Britain: Trades Councils - Councils of Action for the Working Class

Today Trades Councils in Britain have been consciously relegated to the sidelines by the trade union bureaucracy, but in this article, written at the time of the struggle against the Heath government's ill-fated Industrial Relations Act [1971] Dudley Edwards outlined the history of the trades councils in Britain and pointed to their potentially vital role.

Not only did trades councils precede the TUC [Trades Union Congress], but it was these bodies which brought the TUC itself into existence. As a matter of fact, they were an independent, grass-roots working-class movement from the very first.

Today, many thousands of workers in Britain have served as delegates to their local trades councils. This very numerous body of working men and women often represents the most class-conscious, active, and intelligent section of the working class in the locality in which they work.

They spend many hours of their leisure time endeavouring to co-ordinate all the working-class struggles for a better life in their district. They discuss and take decisions on every conceivable issue involving the interests of the workers.

The trades councils themselves can generally quite justly be described as the advanced detachment of the organised working class. Most of them are also inspired by the idea that they are working for a cause greater than themselves. They believe there is a need for a fundamental change in society.

At the same time, they struggle for a decent living wage, adequate housing, a fair deal for old age pensioners, a better urban or rural environment-they discuss and formulate countless other demands and then campaign for them.

All this activity is done voluntarily, without thought of remuneration or personal advantage. But of over 500 Trades Councils no more than three or four have full-time secretaries. For this reason the Trades Council movement is probably freer from the bureaucratic mentality than any other area of the British trade union movement.

Unfortunately, sometimes this self-sacrificing body of workers are not sufficiently aware of the great significance of their own dedicated work, or of the tremendous historical role of the Trades Councils in the long struggle of the working class to create an organisation powerful enough really to change society and put an end to the system of monopoly capitalism under which we live.

History shows that the Trades Councils could well become the organs through which working class power will be finally achieved. To quote Frederick Engels: "The full emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself." The Trades Councils-which, significantly, were in the past combined with Labour Party general management committees in some key industrial areas-could be a vital means of carrying through this action to its logical conclusion.

In the recent past, this revolutionary side of Trades Council action has often not been very evident.

The decades of capitalist economic upturn which followed the Second World War brought a period of relative lull in the class struggle, and many Trades Councils became docile appendages of the TUC, concerned with little more than "parish pump" politics.

Yet, whenever the working class began to move on a broad front against the capitalist establishment, the Trades Councils sprang into action. It is for this reason that the more right-wing section of trade union officialdom became concerned to reduce the Trades Councils to purely consultative bodies, and many workers came to think they had been created by the TUC to be nothing but the General Council's mouth-piece in the localities.

A look at history shows that this is a false notion. The TUC actually grew out of the trades council movement. It was a number of the key trades councils, already established as the leadership of the movement locally, who took the initiative in bringing the trade unions together in a national body.

Today, this aspect of trades councils is again becoming of vital importance in the present growing struggle to repel the efforts of the Tory government and big business lo put the trade union movement in a strait-jacket by means of various kinds of anti-union legislation, wage freezes, and other reactionary moves.

It was Sam Nicholson, President of the Manchester and Salford Trades Council speaking at its meeting in 1868, who first called "for a congress of our own", and the first TUC was actually called in that year.

The invitations were sent out only to "trades councils and trades federations." "Thirty four delegates attended this congress of which eleven were from provincial trades unions. At the 1868 congress, the Birmingham Trades Council was deputed to convene the next one."

At this second congress in 1869, forty delegates attended, still mostly from trades councils. For the first time delegates from the London Trades Councils were present.

It is interesting to note that at this time a committee was appointed "to prepare a statement to go out to the world, to trade unions and legislators as to the reasons why we hold the opinion therein contained."

Its agenda reminds us of our fight against the Industrial Relations Act today (i.e. under the 1970-74 Heath government-ed.). Most of the discussion centred around how a fight could be waged against a report of a Royal Commission on TU legislation which left unionists liable to criminal prosecutions under an 1825 Act.

The first victories for a really radical policy calling for an eight-hour day-a potentially revolutionary demand at that time-and other socialist demands were won at the 1890 TUC. This break with the old-style unionism was largely the work of trades councils.

But in 1895, the more conservative elements retaliated and were able to get the trades councils excluded from direct affiliation-ostensibly because this involved dual representation.

Today, the trades councils have only one fraternal representative at TUC. The Trades Councils Joint Consultative Committee has only six representatives elected by trades councils, with six appointed by the TUC. It has therefore become a "policy executing, rather than a policy-making body."

Despite this constitutional restriction of their powers, however, the trades councils have rapidly increased their authority during periods of economic crisis and sharpened class struggle. During such periods they have become the focusing point of all working-class struggles, especially in the big industrial centres.

In particular, the sudden increase in the authority and independent action of the trades councils during the 1926 general strike alarmed the right-wing leaders of the TUC. This was the basic reason why such leaders as James Thomas worked frantically to stop the strike as soon as it had started.

One could do no better than to quote the words of the famous Labour and Social Democratic historian, G D H Cole, to illustrate what the Jimmy Thomases were afraid of. In his book 'British Trade Unionism Today', Cole wrote:

"The hour of glory of the trades councils came in the General Strike of 1926, when either directly or through councils of action which they took the initiative of creating on a broad base, they assumed the task of local organisation and responsibility for the conduct of the strike.

"A great many of them during this period issued local newspapers or bulletins to replace regular newspapers... They issued permits for goods to be delivered to hospitals and other necessary services; they improvised special transport services and conducted intensive propaganda campaigns in neighbouring villages.

"On the whole this work, improvised in a few days, was done with remarkable skill and efficiency and showed large resources of strength and competence in the local leadership."

It was this which struck fear into the hearts of the employers, and worried the right-wing TU leaders. It was a flowering of that amazing initiative and ingenuity of which the British working class is capable, when the dead hand of officialdom is removed.

During the nine days which shook capitalist Britain, the embryonic forms of what Lenin called 'dual power' were rapidly forming. Some trades councils even began to set up their own workers' defence force-to establish their own law and order.

In Newcastle, almost complete control over all transport was established. In some areas in the North East, under pressure, the police even agreed that the special constables should be recruited from the strikers themselves.

Contrary to the views expressed by the TUC president at the 1973 congress, the workers demonstrated in 1926 that the organised working class could take responsibility for the efficient administration of each area and, if necessary, of the country.

If the leaders of the General Council in 1926 did not understand this then, the Tory Prime Minister Baldwin certainly did when he mobilised all the forces of repression: tanks, armoured cars, and the OMS-the auxiliary strike-breaking organisation, backed and subsidised by the government. The ruling class saw the whole movement as a challenge to their system.

Naturally, when the strike was betrayed, the trades councils were again reduced to the passive and secondary role allotted to them by the right wing bureaucracy. Nevertheless, the trades councils remain potentially capable, in any new period of great events, of mobilising the working-class struggle to change society.

(republished from the Militant, 18 May 1979)

*Dudley Edwards, now deceased, was a member of Hove Labour Party, and was an activist in the trade unions and trades councils for many years. He was a shop steward at the Morris car plant in Oxford in the 1930s and later became an active supporter of the Militant tendency. His publications include 'Last Stand of the Levellers' and 'The Soldiers' Revolt'. He died in the 1980s.


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