In the Cause of Labour

A History of British Trade Unionism

By Rob Sewell

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The purpose of this history of British trade unionism is not only to recite the wrongs inflicted on working people, Shelley's "heroes of unwritten story", or simply to describe their heroic struggles. It is an attempt to draw out the lessons of the events that helped shape the Labour movement, and made it what it is.

A study of the history of trade unions is particularly relevant at the present time. After a long period of stagnation, the fresh winds of the class struggle are beginning to blow. We see growing industrial militancy in many countries, heralding a fundamental change in the situation. In Britain there is ferment in the trade unions, characterised by a sharp turn to the left in one union after another. New forces are emerging in the trade union and Labour movement, which are beginning to challenge the dead hand of the old right-wing leaderships. 

A proud tradition

The British organised Labour movement is the oldest in the world. More than two hundred years ago, the pioneers of the movement created illegal revolutionary trade unions in the face of the most terrible violence and repression. A little later they established the first workers' party in history, the Chartist Association. Afterwards they participated in the founding of the First International, the International Working Mens' Association, in which Karl Marx played a leading role.

In the course of the nineteenth century they built trade unions of the downtrodden unskilled workers - those with "blistered hands and the unshorn chins," as the Chartist Feargus O'Connor called them. Finally, they established a mass party of Labour based on the trade unions, breaking the monopoly of the Tories and Liberals. In the stormy years following the Russian Revolution they engaged in ferocious class battles, culminating in the General Strike of 1926.

Nor did the achievements of the British trade union movement cease with the Depression and the Second World War. The post-war upswing served to strengthen the working class and heal the scars of the inter-war period. By the time of the industrial tidal wave of the early 1970s, they drove a Tory government from power, after turning Edward Heath's anti-trade union laws into a dead letter. Those years saw the massive demonstrations against the Industrial Relations Act - the biggest workers' protests since the days of the Chartists. Later, the miners, the traditional vanguard of the British working class, waged an epic year-long struggle in 1984-85 against the juggernaut of Thatcherism. They could have succeeded, had the right-wing Labour and trade union leaders not abandoned them and left them isolated. But though it was defeated, the miners' strike, which at times had the hallmarks of a semi-insurrection, showed the world the colossal potential that exists in the British working class. It would require a whole book to deal with the lessons of this strike alone.

The working class sometimes needs the whip of counter-revolution to push it into action, stated Marx. The period after "Black Friday" in March 1921, for instance, right through to the 1926 General Strike constituted a series of defensive rearguard battles, which were of an extremely militant and even revolutionary character. On the other hand, the defeat in 1984-5 had a profound impact, set against the context of a boom and the lamentable role of the union leaders. The defeat of the miners, and later the dockers and print workers in the late 1980s, struck a serious blow against the trade unions.

Defeats must be paid for. It took a long time to recover from these setbacks. However, the low level of struggle in the subsequent period did not mean the end of class struggle, any more than the collapse of the Soviet Union meant the end of history. The working class needs to catch its breath and digest the lessons of the past before again being forced into struggle by the crisis of capitalism. But now the situation is changing for the better. There has been an upturn on the industrial front in Britain and internationally. There is also a reawakening in the ranks of the unions, heralding a dramatic swing to the Left.

The working class of different countries has different traditions, reflecting the peculiarities of the historical development of each nation. When compared with the workers of southern Europe, who have a tradition of spontaneous uprisings, the British workers tend to be generally slower to move. But once they are on the move, they are unstoppable.

The right wing represents all that is most negative in the traditions of British Labour - all which is servile, cowardly and ignorant. They constantly undermine the struggle for advancement under capitalism, never mind the fight to change society. The Blair government, with the enthusiastic endorsement of the right-wing trade union leaders, is carrying out a policy of counter-reforms that would do credit to any Tory administration.

Prime Minister Tony Blair proudly boasts that Britain has the least regulated economy with the lowest corporation tax and the most flexible (i.e. insecure and stressful) workplaces of any advanced capitalist country. Yet at this moment in time, British workers work longer hours than workers in Europe and the US. They have the least holidays. They have the least rights at work. Stress levels and job insecurity have gone through the roof. An estimated 6.7 million working days a year are being lost due to ill health caused by stress alone. One in four British workers does regular or occasional night work, the highest in Europe. Two-thirds of British manufacturing workers do shift-work - another European record. Only Britain and Italy have no statutory paid holidays. Despite two Labour governments, the majority are realising things are not getting better, but worse.

What does all this show? That unless there is a fundamental change in society, all the gains made by the movement can only have a temporary, partial and incomplete character. The struggle of the working class to improve its lot under capitalism is like the labours of Sisyphus, described in ancient Greek mythology, who was condemned for all eternity to push a heavy boulder uphill, only to see it roll back again. 

Need to change society

The history of the British trade unions does not constitute a straight line. On the contrary, it unfolds in an uneven fashion with various contradictory shifts in one direction or another. It is constantly characterised by the struggle between two traditions and two tendencies. A revolutionary one, reflecting the unconscious will of the working class to change society, and a subservient one, reflecting the pressures of the ruling class on the upper stratum, that then attempts to block the movement to change society and lead it instead like a lamb into "safe" channels.

In "normal" periods, the consciousness of the workers is affected by the dead weight of tradition and routine.  In such times, most people are prepared to accept the leadership of the "professionals" - bourgeois and reformist politicians, Members of Parliament, councillors and trade union leaders. But there are periods of crises and upheavals, when the working class is shaken out of the old apathy and begins to take action, demanding solutions, asking questions. Being close to the class, the unions reflect this changed mood very early on. We see this process in Britain at the present time. And what happens in the unions today will be expressed in the Labour Party tomorrow.

The working class has within its ranks a tremendous strength and resilience. Even when it suffers a terrible and crushing defeat, it recovers and again reasserts itself. It is like the Greek god Antaeus of ancient mythology, who when thrown to the ground, drew strength from his mother the earth. Whatever obstacles lay in its path, the objective conditions of life force it to continually struggle against the system of capitalist exploitation. Those who argue that the class struggle is out of date are obviously out of touch with the reality of Britain in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

After years of privatisation, temporary contracts, outsourcing, deskilling, multi-skilling, part-time work, "zero-hour" contracts, casual work and other forms of lean production and labour flexibility, workers are saying loud and clear: enough is enough. The election of a string of left-wing general secretaries and officials in the British trade unions is symptomatic of a deep-seated frustration and anger within the union rank and file and the working class generally.

The working class needs powerful militant and democratic trade unions. But above all, we need to forge a leadership that will measure up to the tasks posed by history. The mighty revolutionary events across the globe will provide the working class with many opportunities. We have a responsibility on our shoulders to finish the job that generations before us began. In order to live up to that responsibility it is necessary to go beyond the limits of narrow trade unionism and pose the question of changing society. And in order to conduct a serious and consistent struggle to change society a scientific world outlook is necessary. Marxism provides such an outlook.

We hope that the present book will stimulate those who read it to study not only the history of the workers' movement in Britain and internationally, but also the great treasure-house of Marxist theory, which is the best and most comprehensive guide to action. As the young Marx wrote: "Philosophers have interpreted the world in different ways. The point however is to change it." A study of history is essential, but it is making history that counts.

November 2003



Foreword by Jeremy Dear


Chapter 1 - The Birth Pains

Chapter 2 - Into the Abyss of Capitalism

Chapter 3 - "Schools of War"

Chapter 4 - Breaking the yoke

Chapter 5 - The "Pompous Trades"

Chapter 6 - From a Spark to a Blaze

Chapter 7 - "The First Giant Step"

Chapter 8 - The Great Unrest

Chapter 9 - War and Revolution

Chapter 10- On the Brink of Revolution

Chapter 11- "Black Friday"

Chapter 12- Bayonets don't cut coal

Chapter 13- Nine Days That Shook the World

Chapter 14- "NEVER AGAIN"

Chapter 15- Road to Wigan Pier

Chapter 16- Labour in the War

Chapter 17- Post War Dreams

Chapter 18- Business (Unionism) as usual

Chapter 19- In Place of Strife

Chapter 20- "Close the Gates!"

Chapter 21- The Road to Pentonville

Chapter 22- The Turning Point

Chapter 23- Preparing the Class War

Chapter 24- "The Enemy Within"

Chapter 25- Aftermath of Defeat

Chapter 26- "Ignorance is Strength"

Chapter 27- Blairism and the Unions

Chapter 28- The Class Divide Grows

Chapter 29- Militancy is back!

Chapter 30- Should the unions disaffiliate?

Chapter 31- Future of the Unions

Chapter 32- The New View of Society



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