From International Socialism (1st series), No. 1, Spring 1960, p. 29.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Paul Blackledge.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The Foundry Workers, a Trade Union History
H.J. Fyrth & H. Collins
Amalgamated Union of Foundry Workers. pp. 348. 18/-
For those who wish to make a detailed study of the Foundry Workers, no better material could be obtained than in this book. For others generally, this book could still be of immense value, for, in portraying the development, strengths and weaknesses of this particular union, there quite clearly emerges an image of the entire trade union movement of this country.
This craft union has been subjected to the same ups and downs as have other unions. Since its inception in 1809, in the form of the Friendly Iron Moulders Society, to the present day, it has been buffeted by capitalist economic laws, prospering in booms and sinking in slumps. During ‘good times’ branches sprang up and membership increased, but when ‘hard times’ came members left the foundries, legislation was introduced against workers’ combination and general attacks by the employers were launched to drive down wages and lower living standards.
The political development of the union was slow. Time and again during the early decades, its policy, as outlined by its leaders, was to try to bring harmony into the relationship between employers and employees. Far from wanting to forge a new society, it asked modestly for a few extra crumbs. We are told that as late as 1866 a speaker at a union rally boasted that “there was as much Toryism among the working classes as the upper and middle classes.” Only the hard knocks of capitalism forced the union to adopt political attitudes – to fight against the anti-combination laws which threatened its existence as anything other than a friendly benefit society. Today, it is in the forefront of the struggles of the T.U.C. and the Labour party. Among the best known of its ‘political’ leaders have been the Labour right-winger Arthur Henderson and the Stalinist Jim Gardner. The book contains much material relating to the struggles between the various political tendencies within the union.
Much space is devoted to the fight for improved working conditions and protective legislation, and the sections dealing with the history of the union during the post war Labour government with the problems then confronting the movement (arbitration, wage-freezing, the cold war), are of special interest. It also tackles the importance of the movement towards the amalgamation of the foundry unions and the idea of industrial unionism. While much has been accomplished in this field, there still remains much to be done.
In the early part of the book, dealing with the set-backs following a slump, it says “there are still trade unionists who think that somehow slumps make workers more militant and strengthen the Unions. The history of every depression proves the opposite.” If this idea were brought out and its implications thoroughly discussed, then, not only would the Foundry Workers be better equipped for the future, but, similarly, every trade unionist would have a clearer perspective.
True justice can only be done to this history if it is read from cover to cover, and, whilst it contains mainly indisputable facts and figures, it also throws out many ideas for our Labour movement to think about.
Last updated: 6 November 2015