A HISTORY OF
WOLVERHAMPTON, BILSTON & DISTRICT
TRADES UNION COUNCIL
by George J Barnsby
© Wolverhampton, Bilston & District Trades Union Council
ISBN 0 9523960 0 9
Published by Wolverhampton, Bilston & District TUC, PO Box 2917, Wolverhampton, WV2 2YA
The decision to publish a history of our Trades' Union Council was easily taken. That it appears some three years after the 125th Anniversary that it was intended to mark demonstrates that it was less easily translated into practice. This is no reflection on George Barnsby who applied himself enthusiastically to the task of writing it and completed the project on time. Thanks also need to be given to Andrew Goodall for all the effort that he has put into the typing up and laying out of this book. The problems come later as we grappled with the organisational and financial problems of getting it into print. Nonetheless, it has been an important and worthwhile endeavour to set down in print the 125 year history from 1865 to 1990 of this one strand of working class struggle in Wolverhampton and the Black Country.
In highlighting the setbacks and successes of the trade union movement over that period it provides an historical context and perspective for the problems which the movement faces today. History does not provide us with a blueprint for the future but it does provide the examples of courage, fortitude and determination of working people that can see us through the difficult times.
The election of a fourth successive anti-trade union Conservative government challenges the movement to produce policies and a leadership adequate to the task. Three million unemployed, opting out of hospitals and schools, attacks on public spending, the destruction of the manufacturing base of the economy, attacks on employment and trade union rights and much more to come as the government grapples with the problems of a massive budget deficit, demonstrates the scale of the task before us.
Of the many issues the book highlights, possibly the most important is that the future which we face is determined by our actions as much as by the actions of others. Workers, trade unions and trade union councils can play an immensely important role in determining the future. By working and fighting together, by defending jobs, by demanding decent homes, education, health and social services for all, by opposing racism we can build a better future. It is that hope that has sustained the movement throughout its history. So long as it is there, then so also will be the organisation and struggle that can bring it about.
Two issues stand out before all others as the keys to success in the current period. Firstly there is the need to rebuild the manufacturing base which can create the wealth which in turn can address the social needs of our society. In the long run, no society whether capitalist or socialist, can spend money that it does not have. If we rule out economic imperialism and the massive exploitations of workers abroad as acceptable sources of wealth, then we have no option but to create it ourselves. A sound manufacturing base is an essential ingredient of long-term economic recovery.
Even more importantly, we have the spectre of racism and fascism once again casting its shadow across Europe. Its presence is felt in this country and marked by a rising tide of racist attacks. As in the recent past it is likely to become even more apparent if Conservative power is seen to wane. Elsewhere in Europe the trend is even more marked, notably in Germany where the collapse of the GDR and an influx of refugees from Eastern Europe and the former Yugoslavia have produced economic and social tensions which are providing a breeding ground that fascists have been quick to exploit. Stemming this incipient fascist tide is the essential priority for the movement today. It is an area which history has much to teach us. We know the price of complacency and appeasement.
Alan Millington (President) Dick Scroop (Secretary) 1994
THE ORIGINS OF WOLVERHAMPTON TRADES COUNCIL
The Black Country in 1865
When the Wolverhampton Trades Council was formed in September 1865, the Black Country was at the peak of its productive capacity. In that year, 10 million tons of coal was hewn from Black Country mines representing about one-seventh of all coal mined in Britain.
The Black Country was created by Abraham Darby's invention in 1709 of the smelting of iron with coke. The smelting of iron with coke led to the development of the Black Country coal field. Here was the unique and magnificent 10-yard coal seam rising almost to the surface at some places, but always near enough to the surface to give shallow pits of a depth of only about 300 feet. The great 30-foot wall of coal comprised layers of differing quality coal interspersed with layers of clay, shale or iron ore. The abundant supplies of limestone have their permanent memorials in the fantastic caves and grottoes of the Wren's Nest at Dudley.
Hence there were all the raw materials to transform the area into one of the greatest industrial complexes in the world. From 1757 when John Wilkinson turned out the first coke smelted iron of the district at his Bradley furnace the green fields disappeared to be replaced by the familiar mountains of refuse from mines and slag from blast furnaces. A permanent pall of smoke descended created by the blast furnace, the myriad steam engines and the never ending piles of burning coal in the process of coking and the smouldering iron stone calcining. Here, travellers said, day was turned into night by thick, acrid smoke and night into day by the flames of the blazing furnaces. This was the Black Country. For a century after 1750 development proceeded by tempestuous bursts of economic activity occasioned by wars and new uses for iron culminating in the building of the railways, first of Britain and then of the world. Between such bursts of expansion came long, catastrophic periods of slump when mines and factories closed and working people starved.
From the middle of the 1860s, the basic industries began to decline. Black Country iron ore production had reached its peak in 1858 and by 1883 the Earl of Dudley was said to be the only iron master using Black Country ore. In 1856 Henry Bessemer invented his famous process of cheap steel. Black Country iron masters would not believe that the days of wrought iron were ended and could not adapt themselves to steel production. The Great Depression of the 1870s completed what Bessemer had started and by 1900 most of the ironmasters had closed their works.
Coalmining was also meeting with insuperable difficulties. The great coal seam had been exploited in an incredibly wasteful fashion. Small, shallow pits were rarely more than 300 yards apart and it was easier to sink new shafts than to build and drain extensive workings from the existing pits. The streams of the area became damaged and the water, instead of being carried off, filled the depressions of old workings and gradually found its way back into the mines. By 1865 50 million gallons of water were being pumped every 24 hours. In 1873 a Mines Drainage Act was passed levying a rate on every ton of mineral raised, but problems worsened. By 1919 sixty-one tons of water was being pumped for every ton of mineral raised. The coalfield, by then resembling a vast, waterlogged rabbit warren, ceased production.
From the above it will be seen that the Wolverhampton Trades Council came into existence at the peak of Black Country development, but from its inception faced the serious problems of an economy in transition.
Working class conditions in the Black Country
The 12-hour shift was usual in most Black Country industries with a six-day week, but by 1860 there was the beginning of a movement to finish work on Saturdays at 4pm. Such hours, particularly in the basic industries, were clearly injurious to health and workers used traditional methods to combat this. Employers complained bitterly of the practice of St.Monday and even St.Tuesday when workers 'played' instead of working, but the lack of any living tradition of this 'restrictive practice' is strange.
Wages were paid irregularly. Once a fortnight was the normal 'reckoning', but this could be extended to a month when times were bad and 7 to 8 weeks was not unknown. This favoured the infamous system of paying in truck which was prevalent in mining and the iron trades, also in the domestic industries. Prices were more than 50 per cent higher in the Tommy shop. Throughout the nineteenth century long and sustained campaigns were waged against these evils, but despite the agitation and the fact that it was always illegal to pay in truck, the Tommy shop seems to have disappeared only with the abandonment of the coalfield.
Until 1867 Factory Acts applied only to textile and allied industries and except for the prohibition of women and children under 10 working underground in mines, there was no legal check to child labour, hours of work or dangerous machinery in the Black Country. In 1862 children of eight were employed to draw up the doors of iron furnaces for which they were paid 6d and 8d a shift. They were required to work nights on alternate weeks. In the rolling of iron children were only used for small iron. This required more 'nimble' people than adults. Owing to the quick and uncertain movement of this small iron, however, this employment was attended with much danger and boys rarely got through many turns without burns of a more or less serious nature. It was estimated that these nine-year old boys ran 11 miles per 12-hour shift. They were paid 5s a week.
The accident and death rate in the factories will never be known. In the mines it was stupendous. In 1860 there were only 20 mines with guidelines in the shaft and proper cages. In all other pits men descended in the free-swinging skip. Death was ever present- by being drawn over the pulley as the skip ascended, by being precipitated to the bottom of the pit, or by the breaking of the illegal single-link chains which snapped without warning. Roof falls which would not be lethal elsewhere were fatal in the 10-yard coal. Men were blown to bits and choked to death by gas. In the 1850s there were 1.89 deaths per thousand miners in Prussia, 4.5 in England but 7.3 in Staffordshire. It was estimated that a miner spent one- fifteenth of his life absent from work by sickness or accident and one-third of all miners died a premature or violent death.
Sanitary conditions were unspeakable. By 1860 only the main roads of Wolverhampton had sewers. In the next 10 years there were serious epidemics of smallpox, typhoid and scarlet fever. Privies were shared by rows of houses and their overflowing contents contaminated wells and other scanty water supplies. In 1873 a Local Government Board inspector could say of Wolverhampton that he had never before inspected a town in which the dwellings of the poor were so unwholesome.
Working class activity in the first half of the nineteenth century.
The working class did not submit tamely to such conditions, despite the fact that the government and employers used their political power to make resistance all but impossible. Until 1824 trade unions were illegal; national political parties were banned under the Corresponding Acts, working-class newspapers were hampered by stamp duty which made their price prohibitive, publishers, printers and readers of the working-class press were liable to prosecution for possessing 'seditious' literature. Despite these and other handicaps, working-class activity flourished.
After 1815 when the Napoleonic wars ended, markets disappeared and factories closed. Anyone who advocated reform was called a Jacobin and revolutionary. Thomas Worth is the first considerable working-class leader to be produced by Wolverhampton. He was arrested in 1816 for selling William Cobbett's 'Political Register', and fined £10. In 1819 his house was raided and 'seditious literature' seized. He was active in organising the Political Unions and the Reform Associations which were formed in Wolverhampton and other Black Country towns.
[Unknown history of Wolverhampton trade unionists - their members were transported in 1819, before the Tolpuddle Martyrs, for the crime of forming a trade union. Their union branch later became a founder of our trades union council and still exists today. see http://wolvestuc.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=371:unknown-history-of-wolverhampton-trade-unionists ]
This period of depression and repression ended with the great miners' strike of 1822. Soldiers and yeomanry were constantly called out and a military expedition had to be mounted in the middle of the night to arrest the strike leaders who lived in Ettingshall Lane.
In 1826 another long depression began. This was to last until 1833 and resulted in the Reform Act of 1832. This was achieved by the joint agitation of the middle and working classes organised in the Political Unions. It is widely considered that the great Newhall Hill meeting in Birmingham attended by 200,000 people was the decisive event in persuading the House of Lords not to oppose the Reform Bill. More than half of the great crowd for this meeting came from the Black Country; the Wolverhampton contingent mustered at 6am and was joined on the way by the other Political Unions of the Black Country until the mightiest mass migration this area has ever seen was under way. The Reform Act of 1832 gave the vote to the middle class, not to the working class who had done most of the organising and agitating. The middle-class factory owners showed their appreciation by promptly passing the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 which led to the erection of the great workhouses, or Bastilles as they were called. In the Black Country the working class, disillusioned with the results of collaboration with the middle class, took over control of the Political Unions and began the great agitation for the vote for working men known as Chartism.
Black Country Chartism was extremely strong, on occasions the strongest in Britain. Its greatest strength was in Bilston and later Dudley, but Chartism in Wolverhampton was very influential and lasted from 1839 to 1858.
With the failure of Chartism to gain its immediate demands — manhood suffrage — the working class turned again to industrial action and the building up of trade unions. It is against this background that the Wolverhampton Trades Council was formed.
The formation of the Wolverhampton Trades Council
In the 'good' decade of the 1850s when the only slump was during the Crimean War, trade unions grew quickly. The new model Amalgamated national societies flourished in the engineering, building, glass and iron industries of the Black Country. In the 1860s the economic picture changed. Industry was depressed for most of the decade and the employers made desperate attempts to break up the unions. The open class warfare of the previous decade returned.
The employers' offensive began in 1858 when the glass masters took on the United Glass Makers' Society which had been established as early as 1844.
From 1859 to 1862 the domestic nail and chain makers fought a battle for their existence using the weapons of bellows cutting, and the blowing up of workshops. A national chainmakers' union had been formed in 1859. When it demanded price increases the masters retorted by demanding that the men withdraw from the union or be locked out. The men accepted the challenge, but after 20 weeks they were defeated, and the union was broken up.
The 1850s in mining saw the establishment of unions operating throughout the coalfield and the beginnings of the formation of a national miners' union. In 1864 there was a general strike in the coalfield with the coalmasters determined to finish with the unions. The military were called in, blacklegs were blown up and mine installations destroyed. The union survived.
In 1865 the building employers tried to enforce the Document, a signed statement by the worker that he was not a member of a union. The employers were decisively beaten in a lockout which lasted less than a month.
Finally there was the lockout in the iron trades in 1865. On this occasion the iron masters of South Staffs joined with those of North Staffs to try to defeat the unions. After several weeks' lock-out the South Staffs ironmasters were released from their promise to support the North Staffs masters and the iron works reopened.
In struggles such as these the new unions, financially stronger than the old ones, gave each other considerable financial support. Herein lay the need for a Trades Council to co-ordinate the activities of all the unions in the town, to recommend to its affiliated members which industrial actions were worthy of solidarity and support and to initiate actions on matters which affected all trade unionists. In similar circumstances, the London Trades Council had been formed in 1860 and had become the clearing house and information centre for the whole trade union movement. Wolverhampton Trades Council was to play a similar role locally.
The great issue which united all trade unionists in Wolverhampton and the Black Country was the Masters and Servants Act. Of all the disabilities under which workers suffered none was more galling and none had served the employers better than these acts which went back to 1720. The main provisions of the Acts concerned breaches of contract and default of duty. The former concerned the giving of proper notice before leaving employment, normally 14 days. The latter concerned the spoiling of materials being worked or damage to machinery and plant. If the employer was in default he was subject to a civil action and damages could be claimed from him. If the employee was at fault, however, this was a criminal matter, the worker was hauled before a magistrate (who might be his employer) and was liable to three months hard labour. Between 1858 and 1867 there were 10,000 prosecutions in Staffordshire under these Acts. Many of these would be mass prosecutions involving up to 50 men. Wolverhampton had a higher incidence of these prosecutions than any other borough in the country.
The ways in which these laws were invoked almost defy belief. No strike could take place without 14 days notice. This alone made protection against victimisation almost impossible. Workers had no certainty that they would be paid for the work they did and if a master defaulted, few men would have the money or the confidence of receiving justice to risk prosecuting the offending employer. Militant workers were sitting ducks for the Master and Servant Acts. For instance, in 1860 Edward Gough went on a deputation to his butty. He was instantly dismissed with 40s in wages unpaid. He sued the butty, but was told that he had broken his contract by not being in the pit and he lost his case. What happened when an employer was on the bench was illustrated in 1853. Twenty-six ironmakers were prosecuted for leaving their work. They claimed that the management sacked at a moment's notice and they were entitled to leave the same way. James Bagnall, the magistrate, was also an ironmaster. He sent William Hunt to jail for 21 days. Bagnall said that Hunt was one of the ringleaders and he knew from personal observation that Hunt was a dangerous fellow to be connected with any iron works!
In 1858 miners refused to enter a pit because it was dangerous. They were prosecuted for neglect of work. The Inspector of Mines sent word that he would not be able to inspect the pit for several days. The magistrates ordered the men to return to work.
The above are only a few examples of the infinite variety of ways in which these laws were used by the employing class to exercise a legal dominion over their workers. In 1863 a campaign against these laws was initiated by the Glasgow Trades Council. Local committees were set up including one at Wolverhampton. This was one of the first problems which the Wolverhampton Trades Council tackled. The laws were amended in a very half-hearted way in 1867 and repealed entirely in 1875 when they were replaced by the Employers' and Workmen’s' Act.
But the immediate cause of the setting up of the Wolverhampton Trades Council was an entirely local issue.
Wolverhampton at this time was still the centre of the lock trade. Among the many variety of locks made was the plate lock. These were made by only four masters employing 240 men. The men complained that for years they had been 'sorely oppressed', their wages averaging 15s a week for a 14-hour clay. A strike had taken place and the employers had agreed to raise wages, but when the day came to implement the agreement the masters went back on their word. The men, therefore, formed themselves into a Plate Locksmiths' Co-operative Society. Funds were raised by the locksmiths themselves, loans were floated, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and the Tin Plate Workers' Union gave financial assistance and a gentleman in the town built a large manufactory for them. For a time the employers and the Co-operative coexisted. But the logic of the situation was that if the Co-operative flourished it would eventually absorb all the plate lock workers in Wolverhampton. The employers clearly understood this and the men complained that after a time the employers prevented them from getting orders, tried to prevent the Co-operative from buying materials, spread false reports about the management of the Cooperative, discharged large numbers of their workmen thus hoping to embarrass the Co-operative which would feel morally bound to try to employ them and finally reduced their selling price so much that both employers and Co-operative were selling below cost. At this time the Cooperative was employing 80 of the 240 men.
In these circumstances the whole working-class movement in Wolverhampton rallied to the locksmiths. Between April and June 1865 at least two conferences of trades took place and in the middle of June a public meeting was held at the Agricultural Hall. A Committee to assist the locksmiths was set up. In October Joseph Humphries, the chairman of this Committee, stated that one good result of their labours had been the formation of the Wolverhampton Trades Council and had it been in existence before, the masters would have thought twice about attacking the locksmiths.
The early activities of the Wolverhampton Trades Council
The Wolverhampton Trades Council was in existence by October 1865. No report of its inaugural meeting can be found either in the Wolverhampton press or the working-class paper 'The Beehive', but it can be stated with tolerable certainty that the Trades Council's first meeting took place in September 1865, for its first annual general meeting was on the 18th September, 1866.
The Council met every other Tuesday evening at the Noah's Ark Inn, Lichfield Street.
The officers of the Trades Council were very experienced trade unionists. The first president was Joseph Humphries. He was also president of the Society of Operative Carpenters and Joiners in the town and chairman of the committee formed to assist the Co-operative Locksmiths. He was a great champion of arbitration in industrial disputes. The vice-president was Edward Davis, delegate from the Tinplate Workers' Union which was active in supporting the Locksmiths. He resigned from this office in February 1866, but became president two months later, when Humphries resigned. Vice-president after February 1866 was R.C.Jarrett of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners. The secretary of the Trades Council was Thomas Owen Crumpton, who was the delegate of the Amalgamated Society of Plasterers and Joiners. He was also secretary to the Master and Workmen's Act Committee, which was set up on the initiative of the Trades Council. The treasurer was Samuel Godber, a delegate from the Boilermakers' Society. He was also treasurer of the Master and Workmen's Committee.
Thomas Whittall was another influential delegate. He was secretary of the Operative Carpenters and Joiners as well as secretary of the Locksmiths' Co-operative Committee. Thomas Jones, the secretary of the Locksmiths' Co-operative, was their trades council delegate. H Law was a delegate from the Painters' Society. Thomas Skett belonged to the Carpenters and Joiners. Edward Wooten and John Robinson represented the Tailors' Society. R.Diggory was the other Tinplate Workers' delegate. A second Boilermakers' delegate, William Cheers, joined the Council in March 1866. Other delegates whose unions cannot be identified were Messrs. W. Rowley, David, Harrison, Cull, John Williams, Jackson and Oliver.
The total number of delegates in the first year, therefore, seems to have been 20. Average attendance of Council meetings was about 12.
The Trades Council seems to have represented the smaller trades. There were no delegates from the miners or ironworkers and the Amalgamated Society of Engineers was not represented.
The Trades Council soon took upon itself the function of clearing house with regard to industrial disputes, and if strikers either in the area or outside wanted solidarity or financial assistance they had to win the support of the Council
In November 1865 an appeal of the Military Gun Trade at Birmingham was brought before the Council, but it was held that the Gun Trade was not an organised body and an appeal could not be entertained unless an organised deputation wait on the Trades Council. A fortnight later a deputation was received from the Military Gun Makers and after they had withdrawn, it was resolved that their cause was worthy of support and recommended them to all societies affiliated to the Council. A further resolution was carried that the expenses of the delegation be paid, including their railway fare and refreshment.
In February 1866 there was a special meeting of the Trades Council to hear a deputation from the Pattern Makers Society of London. The Council recommended their case to the sympathy and support of the trades of Wolverhampton. In April the Council heard an appeal from the Sheffield File Trade who were locked out. They also were recommended to the sympathy and assistance of the trades. A further resolution was passed urging that steps be taken to 'rebut the lock- out system now so prevalent with the capitalists' and recommending a meeting of the trades. This conference took place in June in Sheffield.
A fuller description of the procedure adopted in a local issue may be of interest. In February the following notice appeared in the Wolverhampton Chronicle:
Notice from the Operative Tailors at the Freemasons' Arms, Horsefair, to the Master Tailors. We most respectfully request an advance of wages from 24s to 27s. The increased cost of living renders this absolutely necessary. Employers in other trades have already conceded an advance. Many hours we labour compared with other trades. The Committee will meet at the Tiger Inn, 26th of February, when we hope to have your presence as we must have the matter settled by the 10th of March.
The employers failed to attend the Committee which the union regarded as 'sentiments of contempt, therefore the responsibility rests with themselves'. The tailors took their dispute to the Trades Council where it was considered that the employers by their ungentlemanly and uncivil manner had thrown down the gauntlet of defiance with no other view than to rake up the ashes of a 'strike'. A resolution was then passed stating that the Trades Council viewed with extreme regret the proceedings of the master tailors in refusing to comply with the invitation of the operatives to discuss with them a rise in wages. The Council pledged itself to all normal and legitimate means to support the tailors in their just demands.
At the next Council meeting the tailors reported that there had been no reply from the Trades Council's circular. It was then agreed that a deputation from the Council of Humphries and Crumpton should meet the masters and put to them the following points.
That their ungentlemanly conduct was calculated to create feelings detrimental to the interests of masters and men.
The tailors were prepared to submit their claim to a Conference.
If a Conference could not agree they were willing to submit the claim to arbitration. They were willing to submit their claim to arbitration. They respectfully drew the employers’ attention to the fact that the carpenters and joiners of Wolverhampton had adopted the principle of arbitration for a considerable period with perfect success.
If no progress had been made by March 24th, they would use every legitimate means to enforce their demands.
The masters failed to respond to this and the men were forced to strike. This was successfully concluded in the first week of April.
The Master and Servant Acts
The Wolverhampton Trades Council took vigorous action to end the monstrous Master and Servant laws. In October 1865 Humphries stated that the Trades Council proposed calling a conference on these Acts, and a hundred copies of circular inviting organisations in the area to attend were ordered. A delegate conference took place on November 16th, where it was resolved to support the Glasgow executive committee which was leading this agitation and meet again on November 28th. The Glasgow committee was now sponsoring a Bill in Parliament and in December a public meeting was held at the Noah's Ark in support of this Bill. From this meeting a committee was set up which consisted of Godber, Rowley, Williams, Wooten, Jackson, Armstrong and Crumpton- most of them members of the Trades Council. The Bill in question never became law. Instead a Royal Commission was appointed and in May 1866 Wolverhampton Trades Council appointed John Dewes, president of the Co-operative Plate Locksmiths' Association to give evidence for Staffordshire. The laws were amended the next year.
The Co-operative Locksmiths continued to receive the support of the Trades Council. In June 1865 the losses of the Co-operative amounted to £585. In October Humphries told the Locksmiths' Committee that the Cooperative was still suffering from the competition of the masters, but their work was superior and they had hopes of getting all the trade into their hands. In August 1866 the situation was reported as much better. After facing gigantic obstacles for two years the men would soon be receiving a full wage. Their motto must be Malice towards None, Charity to All. The Council actively recruited in its first years, sending delegations to wait upon the various clubs to explain the aims of the Council. Domestic troubles reared their head in October 1865 when Mr Whittall was written to demanding that he come or write to the next meeting explaining why the report of the Council meeting on October 10th was not forwarded to the press. In the same month the Council was involved in the dog-fight between George Potter, the manager of 'The Beehive' newspaper and the London Trades Council. Perfect confidence was expressed in Potter with full determination to render him every assistance 'against the efforts of an envious clique to damage him'.
In April 1866 a resolution was passed agreeing that the next meeting should discuss the International Working Men's Association. Unfortunately, the report of this meeting is missing. The motion was moved by Davis, the Tinplate Worker, and Rowley. The function which attracted most trade unionists to the 1st International was that of preventing the import of foreign blacklegs in times of strikes. It is significant that the Tinplate Workers had had experience of these blacklegging activities. It is not known whether any Wolverhampton unions were affiliated to the I.W.M.A. but the Wolverhampton Operative Bricklayers' Society contributed to the funds of the International and it is therefore more than likely that this branch was affiliated.
As has been mentioned, the Wolverhampton Trades Council played an initiating role in calling the Sheffield Conference to consider measures of defence against lock-outs. The Conference failed in its main object, largely due to the fact that depressed conditions made the raising of money difficult. There was formed, however, the United Kingdom Alliance of Organised Trades, which lasted until 1870. The executive sat in Sheffield and it was always strongly supported by Wolverhampton Trades Council.
The Reform Act of 1867
This Act is one of the great milestones of working-class advance. It extended the franchise to all householders in towns, and thus gave the vote to some of the working class. From 1866 there was an immense agitation in the country for this Act and the Wolverhampton Trades Council was involved from the beginning. In April 1866 a committee of artisans was set up to press for reform and it included Trades Council delegates such as Edward Davis. Within a week, a petition had been signed by 5,000 people in Wolverhampton. At this stage the Wolverhampton Working Men's Liberal Association was leading the agitation with Trades Council officials such as Crumpton prominent. Wolverhampton's contingent to a monster Midlands demonstration for Reform in August 1866 was organised by the Liberal Association. The Liberal Association, however, included people such as Alderman Fowler, who although sympathetic to working-class aims, were not prepared to support Manhood Suffrage. The working class, therefore, broke away from the Liberals and formed a Wolverhampton branch of the Reform League. In January 1867 a large meeting at the Agricultural Hall was arranged by the Reform League with the participation of the Trades Council. In April 1867 there was another monster demonstration in Birmingham and the agitation continued until August, when the Bill was passed.
THE TRADES COUNCIL GROWS 1870-1914
After 1868 it is difficult to find information on the Trades Council. A main issue in these last years of British industrial supremacy was that of conciliation, arbitration and the sliding wage scale. These are often condemned today as being 'collaborationist'. But in the Black Country at that time such policies represented the first success, apart from the brute strength of strikes, in making employers sit around a table and talk to trade unionists. So reluctant were employers to negotiate that one of the last references to the Council was in 1868 when Wolverhampton Chamber of Commerce, 'rejected the offer of a joint committee to consider matters of mutual interest'.
The next we hear of the Trades Council was in 1876 when a report referred to its second annual general meeting, giving an establishment date of 1874. Even stranger is that Trades Council year books before 1965 give the founding year as 1871 and government labour statistics date it from 1873. Light was shed on the matter in 1875 when Joseph Humphries, the first president of the council and then its secretary wrote that the Trades Council had never completely died out, but when a town committee had been formed to support locked out [farm?] labourers a renewal of the Trades Council was urged with the result that it was then stronger than ever.
These years of obscurity from 1868 to 1874 were important ones. They saw a frenzied boom from 1870 to 1874 during which hours for miners were reduced to eight per day and engineers, builders, glassworkers and other well-organised trades won the ten hour day. Wage increases were also won so that the only substantial improvements in living standards of the whole period of industrial supremacy 1850- 75 were achieved. The boom, however, ended with the Great Depression 1875 to 1895 when mass unemployment, poverty and even starvation returned to Wolverhampton and the Black Country.
From 1875 local newspaper reports of Trades Council activity begin to appear and one can see the main issues that engaged the Council. One of the biggest was drink. Liberal strength in Wolverhampton dictated that the Temperance Movement should be very important. The brewers resisted by supporting the Tories and using their great wealth to fight the Liberals. The Trades Council was inevitably drawn into this struggle. In 1875 one of the numerous temperance campaigns attempted to commit the Council to its cause. Humphries linked drinking with the problems of working people in his attempts not to align the council too directly with Temperance. He said that hiring was one of the important causes of intemperance, when people had to sit in public houses and drink before they would be taken on. Another reason was the 'horrid dens and holes' of houses in which working people lived. Humphrey continued that wages should be sufficient so that wives did not have to go out to work and there should be sufficient money to educate children instead of sending them out to work. There should be temperance public houses so that if wives wished to leave the house on washing days they did not have to drink beer or spirits. It was finally unanimously agreed to have nothing to do with this temperance campaign. At the 1878 AGM however, it was resolved to move the meeting place of the trades council from the Tiger Inn in North Street to the Friendly Societies Hall. At this meeting the secretary, F.Wetton, said that this would leave only Wednesbury Trades Council in the Black Country meeting in a public house.
The Great Depression was especially bad in the Black Country. This was because it coincided with the decline of the basic industries with the flooding of the coal mines and the closure, or removal to the coast, of the great iron works as ironmasters failed to adapt to the production of Bessemer steel in place of the traditional Staffordshire wrought iron. 1876 to 1879 were some of the worst years.
The traditional initial response to mass unemployment was the opening of Soup Kitchens in the town. When things got worse the Mayor would call a town meeting to raise a fund to provide relief. When all this failed, the Stoneyard would be 'opened', i.e. the task of breaking stones which inmates of the Workhouse were always obliged to do would be shared by selective 'deserving' unemployed who would break stone for one day a week for a reward of between 1/- and 1s 6d according to the size of their family.
In January 1878 a Distress Meeting in Wolverhampton heard, among many others, of such cases as Mrs X with a delicate husband and seven children. The eldest girl of 14 had been healthy, but was now emaciated from want of food. Another family with seven children had no work. Dried bread was a frequent fare. The mother was so famished as to be hardly recognisable. At this meeting the Clerk to the Poor Law Guardians said that the law did not allow the Guardians to relieve this distress unless families entered the Workhouse. The meeting raised £200 to add to the £40 already available. The next month it was reported that the Mayor's Relief Fund had met with little success. 1075 x 4lb loaves had been distributed as well as 938 lbs of oatmeal and 1,259 quarts of soup. So much for the cold hand of charity and Victorian values!
Wages were being reduced and hours lengthened. The local branch of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants heard of the Wolverhampton porter who had worked 88 hours for £1.
Under these circumstances the Trades Council remained weak. In 1874 Humphries was still the secretary and Gough the president. At a meeting with 14 delegates it was decided to arrange a small festival. The next year G.Paddie was president and W. Ford Secretary. In June £1 was contributed to the TUC Parliamentary Committee for its work in altering the Labour Laws, namely the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1871, the Master and Servants Acts of 1867 and the Laws of Conspiracy. At a meeting in August two delegates tried to prevent a discussion on the withdrawal of the Plimsoll legislation from Parliament on the grounds that the issue was 'political'. This was countered by other delegates claiming that this affected engineers on ships and a motion of sympathy with Plimsoll was also passed. In September the Council sent a delegate to the TUC. It was actively recruiting, sending deputation's to the Painters to affiliate and the Steam engine Makers Society to re-affiliate.
A decision to produce an annual printed report lead to C.Laws the secretary reading a full report at what was called the 2nd AGM in 1876, but only nine delegates were present. Petitions had been sent to C.P. Villiers, the town's MP on Workmen's Compensation and a Patents Bill. There had been discussion on Hiring and also Productive Co-ops. Solidarity appeals for support had been approved from locked-out coopers at Northfleet and handloom weavers in Paisley who had refused to take a 50 per cent cut in wages.
In 1877 the Hiring Question dominated meetings. At the 1878 AGM in August F.Wetton, the secretary, reading the annual report stated that 1,200 trade unionists were affiliated to the Council. Funds were low so it was decided to send £2 to the TUC instead of sending a delegate.
Once again silence descends on the work of the Wolverhampton Trades Council, but much was going on both industrially and politically. The myriad small trades of the Black Country, beginning with Nut and Bolt workers in 1872, were being organised by one of the most notable trade unionists the Black Country has produced Richard Juggins, into what was to become the Midland Counties Trade Federation. Juggins became secretary of Wednesbury Trades Council and it, together with Walsall Trades Council tended to be stronger than Wolverhampton at that time. In addition, both the mining and steel workers were developing national unions but both remained outside the Trades Council Finally, it was not until 1886 that a decision was made to allow branches of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, rapidly becoming the most important union in the Black Country, to affiliate to Trades Councils.
The Great Depression continued with another wave of mass unemployment in 1884 to 1887. But this time the retreat of the Labour movement was at an end and there suddenly burst forth, for the first time since the Owenite Socialists and Chartists of the 1840s, a new Socialism. The Marxist parties of the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League and also the reformist Fabian Society were formed. In 1893 the Independent Labour Party was founded and this quickly became the largest working class party in Wolverhampton. From this time the main issue became representation of independent (i.e. not attached to either the Liberals or the Tories) working men both to Parliament and all the local bodies of the town council, the School Board, the Poor Law Board, and also working men justices of the peace.
This campaign for independent working class representation came at a time when the local political situation was highly complex. As we have seen, the politics of the trades council was originally Liberal and the Liberals dominated the town. But in 1886 Joseph Chamberlain had led many Liberals in Birmingham and the Black Country across to the Tory party in opposing Home Rule for Ireland.
In addition, the 'natural leadership' of the Liberals as the party of industrial capital was coming to an end as the Tories emerged as a party of imperialism. The most important Tory influence of the time was Sir Alfred Hickman who took the Wolverhampton West seat after the town had been divided into three constituencies at the time of the 1884 Reform Act. Hickman was said to have employed 50 per cent of the Bilston work force and also had, of course, the support of the drink trade at a time when elections were dominated in Wolverhampton by the Temperance issue.
The trade union situation was also being transformed. From the 1889 Dock Strike in London, there was a rapid development of organisation of gas workers, labourers and others into the two general unions which were to become the T&GWU and the GMB. These new unions were not Liberal, but Labour and Socialist. Also within the old- established skilled unions there was a struggle to end all forms of Liberal influence and adopt a Socialist programme.
Thus within Wolverhampton Trades Council at this time were Tory and Unionist influences as well as Gladstonian Liberals known as Lib-Labs supported by what was at that time a Liberal newspaper, the Express & Star.
The new Socialism triumphed over the other trends in 1895 when the Trades Council adopted the policy of independent Labour representation. At the AGM of that year it was stated that the cause of this change over to Labour had been the Depression and mass unemployment.
But the two main problems that had given rise to Lib-Labism persisted. The first was that Labour candidates could only be successful if they were adopted by the Liberal party and supported by them, or if agreement was reached with the Liberals not to stand against the Labour candidate. The other problem was that it was impossible to find the money locally for a Labour parliamentary candidate which roughly amounted to £200 for election expenses and £200 a year salary. To overcome these problems the Trades Council (which represented 2,000 trade unionists but had an income of only f16 at this time) became the centre of a network of organisations to vet and certify that candidates were indeed working men unconnected with the Liberals and Tories and to raise the cash for local contests. From this time its name was changed to Wolverhampton Trades and Labour Council. These functions were eventually taken over by a Labour Representation Committee in the town. Success came with the election in 1906 of the first Labour MP in the town. This was achieved firstly because Fred Richards was a national officer of the Boot & Shoe Operatives and the union paid his salary, and secondly because Richards was one of the famous 29 Labour MP's returned at that election because of a deal nationally between the Labour Representation Committee and the Liberal Party for the latter not to stand against the specified Labour candidate.
In local politics the Socialists and Labourites had to fight hard to maintain their supremacy on the Trades Council. In 1895 two ILP candidates were endorsed by only 14 votes to 9 and there continued to be respect and sympathy for the MP, C.P. Villiers. By 1897 there were two ILP councillors, E. Evans and H. Gibson, and two Lib-Labs, James Stevenson and F Evans. Three Labour members were also elected to the School Board in 1895.
When Villiers eventually died at the age of 96 after 64 years as the town's MP, G.R. Thorne, the leading Liberal, was nominated and this was supported by Bilston ILP.
An example of the growing Socialist influence was the annual May Day parade organised by the Trades Council every May Day from 1892. The celebration of May Day as Labour Day had originated with the Second Internationale when it decided that from 1890 there would be demonstrations for the 8-Hour Day throughout the world on May Day.
The Express & Star reported that in 1892 'the Unionism of Wolverhampton asserted its strength and power in a demonstration which has not a parallel in the history of the town'. The various societies met in St. James Square at 2-30pm. 'The main thoroughfares began to wear an animated appearance long before then. People flocked to the rendezvous and crowds lined the streets. The procession marched round the town to the Market Patch where 7,000 people listened at the two platforms presided over by W. Day, president of the Trades Council and T.Moore of the Brassworkers’ Society and member of the School Board.' The proceedings began with the singing of the Workers Song written by Joseph Whittaker (trades council member, Labour Church activist and noted local poet) to the tune of Stand up for Jesus:
Lift up the peoples' banner,
Now trailing in the dust.
A million hands are ready
To guard the Sacred Trust
With steps that never falter
And hearts that grow more strong,
Till victory ends our warfare
We sternly march along.
In fact, the Express & Star thought that the whole of the proceedings had a religious air 'so effectively was Christian duty emphasised in relation to the daily task.'
'There was not a single disorder. The police were there in force, but occupied themselves as other men.' There were few women in the procession, but many in the crowd. 'One man was brave enough to carry a member of the family, a baby about six months old. He seemed proud of his pretty little charge.' The 8-hour day Resolution was carried unanimously at the two official platforms which had hurriedly been supplemented by one set up by the Fabian Society for those of the crowd who could not hear the other speakers.
Such demonstrations, some larger and some smaller, called by the Trades Council, were part of the Labour tradition of Wolverhampton until local elections were changed from November to May, after which trade union and party participation in the elections left insufficient time and energy to mount such large scale demonstrations except on special occasions.
In 1900 the voice of Labour was temporarily smothered by the jingoism of the Boer War. But both the Labour movement and large sections of Liberals in Wolverhampton opposed it as an imperialist war fought for the gold and diamond interests, and supported by Joseph Chamberlain as a new way of combatting working class poverty. War fever did not long survive the relief of Mafeking in 1900. The long- drawn out guerrilla warfare which followed during which Britain established the first concentration camps in the world led to the development of a peace movement; a War and Arbitration Society was set up in Wolverhampton in 1901.
1900 had also seen the setting up of the Labour Representation Committee in London. In 1901 a local LRC began to function with the Trades Council an essential part of it. As we have seen, this resulted in 1906 in the return to Parliament of the town's first MP. In its first year the LRC sponsored two candidates for the council elections -T.Frost of the Trades Council and W.Sharrocks of the ILP. Sharrocks was successful.
The 1906 election had resulted in a landslide win for the Liberals who, under the influence of Lloyd George, had formulated a widespread programme of social reform in a last desperate attempt to keep the working class attached to the Liberals. Some of this programme was supported but not all. For instance the fight for old age pensions was widely supported by, among others, the town's three MP's, the Trades Council and the League for the Taxation of Land Values. The pension battle was won in 1908. In a series of subsequent elections called by the liberals in support of their threat to create hundreds of Peers if the House of Lords continued to obstruct their social legislation, Richards, the Labour member, was unseated by the first Tory MP in the town, Alfred Hickman. The 1911 Insurance Act which gave sickness and unemployment benefit to a limited number of workers, but not their families, was opposed by sections of the labour movement. This reflected the fact that in the Lib-Lab period many leading trade unionists had been pillars of the many Friendly Societies in the town and the Insurance Act was seen as leading to a weakening of their position. Nor were Labour Exchanges universally welcomed, despite the scandal of Hiring in the town. They were seen as a way of regimenting workers and weakening the trade unions where hiring was done from the union office.
From 1907 there was another Depression with mass unemployment. There was also considerable disenchantment with the Labour leaders in Parliament for not vigorously enough raising the question of unemployment. The dilemma of Ramsey MacDonald and Philip Snowden was that they could only vote against the Liberal party in Parliament by bringing that government down and having in its place a worse Tory government. The period was to culminate in the Great Unrest of 1910-14 in which syndicalist influences were to grow. Syndicalists believed that socialism would have to be established by trade union activity alone and workers' control of industry.
It was during this period of unrest that unskilled and semi-skilled workers revolted against starvation wages and, as in the 1880s with the chain workers, national attention was again rivetted on the Black Country.
It began in Bilston in 1911 with a long and bitter lock-out at Fellows. But the real struggles were in 1913 when masses of workers joined the Workers' Union and struck for 23/- minimum weekly wage for unskilled workers in place of the 18/- usual at the time.
Wolverhampton Trades Council played a leading organisational role in the strike. Harry Bagley, the secretary was deeply involved with the workers' union, James Whittaker, the president was on the central strike committee and the Trades Council collected large sums of money for the strikers.
In Wolverhampton the workers at Bayliss, Jones and Bayliss were the first to strike. Later in 1913 the spotlight turned to Bilston with Thompsons and other firms out. It culminated at Fellows again with workers attempting to storm the factory gates. By July victory was complete throughout Birmingham and the Black Country. The 23/- minimum wage had been conceded which made such an enormous difference to the lives of tens of thousands of families. But it was also at Bilston where resistance to the settlement as a 'sell-out' was strongest and syndicalist sympathies most apparent.
Nor was this the end of advances in Wolverhampton. In May 1913 the first Wolverhampton Labour movement monthly paper was produced - The Wolverhampton Worker described as the organ of the Trades and Labour Council. Within two months it had a circulation of 17,000. The first number reported that the private landlords in the town, organised in the Property Owners Association, had sent out 9,000 notices of increases of rents. The Trades Council offices in the Labour Assembly Rooms in Queen Square had been besieged by tenants demanding to know what the Trades Council was going to do about it. A Tenants' Defence Committee was immediately organised on the initiative of the Trades Council and a great mass meeting held at the Empire Theatre the next Sunday. The slogan became 'Don't Pay.' With Whittaker in the chair the main speakers were S.Belcher the secretary, the Rev.J.A.Shaw vicar of All Souls Church, Park Road West ('the people's parson, rapidly becoming the idol of the town'), J.Diderage (‘a powerful speaker') and Lawley ('the logician').
[all copies of The Wolverhampton Worker are available to read at http://www.wolvestuc.org.uk/index.php/history-of-wbdtuc/818-the-wolverhampton-worker]
A whirlwind campaign against the rent increase followed. The landlords' excuse was that rates had risen from 6s11d in 1908 to 11s11d in 1913. This was countered by pointing out that in 1905 rates had been 10s1d but rents had not been reduced when rates went down. Victory was achieved in June. Prominent non-payers were sued in the County court by the landlords. But before the cases could come to court, they were withdrawn and the rent increases cancelled.
Also in 1913 there was a Trade Union Mission Week to recruit trade unionists from the existing estimated low level of 5,000 trade unionists in the town. The weather during the week was appalling, so that planned factory gate meetings did not take place, but there was a mass meeting at the Empire Theatre and other activities which made the week a success, it was claimed.
The Wolverhampton Worker continued into 1914 giving details of Trades Councils meetings and also reporting on the wider Labour movement in the town. As the year wore on, the danger of war was increasing and the paper printed anti-war material such as publicising the enormous growth in military expenditure.
From 1913 some of the year books of the Trades Council have survived. The first one carries an article on 'The Council 30 Years Ago' by a Former Secretary. He states that in 1885 when the town was granted three MP's demands to all of them were drawn up. These included abolition of the property qualification for standing in local government, compulsory extension of the Employers' Liability Act and the Factory Acts, increases in the number of mine and factory inspectors, free education, nationalisation of the railways etc. Of a total of 11 demands, 8 had been met. 'Former secretary' ends by naming those who had taken a prominent part in the proceedings of the Trades Council since 1885. These included C. Ely, G. Sale, F. Badger and W. Day (former presidents), S. Bowyer, J. Scott, G. R. Cocking and W.Mee (former secretaries) and others whose names are given in Appendix A.
Harry Bagley's report for 1914 showed the recent progress of the Trades Council. Income for 1914 was nearly £134. Forty five societies were then affiliated to the Trades Council. Of the more mundane business of the Council in that year there were protests at the imprisonment of local trade unionist W. Murdoch Adamson for an alleged assault during a Walsall strike, which succeeded in getting him promptly released; and a successful demand for the government to withdraw a circular asking for the enrolment of Territorials as Special Constables in the event of civil or industrial trouble. Two matters continually pressed had been achieved- school clinics and baby clinics in town; some progress had been made on the question of the feeding of necessitous children and the election of a committee for the acquiring of premises for a Wolverhampton Trades Hall and Club.
This report enables us to examine the make up of the Council for the first time since its inception. Engineers predominated. Four branches of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers were affiliated.
There were two branches of Toolmakers and one each of Patternmakers, Ironfounders, Boilermakers, Lock Latch & Keysmiths, Brassworkers, Enginemen and Firemen, United Machine Workers, and Electrical Trades; also two branches of Coachmakers. Construction was represented by Builders' Labourers, Carpenters (two branches), Plumbers and Wood Machinists. Transport by Tramway Workers, two branches of the NUR, Loco-enginemen and Firemen, and Railway Clerks. Distribution was served by Shop Assistants, Postmen, Co-operative employees, Bakers, Hairdressers and Tailors. General workers were represented by the Workers' Union (two branches and a women's section), and Gas Workers (three branches). White collar unions were the Musicians and two branches of Insurance Agents. This list is rounded off with Boot and Shoe Operatives and Coopers.
It is clear that by 1914 the Trades Council had won considerable influence and prestige in the town when the 1st World War broke out and the world changed forever.
THE TRADES COUNCIL & THE FIRST WORLD WAR 1914-18
The attitude of the labour movement to war had been determined in 1907 by the Socialist International of which the British Labour Party was a member. Its resolution stated that if war broke out it was the duty of all Socialists in all countries 'to bring it promptly to an end'. A few days before war broke out on August the 4th, a Manifesto of the British Section of the International Socialist Bureau, signed by Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson stated: 'Whatever the rights or wrongs of the sudden attack... on Serbia, it is certain that workers of all countries... must strain every nerve to prevent their governments committing them to war.' The attitude of the Wolverhampton Trades Council had been determined in 1913 when it passed the following resolution:
That this Trades Council, believing that war is an enemy to human progress, emphatically declares itself against the growth of militarism and heartily approves of the International Committee or Bureau, composed of representatives of various countries, who, in the event of war being threatened, shall meet and come to an agreement whereby united action could be taken, so that in the event of war being declared between two or more countries the workers of the countries affected would be prepared to hinder it by a mutual and simultaneous stoppage of work.
However, when war did break out all the European Socialist parties except the Russian Bolsheviks repudiated these vows and hastened to join their own governments in support of the war. This included both the British Labour Party and the TUC.
In Wolverhampton the Trades Council held what was 'undoubtedly the most important meeting in its history', on the 31st of August when it passed the following resolution:
That, having given full consideration to the decision of the national Labour Party to join in the campaign to strengthen the British Army, this
Trades Council hereby registers its approval of that decision and agrees to assist in carrying it into effect. It further agrees to place the Labour Assembly Rooms at the disposal of the organisers of the National Campaign and urges all young men who are free from family responsibilities to give earnest consideration to the national appeal for their services.
Thus neither the German Socialist Party (whose MP's voted for war credits in the Reichstag) nor the British Labour movement expressed their support for the war directly, but in fact, this is what it amounted to, and, indeed the Wolverhampton Worker headline suggested that Labour was giving a lead and setting a patriotic example, contrasting this with the attitudes of employers who were making vast profits out of the carnage.
The Trades Council also followed the lead of the national and local Labour Party in supporting an electoral truce for the duration of the war. These resolutions the Wolverhampton Worker tells us 'were carried'. If they had been carried unanimously it would undoubtedly have said so, and it seems clear that some delegates opposed the war for reasons of pacifism, reluctance to give up workers' rights or belief that it was an imperialist war to be opposed. Their names we would like to know, but never will.
Other matters were dealt with at this momentous meeting. Workers were warned to 'stand by their organisations'. It was essential to maintain trade union standards of wages and hours at a time when large numbers of workers were unemployed. Work should be shared. Instances were quoted where employers had requested men to work overtime at normal rates of pay and some were even reducing wages. This resolution was carried unanimously.
In view of the large scale unemployment existing, which the government feared would get worse as a first result of the war, it authorised the setting up of local Citizens' Committees on which the labour movement should be represented. The Trades Council complained of the 'shameful attempts to debar Labour from representation.' Of 144 members of the General Committee only 18 represented the Labour movement and of an executive of 26 there was only one Labour representative.
There was also strong feeling against patriotic, middle-class women taking jobs as tailoresses, seamstresses, laundresses etc. when so many working class women were out of work, including the wives of servicemen. These middle-class women, it was said, would be better employed in the house-to-house visitation work undertaken by the various Ward Relief Committees.
The final resolution concerned the feeding of necessitous school children and requested that the local council adopt the Act allowing them to do this, but which they had for so long refused to implement, 'in view of the acute necessities of the little ones whose fathers have responded to the call to the colours, or have been thrown out of work as a consequence of the war.' Thus this first meeting of the Trades Council after the outbreak of war had dealt with the whole gamut of problems arising in the first month. Support for the war was maintained until the end by both the Labour Party and the Trades Council locally and the influence of both increased rapidly as they were drawn into the various local committees concerned with the prosecution of the war.
However, resistance to the war was never absent in Wolverhampton and increased as the slaughter of the war continued and the demands on working people increased.
Unemployment remained a problem in Wolverhampton for a considerable time. In March 1916 the local Labour Representation Committee, on which the Trades Council was a major influence, complained that there was no Labour representation on the executive of the local Prince of Wales Fund (hurriedly set up at the beginning of the war, typically asking for charity) which dealt with relief to the unemployed. In the same month Harry Bagley reported to the Trades Council that so many girls and women had been forced to seek work outside the town that steps should be taken to secure war work for Wolverhampton. The mayor replied that the local employers had considered whether to ask the government for a munitions factory in the borough, but had concluded that since the government had so much trouble staffing the factories that existed, the request would not be favourably received. In October 1916 there was great rejoicing that the Development Committee had secured Courtauld's agreement to build a factory in the town, although it was to be many years before this came to fruition.
A problem that existed throughout the war was rising prices. In February 1915 the Labour Representation Committee was demanding that the government take action against the monopolies responsible for these rises. By January 1916 the Trades Council was complaining that prices had risen 45 per cent since the beginning of the war and wages, allowances to dependents of servicemen, and relief paid by the Board of Guardians had not risen to the same extent. In November the Trades Council passed a resolution approving the measures taken by the town council to control food prices, and regretted that this had not been done earlier. The food situation became extremely difficult from 1917 as the German U-boats began to sink ships faster than they could be built. In June, the Labour Representation Committee was requesting its representatives on the local Food Control Committee to press for a municipal coal supply. In November the Trades Council agreed to form a Food Vigilance Committee in co-operation with the local Women's Labour League. Rationing was finally introduced with the administration left to the local authorities. The Trades Council complained that in Wolverhampton a scheme had been introduced too late in deference to the profits of the shopkeepers. The food situation continued to deteriorate and became, in the words of Emma Sproson at a local ILP Conference in February 1918 called to discuss the issue, 'second only to the war itself.' In the same month, the S.Staffs & E.Worcs. Federation of Trades Councils passed a resolution in support of the rationing of all foods.
The main industrial issues during the war were wages, conditions of work, and also the exemption from military service because of war work. With regard to hours and conditions, these were regularised at the so-called Treasury Conference of March 1915. The right to strike in war industries was taken away and compulsory arbitration substituted. There was to be unlimited dilution of labour at the employer's discretion. All trade union restrictions on the employment of women, girls and youths were to be removed. Not only were restrictive practices banned, but unions were expected to encourage speed-up at work. All restrictions on hours, overtime, night work and Sunday work were to be lifted and the health and safety provisions of the Factory Act were to be relaxed. The trade unions leaders could not hope to sell such a wholesale package of lost rights which had taken a century to gain without some corresponding gains. The most important of these were that firms on war work were to be limited in the extra profits that they could make, and that these concessions should cease at the end of the war.
On the question of exemption from military service, this was to be determined locally by Military Service Tribunals and badges issued to those exempt. Considerable friction arose as more and more age groups were called up. The position was regularised in 1917 when certain trade unions were designated as able to issue exemption cards to certain categories of workers on war work. Thus this and most other industrial matters during the war tended to be negotiated at factory level, leaving the Trades Council with only the broader functions of co-ordinating campaigns when complaints became generalised throughout an area. The result was the extremely significant one of the development of Shop Stewards and Shop Stewards Committees. In the West Midlands these were most powerful in Birmingham and Coventry, but then spread into Wolverhampton and the Black Country. In December 1917, 150,000 engineering workers in the West Midlands threatened to strike if the Shop Stewards were not recognised by the employers, and this matter was quickly solved. But strikes became more frequent as the war proceeded and in September 1918 a national rail strike extended to Wolverhampton.
Working class support for the war became strained as the war continued. Outright opposition came from such Pacifists as the Quakers, although the Friends in Wolverhampton, as elsewhere, were divided and many served in the forces. Conscientious Objectors were dealt with by local Military Tribunals, but these were not open to the public and the press reports gave no names so that it is difficult to assess the number of COs in Wolverhampton. The local Labour Party, as we have seen, supported the war although the most important political section of it, the Independent Labour Party officially opposed the war throughout. However, all leading ILP’ers in Wolverhampton seem to have supported the war. The leaders of the British Socialist Party which had a presence in Wolverhampton supported the war but most of the rank and file opposed it. Matters came to a head at the 1916 Conference when opposition to the war was carried and the party split in two, the defeated leaders setting up another party.
The anti-war issue was complicated by conscription. The whole movement, Labour Party and the TUC were resolutely opposed to conscription. It was to avert conscription that the labour movement so enthusiastically supported the government's voluntary enlistment campaigns. From almost the first days of the war two organisations developed which drew together all opponents of the war and many of its supporters. The first was the Union of Democratic Control demanding parliamentary control of foreign policy, no secret treaties, a post- war settlement based on popular parties rather than governments and peace terms that were just. The other was the No Conscription Fellowship. Both of these organisations had branches in Wolverhampton and their public activity was warily reported on by the Wolverhampton Chronicle which considered them unpatriotic and seditious. Both organisations became centres for Conscientious Objectors, those who for other reasons opposed the war, and the increasing numbers who were dissatisfied with the conduct of the war. The other factor fuelling opposition to the war was that of war casualties. The early battles of 1914-15 effectively destroyed the regular army; later, in 1916, when Britain took over the main brunt of the fighting on the western front, the battle of the Somme brought 60,000 British casualties in a single day and the battle lasted for five months. By this time there had been the Easter Rising in Ireland and within a few months came the Russian Revolution. Public perception of the incompetence of the generals and the desire for peace was considerable.
Their total opposition to Conscription gave the Labour leaders no alternative but to support the various recruiting campaigns. Most cooperated wholeheartedly including, on the Trades Council, Jimmy Whittaker the president and A.J.Weaver who was also a Labour Justice of the Peace. Others became stridently jingoistic. These included A.G.Walkden the prospective Labour candidate for Wolverhampton West who challenged the 'pacifist' J.Ramsey MacDonald for the Treasurer of the Labour Party in the middle of the war and was soundly defeated for his pains. Another was the Rev. J.A.Shaw a leading figure in the local branch of the British National Workers' League set up to hound Conscientious Objectors and combat the internationalists who opposed the war on principle.
But the increasing efforts of jingoes to keep pro-war feeling at fever pitch only reflected the inevitable growth of war weariness and a desire for peace.
In March 1917 came the shock of the Russian Revolution for Peace, Bread and Land. The Russians immediately published the Secret Treaties. These showed how Britain, France and Russia had proposed to carve up the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe after the war. This confirmed the views of the union of Democratic Control and others that the war was being prolonged for imperialist purposes.
In June 1917 the famous Leeds Conference took place calling for Peace and the setting up of Soviets in Britain. More important from a local point of view was a district Conference called for in August 1917 in Birmingham to support the Russian appeal for an immediate negotiated peace without annexations or indemnities and also set up local Workers' and Soldiers' Soviets. Over 200 delegates were elected to this conference including the Trades Councils of Birmingham, Smethwick, Oldbury, West Bromwich, Wednesbury, Stourbridge and Walsall. The only name missing from the Black Country was the Wolverhampton Trades Council. But Emma Sproson, who was a trades' council delegate was elected from the Wolverhampton Independent Labour Party. Such was the mass support for the conference that the government had it banned by the Birmingham police.
In December 1917 the US president, Woodrow Wilson published his famous 14 points calling for peace without annexations or reparations. By January 1918 the Labour Party had adopted a policy of peace by negotiations instead of the government's policy of the 'knock-out blow.' Almost the whole Labour movement then swung behind this policy.
By this time Germany's allies were collapsing in revolution and large scale strikes in Germany presaged the revolutionary movement there that brought the war to a close.
The Trades Council, like the Labour Representation Committee and the ILP paid considerable attention to the brave new post-war world. This began with a conference of trade unionists called by the Trades Council in June 1916 at which Whittaker stated that the sacrifices of trade unionists must be rewarded and Walkden called for an 8-hour day after the war. In February 1917 there was another such conference at which Walkden outlined a programme of a settlement in Ireland, electoral reform giving the vote to every man and woman at 21, drastic control of the food supply, shipping and land cultivation, state acquisition and control of the drink trade, and workers' share in the organisation of industry, especially munitions and public service industries. At a joint Trades Council and LRC meeting in January 1918 Walkden introduced a discussion on reconstruction after the war, changes in the Labour Party, and the new proposed League of Nations. At the end of the year the Labour Representation Committee, on which the Trades Council had played such an important part, dissolved itself, became Wolverhampton Labour Party and continued with exactly the same personnel.
The Trades Council grew considerably during the war; at a Trades Council social reunion early in 1918 Walkden stated that the number of trade unionists in Wolverhampton had risen from 5,000 in 1914 to 20,000. At the end of 1917 (the last AGM report found in the Wolverhampton Chronicle) affiliations to the Trades Council had risen from 47 in 1914 to 58 and total income in the same period had risen from £134 to £171. The Trades Council was fortunate in having a continuity of its leading officers, both James Whittaker, ubiquitous president who seemed to be on every committee in the town, and Harry Bagley, the secretary, served throughout the war, and were in place to help build Lloyd George's land fit for heroes' after the war.
NO LAND FIT FOR HEROES 1919-1925
The end of the war saw Britain in a near revolutionary ferment. The war ended not in an orderly way, but with disintegration. Beginning with the Russian Revolution in 1917, Germany's allies collapsed one by one, and the war ended with revolution in Germany itself. The French armies, in which there had been large scale mutinies in 1917, were again disintegrating at the end of the war and the fleet was also in revolt. In the British armies there were also mutinies during the war and others after the war when demobilisation was too slow.
At home, Lloyd George hastened to call the Khaki election in which the candidates of the coalition swept the field. The Labour Party gained 21 per cent of the vote. In Wolverhampton the results were:
East: G.R.Thome (Independent Liberal) 7660 Rev. J.A.Shaw (Coalition Labour) 7138
West: A.F.Bird (Coalition Unionist) 13329 A.G.Walkden (Labour) 10158
Bilston: Brig-Gen T.E. Hickman (Coalition Unionist) 10343 Col. J.Kynaston (Labour) 6744
In industry, employers were the 'hard-faced men who had done well out of the war', but workers were determined not only to win back concessions made during the war, but also to make substantial advances.
The miners began 1919 with demands for a 30 per cent increase in pay, a 6-hour day and nationalisation of the mines. In June 300,000 cotton workers were on strike. Also in June occurred some of the most serious riots ever seen in Bilston and Wolverhampton. From the confused reports in the Wolverhampton Chronicle it is difficult to ascertain the real causes of these riots, but an important element was hostility between aggrieved ex-servicemen and the police. In July there were police strikes. In September the railway employers attempted to cut wages which would have put the lowest grades back to 40/- a week. A whirlwind campaign mobilising the trade unions, (particularly the Triple Alliance of miners, railway and transport workers), the Co-operative movement and public opinion resulted in a complete victory within a week. 1919 ended with sensational Labour victories n the local elections which in Wolverhampton gave three gains for Labour and two for the Discharged and Demobilised Soldiers and Sailors Federation, which played an important part in Wolverhampton politics for several years.
In the early months of 1920 the DDSSF was active demanding better pensions and premises for a club for ex-servicemen.
The May Day demonstration organised by the Trades Council brought all the working class demands together. With two platforms and several thousands present, resolutions were passed demanding reductions in the cost of living, a national housing scheme, continuing rent restriction, immediate self-government for Ireland, work at trade union rates for all unemployed, and justice for discharged servicemen.
Another widespread campaign of 1920 was to stop the wars of intervention against the Soviet Republics. This campaign culminated in the refusal of dockers to load a shipful of armaments for Poland. Wolverhampton Trades Council passed unanimously a motion congratulating the dockers for refusing to load the Jolly George.
Up to this point there had been a post-war 'replacement' boom, but by the middle of the 1920 it was coming to an end. In July, the cost of living peaked at 152 per cent higher than in 1914. In October, unemployment in Wolverhampton was 1,543, and in November a recently formed Emergency Unemployed Committee was pressing the Minister of Labour to declare Wolverhampton a 'distressed area'. In January 1921 unemployment was so bad that Labour councillors were urging the town council to seek aid from the Prince of Wales National Relief Fund. But by now, national unemployment was so bad and the organised activity of the unemployed so widespread and fierce that riots, the storming of offices of Boards of Guardians, occupation of workhouses and menacing daily demonstrations were occurring throughout the country. In March a deputation from the local Labour party and Trades Council interviewed the Guardians who claimed that they were already doing all they could and their primary duty was to see that nobody starved! The unemployed were now holding very large meetings at the Market Place. At one such meeting in April 1921 a deputation was sent to the council and 'a large crowd around the town hall was reluctantly persuaded to disperse until the deputation was finished.'
The results were meagre. It was agreed that the town council and the Guardians should work more closely together and some small projects for levelling land in the borough were agreed. From this meeting we learn of the first Communist to be active in Wolverhampton. James Stewart, the Birmingham Communist Party organiser was arrested at this meeting. He was charged under the recently passed Emergency Powers Act with 'using words likely to cause disaffection among the civilian population' and was sentenced to one month's hard labour.
The Trades Council's May Day demonstration again attracted crowds of 'several thousands' (Wolverhampton Chronicle figures) with three platforms. Unemployment in Wolverhampton at this time was a staggering 13,000 with another 17,600 on short-time. When one adds to this the countless thousands of low paid who were working on virtual starvation wages one gets a measure of poverty and distress at this time. Nor was this the worst, unemployment was to peak in July at 18,000.
The government was still pressing its post-war plans for better relations between employers and workers. In July the Trades Council heard a report of a recent conference held in Wolverhampton of the National Alliance of Employers and Employed. One delegate (Morris) objected to the trade union lambs lying down with the employer lions and thought the most conspicuous present alliance was that of the government and employers to take advantage of the slump and worsen wages and conditions. The matter was referred to the executive. Between the militant unemployed leaders and the more moderate Trades Council there was some friction. At one meeting George Williams brought before the Council a motion passed by the Unemployment Committee charging that he (Williams) 'was no longer a champion of the bottom dog, but a henchman of the capitalist class.' The Trades Council took Williams' side and gave him a vote of confidence.
During the summer of 1921 the issue of unemployment benefit became a major cause for concern. An Act of 1918 had given relatively generous 'donation' scales of weekly unemployment benefit of 29/- for men and 25/-for women to both civilians and ex-service personnel. The civilian benefit expired in 1919 and the ex-service one in March 1921. Normal unemployment benefit was then available at 20/- for men and 16/ for women. But in June these scales were reduced to 15/- and 12/-. Moreover, when the national insurance funds were exhausted, benefits stopped until the next November. This forced the unemployed back onto the Poor Law. In theory, the Guardians had no power to grant out-relief and families had no other option but to enter the Workhouse. In practice, Guardians did pay out-relief at varying scales depending on the influence and number of Labour Guardians. But such relief came from local rates and vast differences arose between boroughs where unemployment was low and others with mass unemployment. In Wolverhampton mass meetings of the unemployed continued with deputations to the Guardians and town council. The campaign culminated with Poplarism where Poplar Guardians, led by George Lansbury, paid higher scales to its unemployed and campaigned for equalisation of the rates throughout London and eventually refused to pay its precepts to the LCC and for the police. The councillors were prosecuted and they marched to jail with red flags flying. The government capitulated almost immediately and raised benefit to 25/- for a man and wife, with child allowances from 6/- to 4/-.
At the end of 1921 unemployment in Wolverhampton stood at 11,000 with 3,000 on short time.
In 1922 unemployment continued to dominate Trades Council proceedings, but international issues were again being raised. The two came together with a resolution from Wolverhampton East Labour Party demanding support for Dr. Nansen's request for immediate and adequate famine relief for Russia and also protests at the savage sentence of six months imprisonment for Albert Inkpin (national secretary of the Communist Party) and against all others in jail under the Defence of the Realm Act or the Emergency Powers Act. This, they considered, was part of a general attack on the working class. They also recorded disgust that these political prisoners were treated as common criminals. Such attacks on the leaders of the Unemployed Workers Movement who were largely Communists were widespread throughout the country at that time, particularly in Birmingham. The treatment of James Stewart in Wolverhampton was an example of this.
At the May Day Trades Council demonstration, which was smaller that year and omitted the parade through the town, the following resolution was passed:
This demonstration believes that the restoration of universal peace and prosperity depends on the solidarity of all workers throughout the world and reaffirms its faith in the great international labour movement. It condemns the actions of financiers and militarists in preventing the development of friendship among nations.
In introducing the resolution Walkden said that our own government had spent £300m on military adventures and now French financiers were preventing peace. This referred, of course, to continuing hostility to the Russians. At the end of the meeting a collection was taken, half of which went for Famine Relief in Russia and half for the Wolverhampton Children's Boot Fund.
But unemployment continued to dominate working class activity. In April the Wolverhampton Board of Guardians cut 5/- a week from their scale of relief. A battle ensued to get this rescinded, but motions to this effect in both May and June by the Labour Guardians failed by 14 votes to 15.
In September, Bushbury parish council proposed to buy stone and hire a private yard for the 60 to 70 unemployed of the parish to break stone. One councillor claimed that he knew of men who had been out of work for two years or more who would be glad of a chance to earn a livelihood by breaking stone. A government inspector gave advice to the Wolverhampton Guardians. They must 'weed out the scallywags from the genuine fellows'. He did not go so far as to suggest that they open the Stoneyard, but he did suggest that they buy timber and make the doubtful ones chop and saw wood for their relief. 'They would then see whether a man wanted work or not.' At the end of the year unemployment was still more than 10,000 in Wolverhampton.
For 1922 there is a Trades Council year book. Pride of place was given to the activity on unemployment in co-operation with the local Unemployed Workers Committee. The Trades Council had also sent delegates to a Workers' Education Association conference in Wolverhampton 'against proposals to further limit the education of children of the workers.' Protests had been made against proposals to amend the 1913 Trades Union Act (which had reversed the Osborne Judgement of 1909 banning trade unions from contributing to political funds). A resolution made 'most emphatic protest' at an attempt to abolish direct representation of labour in parliament. The Trades Council also gave its 'utmost possible support' to the only daily Labour newspaper — The Daily Herald — and had called a joint meeting with the Labour Party to discuss steps to increase its circulation. On local matters, the Trades Council had supported the Mayor's appeal for the War Memorial Scheme.
Congratulations had also been sent to Councillor T.Frost on becoming the first Labour mayor of Wolverhampton.
The Trades Council was now becoming involved in one of the most significant attempts of the immediate post-war years to reorganise and strengthen the trade union movement. This movement had started in Birmingham where its Trades Council convened a conference to discuss a scheme for One Big Union. This had been a dream of the movement since the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union had been formed by Robert Owen in 1834. The recommendation was that all existing unions should merge into one national organisation with sections for each industrial group all under the control of a National General Council. Locally, each group would have a measure of local autonomy with district or area councils. The local councils would, of course, be the Trades Council who would thus become a general staff for the whole labour movement of a town or area. The scheme was recommended for discussion at the next TUC. It had little chance of being accepted there, the unions being too jealous of their autonomy. This had been shown in the post-war amalgamations, notably of the Amalgamated Engineering Union and the building trades, where important sectional interests had refused to merge. Such proposals can be seen as the last fling of the Syndicalism of the period from 1910 or as the first result of the efforts of Communists and left-wingers to transform the trade unions into socialist organisations and seduce them from the TUC into the Red International of Trade Unions recently set up by the Comintern. However, had such a trade union reorganisation taken place the course of the General Strike of 1926 would have been very different.
1922 is also a good point to review the strength of the Trades Council following nearly two years of unemployment in which national trade union membership had fallen from over 6m in 1919 to just over 4m in 1922. Wolverhampton Trades Council income was £181 and 74 organisations were affiliated to it in 1922. This compares with the position at the end of 1917 when income was £171 and affiliated organisations 58. The Trades Council therefore seems to have survived the immediate post-war struggles well.
By 1920, the personnel leading the Trades Council had changed. The president was Councillor A.A.Beach, the vice-president Councillor R.H.Allport, the treasurer C.W.Hill and the secretary H.Barrett.
1923 was still dominated by unemployment. As a result of this, political organisation in the town was growing and the Independent Labour Party, rather surprisingly was reaching its peak. Surprising because, after the reorganisation of the Labour Party in 1918 allowing individual membership and branches, it was expected that the ILP would merge into the Labour
Party and its more militant wing join the newly formed Communist Party. This did happen to a considerable extent, but the ILP remained and prospered for the next few years.
A new militant to the town was W.J.Brown secretary of a civil service union who replaced A.G.Walkden as prospective parliamentary Labour candidate for Wolverhampton West. One of his first actions was to address the Trades Council and he agreed with the National Unemployed Workers Movement that there should be a one day strike in support of the unemployed.
In April the Trades Council affiliated to the International Labour Office. This led to criticism of the League of Nations which one delegate said was a farce. Councillor Emma Sproson said that she strongly objected to associating with the League of Capitalists. But Councillor Dideridge said that the ILO was affiliated to the League of Nations Union which did not necessarily support the League of Nations. The affiliation was carried.
In November there was one Labour gain at the local elections and in December there was a general election at which W.J. Brown polled almost 16,000 and lost by only 241 votes. This election bought 'into office but not into power' the first, short lived, minority Labour government. At the end of the year unemployment in Wolverhampton was 7,800.
For 1924 there is another Trades Council year book and activity for the year is best reviewed through the secretary's report. Affiliation had been continued to the National Federation of Trades Councils and the Railway Nationalisation society. Moral and financial support had been given to the Workers' Education Association and to the more militant Central Labour College which specialised in Marxist education. The Trades Council had addressed a request to the Prime Minister that the first labour government sponsor a 'quiet demonstration of international working class solidarity' by authorising a two minute silence at midday on the 1st of May 'to remember the gallant dead in all lands.' A No More War demonstration had been held in the town and had passed a resolution that:
This mass meeting of citizens sends fraternal greetings to the similar gatherings now being held throughout the world; expresses abhorrence of War and Militarism, and calls upon the government to pursue a policy of international Cooperation through a strengthened and all-inclusive League of Nations, the settlement of disputes by conciliation and arbitration, and the creation of conditions which will make possible the convocation of an International Conference to reduce armaments by mutual agreement as a first step to Universal Disarmament.
The coming to office of a Labour government had raised high hopes of the recognition of Soviet Russia and trade with it, leading to permanent peace in the world. The Trades Council had therefore initiated a campaign 'to support the Labour government to do its utmost with regard to the Anglo-Russian treaties' and was asking all trade union branches to support this.
Another interesting resolution had raised the question of Voluntary Factory Inspectors who would be drawn from the trade unions and work in conjunction with the Factory Inspectors of the district. Another resolution had been passed requesting the extension of Workmen's fares from 7.30am to 8.00am.
The May Day celebrations of 1924 had resumed the march through the town and the next year there was promised tableaux for various districts with a prize for the winner. Above all, the work for the unemployed had continued. The widening and straightening of rural roads had been advocated to give work and 'save funds at present expended in unproductive out-of-work pay.' Also an amendment was urged to a recent Warrant which placed on widows of disabled ex-servicemen the onus for providing proof that their death had been wholly due to wartime service.
Income for 1924 was down to £161 from 75 affiliated organisations. Labour town councillors had increased to 11 with the same number of Guardians and six magistrates. R.H.Allport was president and C.W.Hill and H.Barrett still treasurer and secretary.
By 1925 the Labour government had come and gone. It was defeated by the defection of the Liberals when Ramsay MacDonald procrastinated over prosecuting John Campbell the Communist editor for sedition over the printing of a 'Don't Shoot' appeal to soldiers. The Tories had produced the forged Zinoviev letter and the Labour Party was routed even though its percentage of the poll rose from 30 per cent to 34 per cent. W.J.Brown almost won again in Wolverhampton West losing this time by 800 votes, and for the first time a Labour candidate stood in Wolverhampton East. Nothing had changed, unemployment and working class militancy were as high as ever, but the Liberals had lost nearly all their seats and these had been taken over by the Conservatives. In November 1924 Labour won two more seats bringing their total of councillors to 13. The May Day demonstration was larger than ever. The tableaux displayed were of an 'excellent character.' these combined with the trade union banners 'auger well for the future.' The best tableau was judged to be that of the Wolverhampton ILP 'Peace with all Nations.'
In June there was a protest demonstration organised by the Trades Council against unemployment. The next month there was a meeting organised by the unemployed in the Market Place on a Tuesday afternoon protesting at the refusal of the Guardians to meet a Trades Council deputation regarding severer conditions for the granting of relief. Don Davies, the local Labour agent, said that between October and May the Labour Exchange Committee had turned away nearly 2,500 applicants for relief, the majority of whom were still unemployed; on the grounds that they could not prove that they had been actively seeking work by visiting the factories of the town. Councillor Hartshorne said that the Guardians had reduced the amounts of relief since the pressure of the unemployed had decreased and relief was now only about one quarter of what it had been twelve months before. In September another unemployed man committed suicide and was found in the canal. He had told his wife he was going out and would not come back until he had found a job.
The annual report for 1925 stated that interest had been taken in international affairs, including support for Chinese and Indian workers struggling against sweated conditions. Also resolutions had been approved on housing, direct labour, fair wages and steel houses. Protests had been made on the arrest of the 12 Communists (a prelude to the General Strike) and the refusal of the government to allow Saklatvala, the Communist MP, to attend the Inter-Parliamentary Union Congress in the USA; also the dismissal of ex-Constable Bates from the local police force. Support both moral and financial had been given to the mining crisis, the unemployed and Bulgarian relief.
But a considerable amount of time had been spent by the Trades Council in quite original efforts to follow up the re-organisation of trades unions first considered at the Birmingham conferences in 1922 which at least had the result of the setting up of the National Federation of Trades Councils. A scheme of grouping trade unions into the six sections of Production, Construction, Transportation, Distribution, Education and Extraction had been approved locally at a conference attended by 100 delegates who pledged themselves to give support to the scheme. The dates of conferences for each of the groupings had been arranged. Executive committee members would be visiting local Trades Councils to explain the scheme and attempt to gain their approval for a Midlands conference on the subject. Who knows what progress might have been made along these lines in subsequent years? But 1926 brought the General Strike, and nothing was ever the same again.
THE GENERAL STRIKE 1926
The Causes of the General Strike
The General Strike had its roots in the crisis of the coal industry which had been contracting since the last quarter of the nineteenth century with the substitution of oil for coal, particularly for ships. In addition there had been a savagery in the relationship of coalmasters to miners which had made nationalisation of the coal industry an early demand of the mining unions. Demand expanded during the war, but the mines were taken into government control in 1916. As we have seen the Miners Federation sought a new deal after the war and was fobbed off with the setting up of the Sankey Commission. The first part of its report provided for higher wages and a 7-hour day with promise of six hours when the industry could afford it. With this the miners called off any action. The second half of the report, issued later, was unanimous for public control of the industry, but the members differed widely as to how this should be done. In August 1920 with wage negotiations deadlocked, the miners invoked the Triple Alliance, but differences between the unions prevented joint action being taken. However, the government took the opportunity to pass the Emergency Powers Act to maintain essential supplies in an emergency.
By this time the slump was beginning to bite and the government returned the mines to private ownership in March 1921. The owners immediately demanded massive cuts in wages of up to £2 a week and announced that all contracts of service were at an end. When the miners refused to accept these terms they were locked out and the stoppage of 1921 began in April. The leaders of the Triple Alliance called off their support when the miners refused a formula that might have cut wages no more than the cost of living. This day lives on as Black Friday. After 10 weeks the miners still rejected the employers' terms, but on July 1st the lock-out ended with the men accepting most of the employers' demands, but the government gave a £10million subsidy to cushion the effects of the wage reductions. There was strong support for the miners throughout the country, as workers knew that if the largest and best organised section of workers was defeated, the wages of all would come down. It was this feeling of solidarity that dominated everything that followed and led eventually to a General Strike in support of the wages and conditions of miners.
The return to the gold standard in 1925 with an overvalued pound hit the coal industry particularly hard at a time when the Dawes Plan was bringing competition from German coal. Again the mine owners demanded wage reductions and a return to district wage bargaining instead of national agreements. This time the railway and transport workers declared that they would embargo the movement of coal if a lock-out occurred. This brought an immediate announcement from Baldwin, the prime minister, that there would be a nine months subsidy for the coal industry while a Royal Commission considered the position. The owners then withdrew their notices. This was Red Friday!
But the government, particularly Churchill, was only buying time to prepare for a struggle, and an elaborate Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies was set up, while the unions did nothing.
The Samuel Commission was very different from the Sankey Commission. On the latter there had been an equal number of employers and miners. The Samuel Commission which reported in March 1926 had no workers on it and was packed with representatives of capital. Its main proposal was a cut in wages and it rejected nationalisation. The miners rejected the Commission's findings and appealed to the TUC which by now had been committed to support the miners. From then until May 3rd. when the General Strike began the TUC and Labour Party leaders made desperate efforts to avert a General Strike which they did not believe in and which they had no intention of supporting. From now on, it was the rank and file who took over.
The General Strike in Wolverhampton
There are no surviving trade union sources for the strike in the Black Country, and so Emile Burns' collected reports in his 'The General Strike, May 1926': 'Trades Councils in Action' provide much of our information for this area.
From Burns' report for Wolverhampton we learn that no preparations had been made, and a Special Executive Committee of the Trades and Labour Council met only on the first day of the strike (3rd of May) when an Emergency Committee of three men was appointed to sit continuously with full powers to co-ordinate the activities of the unions involved. The first wave of workers called out consisted of 3,500 transport workers, and an unspecified number of members of the Typographical Association, NATSOPE, ETU, some AEU and Allied Trades and Building Workers.
The Emergency Committee consisted of representatives of each affected union. It first met the next day, Tuesday 4th of May, and was faced with the question of interpreting the general circular sent by the TUC while waiting for instructions from the individual unions to cease work. The Committee was divided in its opinions as to its function, some thinking that it had the power to call all men out. The majority view, however, was that the job of the local Emergency Committee was to carry out the wishes of the TUC and obtain concerted action locally on that basis. But this presented problems, since different unions were sending different instructions to their branches, this being most evident in the building trades. The Central Emergency Committee met every afternoon in the Labour Rooms. A separate strike committee was formed of the railway groups (there were important railway shops in Wolverhampton) which met daily at North Road Club, with a sub-Emergency Committee meeting in the Labour Rooms consisting of four Trades Council representatives, a representative of each of the building trades and the North Road joint committee.
To overcome the lack of reliable information, lines of communication were established south to Birmingham, north to Manchester and beyond, and west through Shrewsbury to North Wales. Volunteer dispatch riders were appointed to act for the TUC in every town between Dudley and Oswestry, receiving reports each day from each strike committee, sending out official information from the TUC, supplying them with speakers where necessary and forwarding information to London to the General Council.
A local bulletin of 500 each issue was published for six days from the 5th of May. Open-air meetings were arranged every day at the Market Place, with a good supply of local speakers assisted by the miners from Cannock. There were national speakers at the weekend. A meeting on Sunday, 9th of May, packed the Theatre Royal with 2,500 people with an overflow meeting of 1,100 at the Co op Hall. Even with these two halls packed, thousands were unable to obtain admission.
As in the rest of the West Midlands, there were differences of opinion as to whether car workers were included under transport and therefore among those called on to strike. In Wolverhampton this matter was settled when the Vehicle Builders received definite instructions to withdraw their labour. The other unions involved then acted on the principle laid down by the TUC, that where one section of labour was called out in a given factory then all should strike. Thus the important car industry was closed down.
All building workers, except those engaged on housing, hospitals or sanitation, were ordered to strike. This caused dissatisfaction in Wolverhampton where the whole of the industry was determined to stand by the miners'. The Strike Committee therefore had the greatest, difficulty in keeping within the TUC instructions and on Saturday, 8 May, a meeting of building workers instructed local officials to send a telegram demanding the withdrawal of all building trade workers.
The town's power supply from the Commercial Road power station received a great deal of attention. The TUC requested that local arrangements be made to supply houses, hospitals, bakeries, etc., but the management refused to negotiate with a deputation and instructions were eventually received to withdraw all men from the power station.
From figures provided by the manager of the labour exchange on Monday, 10 May, it is estimated that 35,000 workers took part in the General Strike in Wolverhampton.
In the TUC library there are reports from Wolverhampton and Walsall and also a report of Ellen Wilkinson and J.F.Horrabin of their tour through the Midlands. The latter report gives valuable testimony of the position in Wolverhampton towards the end of the strike. It states that there was a ready and unanimous response to the call in every occupation. Public opinion was strongly in favour of the strikers. Not a tram or bus was running. Some attempts had been made by the local Council and Chief Constable to intimidate tramway and busmen, without success. Three Midland Red buses had tried to run, but were withdrawn by inducements. The typographical men had been persuaded to go back by the editor of the local paper, Express & Star. Police and strikers were on good terms. F was supplied by road and there were no shortages. In Wolverhampton, Wilkinson and Horrabin had addressed two open-air meetings on the Market Patch of 6,000 each. The figures they give for the indoor Sunday meetings are 4,900 at the Royal Theatre and 2,000 at the Co-op Hall. In the area between the Black Country and the Cannock coalfield they had addressed an open-air meeting of 2,000 at New Invention. In I3ilston 1,500 had listened in Oatmeal Square. Their general observation was that they had been immensely struck by the complete stoppage and the peacefulness of the workers in every town through which they had passed. The response was 'magnificent' everywhere.
The Home Office report for 6 May stated that in Wolverhampton journalists were on strike in sympathy with the printers. The Express & Star was publishing a foolscap sheet with volunteers. About 2,500 men had come out at the Sunbeam works. McManus was expected to hold a Communist meeting in the town on Saturday, but the police would not allow him to speak. There had been some interference with working railwaymen who were being given police protection.
On 5 May there was a report from the Engineering Employers' Federation stating that AEU members in Birmingham and Coventry were out. The Home Office report for 7 May stated that in Wolverhampton more engineers were out and that 400 police specials had been enrolled, with more coming forward. The electrical workers might come out, but in that case the power station would be run by volunteers.
Turning to the local press, the Express & Star ran a badly produced, duplicated 1d sheet on 4, 5 and 6 May. The first reported hopefully that arrangements were being made for charabancs and buses to be run in certain districts under police protection and that it was hoped to run a skeleton GWR train service from Wolverhampton to Birmingham. A Communist meeting of about 800 had assembled at the Market Place and had been immediately dispersed by the police. The bulletin reported pickets at the garage of C.F. James in Sweetman Street and a stopping of one of his charabancs in Stafford Street, police arriving in time to prevent a disturbance.
By Friday, 7 May the Express & Star was producing a two-page printed sheet with more local news. Wolverhampton tramways were still firm. The Star Engineering works at Bushbury and Frederick Street were closed although only 50 per cent of the men were trade unionists. The Sunbeam, Moorfield Road works were at a standstill. Guy Motors had 500 to 600 men out and 200 men in. At A.J.Stevens (AJS) 50 to 60 AEU members were out, but the firm was carrying on.
On Saturday, 8 May, the Express & Star printed four pages. An advertisement from Beattie's, the large department store in the town, showed that they at least had prepared for the General Strike.
It stated that the strike had been threatening for months and that the store had ample stocks to meet all demands for three months. In Wolverhampton, the paper reported the continued total absence of trams and buses, but otherwise the town was normal. Bushbury parish church had given over its Institute to the strikers (mainly railwaymen) and these men had decided to march in a body to church on Sunday. AEU men had stopped work at Clyno, but this car firm was carrying on. A short service of prayer for industrial peace was being said at St.Peter's church in the town centre every day at 12.30pm. The Grand Theatre would be closed the following week because the company, which was to have produced 'The Jazz Marriage', had 'transport difficulties'. In Willenhall most factories were on a three-day week because of shortage of fuel.
On Monday, 10 May, another four-page issue of the Express & Star appeared. There had been no peace moves over the weekend and the position remained the same. Many Black Country works were still managing to keep open. At Harper Sons and Beans three works with 2,500 men had to be closed at Dudley, Tipton and Smethwick because finished cars could not be dispatched; 3,700 men had signed on at Dudley Labour Exchange since the strike began. Joseph Ball, a miner of Cross Street, Dudley, was given one month's hard labour for allegedly assaulting two police officers and committing an offence against the Emergency Powers Act. He incited a rowdy shouting, 'Come on lads, let's have a go! We're not frightened of you!' The crowd rushed the police who drew their staves. Several women said, 'Cheer up, lad!' when sentence was passed. Sunbeam and Star were still at a standstill. At A.J.Stevens it was said, 'there is a sort of ebb and flow at our works, but we are still able to carry on. About 800 are on duty and 600 still on strike.' Two hundred men were on strike at Henry Meadows, leaving 38 at work. This issue of the Express & Star found space for a remarkable Red scare story: a Paris paper had published a letter from its German correspondent stating that the General Strike in Britain had been planned in secret many months before in Moscow.
On the last day of the strike, the Express & Star reported the Wolverhampton situation little changed. Strikers were still coming out-for instance, 129 at EEC, and other works were closing 'because of lack of transport'. At Bilston lorries leaving goods stations still had to have police guards.
The Express & Star voiced the opinions of the employers and much of its reportage was mendacious or misleading. An example is the paper's report of 10 May that at Guy Motors a secret ballot in the presence of two trade union officials had given a 75 per cent vote in favour of a return to work. This issue also reported that at Bayliss, Jones and Bayliss the men were returning to work. The next day the paper reported that 87 men had reported for work at Guy's while between 500 and 600 men were 'affected' by the strike and 250 had been 'outside' (picketing) when the firm opened. Guy, the managing director, admitted that the meeting at which the ballot had been taken was 'not largely attended' due to the fact that pickets had told workers that no meeting was being held. Guy was a particularly active employer in attempting to break the strike. Even this amended version of the Guy story is likely to be only an approximation to the truth and the facts of the so-called 'return the work' at Bayliss, Jones and Bayliss are now never likely to be known. Another clear example of misleading reporting was an item in the 12 May issue headed How men were going back to work before the good news came'. Here the whole country was scoured for news of men returning to work before the end of the strike, but all that could be found was such items as 'Birmingham-12- minute train service to Dudley' or 'Stoke-on-Trent-A number of tramway and omnibus employees have returned, but the response is extremely limited.' Nevertheless, the press is cowardly as well as venal; while the capitalist system is under attack the endless direct strictures on workers are suspended. But when profits and property are once more secure editors again thunder against the wickedness and criminality of striking workers. This was so in 1842 when Chartists controlled the Black Country in the general strike of August that year, and so it was with the Express & Star in 1926. The 12 May editorial spoke only of 'unbounded relief' at the ending of the strike. But the following day it was, 'The Law Victorious' and, 'Did the TUC ever consider the legality of their action?... It can hardly be imagined in any way a victory for the unions.... The forces of law have triumphed as they always will in Britain.' Much more of this sort was to follow in the days and weeks ahead.
The General Strike of 1926 is the most important event in the history of the trade union movement in Britain. Employers had wanted and provoked the strike in order to curb the power of the trades unions and to bring all wages down. The right-wing Labour leaders feared the strike, had tried to avoid it and wanted it brought to an end at the earliest possible moment before it got 'out of hand'. To hundreds of thousands of workers, however, the strike came as a revelation. It showed with the starkest clarity that society only existed through the labour of working people. During the strike Trades Councils exercised powers of decision and control normally carried out by employers and police. Thus the strike taught lessons of democracy and workers' control. It was also a magnificent example of workers' solidarity and comradeship, contrasting with the selfishness of capitalism. Above all, in a society of mass poverty, deprivation and high unemployment a successful conclusion to the strike held the promise of fundamental changes in society. Most strikers realised therefore, however dimly, that the project on which they were engaged was of great significance. Hence the Nine Days had an atmosphere of gaiety, solidarity, determination, militancy, and mass participation which is rarely captured by strike reporting. Some observers, however, did begin to catch this atmosphere.
Ellen Wilkinson wrote graphically in Lansbury's Labour Weekly of 22 May of her experiences in the Midlands:
We got to Coventry that night to find the town in the hands of the local Soviet. We spoke to one of the biggest open-air crowds I have ever seen. The engineers were very disgruntled at not being called out.... Wolverhampton, not on our list, demanded a meeting and in one hour we got a large crowd to listen despite pouring rain. They and Walsall were in the same position as Coventry....'
Much of this mass participation went unrecorded, but it is quite certain that almost every urban area saw meetings and demonstrations, perhaps larger than these places had ever seen before and certainly larger than anything since the Reform Bill or Chartist times in the nineteenth century. Immediately before the strike, there had been the mass demonstrations of May Day. The following weekend again saw massive meetings. Then there were the demonstrations of the weekend following. Throughout the strike, the hunger for news and desire for mass communication was such that enormous meetings could be held during the day. Often these were Communist meetings which the police promptly broke up. The solidarity of the strike made mass picketing possible and overwhelming public sympathy was manifest at crucial moments.
In view of the particular efforts that were made to break the strike at what was considered to be its weakest point, namely transport, this atmosphere of solidarity might be illustrated by detailing the determined efforts made in Wolverhampton to get buses back on the road. On Monday, 10 May, it was decided to attempt to run ten buses manned by volunteers. At 6.30pm when the attempt was to be made, a crowd, estimated by the Express & Star at 1,000, assembled at the Cleveland Street depot. Police, including mounted specials, cleared a way for the volunteers and it seems that some of the buses got away. At 9.00pm the crowds 'still numbered several hundreds'. At 7.50am the next day, the first bus, manned by three men in plain clothes and one uniformed policeman, set out. It was later claimed that ten buses were running. All that day 'strikers in Queen Square thronged the pavements as densely as if waiting for a royal procession'. On Wednesday, the Express & Star returned to the events of the previous day. 'The first day of the volunteer bus service will be long remembered,' it reported. The story went on to tell of huge crowds in Princes Square during Tuesday night and photographs confirmed the enormous numbers who protested against this attempt to break the strike. The transport workers of Wolverhampton remained firm until the end.
In Bilston, too, masses of workers demonstrated, although we only have the reports of the Express & Star to go by. 'Bilston tramway and railway workers gathered in fairly large numbers on Monday 10th when attempts were made to remove supplies from the railway depot to various factories. A number of volunteer lorry drivers, including several undergraduates in plus fours evidently enjoyed the experience. There was no attempt at molestation'.
In the great pre-strike May Day demonstration the festive mood was shared by Wolverhampton's communists but this did not prevent- arrests taking place. Albert Darke and John James Foster were charged with having worn service uniform 'in such a way as to bring it into contempt'. Darke wore RAF uniform with a red band. On the shoulders he wore red badges. Foster was in the uniform of a line regiment and he was similarly decorated. The case was heard after the strike had ended. Inspector Churchward gave evidence that on 1 May the Labour Party was holding a demonstration from St. James' Square. As the procession moved off Darke joined it with a placard reading 'Don't shoot'. At 7.45 the same evening, at a Communist Party meeting, Darke was similarly attired and Foster carried a red flag. The two communists were defended by Randle Evans, a noted Labour Party progressive solicitor, who submitted that his clients were wearing uniform in the course of a bona fide military representation forming part of a tableau. They were not there to bring contempt upon the uniform. The Chairman of the bench of magistrates (consisting of W.H.Pritchard, Sir Charles Marston and Alderman P.Frost) said that the court could not tolerate that H.M uniforms should be used in a contemptuous manner. Albert Darke was fined £6 and given time to pay, and Foster was fined £1.
As in other parts of the country, the first reaction of some to the call-off of the strike was a feeling of elation, for they supposed they must have won. But disillusion was swift and was followed by the struggle for a return to work. In Wolverhampton the Emergency Committee met on the afternoon of the 12th and had posters displayed in front of the Labour Rooms advising men not to return to work until instructions to that effect came from the unions. This caution was well justified. The railways, Guy Motors, the ECC and Midland Red buses were requiring men to 'sign documents which would take away the whole of the rights which their fathers and forefathers had fought so dearly for, and it is quite evident that the employers of this country were prepared to use this crisis as a method of breaking down trade union bargaining'. Some employers would take men back 'only as work became available'. Apart from the railways, it is not known to what extent victimisation occurred in the Black Country.
In evaluating the strike, Postgate, Wilkinson and Horrabin classified areas into four classes. Class I was towns where response was near to 100 per cent. Class II was where the strike was wholly effective but with weaknesses in some sections. Class Ill was towns with serious weaknesses. Class IV towns where the strike broke down. Of Midland towns, Birmingham, Kidderminster, Lichfield, Stafford, Stoke, Worcester and Wolverhampton were in Class I. In Class II were Coventry, Shrewsbury, Smethwick, Stourbridge, Walsall and Wednesbury. No Midland towns were in the other two classes. The Wolverhampton emergency committee summed up the strike as follows: '... the trade union movement is indeed to be congratulated upon the splendid stand made on behalf of their more unfortunate brethren, the miners, and with very little exception, the whole of the workers stood solid and were prepared to fight to the bitter end, so that when the news came through on Wednesday May 12th, that the strike was over, it came as a shock, as the situation then looked as though it would last indefinitely.'
On Sunday, 19 May, Wolverhampton Trades Council held a meeting at the Market Place. The Wolverhampton Chronicle informs us that there was a crowd of 300, 'but this increased after the first half hour'. Allport, the chairman of the Trades Council, said they met, 'to offer thanks for the solidarity of the working class'. Dan Davies, the local election agent of the Labour Party, said that 'if the strike had lasted another week we would have entered another era of the struggle'. This latter statement is highly significant. The day before the strike ended the TUC had called out the second wave of workers, all the engineering and shipbuilding workers not already affected. This call was just beginning to take effect in the Black Country. The solidarity of the strike from start to finish suggests that this unique chapter in working-class history would have ended very differently had the strike continued.
THE YEARS OF RETREAT 1927-1935
The employers and government wreaked their revenge on working people who had had the temerity to mount a general strike.
The TUC General Council had called off the strike without any consultation with the miners. They refused to accept the mine owners' terms and continued on strike until November when they were literally starved back to work. The number of miners in Wolverhampton at this time was less than 100 (although more elsewhere in the Black Country e.g. Dudley 1,500) so the main efforts of the Trades Council in these months was succour and solidarity with Cannock miners as well as those in the Black Country. Victimisation in other industries occurred notably on the railways and from this time it became very difficult for active trade unionists to find employment in the key engineering trade.
The government passed the draconic Trades Disputes Act of 1927. This made any future general strike illegal, also any sympathetic or secondary action which could be construed as intending to coerce the government. Blacklegs expelled from their Unions could seek claims for damages from the unions. Mass picketing was forbidden. Civil servants were confined to those trade unions catering solely for state employees and these unions were forbidden to have any political objectives or affiliate to the TUC or Labour Party. In yet another attempt to cripple the finances of the Labour Party, trade unionists had to 'contract in' to pay the political levy instead of 'contracting out'. This act stood until the post-war Labour Government repealed it.
It was the political clauses of the act which especially affected the Trades Councils. The 1928 Wolverhampton Trades Council report states that in furtherance of the TUC action against the Trades Disputes Act, the campaign had been taken to the factory gates and to the homes of the people and a mass rally held at the Theatre Royal. The report goes on to state that to conform with the new law alterations to the rules had been made. The Council from this time ceased to be a Trades & Labour Council and became simply a Trades Council. Presumably, formal links with the Labour Party were also broken off at this time. Other Trades Councils adopted the same course, but many others did not.
Other changes took place in the Trades Council as a result of the General Strike. The leaders who had betrayed the Strike went on to a policy of collaboration with the employers, initiated by the Mond-Turner talks. Opposition to this policy was led by the Minority Movement, a Communist dominated body set up in 1924 to develop Left policies in the trade unions. Minority Movement influence extended through the Trades Councils to the National Federation of Trades Councils. The TUC attempted to neutralise this influence by activating a Trades Council Joint Consultative Committee set up in 1924 where the dominating influence was TUC General Council members. Militants were also active in trade union education where the struggle still raged between the Workers' Educational Association with university backing, and the unsubsidised Labour Colleges supported by local Plebs Leagues, dispensing Marxist education. The result was that the TUC took over a large measure of responsibility for trade union education. Finally, the problem of unemployment persisted even in the 'better' years leading up to 1930. The organisation of the unemployed was dominated by the National Unemployed Workers Committee Movement led by Wal Hannington and other communists. TUC policy consisted of unremitting hostility to the NUWCM combined with attempts to set up rival organisations. For all these reasons Trades Councils came increasingly under the influence of the TUC. In the long run, all trade unionists agreed that this was desirable, but in the short run with a strongly right-wing General Council, TUC policy was always under attack.
Most of these issues surfaced in Wolverhampton in 1928. In January, the monthly meeting rejected an EC motion not to publish a Year Book because of financial stringency. £75 had been spent on a law suit and £30 had been donated to the miners. But the proposal was rejected as a false economy. The annual report at the end of the year showed that affiliation fees were down from £147 to £99 as a result of the Trades Disputes Act.
In February 1928 a letter was read from the Bishop of Lichfield asking for two delegates to a Conference on Co-partnership in Industry. There was opposition to this proposal, N. Williams moving that it lie on the table. It was eventually passed but only one delegate was sent, Councillor J.Whittaker.
In April there was a motion on the town council to buy 40 per cent of its petrol from the Russian ROP company. This met stiff opposition in the council chamber. It was not clever to save money if it was going to the Russians. How much had the General Strike cost us? said one councillor. The Russian oil wells had been stolen from us in 1925 and anyway, the smell of Russian petrol was enough to knock you down and it was as black as smoke, claimed another. The Mayor said Russian competition had brought the price of petrol down from the 'combine' price of 4/7% per gallon to 7d at which price the council proposed to buy it. The motion was passed by 35 votes to 25.
In the same month there was an example of the control that the TUC was attempting to exercise over the trades councils. Councillor A.A. Beach, the president of the Wolverhampton Trades Council complained of the methods of the Minority Movement. Allport, the secretary explained that two delegates had been elected to a conference in Birmingham on Trades Councils. These delegates were G.Sanders and E.T.Darke. Sanders could not go and Beach went instead. Since Darke was not present it was moved from the floor that no report be made as Beach had not been elected. This was defeated. Beach said that he had attended as a result of a letter from Citrine (the general secretary of the TUC) hoping that he and the secretary would attend the conference. As soon as the meeting opened the Minority Movement members present began their 'obstructionist tactics' with every trade union leader and Labour MP criticised as 'retrograde', Beach said.
In November there was a resolution from the AEU No.8 Branch of which Albert Darke (not to be confused with the other Darke) was secretary. Albert was a Communist and member of the Minority Movement. The resolution asked the Trades Council to object to the police preventing a factory gate meeting being held at Sunbeam Motors by the local branch of the Unemployed Workers Movement and arresting the speakers. Support was also requested for all UCW speakers and Communist Party members in their efforts to uphold the right of free speech. Beach said that the police try to do their duty and prevent obstruction. Allport amended the motion to read that the Council 'affirms its determination to support the right of free expression for all people,' provided that the local and national laws were observed. Allport went on to say that the resolution would commit the Council to matters which it had quite recently said it would have nothing to do with. The resolution was passed with a large majority.
At the Trades Council AGM in 1929 A.A.Beach resigned as president in view of his adoption as prospective Labour Party candidate for Shrewsbury. His place was taken by E.H.Williams. A resolution was passed protesting at continuing hostility to Soviet Russia and urging resumption of relations 'which would have more effect on unemployment than all the derating and transference schemes.'
In 1929 the TUC developed a Recruiting Scheme through the Trades Councils. Wolverhampton's response was to hold a conference and set up a sub-committee, but the scheme trod on so many trade union toes that, like other such TUC recruiting schemes, it came to very little.
In December J.H.Thomas, the Minister of Labour in the newly-elected second Labour government, announced a £280,000 scheme for the unemployed in the Wolverhampton area. Total unemployment at the time was 4,353, one of the 'better' years since 1920. For the Trades Council this remained a main issue. The annual report stated that they were 'at all times willing to render such service as we can (to the unemployed) within the desires of affiliated branches and advice received from time to time from the TUC.' The Trades Council was still holding the Unemployed Workers Movement at arm’s length.
The Great Depression
During 1930 the Great Depression reached Britain from the United States. This brought a collapse of our exports and a balance of payments crisis. This in turn brought calls for economies and wage cuts and with it mass unemployment again. In June W.J.Brown addressed a 'vast crowd' of unemployed on the Market Patch. We were beginning to reach the stage, prophesied by Marx he said, when capitalism would break down under the weight of its internal contradictions. He estimated that unemployment would reach 2 million and even go to 3 million. Unfortunately he wasn't exaggerating. Allport in his report for the year said in inelegant but pointed language.
Threats of longer hours, wage reductions etc. are being made on all hands by the employers. Excess production made possible by man's ingenuity has become man's curse. The worker fills the factory the workshop and the warehouse with his needs and in the midst of plenty and riches immeasurable, he finds himself unemployed, starving, and his dependents too.
1931 being what was thought to be the Jubilee Year of the Council, a celebration dinner was therefore held at the Co-operative Hall, Stafford St. with 200 guests. Much attention during the year was paid to the organisation of women workers and also of the unemployed. Unemployed workers were to be organised within the trade union branches and a series of conferences was held to define future policy.
In August the city of London's call for vast cuts in national expenditure, particularly unemployment benefit, led to Ramsay MacDonald's astonishing somersault when, instead of resigning and going into opposition with the Labour Party as expected, he formed the National Government with Snowden and Thomas and himself as prime minister. These leaders had now succeeded in betraying both the trade union movement in 1926 and the Labour Party, which refused to follow MacDonald. Snowden administered the final cuts which were 10 per cent off the wages of all state employees, including the unemployed. In his annual report Allport wrote:
War on the worker's standard of life is still the only panacea advocated as a cure for all trial ills by captains of industry and partial economists. The false idea that the less we have to spend the more employment will be created is still religiously advocated, as the only way out. These and others of like character, false and even idiotic in their application will continue to be practised, and will cease only when the workers realise that the strength of the master lies in the weakness of his slaves-that the chains that bind them will only be snapped by united action.
1932 was a year of Means Test protests. When entitlement to unemployment pay ran out (usually after six months) the unemployed were then able to claim 'transitional benefit'. Part of the 1931 economy package was that this benefit should be means tested. The means test was always the most hated of impositions. It took workers back to Poor Law standards when no benefit was available until all savings were exhausted and furniture sold. Even then, relatives were expected to contribute to the unemployed if they were in work. Vast demonstrations through the country were organised by the Unemployed Workers Movement. The Trades Council had participated in one of these and in addition had organised two demonstrations on the Market Patch itself together with the Labour Parties in the town supporting their demands for there to be no difference between unemployment scales and those of transitional benefit.
The Wolverhampton branch of the Amalgamated Union of Building Trades initiated a campaign through the Trades Council for the employment of the 400,000 unemployed building workers on national and local housing schemes.
Also in conjunction with the 'Labour Forces' in the town, the Trades Council petitioned the borough council through the Labour councillors to refuse to operate the economy cuts of 1931 any longer.
Finally on unemployment, the Trades Council had appointed a representative to serve on the reception committee of the 1932 Hunger March and a donation of 2gns. had been made. United action was beginning.
Among the letters of condolence that year to relatives on the passing of those who had served the Trades Council was one to the wife of Albert Darke the Communist. Darke had long since given up hope of finding work in his trade in Wolverhampton and was working with Russian Oil Products when he sustained a fatal accident on his motorcycle.
1933 was again a year of mass unemployment at home and the coming to power of Hitler abroad as Fascism took over in Eastern Europe and spread in the west. United action was not helped by the continuation of the 'class against class' line of the 3rd International. This saw the main enemy not as the capitalist class, but the Social Democrats who had betrayed the working class in 1914 and in Britain betrayed both the General Strike and the Labour Party.
Almost all the Trades Council's campaigns in 1933 were political in one way or another, domestic protests at the loss of health and pension benefits by the unemployed because of lack of stamps, a forty hour week campaign, calls for the reduction of war debt interest with the savings allocated to schemes of work for the unemployed, abolition of transitional benefit, and protests against government physical training schemes as tending to militarisation of the unemployed. Foreign issues included an appeal for trade with Russia, protests against Japanese aggression in China, protests against Nazi brutalities in Germany and for the release of the prisoners of the Reichstag fire trial.
In 1934 the council sent its usual delegate to the Annual Conference of Trades Councils held that year in Dorchester in honour of the centenary of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Demonstrations against the Unemployment Bill had been organised. The Incitement to Disaffection Bill was strongly condemned and the proposed Peace Ballot supported.
The new Means Test regulations continued to be an important issue in 1935. Resolutions were passed demanding that these regulations be entirely withdrawn and transitional benefit be controlled by Parliament with the charges borne by the national exchequer instead of the local authorities. The blind had been supported in their successful campaign to raise the pensions of the unemployed blind from £1 to £1 5 0d. The Trades Council had cooperated with the National Union of Railwaymen in a campaign for pensions for both men and women at age 60. The Midland Federation of Trades Councils had been asked to initiate a sustained recruiting drive. Exception was taken at certain trade unionists accepting honours from a capitalist government and a strongly worded protest had been sent to the TUC and the national Labour Party.
On foreign affairs in 1935, protests had been made at the increased expenditure on arms, believing that money so spent was a direct incitement to war and could be put to better use. Resolutions had been sent to Italy, Austria and Germany protesting against 'the tyranny exercised against Socialist organisations' in those countries. TUC and Labour Party policy supporting sanctions against Italy for its war against Abyssinia was endorsed.
The years from the General Strike to 1935 were some of the most difficult the trade union movement ever faced. From this time, however, the retreat was halted and progress resumed.
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.
THE SECOND WORLD WAR AND THE LABOUR GOVERNMENT 1940-50
The war dominated all activities of the Trades Council from 1940. Early issues taken up were more meat for those doing heavy work, protests at the suspension of the 1d fare on the buses and increased railway fares. At the request of Boulton Paul Aircraft workers', mobile canteens, which became known as the Trades Council Units for use in air raids, were sponsored. During the year Alderman James Whittaker JP died after serving the Labour movement for 40 years.
As in the First World War, the Trades Council and Labour Party supported the war, but some sections again did not. The Pacifists and others resurrected the No-Conscription Fellowship; the ILP, by now much reduced, also opposed the war as did the Communist Party after initially supporting it. More important was the widespread feeling that the men of Munich who had been responsible for the war were unwilling and unable to wage the war and were only waiting for an opportunity to turn against the Soviet Union. These suspicions were increased by the 'phony war' of 1939-40 and the sending of war material (soon to be desperately needed) to Finland when negotiations for the exchange of territory which would have given greater security to Leningrad broke down and resulted in war. Not even Churchill becoming Prime Minister in June 1940 when the Germans attacked France and the Low Countries allayed these suspicions; after all Churchill had a deplorable record of opposition to the Labour movement ranging from strike breaking in 1911 and 1926 to implacable hostility to the Soviet Union from 1917. The result was a significant People's Convention movement demanding the removal of Chamberlain and company together with such measures as proper air raid precautions, control of war profits etc. The main People's Convention took place in January 1941 and, in Wolverhampton, was preceded by a packed meeting at the Civic Hall addressed by the Dean of Canterbury. The Trades Council reaction to these events was illustrated by the unanimous endorsement of the following resolution from the Midland Federation of Trades Councils:
This Trades Council requests the representatives of the working class in the Cabinet to secure the expulsion from the Cabinet of Mr. Chamberlain, Lord Lloyd, Lord Halifax and all other influences detrimental to the interests of the working class of this country and to secure the formation of a government which will lead the struggle for a true democracy to a successful conclusion.
It was not until June 1941 when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and Churchill immediately accepted it as an ally that doubts regarding the nature of the war were at rest. The heroism of the Red Army and the incredible sacrifices of the Soviet people changed attitudes in Britain overnight and within a few weeks in the factories workers were enthusiastically producing tanks and aircraft 'for Joe.'
By 1942 there had been a powerful development of the Shop Stewards Movement and Joint Production Committees initiated by the left and the Communist Party. In February the Wolverhampton Trades Council (Anglo-Soviet War Effort Committee) held a Productivity Conference at the Wulfrun Hall. It began with reports from the main factories in the town. The Meadows shop stewards convenor L.D.Youd told of how they had tackled the waste of industrial diamonds. They also reported that labourers in the factory were still earning only 30/- a week. Haselock from Guys talked of incentive schemes for labourers and how the staggering of hours had helped. Banbery from Hobson's complained of the backward attitude of management who had wanted it to be called a Select Committee and viewed the trade union representatives with suspicion. Bland the convenor from Boulton Paul said they were more advanced than other factories in the area and the old attitude of master and men had gone. The women were now as strongly organised as the men and the problems of waste and idle time had been tackled.
After this, the Conference was addressed by the president of the TUC who had recently returned from Russia and spoke of vast Russian factories employing 20,000 workers equipped entirely with Russian machinery and working twenty four hours a day to defeat the Germans. Finally a resolution was passed pledging themselves to fulfill the Trade Union Anglo-Soviet Eight Point Agreement and increase the supply of arms, shells, tanks, aeroplanes and all equipment needed to defeat fascism throughout the world.
By 1943 the Communist Party was large enough and respectable enough for the question of its affiliation to the Labour Party to be an issue. A letter was read at the Trades Council asking why the chairman had ruled the matter out of order when 75 trades councils had supported affiliation. Beck said that it had been done at the request of the meeting and it was not his personal opinion.
The Trades Council was now widening its social activities. A Sports Day was organised in April with the proceeds going 75 per cent to the Aid for China Fund and 25 per cent to the Civic and Express & Star Comforts Fund for the troops. In the same month the Workers' Music Society affiliated to the Council.
Increased production and aid to our allies completely dominated Trades Council activity. In June, a letter in the Express & Star from T.W.Williams (secretary of the Joint Production Committee) and T.B.Harris (convenor of Shop Stewards) at Boulton Paul Aircraft suggested that it was everyone's duty to support the Aid to China Flag day organised by the Trades Council on behalf of the National Council of Labour United Aid for China Fund on July 17th; that the Shop Stewards Committee would be organising factory collections during the month and they challenged any other factory to collect as much per employee.
At the 1944 AGM J.W.Smith was presented with a cheque by Frank Clapham who said that Smith was suffering from ill-health and it was hoped that he could use the money to improve this. The report for 1943 stated that the Trades Council had been commended by the TUC for its work and concluded 'the war must be won and the better futures shaped for our class.' A resolution was approved by ASLEF asking for a conference of Transport Workers to discuss increased efficiency and productivity to support the Second Front.
When the allied invasion of France took place in June 1944, Boulton Paul shop stewards were quick off the mark with £400 raised in the factory towards a target of £1000 for the Civic and Express & Star Comforts Fund Second Front Appeal.
The internal event of the year was the decision to take a three year lease on premises at 23a Cleveland Street consisting of a Hall seating about 60 people with a committee room and offices as a Trades Hall. At the meeting when the Hall was approved the Trades Council heard Mrs. Hirsch of the German Trade Union Centre speak of the resistance of German trade unionists to Hitler and the plea that the post-war settlement should not put the Germans in the position of harbouring thoughts of revenge.
Early in 1945 the Trades Council protested at the continuation of British intervention in Greece to defeat the Greek resistance and a deputation was sent to the Foreign Office which was not received.
The great news of the year, however, was the surrender of Germany in May and Japan in August. Of the atomic bombs which devastated Japan the concern was with the control of these weapons by the United Nations Organisation. 'Unsettled, this matter breeds fear and mistrust and is a great obstacle to international relations.'
Less attention to reconstruction was paid while the war continued than had been the case in World War 1, all attention this time being concentrated on winning the war. But in 1945 when it became clear that the war was nearing its end, thoughts turned to the post-war world. Housing would be one of the most urgent measures and the Trades Council formulated a policy which was unsuccessfully pressed on the town Housing Committee; education was another question demanding radical changes.
The election of 1945 returned the first Labour government with an overall majority and a massive one it was. A delegate meeting at Wulfrun Hall called primarily to get trade union branches to affiliate to the divisional Labour parties turned into a victory celebration and the Trades Council passed a resolution of support for its policies.
The annual report of J.W.Smith (never a noted left-winger) was replete with Marxist analyses. 'We have suffered in the class war imposed in the dark past and developed in the steady change of one economic system to another until it arrives at the end of its purpose in a classless system of society. We have not yet reached the end of the road, however, and Socialism is still a distant goal.'
The war had brought renewed strength to the Council, 77 organisations were now affiliated and total income was £478. The changed political scene was mirrored by the inclusion of five Communists on the executive committee, including the vice-president, Norman Bennett.
In 1946 emphasis on production for war gave way to production for exports. But the Joint Production Committees in the factories did not long survive the war, and peace time participation in increasing production smacked too much of larger profits for the employer with nothing in it for workers. For instance an Export and Production Drive organisation had not been set up by the secretary 'owing to other urgent matters' and even a Science in Industry Conference organised by the Trades Council with the AScW was not a success. The Sports & Social Committee was also finding the going harder. A sports day was held in 1946 but netted a £30 loss.
The finances of the Council continued to prosper, however, with income of £556 in 1946 with a healthy balance carried over of £169.
By 1950 support for the Labour government was waning. Its abiding achievements had been the establishment of the welfare state and the nationalisation of the 'commanding heights' of industry. But aspects of its foreign policy strained the loyalty of the Trades Council and the weakened state of British capitalism after the war made it difficult to manage the system more satisfactorily than the Tories, once the objective of Socialism had been abandoned.
An important constitutional change in the Trades Council occurred in 1950 when Bilston Trades Council was disbanded and a Bilston Advisory Committee set up. Henceforward it was known as the Wolverhampton, Bilston and District Trades Council.
ICY BLASTS — RETURN OF THE TORIES AND DEEP COLD WAR 1951-64
The return of the Tories in 1951 put all the gains made under the Labour government at risk. A Tory free market at that time entailed steeply rising prices as subsidies were cut and before the end of the year the Trades Council was protesting at the rise in the cost of living, and proposed education cuts.
The Korean war broke out in 1950 and at the end of 1951 a proposal was floated to re-form the Home Guard. This was rejected by AEU Central on the grounds that it was 'a danger to civil liberties under a reactionary government' and the Trades Council agreed. The war in Korea was always controversial. It was claimed that the Americans under General MacArthur and the South Koreans under the dictator Syngman Rhee had at least provoked the attack; the intervention by the USA was a clear infringement of the UN Charter and only Britain of the other European nations, pursuing the so-called 'special relationship', sent troops in support of the US. There was always, therefore, a considerable minority in the Trades Council against the War. But in 1952 a proposal to invite Monica Felton, who had visited North Korea and had been blackguarded by the national press for her pains, to address the Trades Council was rejected.
The shortage of housing was, as always, a key issue. AEU Ettingshall protested at the proposed Tory split of 50-50 between council and private house building and the Trades Council later agreed that a 4-1 split would be better. The eviction of workers from 'tied' houses by the Bata Shoe Company became an issue at that time, partly because it was a firm originating from Czechoslovakia where such actions would be illegal. The Trades Council demanded the extension of the Rent Restriction Acts to all types of tenancies to prevent further evictions. The matter went to the West Midlands Federation of Trades Councils who also agreed.
Trades Council committees flourished at this time. These included Sports and Social, Schools, Health Service Advisory, Public Relations and Development, Youth Advisory, and Women.
Most active was the Women's Committee under the energetic leadership of Vi Fletcher and Miss Chown. Further government cuts in 1952 led the Trades Council to take strong action. They 'opposed the cuts in education, social services, the health service and the lowering of the standard of life as expressed in the Butler cuts and cuts in food subsidies.' They also called on the Women's Committee to collect information on prices and how the cuts would affect the health service etc. The Trades Council pledged itself to publish the information obtained, and 'to expose the class legislation of the Tories.' The women went to work with a will, producing enormous amounts of information and also a questionnaire on these matters which was widely circulated in the town. But in the end there was more information than analysis and no systematic report was made.
The Health Services Advisory Committee was also active. It disagreed with Dr. Galloway, the chief medical officer of health when he claimed that TB was disappearing from Wolverhampton.
Delegates were also becoming disillusioned with Consultative Committees for Nationalised Industries. When nominations were called for the Electricity Consultative council, Frank Clapham asked what was the use of them? He was promptly elected to the Council and promised to answer his own question!
Bans against Communists were still being operated by the TUC. J.W.Smith, the secretary, was the delegate to the TUC National Trades Council Conference, but agreed to let Frank Ward take his place. Smith, however, wrote to the TUC and was told that no Communist or Fascist would be acceptable. Ward contested the right of the TUC to send every delegate a form requiring them to state that they were not members of these parties. Ward moved that TUC policy be investigated, but this was rejected with a compromise motion that TUC policy be accepted and the individual trade unions be left to contest it.
Soon the Tories were de-nationalising industries. Opposition came to a White Paper on Transport Policy. The de-nationalisation of road transport would lead to 'a sacrifice of social assets recently acquired at public expense'. Two years later, the Council was objecting to the de-nationalisation of steel. Later, the ETU moved a successful resolution deploring the acceptance by Labour leaders of seats on the boards of the de-nationalised industry.
Attacks on living standards and economic difficulties threatening unemployment were ever present issues. In 1952 it was a plea to remove duties from the textile and boot and shoe industries to maintain employment. NUGMW opposed the wage freeze (a new expression making its way into the language). One delegate said that there was no wage freeze 'as such', but the building trades delegate said that all wage claims were being turned down, and the resolution was passed with three against. There followed a discussion on 'shoddy goods' and their relevance to the loss of markets for British goods. Proposals were that export licenses be withdrawn from firms producing shoddy goods and there be set up Consumers Councils to watch over goods on domestic markets.
Feet dragging by the government on equal pay was also deplored in 1952. The Chancellor of the Exchequer was attacked for not setting a date for equal pay in the civil service and in 1954 the Trades Council circulated an NUT petition for equal pay for teachers. Constructive proposals for strengthening the Health Service during these years included a request that the next Labour government extend the Health Service to every industry; also that it should become a positive health service and not a negative sickness service.
The great industrial dispute of the period was the conflict between the Canadian newspaper tycoon D.C.Thomson and the print union NATSOPA. This was a trial run for the later Express & Star action and Murdoch at Wapping to break the print unions. The Trades Council recognised this and gave NATSOPA every support.
Foreign policy issues arousing public passion at the time included the case of the Soviet doctors. Frank Clapham moved the raising of standing orders to discuss this case of nine doctors, five of whom were Jewish, accused of poisoning high ranking officials. It was the anti-Zionist appeal that Clapham stressed. The motion of condemnation was passed by 22 to 5 with several abstentions. It was the Rosenberg case, however, that moved trade unionists throughout the world to try to save the lives of the married couple accused of passing atomic secrets to the Russians. It resulted in a campaign eventually surpassing even the Sacco and Vanzetti case of the 1920s which occurred in the middle of the last huge anti-Red campaign in the USA before that of McCarthy in the 1950s. The Trades Council unanimously backed the petitions and demonstrations which continued to the very day of the Rosenburgs' execution.
The long drawn out war in Korea was constantly raised, not always successfully, in the Trades Council. But when the Americans advanced into North Korea, thus involving the Chinese, and demands for the use of the atom bomb were being made, AEU Ettingshall branch, which included the active Communist Fred Hammond, raised the question of Eisenhower's encouragement to invade China as a main danger, and demanded an immediate cease-fire in Korea. This was passed by 36 votes to 19.
In 1956 came the British, French, Israeli invasion of Egypt. This war was condemned outright by the whole Labour movement and there was a mass Labour Party meeting on the Market patch. The Trades Council fully supported these protests. In the same year was the Russian intervention in Hungary which was also condemned by the Trades Council.
In the 1960s there was the rise of CND, calls to ban the bomb, recognise the people's republic of China, end nuclear tests and remove American bases from Britain. Support for blacks in South Africa and the ending of apartheid also became important matters. All these issues were supported by the Trades Council.
Changes of personnel and structure of the Trades Council during this period included the death of the secretary, J.W. Smith, in 1954. He had resigned the previous year through ill health and his place was taken by Frank Martin. Another change was the resignation of the long serving treasurer C.W. (Charlie) Hill. A.W. Beck, the long serving president also resigned in 1954 when he became the prospective Labour candidate for Shrewsbury.
The meeting place of the Trades Council also changed. In 1953 the lease on the Trades Hall ran out and was not renewed. The venue was moved first to the Labour Club in Littles Lane, where there were problems of privacy, then to the Transport Workers Social Club, which was too small, and finally to the Central Library, where it remained for many years.
WARMER BREEZES - THE WILSON ERA 1964-1979
From the later 1960s to 1980 it becomes virtually impossible to record Trades Council activity except through the fading memories of the participants. Year books were published, but with no annual report; minutes do not exist — one ex-secretary of the period burned 7 hundredweight of Trades Council records; and the Express & Star stopped sending reporters to meetings. Sam Clarke, secretary for much of the period, states that an Express & Star reporter would phone him the morning after a meeting and ask for a report, but it seldom found its way into the newspaper.
In October 1964 after 13 years of Tory rule, a Labour government was returned with a majority of just 4. It was to be the fate of all Labour governments to inherit a crisis of balance of payments deficits, to spend all their time requiring sacrifices from working people, only to leave a large surplus to an incoming Tory government. It was these circumstances that gave the love/opposition- more-in-sorrow-than-anger relationship of the trade union movement with the governments of Wilson, and later, Callaghan.
Wolverhampton Trades Council gave loyal support to Wilson's 'first 100 days' as he grappled with the greatest balance of payments deficit in our history up to that point — £800m for 1964. Two particular problems beset Labour governments. The first was that when the balance of payments was in deficit there was an immediate crisis because the gold and dollar reserves were so small. The second was that deficits required immediate action to lower prices and thus increase exports. There were only two ways of doing this. One was to devalue the pound; this was only to be contemplated as a solution of last resort. The other was to control prices and incomes, which always amounted to little more than cutting wages. The luck of the Tories was that they avoided both these disasters. The first by inheriting massive oil revenues and the second by the floating of the pound after the collapse of the Bretton Wood post-war monetary system.
In a succession of measures the Labour government raised income tax by 6d, the rate of interest was raised from 5 per cent to 7 per cent, taxes on cigarettes and whisky were raised, hire purchase regulations tightened and drastic cuts made in public expenditure. After this successful belt tightening operation - the balance of payments deficit was halved in 1965 — the Labour government went to the polls and was returned with a large majority of 98.
From this time trade unionists considered that they should begin to reap the reward for their sacrifices. The government had established a National Board of Prices and Incomes, but as we know, influence on prices was minimal; dividend limitation only meant that these were taken at a later date, and the brunt fell on wages. Dissatisfaction began to surface.
In May 1966 the seamen struck against the most predatory of employers for better wages and conditions. Harold Wilson immediately dubbed this 'a Communist plot' (despite the fact that there was not a single Communist on the seamen's executive). There was considerable public sympathy with the seamen and Wolverhampton Trades Council supported them with both moral and financial aid. In November another notable strike occurred at Roberts-Arundel of Stockport where a union- bashing American management was determined to end union representation at the firm. This bitter dispute lasted 18 months, a notable feature being the nation-wide 'blacking' of both suppliers and customers, which brought the firm to its knees. This strike was supported by the Wolverhampton Trades Council.
By June 1967 the sterling crises had returned. This brought from the government a six month standstill of prices and incomes and a further twelve months of 'severe restraint'. In November the unthinkable had to be faced and the pound was devalued from $2.80 to $2.40.
The main foreign policy issue from 1965 became that of the direct participation of USA troops in the Vietnam War. Wolverhampton Trades Council opposed this war from the beginning and fully participated in the demonstrations and activity which continued until the end of the war. The 1960s was also the hey-day of CND and Ban the Bomb. Demonstrations both national and local were supported by the Trades Council.
From 1967 Labour fortunes were on the wane. The continual squeeze on wages also squeezed out any remaining element of Socialism in the Labour government's policies and in June 1970 they paid the penalty — a record balance of payments surplus, but a Tory government.
When Heath took over he was determined to tame the trade unions. Unfortunately Barbara Castle had set him an example with her crass document In Place of Strife. This proposed what is still the basis of all Tory labour laws - ballots before strikes, cooling off periods, and fines for strikers. The TUC and trades councils, including Wolverhampton's, had fought that one off, but before 1970 was out, Robert Carr had produced his Industrial Relations Bill.
This Bill created a vast series of offences for which workers could be taken to court — Unfair Industrial Practices. Trade Unions were to register with a new Registrar of Trades Unions and Employers' Associations and have their rules vetted and approved. Registration was not compulsory, but an unregistered union lost all rights under the law. Agreements were to be 'legally enforceable', strikes were illegal until a ballot had been taken and 'notice' given (usually a week, but often a month) and in industries of national importance a 60 day 'cooling off period' could be enforced. Sympathetic action and closed shops were outlawed. To enforce this vast enserfment of working people a National Industrial Relations Court was set up presided over by the notorious Sir (now Lord and in hot water for the false imprisonment of the Guildford Four) Donaldson, an active member of the Tory party in his student days.
This Act created the greatest mass movement of protest in Britain since the General Strike. Opposition was at first led by the unofficial Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade unions and in December 30,000 Midland workers struck against what was still only a Bill. But May Day 1971 brought most of the large factories in Wolverhampton to a halt with the highly successful official TUC Day of Protest with the largest march that Wolverhampton had seen since 1926.
The protests did not prevent the Bill becoming law, but trade union action made the law inoperable, as will always be the case when there is anything like full employment.
Heath had further problems in 1971. The Upper Clyde Shipyards Work-in started in July. This was an entirely novel form of trade union protest where workers occupied the yards, continued working, and negotiated for new work to keep them open. The next year the great builders' strike against the Lump and for the Builders' Charter of higher wages and safer working conditions began. Building sites in Birmingham and the Black Country played a major role in these strikes under the organiser, Peter Carter. Unable to win the economic battles, the employers and government connived to bring a political trial of the Shrewsbury Twenty-Four. Men, admittedly without any connection with alleged violence that had occurred, were indicted under medieval laws for 'conspiracy' to cause this violence. They were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. Early in 1972 Heath had his first brush with the miners and came off second best. All these actions were supported by Wolverhampton Trades Council.
Heath's troubles came to an end early in 1974 when he again took on the miners who refused to adhere to his phase 3 Wage Freeze. This resulted in a blacked-out Britain of the Three Day Week. Heath went to the country on the slogan of Who Rules Britain? By a short-head it was decided that it wasn't Ted Heath and Labour was returned but only as a minority government; a further election in October 1974 gave Wilson a wafer thin overall majority of just 4.
Once again the Tories had squandered a Labour created balance of payments surplus with Barber's mad 'dash for freedom' resulting in a 1973 deficit of £900m and inflation of 10 per cent. A crisis budget in April raised income tax 3p. But the four-fold hike of oil prices by OPEC further fuelled inflation, brought mass unemployment, and created the conditions under which Thatcher was able to de-industrialise the West Midlands.
Unemployment was 770,000 in January 1974; it passed the lm mark in June and was 1.2m in December.
In May 1975 Wolverhampton rates rose by 30 per cent, the price of inflation and the Tory reorganisation of local government which had resulted in the Metropolitan County. Compulsory wage freezes were out for a Labour government, so a voluntary Social Contract was negotiated between the TUC and the government which accepted wage limitation.
In March 1976, to everyone's astonishment, Harold Wilson resigned and Jim Callaghan became prime minister. In May, inflation peaked at 23 per cent. In December there was a savage mini-budget with cuts in food and housing subsidies, overseas aid and defence, and social services. Callaghan was forced, cap in hand, to the IMF with his 'letter of intent' in exchange for which he received a loan of nearly 4 billion dollars. 1977 brought the Lib-Lab Pact and massive local election losses in May.
Through all these events the Labour Party members were swinging left. Callaghan insisted on an impossible phase 4 of wage restraint. Unemployment was around 1.5m and wages had so far lost out to prices that low-paid workers could no longer exist on their wages. Strikes by local government workers and others brought the Winter of Discontent of 1978/9 with dustbins not emptied, hospital and ambulance workers left with no alternative but to strike to Tory cries of neglect of the sick.
The result was an election in May which brought Thatcher to power. A new era had begun.
THE NIGHTMARE THATCHER DECADE 1980-90
Mass Unemployment and De-industrialisation.
For these years we have Trades Council minutes to work from. Their availability stems from a certain 'modernisation' at that time. Sam Clarke (T&GWU), the long-serving secretary retired and was honoured with Life Membership. Subsequent secretaries, beginning with Stan Meredith (ASTMS), were from white collar unions and had access to reprographic facilities. From this time the minutes were produced at least in numbers sufficient to circulate to all EC members and copies were filed in the modern way instead of the time honoured method of being pasted in books.
From the election of Thatcher in May 1979 it was clear that the main thrust of Trades Council work was to be in opposition to unemployment and closures. These problems, however, had arisen from the beginning of the Depression in 1974; Thatcher greatly accelerated the process.
Two previous matters had particularly affected Wolverhampton. The first was British-Leyland. From the 1950s Austin & Morris had been contributing to their own demise by distributing their ample profits in dividends instead of re-investing them to compete with growing foreign competition. Between 1964 and 1970 Labour governments aided a merger of Leyland and Austin-Morris to form the British Motor Corporation with a boost of £35m government aid. Still profit distribution continued and between 1968 and 1974 out of profits of £74m, £70m were distributed. The last chance for an independent, mass car production firm came with the Ryder Report in 1975. This recommended an ambitious investment programme with worker participation in management. In that year the National Enterprise Board took BL into public ownership with a 95 per cent stake in it. With the appointment of Michael Edwards as the chief executive (by a Labour administration, be it noted), a policy of contraction and redundancies was followed instead of the expansionist plans of TASS and the BL shop stewards. With Thatcher, Edwards came into his own and prospects of further shop floor protest were muted by the sacking of the convenor of shop stewards, Derek Robinson, in November 1979.
The other case, which even more directly affected employment in Wolverhampton, was the closure of Bilston Steel Works. Again, there was a long history of neglect. An attempt to close the works had been made in 1975 but was thwarted by mass protest. But in 1978 despite its products being sold profitably (but not profitably enough, claimed British Steel), closure was decreed. An Action Committee was formed with Councillor Dennis Turner, who in 1987 became Bilston's MP, in the leadership. Deputations to the EEC and Bob Edwards' intervention with Eric Varley, the Labour Industry Secretary were unavailing. A go-slow of 450 workers immediately scheduled for the sack in July 1980 failed to move the steel board and the last 450 men left in July 1981. Just to make it all irrevocable, the great furnace Elizabeth was blown up in October 1980. In all, 2,300 jobs had gone.
From the very beginning of Thatcher's rule, Wolverhampton Trades Council addressed these key issues of closures and swiftly mounting unemployment. The event of the first half of 1980 was the TUC Day of Action against Unemployment and Cuts. From AUEW Lanesfield came a motion to support the day and widen it with a one day strike. This was agreed unanimously. There was condemnation of the leadership of the EEPTU, Union of Post Office Workers and AUEW (Engineering) for issuing statements discouraging members participating in the Day of Action. On 14th of May, the day in question, a march through the town and a rally (which police estimates put at 2,000) was highly successful.
Also in May a NATFHE resolution congratulating Labour councillors on their success in the local election and reminding them that they had been returned on a policy of 'no cuts' was unanimously passed.
The most important local industrial dispute of 1980 was that of the NGA with the Express & Star; support for the pickets at Castle Street was pledged.
A different sort of dispute was the attempt of the EEPTU and the AUEW to take over from the GMWU trade union organising rights at the Isle of Grain power station. A motion supporting these unions and condemning the TUC for 'giving in to pressure from the GMWU' from the local EEPTU branch was 'not put' at a subsequent Trades Council meeting.
Other domestic matters dealt with in 1980 included a request that school meal prices be frozen at 35p, opposition to the underpass at the Royal Hospital (which nurses have to use at night) and support for a bridge instead, unanimous condemnation of the fluoridation of water, and total opposition to the ending of the Earnings Related Benefits Scheme by 1982. 1980 was also the year that the Trades Council first became involved with training schemes for the unemployed with the Youth Opportunities Programme.
Political matters dealt with in 1980 included a £5 donation to Soviet Weekly, sponsored by the Women's Committee, and £25 to the Morning Star's 50th Anniversary Fund. The EEPTU led opposition to a TUC sponsored visit of trade unionists as guests of the Polish government and support for free Polish trade unions was passed by 17 votes to 8. The question of twinning Wolverhampton with a Soviet town and resurrection of the link with the Moscovretksy district of Moscow was approved. Cruise missiles were condemned.
In May, Harry Bagley, Trades Council President for 19 years and honorary life member, died. It was noted in appreciation that he had been instrumental, through the construction of Aldersley Stadium, in putting Wolverhampton in the forefront of British sport.
1981 was the year of the first People's March for Jobs. In February, Peter Carter, the Midlands organiser of the march, outlined plans to the Trades Council. In April there would be a march and rally in support of the march. £1,500 would be necessary to fund the march through Wolverhampton on May 14th. Beds and meals would be provided at Compton Park, courtesy of the local authority and the Poly Students' Union. Much effort was expended in making the march a success.
When the March was over it was reported to the Trades Council that the stay in Wolverhampton had been highly successful. At the main rally in St. Peter's Square 'telling speeches' had been made by Tony Benn, Derek Robinson, and Alan Millington, the spokesman for the Wolverhampton marchers. There had been moving scenes at the site of the former Bilston Steelworks where a detour had been made to commemorate Wolverhampton's most horrific closure. Hundreds of workers from Rockwell-Thompson, Edwards, etc. joined the protest, and a large contingent from the Cannon plant at Coseley had closed the factory and marched to the meeting. Alan Millington gave a moving description to the Trades Council of the tremendous support the march had at Oxford, Stevenage, Hemel Hempstead etc. and the 'tumultuous applause' there had been at the conferences of AEU/TASS and the Royal College of Nursing. In Southall the Indian community had taken care of all eating and sleeping arrangements and the final reception in London at County Hall as guests of the GLC had been 'fantastic'.
Other Trades Council activities during 1981 included motions from the Women's Committee protesting at high MEB service charges, opposition to Tory proposals to arm the police with CS gas, plastic bullets and water cannon, and a demand for increased maternity benefits; a T&GWU motion was also passed deploring sexual violence and harassment. NUPE motions were passed for mandatory grants to students for all non-higher education courses recognised as qualifying for employment such as the NNEB (Nursery Nurses Examination Board.)
Geoff Brotherton retired and a presentation was agreed in association with the Education Committee of the local authority on which Brotherton had served for 20 years as the Trades Council representative.
1982 was the year the Trades Council became fully involved in training for the unemployed with its Employment and Training Project with Dawn Bennett as co-ordinator.
Opposition to cuts in the Health Service featured strongly in 1982. There was a successful Day of Action in July and protests at the failure of the DHSS to reappoint Sir David Perris (secretary of the W.Midlands TUC) as chairman of the W.Midlands Regional Health Authority. Coseley 2 AUEW branch 'viewed with concern' the unprecedented attacks on the Health Service and saw them as an attempt to promote private health care. It urged any union with private health schemes to terminate them.
The Falklands War occurred in 1982 and there was much peace activity during the year. The Trades Council supported the Vigil and Petition against the war on 22nd May which was the main Labour and Peace movement activity in opposing the war. Later, the following resolution on the war was debated at length:
We view with horror the loss of life which will soon equal the 1,800 inhabitants of the Falkland Islands. We call for an immediate cease fire and a negotiated settlement of the sovereignty question in the long-term interest of the Islanders.
This motion was passed by 30 votes to 9. Another peace issue was a speaker from CND at a Trades Council meeting which resulted in a decision to affiliate to CND and a request to the local council that Wolverhampton be declared a Nuclear Free Zone.
Peace in Northern Ireland was also raised in 1982. £10 was voted and a later report 'approved' of the town conference on Northern Ireland which brought speakers from both sides of the divide to Wolverhampton to discuss the British responsibility for the settlement of the dispute. This conference had taken eighteen months to organise due to the fear and suspicion that the conference would attract the IRA or be the scene of violence. For these reasons the Polytechnic governors refused use of their premises and the event had to be held in the smaller, but most appropriate premises of the Wolverhampton Council for Community Relations. Support for a Labour Party delegation to Ireland later in the year was also approved.
In 1983 there was another People's March for Jobs. The year began with a request to the TUC to reconsider its decision not to organise a National March for Jobs from Scotland to London in 1983. The march went ahead under the auspices of the TUC via the National Co-ordinating Committee. The Trades Council donated £50 to the march and Alan Millington was appointed regional marshall. The march, which came to Wolverhampton on 18th May, had a lesser, but still important impact on the fight for jobs. In his report after the march Alan Millington said that he would always treasure the memories of people from all walks of life, some not usually associated with the labour movement, not forgetting the churches that showed themselves full of humanity and indeed Socialist policies. Millington was congratulated on his stewardship and handling of the media. The press and media which had almost totally ignored the march, were criticised.
Other matters dealt with in 1983 included the purchase of £100 of shares in the Morning Star; protests at the non-payment of £6m to the Citizen's Advice Bureau because Joan Ruddock (chairperson of CND) was an employee; solidarity with 'the brave women of Greenham Common and CND in their attempts to stop the installation of the deadly Cruise and Pershing missiles on British soil'; condemnation of Frank Chapple's support for SDP candidates at the local elections; a motion urging the continued addition of minerals and vitamins in white flour; support for democracy in Chile; and a demand for financial support for the British Aerospace industry.
During the year Geoff Brotherton died. An appreciation stated that he had been an AEU member since 1933, held the AUEW Award of Merit, had been a Trades Council delegate since 1933 and an EC member from 1937.
1984 was the year of the Miners' Strike. Most of the Cannock Chase miners stayed at work. All the more necessary was it, therefore that the minority should be sustained; Wolverhampton was scheduled by the NUM to assist the two main collieries, Littleton and Lea Hall together with the Area Workshops. Wolverhampton Miners' Support Group was one of the first to be set up with the full support of the Trades Council, the town council and the Students' Union. The nerve centre was an operations room in the Polytechnic staffed by miners and presided over by Maureen Green. A committee, under the chairmanship of the president of the Trades Council, met every week to plan strategy and discuss finance. Two main collection points for food and money were established in Wolverhampton and Bilston with others at Wednesfield, Willenhall and elsewhere when forces were available. Weekly food and money collections from the main factories in the town were a key factor. Often there were public house collections and collections outside Wolves' football ground on match days. Special mention must be made of the Indian community which through its organisations and shopkeepers, led by the Indian Workers Association and their representative Kamaljit Rana Singh, donated most generously. In July, a miners' Shop was set up in Exchange street under the control of Ted and Dot Massey, a devoted retired couple who kept the shop open all day every day. Collections reached £1000 a week by August and this level of support was maintained throughout the strike.
The Support Group organised socials and fund raising events, spearheaded the continual protests at police brutality to pickets and organised meetings and demonstrations. It co-operated with the fabulous Miners' Wives Support Group which did so much to maintain the strike.
It early became apparent that Thatcher would stop at nothing to defeat the strike. Blackleg lorry drivers were being paid £100 per day to collect coal from Cannock and deliver it at power stations, etc. Foreign coal was being imported at exorbitant cost, civil liberties were being destroyed and all the nation's financial resources directed to breaking the strike.
Despite the wide network of Support Groups, the miners endured extraordinary privations in this struggle to maintain jobs and mining communities. When the end came in March 1985, many members of the Support Group marched with the miners back to work with banners flying. From that time, collections continued to relieve Miners' distress and support the victimised miners. The Wolverhampton Miners' Support Group ceased to exist on April 16th 1985.
Although dominated by the Miners' strike, 1984 also saw a change of Trades Council secretary under circumstances that highlighted the problems of Labour movement participation in training schemes for unemployed workers. A Trades Council scheme for canal improvement went into a financial deficit of £16,000. This eventually led to the sacking of the manager of the scheme, Phil Richards, who then appealed against his dismissal. At the Trades Council AGM in January there were two nominations for trades council secretary, one was the incumbent Stan Meredith who had resigned as secretary of the trades council employment scheme the previous August. The other was Phil Richards who was in dispute with the Trades Council. On the night of the AGM Meredith withdrew his nomination and Richards, the only other nomination, was declared elected. This created dissatisfaction and at the February meeting of the Trades Council a resolution from ASTMS Wednesfield was passed demanding that Phil Richards resign. Richards, however, refused to resign and at the March EC, with Richards present, a long discussion took place on this refusal, which was carried into the full Trades Council meeting of March. Phil Richards later accepted the inevitable and did resign. There was then a special Trades Council meeting on 29th March which heard a full report on the Canal Scheme from Bruce Young (acting secretary of the scheme) on its problems. These mainly originated in the rapid development of the scheme and the employment of large numbers on it, whilst retaining the informal methods of control which had been appropriate at earlier stages, he said. At the April EC, Arthur White (who had been acting secretary of the Trades Council while Stan Meredith was on holiday in the Soviet Union) was appointed secretary pro.tem. pending an election in June. At that meeting, Jackie Coote, the only nominee, was elected the first woman secretary of the Trades Council.
In 1985 the following were the main issues. In March, a report from the NGA outlined the difficulties concerning the installation of new technology at the Express & Star. Many NGA jobs would be lost, although members would be offered alternative jobs under a 'harmonisation scheme'. This required either that NGA members took jobs at a lower wage or continued with their present wage frozen until others on the lower grade had 'caught up'. This was not acceptable to the union. The Trades Council passed a resolution fully supporting the NGA workers and calling on affiliated bodies and members to refrain from buying or advertising in the paper until the dispute ended.
In July the Trades Council withdrew from its Employment & Training Project and 'disengaged in such a way that jobs were protected.'
Two Tory cuts were particularly opposed. The first was Fowler's review of the DHSS which stopped single payments for such capital items as bedding and furniture, replaced the Family Income Supplement with Family Credits paid through wages, abolished the Earnings Related Benefit scheme and did away with Wages Councils. In July, a special Trades Council meeting heard Tess Gill speak in support of a Day of Action against the 1984 Trades Union Act which made strike ballots compulsory, granted unlimited damages against trade unions, made a ballot for a political fund necessary every ten years, and in the name of public order curtailed civil liberties by demanding 7 days notice for demonstrations and meetings and made the highly dubious offences of 'riot' and 'affray' statutory offences.
In October, the case of Marie O'Shea, held in solitary confinement under the Prevention of Terrorism act was taken up. The Trades Council condemned IRA terrorism, but called for the release of Marie O'Shea and the replacement of the Prevention of Terrorism Act as 'an instrument for depriving people of their democratic rights (nearly 45,000 were detained last year) and the juridicial and other guarantees of a fair trial and protection against inhuman and degrading treatment whilst in detention.' A similar civil liberties case was later brought to the Council by Penny Welch of the Women's Committee of the cases of Ella O'Dwyer and Martina Anderson who were continually strip searched while held on remand in Brixton on charges of attempting to cause explosions.
During the year the death of Terry Duffy, the Wolverhampton born president of the AUEW and Fred Griffiths, a noted district AUEW secretary, were both 'noted with sympathy.'
In the first half of 1986 de-industrialisation was at its peak. Dave Finch gave an economic report to the Council. He said that unemployment in the West Midlands had risen from 6 per cent in 1979 to 15 per cent in 1985, the highest increase for any region. One third of all manufacturing jobs had been lost. There had been a collapse of training facilities deliberately engineered by the Tories and 30 major company training centres had closed. Between 1978 and 1985 engineering apprenticeship fell by almost 70 per cent. The enormous growth of unemployment had led the government to replace proper training with the entirely inadequate YTS (Youth Training Scheme).
1986 was also the year of Wapping to which many Wolverhampton people found their way before the dispute ended. Local involvement began in March when Trades Council 'regretted the necessity for the TUC directive to the EEPTU on their unacceptable conduct in the News International dispute'. (The EEPTU had been granted by Rupert Murdoch trade union rights of organisation at Wapping usurped from SOGAT and the NGA whose members were locked out while Murdoch installed his new technology). The resolution went on to ask all members and affiliates to stop buying The Sun, the News of the World, The Times and the Sunday Times. The march and rally in London on 8 April was to be supported and four nights picketing undertaken at the Cannock depot of TNT who were distributing by road the Murdoch newspapers. In May the provocations of Murdoch, the support of the Thatcher government for him, and the actions of the police brought violence on the picket lines and elsewhere. In May the Trades council was 'condemning the wanton destruction, by groups not associated with the official SOGAT and NGA peaceful picketing, of EEPTU officials' vehicles at Scarborough on 10 May.' Regular reports of the progress of the action were given and regular visits to Wapping by trade unionists were made. In August the Unemployed Theatre Groups' production of 'Wapping Lies' was supported and recommended.
The dispute continued into 1987 and in January another visit to the picket line was arranged. As the dispute subsided, the boycott of the Murdoch papers continued and at the March meeting where this was discussed, delegates were also reminded that the dispute with the Express & Star, which had been first to take the sort of action that Murdoch followed, still continued after two years.
Other important issues dealt with in 1986 included protest at the proposal to remove all engineering courses from the local Polytechnic; condemnation of the British government's decision to allow British territory to be used for USA attacks on Libya; support for NALGO's one day strike on 24 March; support for the campaign to stop the deportation of Som Raj; and support for NALGO 'in its efforts to reach a negotiated settlement' in a controversial restructuring of the town's social services. The Trades Council was also indirectly involved in the matter which never should have been controversial, but was blown up to the proportions of a national scandal. This was the brave appointment by Bilston Community College of Diane Dietman who had been the supervisor of the social worker of a child who was subsequently killed by her father. The matter was resolved by Ms Dietman not taking up the appointment.
1987 was the year of disastrous elections returning Thatcher to power for a third term; also the unwelcome election of a second Tory MP in the town by a handful of votes, and the loss of control of Wolverhampton Council by the election of SDP/Alliance councilors who handed control to the Tories. To cap Labour's misery, just before the election some shop stewards in the town had attacked the 15 per cent rate rise in the town. The result was a Trades Council and Labour group meeting with the shop stewards and a resolution at the March meeting. This regretted that the proposed rates increase seemed to be associated in some trade unionists' minds with job losses. The 15 per cent rates rise was forced on the Council by the policies of the Tory government and particularly the fall in the rate support grant which had declined from 59.6 per cent in 1979/80 to 43.3 per cent in 1986/87 leaving an extra £56m to be found from the rates. The resolution went on to promise a campaign to expose the lie that rate rises led to job losses, to highlight the benefits to the local economy of properly funded local services, to expose the government's national and local policies, and to support the local authority in seeking to maintain and improve the welfare and prosperity of the community.
1987 was the year of the death of Clinton McCurbin at the hands of the police officers arresting him. The Trades Council supported the demand for an independent enquiry into his death, and the decision of the local authority to make funds available for his defence was approved. These actions had again raised racist feelings in the town and were a contributory factor, together with the Dietman case, to the election disasters of the year.
In June 1987, in a measure designed to expand the influence of the Trades Council, which had inevitably declined with the heavy losses of trade union membership as factories had been closed, the name was changed to Wolverhampton, Bilston & District Trades Union Council. This makes clearer the fact that the Trades Council is part of the TUC structure and is, indeed, the local TUC.
Renewed Strength 1988-90
The years since 1988 have been dominated by the Poll Tax, and the campaign to defend the NHS. They have seen a growth of support for an alternative Labour government and there has been a small fall in unemployment.
The Trades Council established an NHS Defence Campaign at the request of the NUPE Health Branch. This was established with a successful launch meeting at which Hector McKenzie (General Secretary of COHSE) spoke. Andrew Goodall was later that year elected Secretary and the Defence Campaign launched several high profile and successful events. These included a major Christmas Card Protest. This consisted of members of the public purchasing a post card for the price of a stamp and sending it to Roy Carver indicating to him that the town's health service was heading for disaster. The NHS Defence Campaign also participated in national events which included lobbying MPs in an attempt to get their support for the NHS.
Unemployment peaked in 1983-4 at more than 20 per cent of all those living and working in Wolverhampton. In addition there were large numbers on short-time for which there are no statistics. If one could average the number of days they did not work against a standard five-day week, there is little doubt that unemployment at its peak totalled 1 in 4 of the working population in Wolverhampton. In inner city areas, where most of the black population lives, unemployment has always been double the general Wolverhampton rate. The unemployment rate fell to 14.7 per cent in 1988 (average for the year) and 11.8 per cent in 1989. But this is after massive massaging of the figures and those counted are not the unemployed, but those unemployed and in receipt of unemployment benefit; this excludes large numbers of older men, young people on government training schemes and, of course, large numbers of women. However, whatever the real total of unemployed in the town, the decrease has brought renewed strength and ability of trade unionists to raise wages and living standards and the activity of the Trades Council reflects this advance.
In the 125 years existence of Wolverhampton Trades Council, living and working conditions have improved enormously. This has been brought about mainly from the economic and political pressure constantly exerted by working people. How closely the economic and political are tied together is illustrated by the whole history of the Trades Council. It began life by supporting a Lock Co-operative and opposing the Master & Servant Acts; it enters its 126th year as active as ever in the struggle for improved wages and conditions, against trade union laws and the Poll Tax, and working for a Labour government as the only alternative if Britain's economic prosperity and political future is to be ensured.
Another lesson is that most battles are never permanently won and have constantly to be re-fought. Such is the case with labour laws where trade unions require the right, not only to exist, but also to perform their basic function of protecting wages and conditions. Anti- labour laws threatened these rights in 1865, in the 1900s, in 1926 and now, of course, in 1990.
Two other timeless themes run through Trades Council work —Unemployment and Peace. The years of full or nearly full employment in Wolverhampton make a very brief list: 1870-75, 1895-1902, 1910-20, 1926-30 and 1940-74. This gives 60 years of full employment to 65 years of large scale mass unemployment; scarcely a glowing recommendation for free-market capitalism. With regard to Peace, the Trades Council has never taken the view that our possession of nuclear weapons has prevented war for 45 years; rather has it looked to the strength of the labour movement throughout the world to preserve peace and curb Western possessors of these weapons when their bellicosity threatened the existence of the world. In the more hopeful days that lie ahead there will be new challenges for the Trades Council to meet.
More than a few words should be said about Equal Opportunity. The trade union and labour movement has always been committed ideologically to the concept that all people are equal regardless of sex, race, religion or colour.
With regard to equality of the sexes, the Trades Council throughout its existence has supported equal pay for equal work. A Women's committee of the Trades Council has existed at least since the Second World War. Its activities have been covered in these pages only when it resulted in resolutions to the Council. There is, however, a wealth of this material available as well as material on the formidable pre-war women's movement of Co-op Women's Guilds and Labour Party Women's Groups in which women trade unionists participated. It is more appropriate that this research be undertaken by a woman, but until it is done, no history of the Trades Council can be considered adequate.
With regard to Race Equality, from the beginning of large scale black immigration into the town in the 1950s the Trades Council has always stood for equality of treatment, and in those early days the Trades Council was one of the few organisations in Wolverhampton that immigrants could turn to for support and advice. In 1968 when Enoch Powell's 'rivers of blood' speech in Birmingham made racism respectable in Britain and the name of Wolverhampton reviled, Powell's views were immediately repudiated by the Trades Council. It has always supported (but too frequently not affiliated to) Wolverhampton Council for Community Relations (now the Race Equality Council). In recent years its support for the black community has been demonstrated in the following cases. In 1980 it supported WCCR in its conflict with the national CRE which refused (without giving a reason) to allow the appointment of one of the main contenders for the post of Chief Community Relations officer in Wolverhampton. In 1981 it supported WCCR in its never ending struggle to co-operate with the police on terms which not only allow for consultation, but also some influence over police operations in the town. In 1982 an EEPTU resolution opposing a grant to the Hindu Temple on the Penn Road was opposed by the EC and subsequently defeated. When the disturbance occurred in Handsworth in 1985 the Trades Council 'recognised that bad social conditions, unemployment and government indifference were the main causes' and donated £50 for the defence of the hundreds of youngsters (many of them school children) who had been arrested as well as taking place on the Handsworth Defence Committee. Support for Som Raj and the taking up of the Clinton McCurbin case had already been discussed.
So Trades Council support for Racial Equality is not in doubt. But
racism is so deeply imbedded in some trade union branches and in so many factories in Wolverhampton that the Trades Council and all other social organisations in the town including the churches, must share the blame for not taking more active steps to root out racism.
If the Trades Union Council is to continue to play a leading part in the future struggles for peace, a better life and whatever new forms of Socialism emerge from the present turmoil, then it is necessary to know the past and honour those on whose shoulders we stand. In its 125 years existence the strength and influence of the Trades Council has ebbed and flowed. It was near to extinction in the years 1866-70, and in recent years the fall in the number of trade unionists and the ferocity of the attacks on the labour movement had again seriously weakened it. But at each crisis it has restructured itself. The destruction of our basic industries of coal and iron in the 1870s led to the rise of the skilled engineer and associated semiskilled and unskilled trades as the mainstay of the Trades Council. The destruction of our main manufacturing base in the 1970s and 80s has been accompanied by a greater influence of white collar workers in the Trades Union Council. Whatever the future holds, it seems certain that the Wolverhampton Trades Union Council will play as vital a role in the next 125 years as it has in the past.
I have tried to indicate all sources in the text. The following therefore is an elaboration on this.
For the formation of the Trades Council the sole source is the Beehive working class newspaper (at the British Library newspaper library, Colindale, London or obtainable from local libraries on microfilm). For their centenary the Trades Council published Origins of Wolverhampton Trades Council by G.J.Barnsby, (copies in the TUC Library, London and Wolverhampton Central Library). This dealt also with social conditions and working class activity in the first half of the nineteenth century and has a full bibliography.
Most Trades Council's histories are written from their Minute Books and annual Year Books but for Wolverhampton Trades Council only one Minute Book Survives covering the period from July 1951 to Jan 1954 (at Wolverhampton Library).
Year Books are indispensable because they usually have an annual report outlining the year's work, the meeting place of all affiliated organisations and names of all delegates. There is also a financial report. Year Books for Wolverhampton are deficient. We do not know when they were first published. The earliest we have are for 1913 to 1915. These are large, substantial booklets. Subsequent Year Books are pocket sized. This series begins in 1923 and from 1925-6 to 1940-41 is almost complete. After 1941 the next Year Books are for 1946 and 1947 followed by 1949. Then 1951 to 1957 and 1961/2. These are all at the TUC Library, but photocopies are available at Wolverhampton. Wolverhampton Library has a series from 1974 to 1978, some survive from the mid 1960s but there is no annual report in them and in the 1980s publication of Year Books ceased altogether.
For the 50th anniversary of 1926 the Trades Council published The General Strike in the Black Country by G.J.Barnsby, (TUC and Wolverhampton libraries) which outlines what we know of this unique event and gives a bibliography.
From the 1980s the Trades Council possesses its own MINUTES of full Council, Executive Committee and sub-Committees. Placed in Wolverhampton Archives and recent documents are on this site.
The only other source is the local press. The only labour movement paper is the invaluable Wolverhampton Worker for the years 1913-15. The local capitalist press means the Wolverhampton Chronicle and the Express & Star. The former has always been Tory, but in earlier years followed an honourable journalistic tradition of reporting at length and almost verbatim when it deigned to recognise the existence of the Trades Council, which wasn't often. The Express & Star was at first a Liberal paper and reported sympathetically such activities as May Day demonstrations and AGMs in the 1880s and 1890s. But it soon became, what it remains today, a Tory paper hostile to the labour movement. However, again until recent years, it followed good journalistic practice by having local affairs reporters who made a career on the paper, some of whom stayed many years and knew the organisations of the town. Not only was that lost, but reporters stopped covering many evening events and eventually ceased to attend Trades Council meetings. There may be more Trades Council reportage to be quarried than I have found in this mountain of newsprint. Future researchers should note that Trades Council meetings have invariably been held on the third Thursday of the month.
TRADES COUNCIL OFFICIALS 1865-present
1865 Joseph Humphries
1866-73 Thomas Owen Crumpton
1874 Joseph Humphries
1891-05 F.Mee, S.Bowyer, J.Scott
1906-08 Caleb Coley, John Stalker
1909-19 Harry Bagley
1955-64 Frank Martin
1965-70 Chris Laws
1971-79 Sam Clarke
1980-83 Stan Meredith
1984 Arthur White, Jackie Coote
1984-87 Jackie Coote
1988 Bruce Young
1989-95 Dick Scroop
1996-present Nick Kelleher
1860s Joseph Humphries
1880s C.Eley, G.Sale
1900s F.Badger, W.Day
1903-18 James Whittaker
1946 Frank Clapham
1965-78 Harry Bagley
1979-85 Ron Badham
1986-88 Bruce Young
1988-95 Alan Millington
1996-2002 Rob Marris
2003-05 Marie Taylor
2006-10 Dave Cole
2011-present Marie Taylor
TRADES COUNCIL AFFILIATES AND INCOME
1878 1,200 trade unionists affiliated
1890 about 2,000 trade unionists affiliated Income £16
1914 45 societies affiliated Income £134
1917 58 societies affiliated Income £171
1922 74 societies affiliated Income £181
1924 75 societies affiliated Income £161
1937 47 societies affiliated Not known
1945 77 societies affiliated Income £478
1989 34 societies affiliated Income £1259
1999 24 societies affiliated Income £497
2003 24 societies affiliated Income £1046
2007 21 societies affiliated Income £1583
2011 18 societies affiliated Income £1252
2016 25 societies affiliated Income £1821
Appendix C - THANKS
The Wolverhampton, Bilston & District Trades Union Council would like to thank the following unions and trade unionists for giving their support for the updating of this book.