[Book] In the Cause of Labour - A History of British Trade Unionism


Jeremy Dear

As the press talks of a rebirth of militant trade unionism there could not be a more important time for this major work to be published. Trade union reps spend hours every day sorting out individual problems – from questions of wages to cases of discrimination, from redundancies to unfair dismissals and health and safety problems. 

Poor management, under-investment, ageing technology, a lack of training and skills development all contribute to problems at work.

Yet those who study the history of our movement know that it is not bad bosses or the nature of individual industries or workplaces which are really at the root of the problems we face but the economic system itself that demands ever increasing levels of profit. Additional profit can be achieved by selling more or by reducing the costs of production. Since the market is finite more and more companies and nations seek to compete on the basis of the lowest possible cost of production – so wages are squeezed, jobs are lost, factories are closed, whole industries decimated and ultimately production is moved at the whim of international capital from country to country in search of the cheapest labour to exploit.

My own industry has seen remarkable changes in the past twenty years as ever more avaricious companies go in search of more and more profit. The length of the working week has increased, newspapers are bigger and more programmes are produced for broadcast yet the numbers working on them have decreased. Wages have fallen in relation to many other professions and ownership of the media is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

Unions themselves have been under attack. When dozens of pieces of anti-trade union legislation were introduced under Thatcher newspaper employers in particular began ripping up agreements and removing unions rights to bargain. As a result casualisation swept the industry and terms and conditions suffered. Today there are trained, qualified journalists in London earning £14,000 a year in companies which make millions of pounds profit every year. Individuals doing the same job were earning more 20 years ago.

My industry is not unique. In manufacturing, in the service sector, in traditional and new industries there is a drive to get more work – and hence more profit – out of every worker. Speed-ups, new production methods and often just plain bullying are used to extract every last crumb.

In these circumstances is it is no surprise that virtually every union is reporting record levels of stress.

For those who seek to maximise profit there has always been an obstacle – trade union organisation. That’s why in the drive to increase profit at the expense of working people union organisation itself had to be attacked. Unions were seen a s a burden on business. 

That’s why Thatcher brought in the new anti-trade union laws – to undermine the effectiveness of unions to be able to represent their members.

Yet as a society we have never been richer – but the wealth is increasingly being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

As a result of the onslaught on trade unionism – and the failure of the union leaderships to respond – many trade unions suffered falling membership and declining influence. But in the past few years we’ve seen a resurgence in the idea of collective action and in the belief in trade unions as organisations created to fight for workers interests.

These changes have begun to be reflected in many ways – more industrial action, more battles for trade union rights, the election of a succession of left wing trade union leaders and on the political front the election in 1997 of a Labour government.

Unions hoped that would signal a change in working lives. And whilst there have been some gains unions have welcomed the fundamental balance of power in the workplace has not shifted. The Labour government has been beholden to the interests of big business. Working people have become increasingly disillusioned with a continuation of Tory policies on privatisation, public services, pay and in particular the failure of Labour to remove the anti-trade union laws. 

This timely book sets about identifying the processes that underpin the problems we face on a daily basis. It exposes the economic system that gave birth to trade unionism and the key episodes that shaped the British and international economic landscape. It does so through the history of the development of the trade union movement from its birth to the Tolpuddle Martyrs, New Unionism, Chartism to the bankrupt policies of partnership and the struggles of today.

It does not view episodes as isolated events shaped by great individuals but as part of a process of increasing exploitation. It provides the path from the battle against immediate problems to the tasks confronting trade unions today.

The rebirth of militant trade unionism – reflected in the election of series of new, more radical general secretaries, dubbed the awkward squad by the media – shows that more and more workers are drawing conclusions that they need to seek other means to protect their conditions. But recent events also show more than that. Developments on both the industrial and increasingly on the political front show workers are drawing broader conclusions and asking broader questions.

They are drawing the conclusion that fighting wage cuts or redundancies in just one company or just one industry or even in just one country is no longer enough. In order to secure lasting change they have to win political change. In order to win political change they have to have a political voice.

Unions in Britain formed the Labour Party as their political voice. Today’s Labour government is failing to speak up for the people who elected them. Unions are now beginning to demand more in return for their money and support and organising to reclaim Labour for policies which advance the cause of labour.

If we are to avoid the mistakes of the past we must learn the lessons of our history. Through that process we can arm ourselves with the policies and programme necessary to achieve change on both the industrial and political front. Without a fundamental understanding that our problems flow from the existence of an economic system that puts the needs of shareholders above those of the workers, the drive for profit above the satisfaction of need then our movement is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Rob Sewell’s book is not just another history of the trade union movement. It is a history rooted in a Marxist analysis of the struggles of working people in Britain. The struggle for better conditions at work, the struggle against exploitation and ultimately the struggle to transform the trade unions and labour movement in to a fighting force capable of changing society.

For all who are active in the movement today it is a vital weapon in our battle for a better world.