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.