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International Socialism, February 1977


Colin Sparks

The Bureaucracy in the TGWU


From International Socialism (1st series), No.95, February 1977, pp.7-9.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


This month Jack Jones’s successor as General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union will be elected. The winner will succeed to one of the most powerful positions in the British labour movement. In this article, The bureaucracy in the TGWU, Colin Sparks analyses the power structure of Britain’s biggest union. See also the pamphlet by the TGWU Right to Work Campaign, TGWU – Who Rules (obtainable from 265 Seven Sisters Road, London N4).

NOWHERE is the power of the trade union bureaucracy more dramatically evident than in the Transport and General Workers Union. And the TGWU is the largest and most powerful trade union in Britain, with nearly two million members. Its only rival in size and influence is the AUEW. When these two giants change course, the whole of the labour movement feels the pull.

The leaders of the TGWU and the AUEW, Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, have headed the trade union bureaucracy’s shift to the right since the Labour victory in 1974. From the self-proclaimed grave diggers of capitalism they have become two of its staunchest defenders. Their latest project is a drive to raise productivity in the motor industry together with Eric Varley, the Industry Secretary, and the managers of the four major car companies. [1]

The contrast between these two darlings of the Broad Left tells us a lot about the different ways the two unions work.

In Scanlon’s case, the shifts inside the AUEW are there for all to see. There have been electoral victories for the re-emergent right wing; there has been the atrophy of the Broad Left, and the public humiliation of its standard bearer, Bob Wright; every election, every national committee, every court case, has had tremendous publicity. [2] There has been a debate inside the AUEW, there have been elections, there have been decisions – and the policy has shifted. But what about the TGWU?

There Jack Jones’s emergence as the salesman of the Social Contract within the Labour movement has not been accompanied by major internal changes or debates. The 1975 Biennial Conference – by rule ‘the government of the Union’ [3] – endorsed the Social Contract by a huge majority.

Until now there have been no elections which might have rocked the boat, and the General Executive Council, has only once, in December 1976, challenged the course that Jones has set for the union. The current election for the post of General Secretary is the first time in a good many years that the membership have had any opportunity to demonstrate their opinion.

How is it that policies that affect the lives of two million workers have been drastically altered, with apparently no organised opposition.

The Power of the Officials

One fundamental cause is the structure of the TGWU. There has been no debate because there is no channel for debate. The General Secretary is the only full-time official elected by the membership, and once elected he is there till he retires. All other full-timers are appointed by the Executive.

The TGWU is one of the most bureaucratic of British unions. The reason why so little attention is paid to this fact is that the last two General Secretaries, Frank Cousins and Jack Jones, have been judged ‘progressive’ by the Broad Left and so a blind eye has been cast on the way the union is run.

In theory, the TGWU does not seem that undemocratic. After all, the Biennial Delegate Conference, the governing body of the union, is made up of lay members. So also is the General Executive Council which runs the union between Conferences, and its subcommittee, the Finance and General Purposes Committee, which sees to the day-to-day affairs of the union.

Cutting across this structure are the trade groups, which carry out negotiations with the employers on behalf of the members. For example, dockers, car workers, transport workers are all organised in separate sections of the union from national to district level. Within each trade group and right at the bottom, are the branches, which elect lay delegates to various bodies like the district committees.

The rules of the union can be changed only by a Rules Conference, made up of lay members, which meets once every six years.

But whatever the rules may say, the running of the TGWU is securely in the hands of the full-time officials, who make up a bureaucracy both willing and able to ride roughshod over the wishes of even a highly organised and militant section like the dockers, as during the 1972 docks strike. To understand the nature of this bureaucracy and its power, we must look at the union’s history.

The Origins of the Bureaucracy

The TGWU was founded in 1922 from a group of 14 transport unions. Amalgamation with other unions has always been a major source of growth ever since. By 1954 the union had gone through 58 amalgamations. [4] Between the two world wars trade unionism was on the defensive, with membership falling and major battles being lost. Unemployment put a big strain on union finances, and on their bargaining power. In the circumstances amalgamation made very good sense. But the drive to amalgamation often came from paid officials seeing at as a means of maintaining their power and privileges. For many officials the drive to amalgamation was founded on the realisation that their little union would collapse otherwise.

An example is the 1929 amalgamation between the TGWU and the Workers’ Union. The Workers’ Union, which started as a militant union open to all workers, had, by the early 1920s reached a crisis point. In 1927 an approach was made to the TGWU and a scheme was worked out which allowed the Workers’ Union to remain as a national group inside the TGWU for two years, when the bulk of its membership went into the General Workers’ Trade Group.

The former officials of the Workers’ Union fared well out of amalgamation. According to Richard Hyman:

‘It would be wrong ... to suggest that there was general dissatisfaction among the former Workers’ Union officials. All valued the consolidation of trade-union strength which the amalgamation achieved, and most found scope for organising initiative at least as great as within the Workers’ Union itself.’ [5]

There was some friction as the officials learned that they were now junior partners in a bigger union, but the preservation of their organisation allowed them to adjust to the fact that they were now one pressure group among others.

The pattern of trade groups allowed the TGWU to absorb other unions, and in particular their officials, without too much trouble. The full-timers retained considerable bargaining rights with the employers, and representation on the Executive allowed them to argue their case within the union. The price, of course, was and is subordination to the General Secretary. As the only elected officer of the union, and as the only representative of the union as a whole, the General Secretary can claim an obvious authority over the various, appointed, representatives of the various sectional pressure groups.

The General Secretary of the TGWU is like a feudal king, playing off the sectional interests of the different barons in order to wield for himself supreme power. There have been only five General Secretaries in the 55-year history of the union, and four of them, Ernest Bevin, Arthur Deakin, Frank Cousins and Jack Jones, have played central roles in the labour movement as well as being masters inside the TGWU.

Bevin’s Reign

Ernest Bevin, the first General Secretary was the pivotal figure in the history of the British working class in this century. He was also a class traitor on a scale that makes Jones or Chapple look like Little Red Riding Hood.

Among Bevin’s major contributions to class treachery were: a key role in the sell out of the miners on Black Friday (April 15 1921) and also in the sell out of the General Strike in 1926; as Minister of Labour in Churchill’s wartime coalition government the remarkable feat of agreeing ‘dilution’ with the major unions within 24 hours of his appointment [6]; the role as Foreign Secretary in Attlee’s Labour government of an architect of NATO and one of the prime movers of the Cold War. The list is endless.

Bevin’s career as a full-time official began in 1910 at the age of 29, six months after joining a union for the first time – the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers Union. In 1922 he became first General Secretary of the TGWU. He never participated in a strike in his life, although he led some, and broke some, as a full-timer. He was never elected to office in the trade union movement. The election as General Secretary was unanimous, as Bevin had spent several months beforehand carving up possible rivals.

The special form of the TGWU, and the special power of the General Secretary, are very much Bevin’s creation. He told the union’s founding conference in 1922: ‘I hate strikes.’ and then continued, ‘but as a leader it is my duty to lead.’ [7] There was no contradiction in this. In order to retain his hold on the membership he had to show them from time to time that he was prepared to fight on their behalf; also, the occasional display of muscle serves to remind the employers what the price of ignoring Bevin would be.

All the same, Bevin was always happier with class collaboration. After the defeat of the General Strike he was one of the moving figures in opening talks with ‘progressive employers’ like Sir Alfred Mond. When appointed Minister of Labour in 1940 he said that he would hold the office for 50 years. In a sense, he was right, for his appointment by Churchill to this post was a formal recognition by the ruling class that they needed to come to terms with the trade union bureaucracy and integrate it into the state machine. Jack Jones in championing the Social Contract is merely following in Bevin’s footsteps.

The major danger facing a bureaucrat with these policies is that rank-and-file workers will get out of hand. The classic example of how Bevin dealt with this threat was the 1937 Coronation strike by London Busmen. Bevin let the Communist-led London busmen’s rank-and-file movement organise the strike while blocking the extension of the strike necessary for victory. [8] He consciously used the strike to smash the rank-and-file movement.

During the strike, Bevin was having a meal in an expensive restaurant with a journalist, and they could hear other customers blaming him for the strike. Bevin said:

‘These people think that this is an ordinary sort of industrial dispute which ought to be stopped because it inconveniences them ... They never try to put themselves in the bus drivers’ place and they don’t give a damn that what is really going on now is a struggle to get hold of the London Busmen’s organisation. They’ve got to walk but I’m fighting for my life and the life of my union and I’m not going to stop until I’ve crushed them once and for all, flat, finished.’ [9]

It was not, of course, the employers that Bevin was going to crush flat, but rather his own members’ rank-and-file movement.

Bevin’s Heirs

Bevin’s successors left the power structure intact. Deakin, Bevin’s chosen heir and a full-time TGWU official for 26 years before his election in 1946, completed Bevin’s work. His rabid anti-communism fitted the Cold War atmosphere of the time and, with the pace of amalgamation slowing down, it was possible to unite the officials more closely under his leadership. The role of the full-timers changed somewhat.

They were no longer reluctant junior partners in an amalgamation, but now depended entirely on the favour of the General Secretary for their future. The bureaucracy finally emerged in its present form as a separate and distinct group cut off from the membership and answerable only to the General Secretary.

Deakin died in 1955, but his chosen successor, A.E. Tiffin, only survived him by a year. In 1956 Frank Cousins as elected General Secretary almost without opposition. Cousins’ biographer wrote:

‘As a regular attender at TGWU conferences, both in Deakin’s and in Cousins’ time, I have always been amazed at the ease with which both leaders commanded the conference. Even more amazing is the way in which union policy switched between General Secretaries. Up to Deakin’s death it was consistently to the right. [1*] After Cousins took over it was equally consistently to the left.’ [10]

In 1958 Cousins, virtually alone in the TUC, opposed the Tory government’s attempt to freeze wages in the public sector, and supported the London busmen’s strike. But then he retreated under TUC pressure not to spread the dispute and allowed the strike to be lost.

Like Bevin before him and Jones today, Cousins was obsessed with the role the TGWU could play under a Labour government. In 1964 Harold Wilson appointed him Minister of Technology. Cousins resigned in 1966 in protest against the pay freeze imposed by Wilson and George Brown.

Cousins’ left policies certainly stopped short of any change in the structure of the union aimed at permitting democratic rank-and-file control. He once allowed the TGWU delegates to the Labour Party Conference to vote on how the union’s block vote should be cast in a particular debate (in this case over unilateral nuclear disarmament, which Cousins supported), but when the vote went against him ‘Cousins saw to it that it never happened again.’ [11]

Much of Jack Jones’s surviving reputation as a ‘left’ derives from his record in the 1960s in leading the opposition to Labour’s pay freezes and anti-union legislation. However, even during the most openly right-wing phase of the 1970-74 Tory government, Jones was far more cautious in his opposition to the Industrial Relations Act than even Scanlon. Even before becoming architect of the Social Contract, he played an increasingly reactionary role, selling out the dockers’ strike in 1972 and negotiating with Heath over his wage controls. Since Labour came to power in 1974, Jones has of course, placed the survival of the Labour government before his members’ jobs and living standards.

The peculiar power of the bureaucracy in the TGWU involves more than simply the role of the General Secretary. The bureaucracy is especially capable of policing its rank and file. In 1959 the TGWU had one full-time official for every 2,222 members, compared with one per 6,345 of the AEU, one per 5,236 of the NUGMW, and one per 16,152 of the NUR. The national average was one per 3,793 members. [l2] While the General Secretary keeps a tight hold on the full-timers, they in turn keep a tight hold on the members.

In addition, the Executive has the power to appoint a full-time secretary for a branch and ‘the branch shall not, as long as such arrangement continues, be entitled to elect a branch secretary.’ [13] Branch secretaries, even elected ones, receive 12½ per cent of all dues collected. Contributions range from 18p to 26p, and some branches have over 5,000 members. This acts as a powerful pressure on even elected local officials to behave like a privileged elite, more interested in staying in office than in representing the members.

Changing the Union

The TGWU is firmly led and controlled by its full-time bureaucracy under the direction of the General Secretary. It cannot be changed by any individual official (even the General Secretary) or section of the bureaucracy, forming as they do a closely-integrated group committed to collaboration with the employers and the capitalist state. Any change within the TGWU will have to come from the rank and file, and will have to involve a thorough democratisation of the union, in particular the election and regular re-election of all full-time officials.

The problem of changing the TGWU will not be an easy one. The diversity of the membership, and their organisation into semi-independent trade groups, means that a union-wide rank-and-file opposition will be very difficult to build. All previous oppositions, like the London busmen and the dockers, have been defeated. They found themselves easily isolated within a union with large numbers of passive members. It is very difficult to build a rank-and-file movement that unites the docker, the carworker and the food, drink and tobacco worker.

However, today the machine is likely to be under increasing strain under the impact of the crisis. Traditionally ill-organised sections like the food, drink and tobacco workers will have to fight or go under. Traditionally militant groups like carworkers and dockers will find the old sectional methods of struggle inadequate when they are faced with the national bureaucracy and the state. Meanwhile, the union leadership can no longer preside over rising living standards as in the palmy days of the boom. All it has to offer its membership is falling real wages and rising unemployment.

The situation is one that is favourable to rank-and-file politics within the TGWU. However, this will mean operating at different levels. A number of rank-and-file movements can be built among specific sections of the membership and often including members of other unions (e.g. in the car industry). The immediate aim for the union as a whole, however, is the more modest one of a campaign around issues such as union democracy and the right to work.

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Note by ETOL

1*. In the printed text the word is “left”, but from the context it is clear that it should be “right”.


1. Financial Times, December 29 1976.

2. See J. Deason, The Broad Left in the AUEW, International Socialism 79.

3. Rules of the TGWU, 1976, Rule 4.1, p.10.

4. V.L. Allen, Power in Trade Unions, p.23.

5. R. Hyman, The Workers’ Union, pp.165-66.

6. Dilution was one of the key issues in the origins of the shop stewards’ movement during the First World War. See J. Hinton, The First Shop Stewards’ Movement. The fact that no such opposition developed during the Second World War is only partly a result of Bevin’s role as Minister of Labour:

‘The political situation in the 1939-45 War was much more settled and it was difficult to impute strikes to political motives. The Labour Party was a full coalition partner; a trade union leader, Ernest Bevin, held a Cabinet post which in terms of power was second only to that of the Prime Minister; and, after Russia entered the War in 1941, Communists in industry who would have been the natural leaders of unofficial movements lent all their energies to supporting the war ...

‘It is significant that the only political strike worth recording in World War II was attributed to Trotskyists ... Mr Bevin, however, believed that many of the strikes ... were politically inspired, and it was in this belief that he obtained the agreement of the Cabinet to make it an indictable offence to incite and instigate strikes.’ V.L. Allen, Trade Unions and the Government, p.43.

The strike in question was in March 1944 and started among engineering apprentices on Tyneside, spreading to involve some 11,000 apprentices.

7. Quoted in F. Williams, Ernest Bevin: Portrait of a Great Englishman, p.109.

8. See P. Glatter, London Busmen: Rise and fall of a rank-and-file movement, International Socialism 74.

9. Quoted in Williams, op. cit., p.115.

10. M. Stewart, Frank Cousins: A study, p.22.

11. Ibid., p.33.

12. Clegg, Killick and Adams, Trade Union Officers, pp.38-9.

13. Rules, Rule 11.3 (a), p.27.

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