History of Wolverhampton, Bilston and District Trades Union Council 1865-1990

Chapter 9


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.

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