The first turbulent years of the T&G

A new history of Unite the Union begins with the formation of a predecessor union, the Transport and General Workers’ Union, forged in the turbulent ‘new normal’ that developed after the first world war. ROB WILLIAMS draws out some key lessons, still with resonance for the movement today.

Unite History, Volume One (1880-1931)

By Mary Davis and John Foster

Published by Liverpool University Press, 2021, £6-99

Unite is producing a series of six books on its history. The union is now one of the biggest in the UK and Ireland, formed through the merger of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU or the T&G) and Amicus in 2007. The first volume, titled The Transport and General Workers’ Union: Representing A Mass Trade Union Movement, details the formation of the T&G in 1922.

While outlining the years from 1880, which led to the creation of the TGWU through the amalgamation of fourteen unions, the book mainly deals with the time from the end of the first world war to the formation of the National Government in 1931. This was the stormiest period in the history of the working-class in Britain, with huge confrontations between the workers’ movement and the capitalists and their political representatives, reaching its highest expression in the nine-day general strike in 1926.

This period is particularly important for study by trade union activists. While there are significant differences between now and then, there are also clear parallels. The first world war then and the Covid pandemic now have ushered in ‘new normals’ – a far harsher economic climate that even in the most basic industrial battles raises the need for the most militant action by workers. But in the fight against closures, mass redundancies and job insecurity and casualisation, it also increasingly poses the need to challenge capitalism and overthrow and replace it with a democratic socialist planned society, in order to ensure a decent life for the majority in society. In 1940 the Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky observed that “war is the continuation of the selfsame policies. It speeds up processes, exposes their basic features, destroys all that is rotten, false, equivocal, and lays bare all that is essential”.

Emerging from war

The Russian revolution of 1917 had a massive effect in inspiring a generation of workers that a socialist society was possible as an alternative to the war, destruction and economic crises of capitalism, through the living example of a workers’ state. This led to the development of the Communist Party, founded in Britain in 1920 with the prestige of the Russian revolution behind it, which despite its inexperience would have responsibilities thrust upon it and could have played a decisive role in these mighty events.

The overthrow of capitalism in Russia would also have an effect on the approach and attitude of the British ruling class. They were now even more acutely aware that the mass movements of the working-class had an implicit threat of insurrection within them, leading to an even greater sharpening of their strategy in dealing with the labour and trade union movement.

The basis for these fundamental class collisions was the economic decline of British capitalism. By the beginning of the twentieth century, its hold on the position of world economic dominance was being challenged by the emergence of Germany and increasingly the USA. The war was proof that decaying capitalism was incapable of further developing society and that ‘progress’ was only possible through a new re-division of the world market, including the colonial possessions of the major powers.

Britain may have emerged victorious from the war but it was a pyrrhic victory. With a fall in global demand and the increase of competition through the rise of the USA, the scene was set for a series of clashes with the working class, increasingly radicalised by war and revolution.

The moves to form the TGWU ‘One Big Union’ were reflective of a number of different processes. The predecessor unions were products of ‘new unionism’ – the development of mass unions of semi-skilled and unskilled workers, rather than them being the preserve of skilled trades. They exploded onto the scene in the late nineteenth century in huge confrontations such as the Great Dock Strike of 1889.

This movement also revealed to workers the necessity of a political vehicle. The fact the two major parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals, were both representatives of different wings of the employers, meant that through experience the workers groped towards the establishment of their own party. Therefore, side by side with the building of mass unions, the creation of a workers’ party was a necessity. In Britain, the unions blocked on the industrial front and legislated against by the capitalist parties, were the main force behind the formation of the Labour Party at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Two tendencies

Two of the leading figures in unions that played key roles in what was to become the TGWU, Tom Mann and Ben Tillett, were prominent fighters through the periods of new unionism and the pre-war mass strikes of the ‘Great Unrest’ between 1910 and 1914, which were often brutally faced down by the state. The idea of militant trade unionism was built into the very foundations of the new union. But it wasn’t the only trend.

The stormy post-war events revealed the two major tendencies in the labour and trade union movement that would vie with each other during this whole period. One was the explosive determination of rank and file workers to oppose the plans of the bosses to make them pay for the weakened state of British capitalism. On the other hand, stood the right-wing union leaders, acting again and again as agents of the employers and their state.

This fight would be reflected in the TGWU, with the role of right-wing enforcer played by Ernest Bevin, the first general secretary of the union, who inevitably looms large in the book. Although, unlike the pro-capitalist leaders of the Labour Party and the TUC, even union leaders like Bevin would sometimes have to respond to the pressure of their members, and sway to the left. Therefore, at times this would result in him clashing with the TUC and Labour Party leaders, particularly the turncoat Ramsey McDonald, but his main role was to undermine militant struggle, both in his union and generally in 1921 and 1926, and also go on the offensive against the left and especially the Communist Party, in the Labour Party and in the TGWU.

While the British ruling class had a strategical approach to their system and the threats posed by a radicalised working-class, the opposite was true for the so-called leaders of the workers’ movement. They harked back to the illusion of the pre-war period of prosperity, where gradual improvements could be made for workers. This was the basis for their reformism – the piecemeal evolution of a superior socialism, where everyone, capitalists included, would come to accept its inevitability. But the brutal trenches of the war showed once and for all that the capitalists would fight tooth and nail for their dominance. This cold cruelty would be behind their approach in dealing with the organised working-class, the ‘enemy within’, as the shadows of economic crisis drew over society.

Black Friday

They were met however with the militancy of an aroused working-class, determined not to pay the price after the catastrophe of war. The scene was set for mass class collisions, with a million miners in the vanguard.

They were the motor force for the huge confrontations of 1919 and 1921. The mines had been commandeered by the government during the war but then returned to the colliery owners. The miners fought for a pay rise and demanded that the pits be nationalised. The government, confronted by a wave of militancy, with a daily average of 100,000 workers on strike during 1919, including police in London and Liverpool, bought time by setting up the Coal Industry Commission into the future of the mines under Justice Sankey, the ‘Sankey Commission’. A further contributory factor was the bringing together of the ‘Triple Alliance’ of the miners, rail and transport workers (which included predecessor unions of the TGWU). Trade union membership had doubled from pre-war levels to eight million.

The potential power of the workers’ movement was shown by the huge response to threats by the British government to the fledging Russian revolution. Such was the pressure of the mass of workers that in 1920, even the right-wing Labour and trade union leaders were forced to convene a national Council of Action and threaten a general strike to stop an escalation of intervention by the government against the workers’ state in Russia.

But by 1921, the economic position was in favour of the coal owners. With a downturn in the coal industry and a reserve army of a million unemployed, the coalition government of Lloyd George handed back control to the mine owners, who then went on to the offensive with big wage cuts. The miners resisted, leading to a lock-out. The Triple Alliance was now put to the test and found wanting.

The government had reacted to the movement in 1919-20 by beefing up the powers of the state. Their other weapon of choice were treacherous union leaders like Jimmy Thomas of the railway workers. Thomas and the right-wing miners’ leader Frank Hodges were most responsible for the Black Friday betrayal, enabling Bevin to avoid most of the blame for the failure to support the miners, who fought on for another three months before being starved back to work. But Bevin had also contributed to the sell-out as a leader of the National Transport Workers’ Federation in one of its last acts before the creation of the TGWU a year later, in which he became the first general secretary.

As with other major defeats, such as the 1926 general strike and more recently the 1984-85 miners’ strike – and even the N30 public sector pensions strike in 2011 – workers across other sectors paid a heavy price. By the end of 1921, six million workers had suffered wage cuts imposed on them.

The first Labour government

This was the political and industrial environment that the newly formed TGWU emerged into. It affiliated to the Labour Party and within two years the party was in office as a minority government. But it was clear that the capitalists were still in power. The right-wing Labour leaders were loyal ministers, even keeping intact the Tories’ strike-breaking machinery that would be employed again two years later in the general strike. The likes of MacDonald would enlist the service of union leaders such as Thomas, who became a government minister.

The weak Labour government was short-lived but one consequence of its reign was that right-wing leaders like Thomas had to be replaced on the TUC General Council, which saw the ascent on that body of the left-wingers George Hicks, from the Amalgamated Union of Building Trades Union, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers’ Alonzo Swales, and the Furnishing Trades Association’s Alf Purcell.

The ruling-class was reassured that McDonald’s Labour government was no threat to their interests. But they required stronger political certainty as they looked at their troubling economic prospects – the return of their Tory government.

The occupation of the Ruhr by French troops after the German government defaulted on war reparation repayments triggered a revolutionary wave of resistance, including in the mining areas. Tragically, the opportunity that opened up for the working-class to come to power was missed by the leadership of the German Communist Party, reinforced in their indecision by the Stalinist leadership then developing within the Russian party and the Communist International.

However, the crisis led directly to the US-led Dawes Plan, which looked to reflate the strangled German economy. Soon their growing recovery started squeezing the British economy, particularly the coal industry. In addition, in a futile attempt to recover the supremacy of British capitalism against the US, the new Tory prime minster Stanley Baldwin through his chancellor Winston Churchill re-established the Gold Standard, immediately making British exports ten per cent more expensive.

The coal owners looked for a showdown with the miners to impose a pay cut. Battle loomed, with the rest of the trade union movement, on paper at least, lined up behind the miners. By 1925, the Minority Movement had been formed, initiated by the Communist Party and their allies in the union movement. This had the potential to mobilise rank and file workers to act as a lever on the union leaders, and go beyond their control. At its height, its reach extended to one and a half million workers, represented by affiliated unions, branches, shop stewards committees, and trades councils. It played a key role in the election of AJ Cook, left winger and a former member of the one of the Communist Party’s predecessor organisations, as leader of the miners’ union, replacing Frank Hodges.

But in the summer of 1925, the ruling class wasn’t ready for the showdown. They were pushed back on ‘Red Friday’ in July but as in 1919, they bought time, by the Tory government paying out a subsidy for the coal industry. It would stretch to nine months, time for preparations to be made for the general strike that they were looking to provoke. In contrast, the TUC had totally failed to prepare. Its sub-committee for the strike only met six days before action started.

The general strike

An unlimited general strike poses the question of power – which class will rule society? It is why the Socialist Party has considered very carefully how to pose generalised action in a whole number of struggles – from the miners’ strike in1984-85, to the November 2011 N30 pensions strike. The slogan of a 24-hour general strike is a demand that raises the sights of workers on how widespread action can be mobilised and we have used it very effectively.

But the 1926 general strike, while triggered by the attack on the miners, had far deeper revolutionary connotations, which the capitalists and the right-wing labour and trade union leaders alike understood. In fact, the likes of McDonald and Thomas warned the Tories about the dangers but the ruling class saw such a clash as necessary to deal a decisive blow against the working-class.

However, if they took the craven leaders as proof of the mood of workers, they were seriously mistaken. For all the Tories’ preparations and the mistakes, mismanagement and downright sabotage of the right-wing union leaders, the strike unleashed the boundless energy, determination and talent of millions of workers.

The book details a whole number of accounts of workers, including in the TGWU, at the heart of the action, stopping workplaces, resisting the brutality of the police, and also exercising systematic control of many of the everyday functions of everyday life. This is the germ of the revolution in a general strike, which can develop into a dual power of striking workers across all sectors, organised in soviets or workers’ councils or ‘councils of action’.

The task of a revolutionary party, in this instance the young Communist Party, was to call for the drawing together of these units into a national rank and file organisation of the strike. But instead, the Communist Party’s slogan of ‘All Power to the TUC General Council’ disarmed workers by creating illusions in the union leaders, both left and right. They were too uncritical of the left union leaders, who acted as a cover for the right. The lefts’ capitulation in the ending of the strike against the opposition of the miners was used by the right-wing union leaders to justify their abject surrender.

In the year before the general strike, the TUC and the leadership of the Russian trade unions had established the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee. This should have been used as a united front, where the Russian trade unions could have put demands on the TUC leaders and made timely criticisms and warned the workers in a skilful way about any moves to sell out the strike.

But the Stalinists put the maintenance of this agreement first. This meant that the union leaders’ betrayal even had a left sheen of the authority of the Russian workers’ state. The opportunities to expose the TUC and the union leaders were lost. Even the advantage of publicly breaking with the TUC when the miners were abandoned was thrown away and actually it was the TUC leadership who wound up the joint committee sixteen months later in September 1927.

Role of the Communist Party

Could the undoubtedly small Communist Party, even with the correct position, have played the same decisive role as the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917, in leading the working-class to power? This question is not approached by the book’s authors, who are both CP members.

In 1926, the party had growing influence amongst workers and had important points of support in key sections and areas such as the South Wales miners and the London dockers to name just a few, with the authority of the Russian revolution behind them. In addition, there was widespread anger at the right-wing leaders of the Labour Party and unions. While it is quite possible that due to their size, they wouldn’t have been able to be the fulcrum of leading the movement in a revolutionary direction at that stage, they could have been far more strengthened in preparation for future battles, and even been able to play a vital role in the workers avoiding such a serious defeat.

Initially, the mistakes of the Communist Party were related to its inexperience and the inheritance of its predecessor elements, which meant that while many were bold and courageous, they also suffered from ultra-left and sectarian tendencies, which Lenin and Trotsky strove to correct. But with the isolation of the Russian workers’ state, due to the defeats of the revolutions internationally, and faced with the catastrophic results of war, civil war and famine, a conservative bureaucratic clique developed around the person of Joseph Stalin. At first, the Stalinists made disastrous mistakes in their leadership position in the Communist International, missing revolutionary opportunities, especially in China from 1925. But more and more they subordinated international revolutions and the national Communist Parties to the immediate policy interests of the Russian state and their own survival in power.

The outcome of the 1926 general strike defeat was bitter. The miners fought on heroically for another six months. The book details the attempts of Bevin to ensure that strikers weren’t victimised. It claims that he and the union leaders had been ‘tricked’ by the Tory prime minister Baldwin, thinking that there was a guarantee of reinstatement for striking workers. When it became clear that there was no such commitment, “Bevin immediately telegrammed all areas that workers should come out and stay out. By the end of the day there were more workers out on strike than at any time over the previous nine days”.

This reaction was a testament to the solidarity and fighting strength of workers and showed their huge potential power that was glimpsed during the general strike. But the union leaders, with Bevin prominent, had squandered it. Workers’ action did force Baldwin to in words urge employers to reinstate workers but the huge defeat of the strike tipped the balance in favour of the bosses, who could look to banish militants from the workplaces and impose wage cuts on those who remained.

Right-wing strengthened

This changed situation had its consequences in the whole union movement, generally strengthening the right-wing. Their ‘confidence’ lies in that they rest directly on the ruling-class, with whom they have a shared outlook, while the left leaders are far more unstable, pushed more by the opposing class pressures of the bosses and the workers.

Bevin moved further to the right. Industrially, in trying to shore up the union from loss of membership, he signed a number of no-strike deals to ensure union recognition with various employers and clamping down on unofficial action. He did face opposition over his role in the ending of the general strike, including from dockers in London and Glasgow, and London bus workers. Also, a whole number of union meetings voted to condemn him.

To survive, Bevin doubled down on opposition but also tacked left, writing to the chair of the Labour Party Arthur Henderson to report that he couldn’t support the party as long as Ramsay McDonald was leader. At the next biennial conference in 1927, Bevin was able to defeat the motions of the left, who attempted to censure the executive committee for endorsing the TUC betrayal and even called for the resignation of the union’s delegates to the TUC general council. He then went on to the offensive against the Communist Party. Despite 14 London branches, two from Scotland and one from Lancashire moving motions opposing the banning of CP members representing TGWU branches at local Labour Party bodies and trades councils, the ban went through.

Further, at that year’s TUC, Bevin supported the leadership in winding up the Anglo-Russian committee, with that congress also seeing his first step in the direction of partnership with the employers. It didn’t go unnoticed by the Tory government and the capitalist establishment. A cabinet report noted that the TUC congress marked a decisive turning point to the right.

This open move to partnership found a concrete expression at the Mond-Turner talks in early 1928. Alfred Mond (Lord Melchett) was the head of chemical giant ICI and represented a section of the capitalists who were looking for state intervention and an expansion of the economy to aid their business interests. Building a relationship with the right-wing union leaders would allow them to rationalise – sack workers and close plants – with the collusion rather than opposition of the unions. However, it was the capitalists as a whole that blocked these moves, at that stage at least. This despite Mond trying to reassure them that the TUC now supported “the abandonment of class war and communist political trade unionism”. They were probably confident that because of the role of the union leaders, their interests were safe enough.

Bevin and the 1931 betrayal

The book’s authors seemingly attempt to rationalise Bevin’s leadership, particularly in the turmoil of the second minority Labour government that was elected in 1929 and then the betrayal led by McDonald in 1931 when he formed the National Government with the Tories after seeking to make the working-class pay for the economic crisis in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash. In the chapter which they title ‘Labour rescued’, it is clear that it is Bevin that they champion for the salvaging of the party. This is despite, in their own words, Bevin seeing “from 1926 onwards, the eradication of left-wing, minority movement and communist influence as an organisational priority both within the TGWU and in Labour and the wider union movement”. He was aided in this by the Communist Party’s move to a sectarian and ultra-left approach following the adoption by the Comintern congress of 1928 of the theory of ‘the third period’, including the denunciation of the social democratic parties and reformist trade union leaders as ‘social fascists’.

The fact that the same Bevin was forced under pressure from below to oppose the Labour right when they went too far, shouldn’t detract from the role he played in attacking the left, which in many ways prepared the ground for what happened in 1931. It is also the case that by some of the right like Bevin and Herbert Morrison (Peter Mandelson’s grandfather) staying in Labour Party, they were also performing a valuable service for the ruling-class. It was on their watch that lefts like Aneurin Bevan were temporarily expelled and Labour joined the war-time coalition with Churchill, with Bevin becoming Minister of Labour, belligerently making strikes illegal. 

This process was repeated in the early 1980s after right-wing Labour MPs formed the Social Democratic Party, and recently when only a small minority of hardliner Blairites split under Corbyn to form the short-lived Independent Group and then Change UK. The intention was the same, to act in the interests of the capitalist class, and damage either a polarised or left-moving Labour Party but also retain a right-wing force for the future.

Periods of turmoil

The period from 1917 to 1939 was the most revolutionary period in capitalism. This book does show that Britain wasn’t immune from that. And where the class struggle reached its heights, in 1919, 1921 and especially in 1926, it assumed revolutionary proportions. In such moments, these momentous battles are played out in workplaces, communities and the mass organisations of the working-class. The struggle is polarised on class lines between those most conscious and self-sacrificing workers and those who have their two feet planted within capitalism.

Marxists draw out the major tendencies and trends on a class basis, so as to raise the consciousness of the most fighting layers of the working-class to best prepare and orientate for the tasks at hand. This is in contrast to others on the left, who obscure real roles and only succeed in muddying the waters. This is due to their pessimistic outlook on the ability of the working-class to see the need to change society and act in mass numbers in the fight for socialism. Essential in this is to call things – policies, parties and leaders – by their proper names, in order to steel the working class for the momentous tasks ahead of it. Inherent in this to build a mass revolutionary party, capable of leading the working-class to power.

The same tasks lie ahead now. The economic crises of that period were seemingly a thing of the past. But in the last decade and a half, we’ve seen the Great Recession of 2007-09 and now the catastrophic response of the ruling class to the Covid pandemic here and globally. The vicious ‘fire and rehire’ offensive that has already been unleashed on thousands of Unite members, not only revealed that there can be no ‘national unity’ with the bosses but it and the fighting response to this brutal attack has also given a glimpse of the mass struggles to come.

This shows conclusively that to attain a decent future, the working-class must fight every attack from the employers but replace rotten capitalism with a democratic planned socialist system. The study of this stormy time is essential to prepare the forces to achieve that future.