mines. When the agreement of the previous autumn ran out, the government and mineowners felt strong enough to counterattack. The owners demanded wage cuts varying between ten per cent and 49 per cent, and locked out the miners from 1 April.

Within the working class generally there was enormous sympathy with the miners. The labour movement remembered its success in preventing war with Russia only nine months earlier. When the Miners’ Federation appealed to its associates in the Triple Alliance, the leaders of the other unions felt that they could not stand back. A general transport and railway strike was called for 12 April.

This time the government was determined to fight. The Emergency Powers Act (EPA) was invoked to declare a ‘state of emergency’. Reservists were called up, and a special force, the ‘Defence Corps’ set up. Machine guns were posted at pit heads, and troops in full battle dress dispatched to large working class areas.

The leaders of the other unions had felt compelled to rally to the miners. They were facing the first stage of an attack on conditions in which their own members would suffer as well. But now the government was behaving in civil war terms. No reformist union bureaucrat could go without hesitation into such a fight, which threatened to upset the whole process of ‘constitutionally advancing’ the role of the organised working class and its official leaders within established capitalist society. To a man the leaders looked round for an excuse to back out of their commitment. They pounced upon an odd remark by the (right wing) miners’ leader Hodges as an excuse for withdrawing and left the miners to fight alone. This betrayal was known throughout the labour movement as ‘Black Friday’.

The way was open for the employers’ offensive to have its first success. Two months later the mineworkers returned to work on the owners’ terms. The collapse of the Triple Alliance meant that other groups of workers did not feel strong enough to fight back either. Engineers, shipyard workers, builders, seamen and cotton operatives, all had to accept wage cuts.

A year later came a second great attack. In March 1922 the employers locked out members of the largest engineering union the newly formed AEU, and of various smaller craft unions. Once again the employers had carefully chosen a time to fight when they were most powerfully placed.The immense funds of the AEU were drained dry as the battle dragged on. Eventually the employers were able to secure agreement to acceptance by the union of their undivided authority on questions such as overtime working and ‘managerial functions’. At a time of high unemployment many militants did not get their jobs back. The power of what remained of the wartime shop stewards’ movement was destroyed, and with it the biggest single industrial base of the newly formed revolutionary Communist Party.

The defeat of the engineers paved the way for acceptance of wage reductions by shipyard workers, dockers, builders, printers, railwaymen and cotton workers. The Economist could estimate that ‘the working man had lost three quarters of his wartime wage increases by 1922 ...’ [6] Moreover, these defeats enabled the employers to force the unions into signing agreements that tied the union officials to the employers in new joint negotiating procedures.

Working class organisations generally were weakened by Black Friday and the engineering lockout. Union membership fell by two and a half million in 1921-2. But there was no rout of the working class. A solid core of organised workers remained waiting only for better conditions to return to a militant posture. The mass of workers might not feel strong enough to fight, but they were far from accepting the ruling class ideology of the ‘community’ and ‘national interest’. A sullen class consciousness continued to smoulder, and could burst into flame should the occasion arise.

Furthermore, for the first time in British history there existed within the working class movement a party, albeit a small one, that was capable of giving direction to much larger numbers of militants. The Communist Party had been formed, under Soviet pressure, from the existing revolutionary groups in January 1921. Now it began a ‘back to the unions’ campaign, organised through local conferences of the British section of the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU). In the process it was able to give a new direction and cohesion to the activities of thousands of militants who had been isolated and demoralised by the experience of 1921. At the same time the building, under CP initiative, of the National Unemployed Workers Movement, provided a milieu for activity by unemployed militants that prevented their demoralisation. In such ways the groundwork was laid for the newly formed party to play an important, if short lived, role in several major unions in the next stage of the struggle.

The Second Employers’ Offensive, 1924-5

By 1924 real wages had been driven below the average level of June 1914,even if unemployment and short time working were not taken into account. But the distribution of this average among different groups of workers had changed radically over the years: workers who had been ‘better paid’ before the war were now much worse off. In general, those who were in export industries had a lower standard of living, while that of those working for home consumption, in the so-called ‘sheltered trades’, had improved their conditions a little.

The employers and government could not be happy with such a situation. Signs were already abundant that the British economy was not going to participate in the coming boom of the world market (1925-9). Britain’s exports had progressed less than those of any other country, except Russia, since 1913. Finally, prices had to be reduced still further in preparation for the return to the Gold Standard (which occurred in 1925).

The level of wages in the ‘sheltered’ trades contributed indirectly to export costs, in so far as their products were bought by export industries. But, more importantly, the tardiness of the fall in wage rates in those industries was encouraging other workers to fight back. Throughout 1924 the campaign in official quarters for a reduction in ‘sheltered trades’ wages grew.

In the period of the first Labour government (January 1924 of January 1925) employers demanded wage cuts in industry after industry. But workers were now prepared to resist such cuts as they had not been in 1922-3. Encouraged by a small but significant fall in unemployment (from 1,828,000 in 1922 to 1,244,000 and 1,135,000 respectively in 1923 and 1924), they began to recover their fighting spirit. The railwaymen, the dockers and the London tramway workers were all out on strike against wage reductions. Throughout the spring and summer there were a series of stoppages, official and unofficial, among ship repairers, railway shopmen and builders. The faint stirrings of a mass strike situation were becoming apparent, with unofficial strikes, lightning strikes, strikes in one industry in one town, all building up. The overall number of workers on strike rose fifty per cent above the level of the previous year.

The growth of resistance was encouraged by an important favourable external circumstance. The previous year French troops had occupied the Ruhr. As a result the German coal industry was completely disrupted. Suddenly there were new markets for Britain’s coal exports. This gave an unexpected strength to the Miners’ Federation, who were able to extract an agreement, to last for twelve months, from the owners which recouped many of the losses of 1921.

The willingness of workers to stand firm and resist the bosses’ offensive gave new opportunities to the militants who had been regrouping in the previous phase of defeat. First of all in the mines, then in the engineering and the railways they came together behind the leadership of the Communist Party to form ‘minority movements’ – fractions in the unions of the different industries determined to turn the defensive battle into an onslaught on capital. Programmes, not only against wage reductions, but for wage increases and a shorter working week, were formulated and found ready support among many of the rank and file. In the railways an ‘all Grades Programme’ that had previously been forced upon the executive by rank and file militants, was the official basis of union policy. In a similar way the AEU leadership was made to push, although slowly and half-heartedly, for a £1 a week increase. The militants in the mines did not succeed in making the union put in for a wage increase, but did ensure that any wage reductions would be resisted and, moreover, got the Minority Movement candidate, A.J. Cook, elected General Secretary of the Miners’ Federation.

The founding of the National Minority Movement (August 1924) brought these different movements into formal co-ordination. Those individual militants who had made up the various unofficial movements of the previous dozen years – the shop stewards’ movements and the amalgamation committees of the wartime engineering industry, the ‘vigilance’ committees of the railways, the miners’ reform movements, the organisations of unemployed workers, and so on – were brought together around a single coherent programme for the first time. Here were the sinews of organisation that could bind together different sections of workers whom the crisis of British capitalism was in any case driving towards common action.

The new growth of militancy had a different effect on different sections of the official leadership of the labour movement. The Labour Party leaders, such as MacDonald, Clynes and Snowden, in government and having to implement the day-to-day policies of big business, were inevitably driven to the right.

But the union leaders were more directly tied to the working class than were their parliamentary equivalents. Even the most ‘respectable’ of them understood that unless they at least seemed to take action, then the ground could be cut from under their feet. If the rank and file got out of their control, then their standing, even in existing bourgeois society, would diminish. In unions with democratic structure, complete loss of position was even conceivable. And so they attempted to keep their leadership over the movement by giving official support to carefully limited actions. Thus in the docks an official stoppage was to follow an unofficial one. In engineering a militant programme was adopted, and even more militant actions suggested as the way of fighting for it. The AEU National Committee instructed:

‘the EC to approach the Miners’ Federation, NUR, Transport and General Workers and other unions as may be deemed necessary, with a definite proposal for the formation of an offensive alliance against the employers concerned, and to call upon the allied unions to prepare a combined movement for the purpose of securing adequate wages and tolerable conditions of labour for all workers involved.’ [7]

In the following months the leaders of the Miners’ Federation, and, more surprisingly the more moderate leaders of the T&GWU, were both to be quite keen about the idea – at least as a defensive weapon.

What moved the leaders of the big unions to accept such a proposal was not a desire to take on the capitalist class in any battle. Rather they feared that the government would attempt to repeat the attacks of 1921. The failure of the Triple Alliance at that time had led to unions fighting individual struggles that could not be won. Not only had there been a deterioration of workers’ conditions, but also a general weakening of the unions. The prestige of union leaders had fallen, while rank and file criticism of them grew. Such leaders saw in the threat of a joint stoppage of work in several industries a means of peacefully holding their own and continuing to have influence and prestige, without in any way challenging the overall structure of existing society.

The biographer of the leader of the T&GWU at that time has written:

‘No-one more resented the criticism to which he had been subjected after the failure of the triple alliance and ... was determined at all costs to avoid another Black Friday. What moved Bevin to join in taking common action was a concrete situation, a situation demanding the organisation of working class strength in order to prevent a general attack on wages ...’ [8]

Yet this dream of a purely defensive mass action withstanding such an attack was not on. Conditions for British capitalism in 1925-6 were not as they had been in the second half of the nineteenth century (or as they were to be again in the nineteen fifties). The needs of the system demanded wage cuts. The working class movement could not hold the line on wages, conditions and the power of the unions without challenging the fundamentals of ruling class power. Those who governed British society understood that simple fact. The decisive question for the working class movement over the following year was to be whether it too could arrive at the necessary understanding and fight accordingly.


1. E. Hobsbawm, Labouring Men, p.181.

2. see J. Higgins, Revolutionary Trade Unionism I, IS 46.

3. Pollard, Development of the British Economy 1914-67, p.91

4. ibid., p.248

5. ibid., p.204.

6. Mowatt, Britain Between the Wars, p.125.

7. Quoted in R. Page Arnot, The General Strike, p.80.

8. Bullock, Ernest Bevin, p.271.

Last updated on 19 November 2009