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 This act stood until the post-war Labour Government repealed it.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.