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

“Labour in the War”

“Peace seldom reigns over all Europe, and never in all quarters of the world”, stated the military strategist Clausewitz.[1] In February 1939, following the bloody suppression of the Spanish Republic, the “democratic” government of Britain recognised the fascist regime of General Franco. In August, Hitler’s Germany signed a Non-Aggression Pact with Stalin’s Russia, resulting in the invasion and partition of Poland. Hitler was determined to conquer Europe, and this posed a direct threat to British interests. Within a matter of days of the invasion and carve up of Poland, Britain declared war on Germany. It was a recognition that the past policy of appeasement and containment heralded by the Chamberlain government had failed, and the “phoney war” was finally over.

In order to mobilise public opinion for the war against Germany, the British Establishment was forced to cover up its past pro-fascist sympathies. Before the War, Churchill and sections of the ruling class openly admired Hitler and Mussolini as a bulwark against socialist revolution. Montagu Norman, the head of the Bank of England, helped to finance Hitler. Lord Beaverbrook, the owner of the Daily Express, the Sunday Express, and the London Evening Standard, actively backed the Nazis. Viscount Rothermere, the owner of the Daily Mail, also gave them support. On 8 January 1934, our “patriotic” Viscount went so far as to publish “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” on the front page of the Mail. However, as soon as German imperialism came into direct conflict with British interests, they soon changed their tune and dressed themselves up in anti-fascist clothes. The war against Germany conveniently became a patriotic “war against fascism”.

As soon as war was declared, without any hesitation, the Labour and trade union leaders immediately offered their assistance to the Conservative prime minister Neville Chamberlain, but stopped short, for the time being, of entering the National government. This, however, would change within a matter of months. In any case, from the very beginning, TUC representatives were stationed in a whole range of wartime governmental committees and inspectorates. Strikes, at least for the duration of the war, were to be prevented at all costs. From this moment onwards, the integration of the trade union apparatus with the state was to become complete.

The paraphernalia of the war economy had to be rapidly constructed and all restrictions on war production swept aside. Parallel with the trade union bureaucracy’s incorporation into the state, went their reinforced collaboration with big business. In October 1939, the Joint Advisory Council was established for this purpose, with equal representation from the Employers’ Confederation and the TUC. Already the Schedule of Reserve Occupations had been put into place, and in the strategically decisive engineering industry, agreement had been reached for the “relaxation of customs” between the Amalgamated Engineering Union and the Engineering Employers.

From September 1939 onwards, the adult population was mobilised for the war effort and conscription had been extended to all males between the ages of 18 and 41 years. As in the First World War, this gave rise to an immediate shortage of skilled labour, forcing the introduction of measures to “dilute” the workforce. Such measures involved a massive change in working practises and the rapid introduction of new machinery. The Essential Work Order Regulation 58A (1941) required the registration of all skilled workers for direction into “essential” categories. This militarisation of labour enabled the bosses to transfer workers at the drop of a hat to “essential” war jobs on lower rates of pay. Compulsory arbitration was introduced to prevent strikes, while Order in Council no. 1305 made strikes and lockouts illegal. The inclusion of “lockouts” in the legislation was mere window dressing to camouflage the attack on organised labour. Despite this law, during the first few months of the war there were 900 strikes, all of which were illegal. Not surprisingly, few workers were prosecuted.

The rapid shift to war production resulted in a dramatic expansion of the engineering industry. As a consequence, the membership of the AEU rose to 825,000 by 1943, to become the second largest union in the country. From December 1941, women were progressively conscripted into industry or the services. By 1942, reflecting the influx of female labour into industry, the AEU attracted some 139,000 women recruits. The involvement of women in work was very progressive, as it drew them into the class struggle in increasing numbers. While this shortage of labour strengthened the bargaining position of the working class, the trade union leaders ensured that this advantage would not be put into effect.

But one thing did not change during the war, namely the bosses’ continuous drive to maximise their profits. Above all, they sought to take full advantage of the “dilution” of labour and the compliance of the trade union tops. The coal owners’ mouthpiece argued for a national wages policy “imitating the Nazi system”. They attempted to carry on as they had done in the past, but given the shortage of skilled labour, workers refused to take things lying down. As the war went on, this situation gave rise to discontent on the shop floor. According to Jack Jones, a young trade union activist at the time, “Management continued to give no quarter, trade unions were still regarded as an ‘alien force’. What we were doing was challenging the divine right of management, and they didn’t like it. Shop stewards used their training to challenge unreasonable decisions, to question bad conditions. The ‘divine right of management’ we countered with the ‘divine right of discontent’.”[2]

The trade union leaders pleaded with Chamberlain to consider the repeal of the Trade Dispute Act, but without any success. Churchill insisted repeal would be too “controversial”, and the matter was quickly dropped. The union leaders did not want to cause offence, let alone upset the government. By May 1940, the Chamberlain government collapsed following the successful German offensive in Scandinavia. When Churchill was asked to form a new Coalition government, he used the occasion to draw into the government representatives of organised labour. The beast of 1926 had now become their “friend”. Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood, Leader and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, joined the War Cabinet. Several other Ministers were drawn from the tops of the trade unions. In particular, Churchill brought in Ernest Bevin, general secretary of the powerful T&GWU, as Minister of Labour. This display of inter-class unity in the “national interest” was essential for the government in the pursuit of its war aims. The need to secure the “Home Front” was vital. “The effectiveness of trade union leadership must be preserved least dissatisfied members follow upstart leaders who ride on the crest of grievances”, stated The Times.[3] While Churchill ran the military side of things, Labour Ministers were charged with responsibility for mobilising manpower and supplies – and dealing with any labour unrest. Although it was an important division of labour, it was the capitalist oligarchy that ran Britain which called all the shots.

Integral Part

The trade union leaders now became important public figures, and an integral part of the war machine. They were aspiring statesmen, who yearned for Establishment recognition. They constituted “the rise of the ancient lowly to authority and power”, to use the words of John Burns. This fact was acknowledged by Ernest Bevin: “We represent probably the most vital factor in the state: without our people this war cannot be won, nor can the life of the country be carried on,” he noted. Within fifteen days of taking office, Bevin had called a meeting of 2,000 leading trade union officials from the largest 150 trade unions in Central Hall, London. It was the biggest gathering of union officials since the General Strike, but their purpose was entirely different. Class war had been substituted by world war. Nevertheless, in a distorted way, this meeting also showed the potential power of organised labour, which was now harnessed, care of the union leaders, to Churchill’s war machine. “Thereafter there was complete co-operation between government, employers and trade unions at every level”, stated historian Francis Williams.

Under these new conditions, the Shop Stewards’ Movement, which had been in decline, quickly re-established itself in the larger engineering factories and combines. However, fearing this new development, least it become a focus of opposition, the union leadership strove to integrate the “semi-official” Shop Stewards’ Movement into the newly-established Joint Production Committees, representing both workers and employers. Given the perception that the war was against fascism, the workers were prepared to toil long hours for the war effort. Nevertheless, they constantly came up against the demands and interests of the employers who were eager to boost profits at their expense.

At the beginning, the only organised forces that opposed the war were the Independent Labour Party, the Communist Party, and the small groups of Trotskyists, primarily the Workers International League. Although the war was regarded as a continuation of the imperialist war of 1914-18, the British ruling class hid its real intentions and aims under the cover of a “war against fascism”.

The leadership of the British Communists during the Thirties had slavishly followed every twist and turn of the Kremlin on all questions. Originally, in the first few days of the war, the Communist Party supported it as a “just war” against fascism. This appeared as a logical continuation of their Popular Front line. However, they had failed to appreciate one thing: Stalin’s accommodation with Hitler in the Soviet-German Pact signed a few days before the outbreak of world war. So to support Stalin’s new friendship with Hitler, the CP was forced to change its pro-war policy within days, and come out in opposition to Britain’s war with Germany. For the next two years, the CP leaders effectively campaigned for a policy of “peace on Hitler’s terms”. The Daily Worker, for instance, justified Stalin’s military conquest of Eastern Poland with the headline: “Red Army Takes Bread to Starving Peasants”, whilst ignoring Hitler’s seizure of the remainder of the country.

The ILP’s anti-war opposition was based primarily on pacifist lines as in 1914-18, and a revulsion against war in general. Pacifism was a long-standing tradition within the British Labour movement. In the First World War, it expressed itself in the protest of those refusing to serve in the armed forces, namely the Conscientious Objectors. Courageously, they preferred to go to prison rather than answer the call-up. However, this action served to effectively cut them off from the growing anti-war feelings at the front. This was the line supported by the leaders of the ILP at the time. Even Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden took this pacifist position. But pacifism, in face of the menace of fascism, could not answer the problem of how to defeat Hitler and defend the democratic rights of the working class, and so had little influence on the broad mass of workers.

The Trotskyist opposition to the war, on the other hand, was based upon revolutionary opposition to imperialism and its aims. The Second World War was regarded as a continuation of the First World War, as a struggle between imperialist blocs for world domination. However, the workers were not pacifist. The working class correctly recognised the need to fight Hitler fascism and to defend their democratic rights and organisations. This “defencist” feeling was particularly prominent after the fall of France in the summer of 1940. As a result, the Workers International League (WIL) advocated a revolutionary military policy, attempting to link up the “defencist” outlook of workers with the need to fight for workers’ interests. Although small in number, the WIL began to make its mark as the war dragged on, and in particular, as the CP leaders became, after 1941, the most enthusiastic cheerleaders for the Churchill government.

The programme of the WIL not only included day-to-day demands relevant to workers, but a whole series relating to the war. They advocated clearing out the reactionary, pro-fascist, and anti-Labour officer caste in the armed forces and Home Guard; the election of officers by the ranks; the establishment of military schools by the trade unions at the expense of the state for the training of worker-officers; the arming of the workers under the control of workers’ committees elected in the factories, unions and in the local communities; for the defence of the democratic rights of the workers from reactionary attacks by the enemies of the working class at home and abroad. It also declared total opposition to the Churchill government, for Labour to break the Coalition, and a general election to put Labour in power on a socialist programme with the aim of pursuing a “revolutionary war” against Hitler. This revolutionary programme found an echo amongst a growing layer of advanced workers that was disillusioned with the war effort and the erosion of living standards, and who in the past had looked to the Communist Party as an alternative.

June 1941

This became especially the case after June 1941 when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. This caused the Communist Party leaders to change their position, and come out fervently in support of the war under Churchill’s leadership. Harry Pollitt, the new general secretary of the CP (who had been ousted in 1939 when the line changed), affirmed, that “in supporting the Churchill government we do it wholeheartedly and without reservations”. Yesterday’s arch-enemy became today’s bosom friend. Pollitt continued, “A fight for a united national front means support for Churchill’s government and all measures for a common victory”.

From then on the Communist Party became ultra-patriotic and demanded increased production, rigorous labour discipline, further dilution of labour, full support for Bevin’s militarisation of labour, increased overtime, and opposition to all strikes. They became the most vociferous supporters of the war, even producing pamphlets in red, white and blue. The Daily Worker, which was previously banned, now became legal and described D-Day as “a People’s Invasion”. In place of class solidarity and internationalism, the CP leaders held the German people as a whole responsible for the war crimes of Hitler, and gave credence to the reactionary chauvinist slogan, “the only good German is a dead German”.

Together with the rest of the trade union leadership, Arthur Horner, the leader of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, lambasted miners for absenteeism. The Communist Party leaders urged the full weight of the law to be used against strikes in the coalfields. They also called upon the Coalition government to rigorously implement the Emergency Powers Act, which they had described earlier as “powers of the most unlimited and dictatorial character.”

Despite this stance, industrial unrest grew considerably as workers became increasingly disillusioned with the war effort. “Stakhanovism did not export well to the British shop floor”, noted Richard Croucher.[4] In April 1942, when the Ministry of Labour attempted to transfer 400 skilled men to private companies at reduced rates of pay from the Royal Ordnance Factory in Nottingham, the workforce occupied the factory. Young militants led this movement, members of the WIL, which managed to secure the backing of the AEU executive committee.

Five months later a bitter strike broke out in the Tyneside shipyards over management attempts to implement changes in working practices without consultation. Despite attempts to undermine the strike by the trade union leaders, the Tyneside strikers remained solid. After 18 days the bosses were forced to sue for the strikers’ terms.

The battles in the coalfield were even more vociferous. Given the terrible working conditions in the pits and the pressure of the coal-owners for greater productivity, the miners traditionally took a more militant stand. By 1944, strikes across industry had reached their highest level since 1932 – and two thirds of these were in the coal industry. In 1943, half the days lost through strikes were in the pits. In fact there were more individual strikes in the mining industry – all of them unofficial – than in any year since the beginning of the century. This was a striking testimony to the stark working conditions in the coalfields and the discontent they engendered.

In a House of Commons debate in October 1943, MPs from the coalfield districts tried to explain the dire situation in their areas. One of them, Seymour Cocks, MP for Broxtowe, summed up the mood: “The state of feeling among the miners at the moment is not placid,” he said, “it is developing into a raging maelstrom, a foaming Niagara of discontent… Unless the causes of discontent are removed grave events are possible; unless they are removed I think it is the duty of Labour Ministers to leave the government.”[5]

The government’s attempt to overcome coal shortages was to employ the use of compulsory labour in the mines. The Emergency Powers (Defence) Act and the Essential Work Order of 1940 were used to reinforce this compulsion. The government used these powers against the miners at the Betteshanger pit in Kent, where three of the branch officials were jailed and over 1,000 workers were fined, the first large-scale prosecutions under Order 1305. “Miners at Valleyfield in Fife, and Cortonwood and Hatfield Main near Doncaster were fined for illegal strikes, and at the Tareni colliery in South Wales strikers were imprisoned for a month. By March 1945 no less than 18,436 had been punished under the Essential Works Order for lateness or absenteeism, and 1,323 of them had been jailed. Miners accounted for a horrifying number of these. Yet not a single one of the 127 employers prosecuted for infractions of the labour laws in the whole of industry up to February 1944 had ever seen the inside of a prison”, wrote Bornstein and Richardson.[6]

Nevertheless, the workers were not going to face the brunt of the employers’ attacks lying down. Between 1942 and 1943, a whole rash of strikes affected the Yorkshire coalfield. At Cortonwood, 1,500 miners struck against wage cuts. Again, wage cuts were met with mass strikes in South Wales and South Yorkshire. In July 1943 Bevin announced a law to force young workers into the mines, at lower rates of pay (the so-called “Bevin boys”). Again, this was deeply unpopular amongst the miners and met with stiff resistance. The apprentices, with support from the Trotskyists of the WIL (which had just changed its name to the Revolutionary Communist Party), led a strike in March 1944. 5,000 apprentices stopped work on Tyneside, which soon spread to the Wear and the Tees. 20,000, in turn, joined them on the Clyde and 1,000 in Huddersfield.

“Bevin naturally watched the strike movement with growing alarm”, noted Michael Foot. “Some other smaller unofficial strikes were taking place in other industries, among engineering apprentices and gasworkers. Newspapers reported that bands of Trotskyists, who rejected the Communist line of full support for the war effort, were among the instigators. Bevin said later that the nation was wavering on the edge of a volcano which might affect three million workers.”

On 5 April he attended a meeting of the General Council of the TUC. He told them that as a result of the strikes, “which in his judgement were being incited by persons outside the industry concerned”, a paralysis was developing in some of the country’s major industries. Under the existing law he had no effective power to deal with incitement to strike, but he informed the General Council, this situation had to be rectified immediately!

The Daily Mail and the capitalist press were not alone in embroidering these “reds under the bed” stories. William Lawther, president of the miners’ union, had also suggested that the Trotskyites were the reason for the growing industrial discontent. But they were ignoring the real mood in the working class on the ground. “Mr Ernest Bevin and the rest of the government are obviously looking for scapegoats for the mess they have made of the mining industry”, stated Aneurin Bevan. But Ernest Bevin, rather than deal with the real causes of discontent, chose to act against the Trotskyist “menace”. The government intervened and arrested four Revolutionary Communist leaders, Jock Haston, Heaton Lee, Ann Keen and Roy Tearse. They were imprisoned under the anti-union Trade Dispute Act of 1927. However, their sentences were soon quashed on a technicality after their case was taken up by a mass campaign headed by James Maxton and Nye Bevan.

In 1942 the number of working days lost through strikes increased to 1,530,000, in 1943 to 1,810,000, and in 1944 to 3,710,000. Strikes gripped the coalfields despite the pleas from the union leaders, which culminated in a strike of 100,000 South Wales miners in March 1944. The exact number of men involved was not published at the time. In fact, more men were out on strike than at any period since 1926.

Bevin had demanded tougher legislation to deal with unofficial strikes and the General Council eventually agreed unanimously to back legal penalties against those responsible. Defence Regulation 1AA, which made incitement to strike unlawful, stated:

“No person shall declare, instigate, or make any other person to take part in, or shall otherwise act in furtherance of, any strike among persons engaged in the performance of essential services, or any lockout of persons so engaged.”

The penalty for breaking this law was five years’ penal servitude, or a £500 fine, or both. The new regulation was issued on 17 April – as it happened, six days after a mass Yorkshire coal strike had ended. It could be considered the most powerful legal weapon of any government since the Combination Acts.

On the international front, the World War was turning out very differently than expected by the British politicians or Uncle Sam. With Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union, the imperialist powers, especially Britain and America, had hoped that Stalin and Hitler would slug it out until they were mutually exhausted. This would allow the imperialist allies to step in and mop up. As Truman bluntly stated in 1941: “If we see that Germany is winning the war we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany and in that way let them kill as many as possible.”[7] But they completely miscalculated. The war in Europe had reduced itself to a bloody conflict between the Soviet Union and Hitler. But the incredible counter-offensive by the Russians, backed up by the superiority of a nationalised planned economy, stopped the German advance in its tracks at Stalingrad. As the Red Army pushed back Hitler’s armies, the imperialists delayed launching the Second Front for as long as possible. But fearful of the Russians sweeping through the whole of Europe and ending up on the Channel, they finally relented in an attempt to hold back the advance of the Red Army.

In 1944 and 1945, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin finally met at different conferences of Teheran, Moscow, Yalta and Potsdam to agree on the division of Europe into spheres of influence. In his Memoirs, Churchill describes a meeting with Stalin in Moscow: “The moment was apt for business, so I said, ‘Let us settle about our affairs in the Balkans. Your armies are in Rumania and Bulgaria. We have interests, missions, and agents there. Don’t let us get at cross-purposes in small ways. So far as Britain and Russia are concerned, how would it do for you to have ninety per cent predominance in Rumania, for us to have ninety per cent of the say in Greece, and go fifty-fifty about Yugoslavia?’.... At length I said, ‘might it not be thought rather cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues, so fateful to millions of the people, in such an off-hand manner? Let us burn the paper.’ ‘No, you keep it’ said Stalin.”[8]

At the end of the war a revolutionary wave swept throughout Europe. “The collapse of that New Order imparted a great revolutionary momentum in Europe”, stated The Economist.[9] “It stimulated all the vague and confused but nevertheless radical and socialist impulses of the masses.” In Britain, certainly the end of the war signalled a massive radicalisation of the working class. The bulk of workers turned towards their traditional organisations, bringing the Labour Party to power in the biggest electoral landslide in Labour history. The “great War leader” Churchill, who opposed the Labour Party at the polls, was left with his mouth open. Labour swept to power on a revolutionary wave of hope and optimism. Millions of workers in industry and those returning from the front were sick of the conditions of the 1930s and demanded fundamental change. In the general election of July 1945, the Tories under Churchill were wiped out as Labour swept the board, securing an unprecedented 393 seats in the Commons.

Throughout the war the trade union officialdom acted as another arm of the capitalist state. “The annual reports of the TUC General Council”, notes Henry Pelling, “began to read like the records of some special government department responsible for coordinating policy in the social and industrial spheres.” At every level, through different government committees, the trade union bureaucracy was intertwined with the state apparatus. The prestige of the trade union hierarchy had been greatly enhanced in these years, and it was a role they were most eager to promote. Bevin, for example, slipped very easily from Minister of Labour in Churchill’s government to Foreign Secretary in the new post-war Labour government.

The war years had brought about great changes. Membership of the trade unions, as in the First World War, grew impressively. Total numbers rose from 6,053,000 in 1938 (4,669,000 affiliated to the TUC) to 7,803,000 in 1945 (6,671,000 affiliated). The Transport and General Workers grew to over a million members, while the Miners’ Federation fell to fourth place with 602,000 members. The number of female trade unionists nearly doubled between 1938 and 1944, to 1.8 million.

The mass of workers looked to the Labour government to solve its problems and carry through their promises of a new socialist society. “The significance of the election is that the British people have voted deliberately and consciously for a new world, both at home and abroad”, stated Nye Bevan. Resting on this radicalised mood, and with the ruling class languishing on the ropes, the Labour leaders could have put an end to capitalism painlessly and peacefully. To the great relief of the ruling class, by tinkering with the system instead of overthrowing it, the Labour government ended up throwing British capitalism a lifeline. The Labour leaders once again threw away a golden opportunity to change society – and the working class were again asked to pay the price of this failure.


[1] Clausewitz, On War, p.168, London 1968

[2] Jack Jones, Union Man – an autobiography, p. 102, London 1986

[3] The Times, 25th January 1940

[4] Croucher, Engineers at War 1939-1945, p.143, London 1982

[5] Quoted in Foot, op. cit, p.442

[6] Bornstein and Richardson, Two Steps Back, page 114, London 1982

[7] Quoted in Armstrong, Glyn, Harrisson, Capitalism Since World War Two, p.47, London 1984

[8] Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy, p.227-8, London 1953

[9] The Economist, 1 December 1945