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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
recent past, this revolutionary side of Trades Council
action has often not been very evident.
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.
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.
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
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."
second congress in 1869, forty delegates attended, still mostly
from trades councils. For the first time delegates from the London Trades
Councils were present.
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
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
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.
1895, the more conservative elements retaliated and were able
to get the trades councils excluded from direct affiliation-ostensibly because
this involved dual representation.
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
(republished from the Militant, 18 May
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.
Britain: Back to boom and bust by Eric Hollies (July 21, 2008)
Britain: Sixty years of the National Health Service by Kate Smart and Barbara Humphries (July 7, 2008)
Britain: Something has to give by Socialist Appeal Editorial Board (July 3, 2008)
Britain: Black swans and the economic crisis by Michael Roberts (June 24, 2008)
Labour’s Meltdown quickens – A return to the 1970s for British Workers? by Rob Sewell (June 13, 2008)