Tom Quelch

The Importance of Trades Councils

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 8, May 1926, No. 5, pp. 313-317 (1,853 words).
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). 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 pressure of events on the Trade Unions since the close of the war has emphasised the need of having in the towns and districts central bodies which will be something more than electoral agencies. The local Labour Parties have been found wanting. Their complete pre-occupation with Municipal and Parliamentary affairs, the contesting of elections, the selection and running of candidates, and so on, to the exclusion of the more intimate, and more immediate, day to day, wage and working conditions struggles of the workers, in which the Trade Unions and their branches have been engaged, has compelled the workers to realise their insufficiency and to seek to establish a wider Central local organ. Whatever at present exists, in the way of working-class organisation in the localities, is largely, preponderatingly, Trade Union. The main bulk of the local movements consists of the Trade Union branches. It was only to be expected that when the Trade Unions became engaged in serious struggles fierce, life-and-death struggles such as we have had since Black Friday—that the Trade Unionists would be made to discover the complete lack of industrial strength, and interest, in the local Labour Parties.

Hence the great revival of the Trades Councils.

But, this revival has not meant a diminution in the political consciousness of the workers. The experiences and the lessons of the past, have not been suddenly forgotten. The workers are not less aware of the need for working-class political action. On the contrary. The growth of the Labour Party, the growth of the Labour vote—the very fact of having had for a short spell a Labour Government—all indicate that the workers are becoming increasingly interested in politics, and that their political consciousness is being intensified. The revival of the Trades Councils has not meant a swing of the pendulum from political to industrial interest and activity. There has been no swing back: no pendulum. It has been rather a groping towards a central local body which will be of service both politically and industrially: which will serve both wings of the movement, and which will neglect no weapon in the workers’ armoury.

More than that. Events have compelled a keen all-round examination of the organised working-class movement. And, in, consequence, questions have been raised as to how the co-operative movement, the women’s and youths’ movements, the educational movement, such organisations as those of the Workmen’s Clubs, etc., can all be made to fit into the general mosaic of a single unified movement, concentrated in the localities under the central leadership of the Trades Council. Time has proved that all these movements, born of the class struggle, toilsomely and painfully evolved through long historical processes, are all phases of the one movement. They each and all have their part to play. They each and all can be of service in the class struggle. Thus, gradually, there has arisen a conception of a central local body which will gather all sections and phases together, which will unite them and lead them into action on general issues. The Trades Councils of to-day are endeavouring to become, not Trades Councils of loosely-affiliated Trade Union branches as they were in the dim past, not local Labour Parties only, as they have been during the present generation, but a close combination of all organised working-class factors—Trade Union, political, Co-operative, educational, social and so on—presenting a united front on all issues, in all struggles with the capitalist enemy. As the class struggle proceeds, so the interdependence of the various sections of the movement becomes increasingly apparent. Strikers have to be fed. Hence the discussion as to how far it is possible for the Co-operative movement to, act as the commissariat for the Trade Unions.

Strikers have to be supported in their homes, and need to have their fighting morale sustained by the womenfolk—hence the need for bringing the women in the homes into closer relationship with the Trade Union movement. The treatment of the young workers consequent on the curse of unemployment; the blacklegging of apprentices, the lack, in the movement, of the virility, enthusiasm and audacity of the young: these have been amongst the contributory reasons why the need is felt for the youths’ movement and the children’s movement to be co-ordinated with and developed by the different phases of the adult movement.

The working-class movement in the localities has been during the past three or four years, embarked upon a continuous voyage of discovery. And it has really been discovering itself. It has seen the need to strengthen the Trade Union movement, and to stop the rapid decline in membership. Hence the “Back to the Unions” campaigns, and the endeavours to establish 100 per cent organised Trade Union branches. It has seen the need to strengthen the political movement, the co-operative movement; to bring all workers into the struggle. Hence the campaigns to organise the women, and the youth; hence the quickened interest in the co-operative guilds and societies, in working-class education and so on.

From out of this the Trades Councils have gropingly re-organised their principal functions: (1) to gather together the whole of the organised movement, and (2) to use that organised movement as a great machine for organising the unorganised.

Sooner or later there was bound to be a reaction against centralisation of the Trade Union and working-class movement generally. The big unions have concentrated their forces nationally and have built around their head offices powerful bureaucratic machines. The Trade Unions, particularly the General labour unions and such organisations as those of the railwaymen and engineers, have become Gomperised: have established the same kind of control over their memberships, to a large degree, as did the late Samuel Gompers over the American Federation of Labour. Though the fact is not so crudely brutal here as in America nevertheless, we have our Labour Bosses also. And these Labour Bosses exercise their control, and abuse their power, to a much greater extent than is generally realised. The employers, and the capitalist class generally, exercise a most pernicious influence over many of these Labour Bosses, both industrial and political. The National Council of Employers and Employed, the pet body of the Federation of British Industries for netting and demoralising our Labour Bosses, is very much on a par with the American National Civic Federation. The consequence of this has been that the voices of the localities have been stifled: movements—quite legitimate movements—arising in the branches have been crushed at birth, and quite capable and useful men in the towns and districts have been kept down and out, prevented from serving the movement as they might have served it—by the bureaucratic machines. This reaction is now being expressed through the Trades Councils. The Trades Councils will, as they increase in size and power, serve as a balance to this central domination, and will provide a fruitful field of activity to the energetic and willing men and women.

When the General Council of the Trades Union Congress seriously contemplated doing something it was compelled to recognise the Trades Councils. Without the Trades Councils the General Council is like a head without its body. The roots, the foundations, of the movement, are in the localities. National unity of action is obviously impossible without local unity of action. The vague, hesitating and nervous manner in which the General Council has proceeded with its relations and work in regard to the Trades Councils is indicative of the fear the Central Labour Bosses have of raising competitive factors. The Trades Councils have been treated like unwanted babies, and have been gathered into the fold as much out of anxiety lest some such organisation as the National Minority Movement should exercise undue influence over them than anything else. The General Council will be lax in giving them that recognition and standing which is their due. It will endeavour to shepherd them along “sure and safe” channels of local futility: anything, so long as they do not challenge the vested interests and power of the Trade Union and Labour bureaucracy. It will endeavour to impose fixed constitutions upon them, to crop and shear them, to confine their activities, and render them docile, malleable and subservient. In spite of this Official attitude towards the Trades Councils, we are confident that they are destined to grow immeasurably, and to increase in power and importance. The springs of life are in the localities: the new blood, the new ideas, the new methods all come from the towns and districts. The national central bodies are woefully conservative, lacking in initiative, and increasingly subject to capitalist pressure and influence. The most remarkable historical fact of the times in which we live has been the glaring incompetence of the Trade Union leaders and central executive since Black Friday, and through the long period of the crushing: capitalist offensive which has since followed. For the past five years these leaders and officials have witnessed the battering of their organisations—the flogging of them “from Dan to Beersheba”—and have done nothing but lie down to it, to accept it, with many words and much fluttering, but never a sensible attempt, apart from that of last July, to make a determined fight. And the stand of last July was more consequent upon the hammering these leaders and central executives received from the rank and file than anything else. The real spirit and progressive urge of the movement is in the localities. This is made evident by the living interest which the local Labour Parties give to Labour Party Conferences, which would, otherwise, be dull and dreary beyond imagining.

The Trades Councils are necessarily going to increase in power and importance because they are definitely emerging as organs of the class struggle. Being central bodies, covering all sections, they must inevitably think and act for the working class as a whole—as a class. They, as the resolutions passed by the recent Trades Councils Conference demonstrate, are definitely setting about the intensive re-organisation of their towns and districts by getting within the industrial fabric and establishing workshop organisations. In every direction they are seeking for means to bring all workers, no matter what their age or sex, into the movement: there to encourage them to participate actively in the work of the Councils and to train and discipline themselves for the struggle. The Trades Councils are free from that network of corrupting capitalist influences which besiege the central bodies, and which dangle place and position, P.C.’s and Government jobs, and all manner of shoddy honours and more substantial rewards before the eyes of the leaders. The Trades Councils are in and of the rank and file, are, necessarily, truly expressive of real working class thought and feeling. As organising bodies, as propagandist and educational bodies, as fighting bodies, the Trades Councils are destined to win to the leading position in the movement, and to be in the van of the workers’ struggle for emancipation.