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Dudley Edwards

History of the Engineers

(February 1975)

From Militant, No. 244, 21 February 1975.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

For generation after generation the working class has striven for greater unity in its struggle against the exploitation of its labour power by the capitalist system. This drive towards a comprehensive unit has generally intensified during periods of Capitalist economic crisis.

It is such a situation which has resulted in the huge increase in the scale of strikes since 1967 and also the demand for greater unity on the shop floor and greater control by the workers’ organisations over their factories and industries.

This desire for greater organisational unity is not adequately reflected in the desultory negotiations for union amalgamation by many of the full-time officials. In fact, often these officials fear amalgamation because unification may allow a reduction in the number of full-time officers. From time to time formal negotiations take place but the officials drag their feet and little comes of it. Eventually the workers become impatient with these interminable negotiations and real advance is made.

This seems to be the state of affairs in the negotiations which for the last two or three years have been proceeding between the old A.E.U. (now A.U.E.W.) and the old technical and supervisory sections of the industry and originally some smaller trade sections.

It will therefore be of value to all active lay members of unions, especially in engineering, to give a brief historical outline of those periods when demands for amalgamation pushed up from below, and the rank and file pressed for real industrial unity in order to defend or improve their standard of living.

Over the last sixty years, three periods in particular stand out, when amalgamation became a real issue on the shop floor. These were the stormy periods before the First World War – from 1909 to 1914, during the great industrial battles after the war from 1918 to 1922, and again today when the workers’ standard of living is threatened by capitalist economic collapse.

Tory Politicians, Liberal Sentimentalists and others often point to the period before the 1914 war as a glorious age of ‘social peace’. In reality, an enormous strike wave spread throughout the land, which if the lower figure of population is recognised, was greater in scope and intensity than during any other period of modern British history. This social upheaval was largely sparked off by economic factors similar in some ways to those which have caused the great strike waves witnessed in Britain since the mid-sixties.

At the turn of the century the great monopolies were taking over industry, prices began rising, and the real wages of the workers tended to fall behind the rate of inflation. At the same time, workers were becoming dissatisfied with the meagre results obtained by the Labour leaders in Parliament.

Max Beer, the classic historian of British socialism, paints a picture of those stormy years in the following words:

“The United Kingdom witnessed for the first time a class war in which all its component parts were involved: Scottish miners, English Railwaymen, Irish Transport Workers were joining hands across the borders and seas. Robert Smilie, Tom Mann, James Larkin, James Connolly, all born fighters, marshalled and led the new forces in battle array. Nothing like it had ever happened before.”

John Maclean the great Scottish revolutionary and Marxist scholar said in 1911:

The times we live in are so full of change that it is not impossible to believe that we are in the rapids of revolution.”

It was in this climate of rising class struggle that a powerful rank and file movement in favour of union amalgamation appeared. Tom Mann, whose reputation had been established over a decade earlier by his leadership in the great dock strike at the end of the 19th century, became one of the principal leaders of this campaign for unification of the extraordinary collection of Craft and General unions that constituted the British Trade Union Movement.

After the great dock strike, Mann had emigrated for a while to Australia. During these years he became strongly influenced by the ideas of the ‘International Workers of the World’ [1], which had spread from the U.S.A. They endeavoured to spread syndicalist ideas among the workers, and one of their slogans was the ‘One Big Union’. Tom Mann however came to stand for the battle cry of ‘One Union for One Industry’.

At the same time as the I.W.W. and other syndicalists were spreading their own brand of amalgamation, a quite separate and independent workers’ ‘Amalgamation Movement’ developed. The vast majority of these workers favoured the amalgamation of the existing unions rather than trying to set up new ones. Amalgamation Committees began to spring up, often led by skilled engineers, then, as now, not always free of old and narrow craft prejudices. Nevertheless, men who understood that the growth of large scale mechanisation, the breaking down of skilled jobs into separate and simple operations, meant that the skilled would be unable to adequately protect their own positions, unless the ever-growing grades of semi-skilled were organised into the same unions.


On October 10th, 1910, the Chiswick branch of the old Associated Society of Engineers, called the first conference attended by sixteen London delegates from the Engineering industry. This conference pledged itself to work for the amalgamation of existing unions in the London area until the principle of “one union for one industry was achieved.” These delegates also insisted that this union should embrace all workers “regardless of grade or sex”. They then proceeded to set up a committee for amalgamating existing unions.

The leading spirit of this movement was W.F. Watson, a member of the Chiswick A.S.E. branch, who later became the main organiser of a National Amalgamation Movement. During the next two years the movement blossomed out. A much larger conference of rank and file engineers was called in London on September 25th, 1912, which established the ‘Engineering and Shipbuilding Amalgamation Committee’ and Watson of the Chiswick Branch was elected secretary.

Shortly afterwards a joint conference which the syndicalists also attended was held at the Holborn Hall, London. In a unanimous resolution passed at this conference, the delegates declared “That complete solidarity is the only way the workers can emancipate themselves”.

By 1913 the movement established itself on a genuinely national scale and the engineering section adopted the title of the ‘National Metal, Engineering and Shipbuilding Committee’. It had permanent committees affiliated to it in Derby, Erith, Guildford, London, Portsmouth, Southampton, Sheffield, Wigan and many other towns. The London Committee even rented permanent premises. At a further conference in 1914 the name was changed to the ‘Federation of Amalgamation Committees.’

The movement was intimately bound up with the innumerable industrial disputes taking place throughout the land and was also particularly interested in the question of Workers’ Control, which it regarded as the logical outcome of industrial unification. Today the question is again becoming a practical issue for workers with mass layoffs and all the consequences of a capitalist recession.

The constitution of this federation specifically defined the function of the Amalgamation Committees in the following way –

“To prepare the workers for their economic emancipation by their taking possession of the means of production, through an economic organisation outside the control of any Parliamentary Party or religious sect.”


Here can be seen the confusing influence of syndicalist propaganda. This document still toyed with the mistaken notion that the Trade Unions themselves can solve the problems of the working class and achieve socialism. There is no understanding that a political party of Labour is needed, prepared to take over the commanding heights of the economy and make possible the organisation of a Socialist planned economy on a national scale; a plan that must be based on workers’ control in each industry, and throughout the economy.

The immediate successes of the Amalgamation Committee movement were meagre. In 1910 a proposal for total amalgamation put before the Federation of Engineering and Shipbuilding Trades was rejected.

By 1914, nevertheless, the ideas put forward by this movement were common currency among active trade unionists, especially the Engineers. The outbreak of war undermined its activities. The march towards real industrial unity became the march into capitalist made war. With the full endorsement of most official T.U. leaders, workers were urged on to shoot down their brothers in other lands, but that is another story.

Two years after the war started, the Amalgamation Committees began to revive and a conference was held at Leeds attended by 124 engineering delegates. The main resolution laid down the following principles:

“(a) The title of a new Amalgamated Union shall be the Engineering and Shipbuilding Workers’ Industrial Union.

“(b) That the Industrial Union shall embrace every worker in the industry regardless of craft, creed or sex.”

In further sections the resolution insisted:

“That representation on all administration bodies shall be occupational and not geographical.”

Finally this historic document laid down:

“That the definite object of the union shall be to secure complete control of industry and the abolition of the wages system.”

It would appear that a year later this last clause was changed to:

“To secure complete control of industry in the interests of the people.”

Once again after the First World War the working class became involved in huge battles to prevent the employing class revoking those concessions it had been compelled to give away during and just after the war. By 1920 a significant but still inadequate move towards the all-inclusive industrial union was made. Largely as a result of the work of Tom Mann and the persistent educational efforts of the Amalgamation Committees, nine small craft unions joined together with the old A.S.E. and formed the Amalgamated Engineering Union with Tom Mann as the first General Secretary. The often clear and sensible ideas of these pioneers of Amalgamation and Industrial Unionism have still not been realised today.

The words of John Maclean written in 1918 with perhaps some small changes still apply today:

“The process of trustification is at present evolving rapidly towards one big trust for all British industries.”

To counter this process, very much more advanced today than in 1918, Maclean went on in a way still largely appropriate, to outline the kind of industrial organisation the working class need –

“The one union implies workshop committees representative of everyone inside a separate works – scientific reorganisation from top to bottom and through district and national committees linking up with all industries organising the production and distribution of wealth.”

At the same time Comrade Maclean made clear in his conclusion that such industrial organisation could only reach full maturity when, in his words:

“Labour unites scientifically and controls all the land and workshops of the country.”

Footnote by ETOL

1. The correct name of the I.W.W. was/is the Industrial Workers of the World.

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