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

Chapter 3


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.

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