Tom Quelch

The Trades Councils

The Need for the Extension of their Scope and Work

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 2, March 1922, No. 3, pp. 238-250
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: David Tate
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THE working-class movement is being weakened and undermined by the terrible economic conditions on the one hand and the capitalist offensive on the other. It is imperative that something be done to enable it to overcome its difficulties and to deal with the present situation. All are agreed as to that. But what? The concentration of the fighting power of the Trade Union movement in the General Council of the Trades Union Congress so that future industrial struggles will be the concern of the whole movement is certainly one of the necessary forward steps that must be taken. But that is a very involved and difficult process. Nor is sectional campaigning the only source of weakness. The movement is weak in the localities—which is another way of saying that it is weak in its foundations. A strong national movement is impossible without strong local movements. National solidarity is impossible without local solidarity.

This being the case, we make a plea for the extension of the scope and work of the Trades Councils.

The Trades Councils have already played a very important part in working-class history. They have given good service to the workers. They were the pioneers of the Trade Union movement in the localities. It was through the Trades Councils that the Trades Union Congress came into being. The Trades Councils have been the initiatory bodies in promoting agitations on most of the questions and problems which beset the working class. The Trades Councils were the first bodies to develop working-class political activity—especially as regards municipal affairs. It is necessary that these facts should be more widely recognised, and the question of still further developing, extending and improving the Trades Councils seriously considered.


The Trades Councils are the existing local central bodies. Through them, and through them only at the present time, can complete local working-class solidarity be achieved. They are the best bodies, the bodies most fitted, to bring this solidarity into being. There is a permanent quality about them. They are not ephemeral, loosely-knit, uncertain organisations, like many working-class councils and committees that are formed to fulfil a passing need. Their position is assured. Their bona fides are without question.

Bearing all this in mind, let us, therefore, try to reconstruct from out of a Trades Council of to-day an ideal Trades Council so that we can always have at the back of our heads a conception of what we desire. By doing so, and then critically examining each Trades Council in turn, we can see how much they fall short and what is needful to their development.

The average Trades Council consists of delegates from Trade Union branches in the locality. In some cases it is usual for one delegate to attend for each branch, in other cases two delegates are sent. Some Trade Union branches, on account of the size of their membership, send more than one delegate.

These delegates constitute the Trades Council. If, for instance, there are 30 Trade Union branches in a locality, and each branch possesses an average membership of 100 members—then the 30 delegates who make up the Trades Council represent a total membership of 3,000.

These 30 delegates, following the usual practice, elect from amongst their number a secretary and chairman, and a small Executive Committee.

The Trades Council usually meets once a month. The Executive Committee might meet once or twice between the full Council meetings.

The secretary conducts the correspondence, convenes the meetings, and is generally the most important individual connected with the Council.

The chairman presides at the Council meetings, and the Executive meetings, and functions publicly as leading spokesman for the Council.

The Executive sifts the correspondence, discusses matters of general importance to the Council, and generally outlines its policy.

The Trades Council concerns itself generally with all matters of interest to the workers. It supports working-class candidates for municipal bodies and for Parliament. It carries on agitations in favour of better houses for the workers, more parks and open spaces, cleaner streets, more conveniences, baths and washhouses, libraries, schools and public institutions. In the event of one of its affiliated branches being involved in a dispute of any kind, a strike or lock-out, it rallies all the Trade Union forces of the locality to render moral, and, if necessary, material support in the struggle. It expresses itself, by resolution, on all the public questions of the day. Sometimes it takes the initiative in promoting discussions and developing agitations for the reformation of the Trade Union movement.

And that is all.

To-day the Trades Councils in this country have not a wider sense of their functions. No long-views are taken as to the future scope of their activities. No general plan of development is conceived. No attempt is made to realise the potentialities of these bodies.


Our imaginary Trades Council of 30 delegates has an affiliated membership of 3,000. That is a small Trades Council. Very few Trades Councils have so low a membership. Yet 3,000 members constitute a large number. And this 3,000 necessarily consists of the best workers in the locality. They are the cream of the local working class, because they are organised.

Now the secretary of the Trades Council—if he is a good secretary and alive to his job—can easily secure the names and addresses of his 3,000 affiliated members. He can go to the Trade Union branches and request the Trade Union branch secretaries to give them to him. If they have not them all then he can appeal to the branch members at their meetings to give them to him. Thus, by dint of a little energy, he can compile a register of 3,000 of the best workers in his neighbourhood. In this register he can tabulate not only their names and addresses, but the trades they work at, and also note particulars as to their individual ability and general usefulness from a Trades Council point of view.

Thus the Trades Council—the local workers’ General Staff—solidifies its contact with its army. Three thousand members are at its disposal for all purposes. They can be rallied under all circumstances, and it is known how they can specially function under certain circumstances. No effort should be spared to interest them all, individually, in the work of the Council. They can be rallied for electoral contests: such as elections to Borough or Town Councils and Boards of Guardians, or in support of Parliamentary candidates. They can be rallied to participate in all social functions organised by the Trades Council: re-unions, concerts, whist drives, etc. They can be rallied to support all agitations, particularly unemployed agitations. They can be roused in the event of a national strike. And they are there to play their part in the event of a crisis of a deeper and more significant character.

To rally them, on all occasions, effectively, much intensive organisation is necessary. For this purpose Ward Committees, cycling corps, and other sub-organisations can be gradually called into being.

Getting the names and addresses, and compiling an informative register, of all the affiliated members is, then, an essential preliminary.

At the same time as this register is being compiled an exhaustive examination should be made of all the elements that constitute what is known as the local Labour movement.

If a local Labour Party is in separate existence, branches of Socialist and Communist organisations, and co-operative guilds, their condition, membership and so on should be tabulated. After due consideration the first step should be taken to widen the scope of the Council. The constitution of the Trades Council should be so remodelled as to permit the affiliation of all bona-fide working-class organisations in the locality. But this widening of the scope of the Trades Council should not result in it being overwhelmed. Any political affiliation or co-operative affiliation should be rendered subordinate to the Trades Council as such—not so rigidly, at first, as to prevent harmonious working, but nevertheless subordinate.

In this way the Trades Council will become the supreme and single central body in the locality. It will assert its position as covering the entire local organised working class. It will be transformed from a Trades Council, with peculiar and limited industrial functions, to a Workers’ Council. And its claim to express the needs, desires and aspirations of its constituents in all the manifold aspects of their lives—as citizens, as industrial workers and as consumers—will become more and more to be recognised. Moreover, the inclusion of these bodies in the Council will naturally attract to it much more working-class attention, its debates will be followed with greater interest, and its reputation and general strength will be increased. It does not matter how critical and disputatious some of these outside bodies may be, so long as they do not nullify the work of the Council. Let the critics argue with heat and passion. So much the better. The best policy will win. The old, narrower bodies will discover their limitations when brought into touch with actualities and in the process of becoming—the evolution—which the Trades Council will undergo.

Having thus secured the active support of the working class the Trades Council, informed and inspired by the best working-class spirits in the locality, will naturally take the lead in all agitations. Every propagandist opportunity will be seized upon. The day-to-day struggle of the working class will find greater and greater expression. It will formulate its slogans, plan its campaigns, voice every grievance, give articulate expression to every desire.

Circumstances will determine the best means of doing this. If it is necessary to appoint special sub-executives for the respective industrial, political and co-operative sections by all means let it be done. If other committees or commissions are necessary let them be appointed, with powers subject to the decisions of the Council.

Then, in more or less shadowy outline, the Council should begin to perceive its potentialities.


Everywhere it is agreed that the workers should control the municipal administrative bodies: the Town or Borough Councils, and the Boards of Guardians. Let us, first of all, well realise what these bodies are. They are the local organs of capitalism. Their function is to ensure the smooth-running of the locality as an integral part of the capitalist system. While there is much in their technical machinery for lighting and cleaning the streets, ensuring proper sanitation, and so on—that could be turned to account when the workers ultimately secure power—these bodies will have fulfilled their historic mission. If they persist in name and form they will become atrophied through lack of function. The transformed Trades Council which will locally express the needs and requirements of the workers will supersede them.

This conception of the ultimate object of the Trades Council, or Workers’ Council, is supported by all the available evidence we have of the further development of our movement. The rise of the Soviets, or Workers’ Councils, in Russia is the startlingly supreme example: the movement which followed the Winnipeg strike and developed into working-class control of that city, the case of Limerick, and the great struggle of the German workers in which the Trades Councils of middle Germany played so important a part, all unmistakably and inevitably point to that fact.

This conception, then, must always be borne in mind as we proceed.

Let us take any locality, and let us imagine ourselves, as workers, faced with the task of successfully taking over and running that locality. In every town or district or area covered by a Trades Council there would be masses of workers whose requirements would have to be satisfied. They would need food, clothing, shelter. They would need streets and roads to walk comfortably about on. They would need omnibuses, trams and trains to ride in. They would need employment on useful and necessary work. They would need educational facilities for their children. They would need all the pleasures and compensations of civilisation: books, places of amusement and recreation, and the thousand and one things that provide the objective element in life.

Such would be their needs. To satisfy those needs the Workers’ Council, or transformed Trades Council, would be compelled to take over, exercise such discipline on and generally control, much more intensively and to a much greater degree than the present capitalist municipal bodies, the locality in its entirety.

The Workers’ Council would have to ensure that the workers continue working at their jobs. It would have to ensure the smooth-running of the workshops, factories and printshops. It would have to ensure adequate food provision and distribution. It would have to control the letting of houses, their upkeep and repair. It would have to superintend the cleaning, general sanitation and lighting of the locality.

Bearing these facts in mind, let us see on what lines the comprehensive Trades Council, which includes all the organised working-class bodies in the locality—political, industrial and co-operative—can be further developed.

One of the first aims of the Council should be to get an efficient information bureau established. By careful gathering of all the information about everything in the locality, filing and tabulating it, the Council puts itself in a position to plan its campaigns properly. Information should be gathered, particularly, about the municipal bodies and their constitution, limitations, methods of working the machinery of local government: particularly as to the running of trams, lighting of streets, and other municipal undertakings. Information should be carefully gathered about all the workshops and factories in the locality: their methods of working, the contracts they carry out, their general business, management and control. This information,, besides being of infinite ultimate value, will prove very valuable during times of local dispute. Then a mass of information should be collected and filed about the local landlords, capitalists, shopkeepers and their financial and business ramifications. One cannot know too much about the enemy. The German Trades Councils which, before the war, specialised in the creation and development of their information bureaux, found them tremendously useful in strike movements and electoral contests. That can be readily understood. They could be of similar service here. Then much miscellaneous information of all kinds should be collected about workers who can speak, organise, write propaganda literature, be of use as canvassers during elections, sing at concerts, entertain at social functions. No efforts should be spared to discover the special abilities of workers and put them to the utmost use. Further, information should be tabulated about men who blackleg during strikes, serve as special constables or reactionary agents during industrial disputes, and who must of necessity be regarded as the natural enemies of the working-class in its upward struggle.

Having all this information as a basis, as well as the registers of electors, lists of speakers, canvassers, etc., the Council can plan its general policy under capitalism to secure as much control in the locality as possible. While realising the limitations of the municipal bodies it must, nevertheless, aim at capturing them. By doing so it extends its influence and power, and gains in administrative experience. By doing so, also, it trains its men in the management of local affairs. For the purpose of capturing these bodies it must know its district “like a book.” It must have its ward committees, its trusted supporters, its speakers all in readiness. It must have its technical apparatus well managed also. Its property should be of the best and most suitable. There is much in having well-built, distinctive platforms for street-corner meetings; in always having in evidence beautiful flags and banners. Its publicity work should be well cared for. Its placards, handbills, literature of all kinds being always simple, clear, straightforward, written both to appeal to the mind and the heart. The difficulties and distractions of the workers’ lives should always be considered, as well as their general lack of education and their ill-education by the organs of capitalism. All manifestoes and appeals should be short, simple, sharp and to the point. The meeting places should be carefully selected; the most populous and least disturbed open spaces deliberately chosen even if never, previously have meetings been held there.

Certainly, the Council should have—as many have at the present time—its year book full of necessary information and attractive reading matter for its members. If possible, with the development of its strength, the publication of a magazine or newspaper should be undertaken. A strong spirit of comradeship should be developed amongst the active workers of the Council, and a sense of loyalty and discipline to the Council should be built up, strengthened and deepened, so that its work, its decisions and everything in general connected with it will command the greatest respect and consideration from the workers. Only by doing this and finally being able to impose an iron discipline on its supporters will it be able to function properly during those fateful times of crisis which we know to be inevitable.

Developing thus, it should reach out in all directions. The Berlin Trades Council and other German Trades Councils have developed under their auspices vast numbers of social and cultural ramifications: libraries, study classes, educational societies, dramatic clubs, sports clubs, singing and choral societies, gymnastic clubs, music bands, as well as numerous co-operative undertakings. The same is true of the cities of Belgium, particularly of Brussels; and the towns of Scandinavia. There is hardly a town of importance in middle and northern Europe but has its fine People’s House, with café and cinema and lecture halls. What is possible on the Continent under capitalist conditions is equally possible here. And these things, these undertakings, are in the line of the natural evolution of the Trades Council. Therefore the Council must, as far as it is able, intelligently and steadily progressing the while, endeavour to touch the workers’ lives in all their phases. Under its auspices a new social milieu should be created by the workers for the workers themselves. In this way can be thrown out, as it were, the tentacles of that cultural communal life which will be fully developed with the passing of the old order.

The social side of the Council’s activities must not, however, be permitted to interfere with its more serious work. Nor need it. Men are complex beings: and there is no lack of men who show a special preference and ability for the social side who would not, otherwise, do anything. It is a small Trades Council, as we have said, which does not have a membership of several thousands, and amongst those several thousands it should not be difficult to find a sufficient number of men to take charge of that work without interfering with the essential work of the central local body.

One of the main purposes of the Council should be the development of class education amongst its constituents. To this end speakers’ classes, industrial history classes, political economy classes, etc., should be established. Such bodies as exist for this purpose at the present time should be encouraged, by some means, to seek affiliation to the Council and thus entail their close co-operation.

No definitely working-class activity should be neglected. Upon them all the Council should set its seal and exert its influence.

Still further should the Council reach out. It should induce its members to participate actively in the co-operative societies. It should have its men on the co-operative committees and on the committees of the co-operative guilds. And it should influence those societies to throw out the necessary distributive agencies to supply the food and fuel of the locality. Thus its men would gain no little managerial experience and knowledge with regard to the sources of supply and the distribution of the necessaries of life. More. The co-operative organisations and societies can be developed into considerable sources of financial support for the work of the Council. The possibilities of the co-operative organisations as actual aids in the class struggle have never been properly explored. The aid they rendered the Irish transport workers during the famous strike, when co-operative ships with co-operative merchandise went to the assistance of the starving strikers and their families, is a matter of history and opens up extraordinary prospects.

The question of finance is a serious one for the Council, but it can be overcome once the potential supporters of the Council are intelligently rallied. The more the Council exerts its influence the more support will it naturally obtain. It is backed by the two very definite sources of income in the movement: the Trade Union movement and the cooperatives, and its several thousands membership can be induced to support it financially in many ways.

Always the Council should have in perspective its functions of to-morrow. And it should aim at that solidity of power and completeness of expression as will give it that command and dignity which will justify and consolidate its position. To this end it might well emulate the example set in Berlin and Brussels and establish its People’s House. Only it should start on such a venture after most careful consideration, so as not to have its activities crippled by a “white elephant.” And its building should be strong and imposing—“a thing of beauty is a joy for ever.” Always, and under any circumstances, the Council should make a great effort to get itself well housed.

Then, after testing in every way its secretary’s ability, it should endeavour to make him a full-time official. This is absolutely necessary as more and more of his time will be absorbed by Council work. An active man, free to devote his whole time to the work, and imaginative as to the Council’s possibilities, is sure to build up around him elements and agencies from which income can be derived.

Here let us digress a little. It is assumed that this propaganda to transform the Trades Councils into Workers’ Councils, possessing the scope, working-class support and power to take over, reorganise from a working-class standpoint, and run the localities, is not limited to any particular locality, but is nation-wide in its extent, and that the increased interest in these bodies will compel the Trade Unions and the General Council of the Trades Union Congress to attach more importance to them and render them very definite and adequate financial assistance. At once an agitation should be started for that purpose in the big national Unions.

Not satisfied with the power it thus exercises, the Council should proceed, conscious of its ultimate purpose, to establish in the factories and workshops committees representative of all departments. These Committees should also be affiliated to the Council, forming, as it were, a subsection. And these Committees, inspired by the Council, should generally so shape themselves as to be in a position to take charge when the time arrives. Having that end in view, it is necessary that no department of the factories and workshops should be overlooked, and the minutest information should be obtained.

Thus the Council gradually builds up a network of ramifications. It obtains a firm grip on the locality. It encourages the development of the co-operatives by inducing its members to become co-operators. It dominates the municipal bodies. It strengthens the Trade Union branches by its’ propaganda efforts so that, in time, there is no non-Unionist worker in the locality: thus creating for itself formidable industrial power. And its influence, its might, is gradually forced on the community, raising the workers, disciplining them, breeding in them a fierce loyalty. It clarifies the class position of the workers. It seizes on every phase of the class struggle to enter into the conflict, to rally and unite its forces. By constant watchfulness, by unremitting endeavour, it gathers strength so overwhelming as to overcome easily the forces opposed to it.

Being conscious of its purpose, it specially trains its men. It takes advantage of every opportunity of providing its hard and loyal workers with managerial or administrative experience. By this means, when the time arrives, it has in readiness men ready and able to occupy the positions of vital importance.

By its propaganda, its educational work, its social developments, its encouragement of working-class culture, it develops in the workers an entirely new outlook on life and an entirely new class spirit amongst themselves. It weans them from all capitalist-religious and patriotic influences. It steadies and strengthens them. It fits them for the final struggles and the great tasks that will follow. It broadens their minds. It develops in them a social spirit that is the very antithesis of the capitalist-individualism of to-day. It so implants that feeling of self-sacrifice in them that they will be just as anxious to fight and die, if needs be, under the banners of the Council as the workers of Russia were under the banners of the Soviet.