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International Socialism, Spring 1964

Ian Mooney


From International Socialism, No.16, Spring 1964, p.33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Foes To Tyranny
W.S. Hilton
Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers, 30s.

This book is a reasonably good history of the struggles of the building workers. It deals in too much detail with the unions which in 1921 formed the AUBTW and this part will perhaps seem rather technical to those outside the building trade. Craft unions for bricklayers and stonemasons were formed in 1828 and 1831 respectively. There followed almost immediately, in 1832, the formation of an industrial union, the Operative Builders Union, which lasted until 1834, when the employers smashed it. Today we are trying to achieve industrial organisation in the industry, yet over 100 years ago it was a reality. Utopian ideas like those of Robert Owen were responsible for the defeat of the OBU. The union supported the small masters who employed a few men in a particular craft while it opposed general contracting by large firms. This contradiction between an industrial union, that supported small masters with whom members could have personal contact, and the economic necessity of large contracting firms led directly to a trial of strength. The contractors declared a lock-out; work could be had only if the worker signed a document disassociating himself from the union. This was to be the pattern of struggle until 1914.

The early idea of industrial unionism did not completely die; a leaflet, produced in 1911, urged ‘the systematic organisation of propaganda among the workers upon the necessity of becoming organised in the industrial field upon the basis of class instead of craft, organised by industry as workers, instead of in sections as craftsmen.’

After 1914 the author fails to give anything more than a factual account of the positions and policies of the unions. Mr Hilton is the research officer for the AUBTW, which is perhaps why he makes no comment on this period, especially as it is also a time of slowly declining membership. It was during this period, one of industrial peace under a Labour Government, that the unions accepted the introduction of incentive bonus schemes. Bevan, ‘Minister of Health and great socialist’, threw his weight behind the employers, accused building workers of not working satisfactorily, and contended that a mere rise in wages would not get operatives to produce more and that incentives were the only solution to the problem of productivity. The book is primarily a history of the AUBTW, and as such is well worth reading, provided that the reader can provide his own analyses.

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