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International Socialism, Winter 1963/4


Terry Martin

NUR Story


From International Socialism, No.15, Winter 1963/4, p.39.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Railwaymen
Philip S. Bagwell
Allen & Unwin; 70s.

‘The directors are in principle opposed to combination of any description for the purpose of interfering with the natural course of trade. They think that masters and men should be left in every establishment to settle their own terms, and arrange their own differences without interference or dictation.’ (London, Brighton and South Coast Railway circular, 1852.)

If that was not a clear hint to railwayman about the ‘dangers’ of trade unionism, there were others. If you wanted a job as a clerk at £60 to £90 per annum you had to put down £50 ‘security’. If there was any sign of ‘disloyalty’, no bonus at the end of the year. If you were one of the 2,199 tenants of the Midland Railway, you kept your ideas to yourself or faced eviction. The author is well aware of the important issues in the growth of the early railway unions; their struggles with the employers for the right to exist, for higher wages and shorter hours (in some cases men were on duty for 24 hours or more).

A series of events in 1900-1906 first involved the railwaymen, but were to have repercussions throughout the labour movement. First was the Taff Vale judgement of 1900; what this meant for the unions was apparent, and there was a rush to support the newly formed Labour Representation Committee and effect legislation to reverse the ruling. Any union that wavered soon changed their mind in 1906. With the success of the LRC in returning 29 MPs that year, the AGM of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants ruled in favour of a levy of members to pay for Labour MPs. A member of the ASRS, Osborne, a Liberal, protested and took his union to court. The Lords ruled in favour of the plaintiff, and for some time Labour MPs had to lump it.

With the formation of the NUR at the end of the First World War came the triple alliance. Here the author brings out the role of the first General Secretary of the NUR, Jimmy Thomas, in the great rail strike of 1919 and the General Strike. When the railwaymen went out on strike against wage cuts in 1919, Thomas refused to call for the aid of the Miners or Transport Workers and sowed the seed of discord which was to culminate in the ignominious defeat of 1926. The gap that was created then between railway-men and their leaders has never healed.

The second part of the book deals with the NUR after the Second World War. With the advent of a Labour Government there was general feeling among railwaymen that things would be different. In their journal Railway Review raged a long correspondence on workers control, with strong feeling in favour. This was soon to turn to apathy and bitter disillusionment. Between the ending of the Essential Works Order in 1946 and early 1947 13,486 men left for better jobs. The Transport Act of 1947 brought to the surface issues which affect railwaymen to this day, such as compensation to former owners. This book shows that the NUR leaders did not once effectively oppose compensation or the interest rates fixed in 1947 at market rate. The Financial Times considered the terms ‘not ungenerous’.

At present the railwaymen are facing a new threat, Beeching. And the railway leaders? Well, the subject of Mr. Bagwell’s work is essentially the railwaymen themselves, and this is its lasting value.

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