Trades Councils Conference, 1951

It is easy to underestimate the significance of British trade unions in the 1950s. Unlike the previous decades, the events in which the trade union movement was prominent have hardly passed into British collective memory. Indeed, the Conservatives' victory in the three general elections, 1951, 1955 and 1959, have usually been interpreted as being evidence of trade unions' marginalisation in British life. It is Suez and the Angry Young Men and Harold Macmillan's epigram, 'You've never had it so good', which come to mind rather than the activities of the nine million men and women who were union members.(1)

In fact, the three Conservative Prime Ministers of the 1950s, Churchill, Eden and Macmillan, were all strongly committed to maintaining the good relations with the trade union movement, which the previous Labour government had developed. Churchill appointed the popular and very charming Sir Walter Monckton as his Minister of Labour and took care to ensure that Monckton was able to pursue his job without worrying about any reaction from the backbenches against 'cosying up' to the unions. Conservative Central Office had been traumatised by the size of the Labour vote in 1945, which had held up very well in 1950 and 1951. A high-level decision was taken that Conservatives not only had to respond to working class concerns, but be seen to respond and take trade unions, their representative institutions, seriously. This approach was continued under Eden and Macmillan, who were actually even more strongly committed to close co-operation with unions.

Perhaps the most tangible evidence of this was their refusal, despite pressure from their backbenches and constituency organisations, to re-enact the 1927 Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act. When doubts were expressed, the continuing high level of union membership was cited as ample proof of unions' continuing strength. Moreover, the eye-catching recruiting leaflets on the web-site show that unions were far from complacent. Union officials and activists were well aware of the challenges posed to their collective morale and coherence by the full employment of the 1950s. They recognised the new conditions in postwar Britain and looked for ways to adapt union organisation to them. Unions became serious modernisers, concerned to become more inclusive and to respond to the new needs of the workforce.

Employment in manufacturing had risen to an all-time peak of 39% of the workforce in 1951, and it remained at a high level throughout the decade.(2) Facing chronic labour shortages, employers began to adapt working conditions to attract women with childcare responsibilities back to work. Unions responded by mounting recruiting campaigns targetting women, and creating new internal institutions to ensure women's voices could be heard and reflected in union policy. Whilst these efforts did not succeed in increasing female membership, the historically high level of 25% organisation reached in 1945 was maintained.(3) Union officials and activists also made strenuous efforts to interest young people in unions and involve them in union activity. Trade union education expanded, and the TUC itself took the lead in many areas as the photo of a TUC course on production problems shows. Unions also organised a wide range of activities to cater for their members' leisure time interests. These included cycling speed trials, amateur athletics competitions, swimming meetings and amateur boxing events. Other unions were often invited to send their members to compete, and a keen rivalry between between unions who competed for members on the shopfloor, (e.g., the AEU and the TGWU), was reflected in the accounts of these sporting occasions which appeared in union journals.

Another important postwar development was the increased interest amongst white-collar workers, in both the public and private sectors, in trade unionism. No doubt impressed by the advances being won by manual workers, enterprising and idealistic young members of white-collar unions inaugurated ambitious recruiting campaigns and made plans for a new kind of union organisation which would cater for the particular needs of specialist, expert and professional workers. These efforts provided important foundations for the future growth of white-collar unions in the 1960s.

A notable difference between the British trade union movement and its western European and North American counterparts was the comparative lack of internal political conflict. In the 1950s, cold war divisions, which had threatened to pre-occupy union activists in the late 1940s, largely disappeared from view. Even the unexpected events inside the Soviet Communist Party and the Hungarian revolution in 1956 failed to re-open serious divisions. The Transport and General Workers Union prohibition on communists holding full-time and lay union office was effectively ignored at the shopfloor level. The TGWU's general secretary from 1956, Frank Cousins, was a man of the left. His election by a large majority in a full membership ballot was seen as clear evidence that the TGWU's turn to the right under Arthur Deakin had been temporary. Cousins steered the TGWU back to the left-of-centre ground. His high profile speeches at successive Trades Union Congresses declared a willingness to treat with the Conservative government on incomes policy, provided it moved towards a democratically planned economy in which wages had equal claim with profits to the surplus generated by industry.(4)

In the late 1950s, the weakening pace of economic growth presented a new dilemma for unions and government. Manufacturing employers were increasingly unwilling to concede wage increases and better conditions in the face of falling profits. Their representatives warned the government that they expected support for their resistance to union demands which they considered irresponsible and undermining for Britain's competitive position in the world market. Whilst the government was anxious to support industrialists, they were also unwilling to be seen to be unresponsive to unions' concerns. For its part, the union leadership was well aware that members expected continuing improvements in their standard of living. The sharp recession of 1956 presented the recurrence of a deeply worrying problem, unemployment. In late June, the British Motor Corporation made six thousand workers at its Longbridge factory redundant without either pay or notice. The shop stewards' committee responded by calling a strike, which lasted for six weeks, strongly supported by Frank Cousins, despite the fact that it was the engineering union, the AEU, whose shop stewards had taken the lead.

In March 1957, national strikes in shipbuilding and engineering produced what the Observer described as 'the most serious crisis since 1926' in industrial relations. The government successfully applied strong pressure on the employers to concede substantial wage increases. The AEU emerged with a renewed reputation for militancy and an increased membership. Young men who had hitherto taken little interest in union affairs were now drawn into the union's sub-culture and eventually became shop stewards and branch officials. In June 1958, Frank Cousins took charge of a bus strike on London Transport which he had done his best to avoid. This time, however, the government were determined to have a confrontation with the unions in order to restore their own credibility as being willing to face up to the need for industry (including the publicly owned London Transport) to live within its means. Having been careful to settle a pay claim from the railway workers, including those on the London Underground, first, the government was confident of being able to ride out the strike. This they did, despite the fact that Cousins had great difficulty in persuading busworkers to return to work without having received any meaningful concessions.(5)

Even though the government had won this high-profile victory against the TGWU, Macmillan refused to follow up this advantage. Renewed pressure for legislation to render unions more responsible to their members and in the conduct of collective bargaining was resisted by the Cabinet and Conservative Central Office, reinforced by the Ministry of Labour. The trade union movement was still viewed as being a moderate force and a symbol of Britain's uniquely successful democratic institutions. And the TUC's new general secretary, George Woodcock, who took office in September 1960, certainly intended to ensure that unions continued to live up to this image. Though keen to make some prudent internal reforms of unions' own institutions, Woodcock was confident that British unions would endure, because they were mostly doing a good job of representing their members.

Professor Nina Fishman, Senior Lecturer, History, University of Westminster, School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Languages

(1) Figures for union membership can be found in British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, Vol. I, The Postwar Compromise, 1945-64, eds. John McIlroy, Nina Fishman, and Alan Campbell, published by Ashgate, Aldershot UK, 1999 (pp.103-4).

(2) For the percentage of workers in manufacturing see Mike Savage and Andrew Miles, The Remaking of the British Working Class 1840-1940, Routledge, 1994, pp.22-3 and "The Labour Force", by George Bain, Robert Bacon and John Pimlott, in Trends in British Society since 1900, edited by A.H. Halsey, Macmillan, 1972, Table 4.1, p.113.

(3) For women in trade unions, see Tables 4.6-4.8 and 4.12, pp.116-8 and pp.123-4, Bain, Bacon and Pimlott. See also "Women in the Market and in the Unions" by Chris Wrigley in British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, Vol.II, The High Tide of Trade Unionism, 1964-79, 1999, pp.43-69.

(4) For Frank Cousins, see Geoffrey Goodman's biography, Awkward Warrior: Frank Cousins: His Life and Times, Davis Poynter, 1959. For the TGWU's failure to implement the anti-communist rule, see Graham Stevenson, "Anti-communist bans in the TGWU 1949-1968", in G. Stevenson (ed.), The Life and Times of Sid Easton, (n.d.) For the comparative lack of internecine political conflict see Nina Fishman, "The Phoney Cold War in British Trade Unions", Contemporary British History, vol.15 no.3, Autumn 2001, pp.83-104.

(5) For the 1957 shipbuilding and engineering strike and the 1958 London bus strike see the two chapters by Nina Fishman in British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, Vol.I, pp.242-67 and pp.268-92.