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The history of the T&G

TGlogoTrade unions started with the industrialisation of the late 18th and the 19th centuries, which drew thousands of workers together in towns and cities to live and work in poverty. The success of British industry in the hundred years from 1780 was built on the exploitation of hundreds of thousands of workers who worked 14 to 18 hours a day for miserable wages in unsafe factories, and lived in bare and comfortless homes.

Workers realised they could only fight ruthless employers and inhuman working conditions by banding together, and so trade unions were born - and fiercely opposed by the owners of industry. The most celebrated pioneers of British trade unionism are the Tolpuddle Martyrs, six Dorset farm labourers deported to Australia for joining a union in 1834.

As communications improved, the influence of trade unionism grew. 1868 saw the birth of the Trades Union Congress, and the 1870s and 1880s brought organisation to a variety of key industries: gas workers, dockers, railwaymen, farm workers, builders, labourers, etc. Increasingly, trade unionists were able to apply politicial pressure - to give working people the vote, legalise trade unionism and bring in laws to improve conditions at work. In 1885, 11 trade unionists were elected to Parliament, as members of the Liberal Party.

From the end of the 1880s a new kind of trade unionism flourished, fired by economic depression, increased social awareness, and the spread of socialist ideas and thought. This 'new unionism' brought organisation to large numbers of unskilled workers, encouraged by the successes of groups like the London gasworkers in 1888, in their demands for a three-shift system (which meant an eight-hour day), the London dockers in their strike for a rate of six pence an hour (the "docker's tanner") and the Bryant and May matchgirls.

It differed from established trade unionism in both organisation and tactics. Catering for the unskilled and poorly paid, its unions recruited across industrial barriers. Contributions and entrance fees were low; so were the financial benefits. The organisers saw the role of trade unionism as active rather than passive - to win improvements from employers by industrial action, rather than to look after members in times of hardship.

1900 saw a Labour Representation Committee formed by a special conference of trade unionists and socialists called together by the TUC's Parliamentary Committee. Twenty-nine members of the committee were elected to Parliament in 1906 and the Labour Party was born - a key factor in pushing the Liberal government to introduce a variety of social reforms. Among these were compensation for industrial injuries and state pensions, which laid the foundations of our present system of social insurance and marked the beginning of the welfare state.

The years before the first world war were a period of mounting industrial militancy. Hundreds of thousands of miners, transport workers and railway workers were involved in strikes, often confronting the police and the army. The number of workers involved in disputes rose from 93,000 in 1905 to 1,463,000 in 1912.


Amalgamation 1918-22

The 1914-18 war suspended the union militancy, but when peace came trade unions realised they had to reorganise to address a new economy in which many industries were in crisis. Two dockers' unions took the initiative in calling for the establishment of a new trade union to create "the best form of organisation to meet the new combination of capital in the shipping world."

The T&G was formed on 1 January 1922, with 350,000 members from 14 unions, including dockers, stevedores, lightermen, factory workers, transport workers and clerks. The union's first general secretary - and the architect of the amalgamation - was Ernest Bevin.


Building strength 1922-39

From its foundation the T&G has played a leading part in the wider labour movement. Its history is inseparable from that of the whole trade union movement and of the Labour Party.

The major events of the 1920s were the shortlived Labour governments of 1924 and 1929, and the general strike of 1926. The general strike was one of the most significant events in working-class history in the 20th century and the T&G was centrally involved. The coal owners wanted to cut the already low wages paid to miners and were supported by the government. Nearly a million miners refused to accept the demand for a longer working day and lower wages, which was recognised by the whole trade union movement as an attack on the living standards of all working people.

The TUC general council called a general strike which was supported by all the country's trade unions, including the 353,000 members of the T&G. The strike, which closed factories, transport and services throughout Britain, was called off after nine days without any concession by coal-owners or government. It was a defeat the unions did not fully recover from for a generation, as concerted government action reduced union membership and funds.

The T&G affiliated to the Labour Party from the beginning and was active in supporting the election of minority Labour governments in 1924 and 1929. The second Labour government, led by Ramsay MacDonald, was engulfed by the worldwide economic crisis which began in 1929. Millions of British workers were made unemployed as factories, mills and mines closed throughout the country. Whole communities became destitute.

The Labour government was unable to address these problems and proposed balancing the books by reducing the already meagre unemployment benefit. This led to MacDonald abandoning the Labour Party and forming a 'national government' with the Liberal and Conservative parties. Throughout this crisis, the T&G and the other affiliated unions remained loyal to the Labour Party, ensuring that the betrayal of 1931 did not result in its destruction. Ernest Bevin played a major part in stabilising and rebuilding the party through the difficult years of the 1930s.

These years included the struggle against Mosley fascism at home and Franquist fascism abroad - the T&G was prominent. Thousands of British workers went to fight for the Spanish republic as part of the International Brigades, convinced that unless fascism was stopped in Spain, it would advance elsewhere. Although the Spanish republic was defeated and it took a world war to stop fascism in the end, the heroism of the International Brigades, which included in their number subsequent T&G general secretary Jack Jones, remains celebrated. A memorial to their bravery is on display in Transport House.

It was during this period that the union started to develop its organisation and become more systematic about recruitment, often in the face of hostility from employers. The T&G pioneered the concept of shop stewards, who became both the front line in dealing with workplace problems and a key part of the union's democratic structure.


The war years 1939-45

The second world war had a profound effect on the trade union movement. In the factories and at all levels of national life the unions played a key role in the successful fight against fascism.

In 1940 Winston Churchill set up a coalition government - but realised the importance of winning the support of the unions. He took the unusual step of bringing Ernest Bevin into the government as minister for labour. Bevin held this post with distinction throughout the war years. When the first majority Labour government was elected in the landslide of 1945, Bevin became foreign secretary.

The confidence of trade unions grew from the spirit and solidarity established during the war years. For instance, the T&G in Coventry led the demand for joint production committees which were officially accepted in 1942. This established the principle of consultative rights on matters relating to planning and organising production for workers and over 4,500 such committees were established in the engineering and aircraft industries, ordnance factories and dockyards. They laid the basis for the trade unions' role over the next 30 years.

As minister for labour Bevin brought in many workplace reforms including better pay and conditions and improved welfare standards. The massive influx of new workers into industry boosted trade union membership, and as a result, the T&G passed the one million members mark in 1942. Many women joined the workforce and the T&G fought, and in many cases won, the principle of equal pay for equal work for women members, such as women bus conductors.


Poverty and prosperity 1945-97

During the 1940s, 50s and 60s, trade unions grew in size and influence and were vital to the joint regulation of industry. 

In the 1960s and 1970s in particular, the T&G grew rapidly as a result of relatively full employment, the strength of the general trade union movement and a favourable political environment. By 1970 membership passed the 1.5 million mark and in 1977 it was over two million - the highest number any trade union in this country has ever attained.

The election of an aggressively anti-union Tory government in 1979, however, led to a sustained attack on trade unionism, which, coupled with the decline of traditional industries and high unemployment, led to a period of sustained decline. However, some of this decline (the T&G's membership has more than halved since 1979) has been due to changes in the structure and nature of the workforce which will not be reversed.

The union responded to some of these changes by launching the Link-Up campaign in 1987. This sought to extend trade union organisation to the growing number of temporary and part-time workers, the great majority of them women, employed in the British economy. The campaign raised recruitment to a rate of over 200,000 per year - a major achievement, but one that did no more than cancel out losses due to the redundancies and closures which have repeatedly swept through British industry and to the anti-union attitude of many employers.

In the 1990s the union combined political and industrial pressure to crusade against the evil of low pay that had spread like a virus through the economy since the 1979 election returned the Tories to office. The £4 Now campaign, to win a pay rate of at least £4 an hour for all members not already earning as much, secured pay increases for thousands of workers, while pressure from the T&G and other unions won a commitment from the Labour Party to introduce a national minimum wage aimed at eliminating the scandal of poverty pay once and for all. When Labour was elected in the 1997 landslide election, establishing a national minimum wage was one of its earliest achievements.

The two Labour governments of 1997 and 2001 have seen some advances for the union movement and for British workers, such as the right to organise, a minimum wage, and a stable economy, but there is still plenty for the T&G to fight for - low pay is still a scandal, the pensions of hard-working people are at risk, and privatisation threatens the security of many.


The T&G from 1997

As a new millennium begins, trade unions are more than ever aware of what the earliest combinations of workers learned 200 years ago - that only through unity and organisation can the cause of working men and women be advanced.

Employers have created global corporations capable of holding governments, let alone workers, to ransom. Today, more than ever, workers need the strength of a trade union around them.

For the T&G, having members throughout industry and the services has meant growth and stability during industrial struggles and the ups and downs of the economy. It has meant being able to fight on, when others have gone to the wall.

The strength and depth of its organisation means that the T&G is as relevant for the workers of the future - in high-tech industries or the caring services - as it is for lightermen, whose origins lie with the guilds of the Middle Ages.


Towards a new union

As a new millennium began, trade unions are more than ever aware of what the earliest combinations of workers learned 200 years ago - that only through unity and organisation can the cause of working men and women be advanced.

Employers have created global corporations capable of holding governments, let alone workers, to ransom. Today, more than ever, workers need the strength of a trade union around them.

For the T&G, having members throughout industry and the services has meant growth and stability during industrial struggles and the ups and downs of the economy. It has meant being able to fight on, when others have gone to the wall. The strength and depth of its organisation means that the T&G is as relevant for the workers of the future - in high-tech industries or the caring services - as it is for lightermen, whose origins lie with the guilds of the Middle Ages. And when the historic opportunity came to build a new union, Unite, the T&G and Amicus joined to form Britain's biggest union.