Chapter 7

TRADE UNION ADVANCE AND THE FIGHT TO PREVENT WAR 1936-1939

By 1936 national unemployment had dropped below 2 million and trade unions could again advance. National trade union membership rose from a low of 4.4 million in 1933 to 5.3 million in 1936.

Lessons had been learned from the rise of fascism. Trade unions were increasingly involved in foreign affairs and the development of common action between Socialists and Communists had led to a change of Comintern line to that of the United Front. However, both the TUC and the Labour Party remained bitterly anti-Communist and this was reflected in the Trades Council.

During 1936 new Means Test regulations were enforced. The Trades Council took the matter up with the Minister and their local M.P.'s. While some unemployed would benefit from slightly increased scales, others would be paid less on scales that were already at starvation level. The opportunity was also taken to object to the principle of the Means Test which had been instigated in times of financial stringency which had now passed, the Trades Council claimed.

On trade union education, the Council had sent five delegates to a TUC week-end school for women; also a Trades Council delegate had won a place at Ruskin College for a year. The recruitment campaign requested by the Council from the Midland Federation of Trade Councils was organised in 1936.

In October the Council organised with other bodies the catering for the Blind Marchers as they passed through the town on their way to London. The next month the Lancashire contingent of a Hunger March arrived in Wolverhampton. They were assisted in cash and kind. The Trades Council thanked all those who had assisted, including the Holiday Camp Committee, who had authorised the use of the camp for the night, the Transport Committee, the Public Assistance Committee, the police and many business firms and private persons.

The Trades Council also pledged itself to assist the presentation at the Grand Theatre of the Six Men of Dorset (a play about the Tolpuddle Martyrs) in February of the following year.

Political matters also loomed large. The Franco invasion of Spain had begun in July and already the Trades Council was giving moral and financial support to the Spanish workers' government. The most important political event had been one which had 'created history in the work of the Council'. It was the sending of an official Trades Council delegate to Russia. This matter had been broached early in the year and an appeal for funds met with a 'magnificent response'. From eight people nominated the president of the Trades Council A.W. Beck was elected. A smoking concert was held to welcome him back and he later gave a report of his visit to the Council. He said his only regret was that so few trade union branches had asked him for a report back.

From these events it would seem that the Trades Council was moving to the left; certainly its personnel were. From 1937 Ted Lane, who served a record 50 years as a Labour councillor, was a left-wing president. The old moderate stalwarts Allport, the secretary, and Jimmy Whittaker were still present, but on the EC were Harold Marsh and Sid Minshall, both Communists. The number of branches affiliated to the Trades Council was 47. This included 8 AEU branches (there had been a maximum of 13 branches just after the war). There were 8 NUR branches reflecting the importance of Wolverhampton as a railway centre. The Workers Union had disappeared into the Transport and General Workers Union, but this union was represented only by one branch. A surprising affiliate was the Pelsall Miners. The National League of the Blind was also affiliated; this was all that remained of the heady dreams before the General Strike that Trades Councils should include all social organisations in a town.

The still strong Liberal influence in the town sometimes supported progressive policies. For instance, PAC scales were at first higher in Wolverhampton than elsewhere and this continued for several years until the government forced the operation of the lower national scales. The Liberal M.P. Gerald Mander, naturally, was active in pressing on a reluctant Trades Council schemes of co-operation between employers and workers. He also supported the expansion of welfare measures. By 1937 he was sponsoring a new Factory Bill in Parliament. He met the Trades Council and promised to support the following amendments and additions:

  • A 40-hour week and prohibition of overtime for all young people.
  • Adoption of the Washington convention on maternity.
  • No discrimination between the sexes.
  • Industrial superannuation.
  • Holidays for all workers or none.
  • A free medical service for the unemployed.
  • Better medical services in factories.
  • More Factory Inspectors (with free access).
  • No overtime while tradesmen are unemployed.
  • Intimidation with regard to overtime to be made a criminal offence.

Other domestic matters taken up in 1937 included holiday pay for all municipal employees and also a forty hour week; increased extended benefits to the unemployed; extra benefits to widows and aged pensioners; direct labour for the building of Council houses.

In June a well attended and enthusiastic conference of all trades unions whether affiliated or not discussed 'the best means of organising the working classes of the town and district'. The final response, however, was not sufficient to carry out the proposals. Opposition to fascism was again the leading political theme of the year. Fascism in Spain and the Far East had 'received due consideration'. The government's appeasement policy of Non-Intervention in Spain was being contested by a demand 'that the British government should lead the way, either to stop the aggression... or that a free hand be given to the Spanish government to purchase arms for the defence of democracy'. The Trades Council also sent congratulations to the USSR on the completion of 20 years of Socialist construction.

Obituaries for the year included the notable ones of Emma Sproson (the woman with the Red Flag) and G.R.Cocking, a previous secretary. Allport concludes his 1937 Report:

Another year has drawn to its close and witnesses to the slaughter of innocents at the rapacious cravings of... private gain using in many cases, especially at home, elected governmental powers to suppress and deprive the toiler of his just reward. On the Continent also, the workers are being oppressed at the whim of a dictator. In England at least we still have sufficient liberty left to make safe the legitimate and rightful position of the worker. Will the worker use it in time?

Not very elegant, but the right sentiments.

In 1939 the Means Test was still being attacked by the Trades Council and efforts to get PAC scales raised were unavailing. A May Day demonstration was held after a lapse of several years which was moderately successful. It was usual for the Trades Council to have an invited speaker at every other meeting. Those for 1938 included Alan Davies on Transport Problems, A.A. Beach on the Aftercare of Children, Jim Simmons, the prospective parliamentary Labour candidate for Wolverhampton West, on Labour Education, a speaker on Aspects of Broadcasting and another on the

Work of the Left Book Club which flourished at the time in Wolver­hampton with local discussion groups.

1938 was the year of Munich and the betrayal of Czechoslovakia. Resolutions were sent to the German and Japanese embassies as aggression escalated. The growing campaigns for Aid to Spain and Food for Spain caught the imagination of that generation as the war in Vietnam was to capture ours. Allport ended his Report:

Affairs the world over are getting more critical. Each day that passes reveals fresh dangers to the democracies of the world and consequently more hardships and sufferings for the workers, all due to the greed for possession.... It is within the power of the workers to decide whether the results of their Labour shall be used for good or evil. To lay down tools or arms and appeal to the profit takers or plundering empire builders for peace and plenty for all is wrong! Land, Labour & Tools are essential to protect these needs against the aggressors, either within or without the workers' homeland.

The working class forces opposed to Appeasement had now been mobilised. In 1939 the long struggle to avert war ended in defeat. The year had been one of half-hearted preparations for war and, as in 1914, the Trades Council had to determine its attitude to the war. The question first arose at the beginning of the year when the Council debated whether or not to co-operate in Voluntary Service, Air Raid Precautions and other matters of war preparation. 'The decision was in favour of co-operation from the standpoint of the preservation of workers interests and a reiteration of the Council's sustained claim to the workers' rightful inheritance' the final resolution stated. On September 3rd War Emergency Powers Regulations immediately came into force and the government took control of all essential services. Local committees were set up to administer these regulations and the Trades Council applied for representation, particularly on the Food Control committee.

To summarise the period between the wars, the Trades Council had played an important role in opposing Neville Chamberlain's policy of Appeasement and had supported the movements of resistance to aggression, notably in Manchuria, Abyssinia and the mass movement of Aid for Spain. The response of Wolverhampton workers to the mass unemployment from 1920 had been outstanding, and the conduct of the General Strike heroic. But after these defeats and with the reappearance of mass unemployment throughout the 1930s militancy never again reached these levels. It was the 1939-45 war which would restore confidence in the Labour movement and lead to the Labour government of 1945.