Book Review

Roger Seifert, UNITE History Volume 2 (1932-1945): The Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU): No Turning Back: The Road to War and Welfare, Liverpool University Press, 2022, ppxii+165, £6.99 (e-book), 9781802076981.

Reviewed by Dave Sherry

2022 marks the centenary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union – a predecessor and constituent part of UNITE, Britain and Ireland’s largest private sector union, with a significant public sector presence. A few years ago, UNITE launched what it described as one of the most ambitious union history projects: a history with a difference, with union activists encouraged to take part in research for a six-volume union history. Volume 1, on the origins and early history of the T&G, was published in 2021. Volumes 3 and 4, by Marjorie Mayo and John Foster respectively, will be published in late 2022.

In 1922, fourteen unions formed the TGWU as ‘one big union’ to organise workers in the docks, road transport and inland waterways but the TGWU has its roots in the Tolpuddle Martyrs, six Dorset farm labourers deported to Australia for forming a union given its rural and agricultural workers’ group being their descendants. The TGWU was the first general union, emerging, like the present GMB, out of the ‘new unionism’ of the 1880s and the ‘great unrest of 1910-14, when mass strikes brought union organisation to the vast bulk of unskilled, low-paid workers. With industrial muscle, the TGWU could also wield a great deal of political influence, sometimes on governments too. Leaders like Bevin and Cousins would serve as cabinet ministers, and Jones helped shape, sell and police the Social Contract for the 1974-1979 Labour government.

Seifert divided his volume into two main parts, covering 1931-1939 and 1939-1945. Throughout both, the TGWU was dominated by Bevin, its powerful General Secretary of 1922-1946 and a Labour government minister from 1940-1951. Seifert explains: ‘From the start T&G members had witnessed – in quick succession – the 1926 General Strike, the 1927-28 Mond-Turner talks, the 1929 crash, the chronic failure of the minority Labour governments of 1924 and 1929-31’, adding: ‘The Great Depression destroyed communities and cast doubt on capitalism and its traditional remedies … Mass unemployment scarred the nation. The 1930s was a decade of heightened struggle in every realm of existence: work and community, culture and religion, politics and ideologies, and in trade unions. The battle for ideas was fought in thousands of workplaces and union branches and so the tale of the TGWU members and activists is part of the story of British life. Once the war started in 1939 until its end in 1945, workers and their unions were still involved in the familiar battles of the class.’.

Much of Seifert’s account focuses on the activities of the Communist Party inside the TGWU. It had 6,300 members in 1931, and in 1932 launched a number of rank-and-file groups, the most effective of these being on the London buses. T&G membership on the London buses numbered over twenty-five thousand and the militants among them were a thorn in Ernie Bevin’s side. Seifert writes: ‘Between 1932 and 1937 the busmen of London were the major trouble within the TGWU. They were well organised, had well-founded grievances, were well led, mainly by Communists and would not allow the TGWU official machine to bypass them in negotiations with the employer. As a result, they were granted – from necessity rather than from principle – unusual rights to control their own destiny. This ended in 1937 with expulsions, bans and the dismembering of their own organisation’.

The networks of stewards’ organisations created on the buses, in engineering and aircraft production and many other industries – notably TGWU penetration into the new car plants in the likes of Oxford and Coventry – became the backbone of shop stewards’ organisation that lasted well into the 1970s.

What is not explained in the books’ second part is the contradictory nature of the Communist Party. It recruited some of the most class-conscious workers and led a series of impressive strikes and Struggles, yet it followed every twist and turn of Stalin’s foreign policy at the start of WWII. Many TGWU militants and much of the left which had favoured the Party’s popular front line against fascism broke with it when Hitler and Stalin made their notorious pact in 1939. When Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941, an imperialist war became a war for democracy and the Communist Party became super-patriots, seeking to outdo Labour in unconditional support for Churchill and in opposing all strikes.

WWI broke the hold of the capitalist parties – especially the Liberals – on the working class. WWII produced a much wider and deeper radicalisation, proving to all that full employment was possible. Instead of unemployment, there was a desperate shortage of labour for war production. But why not then full employment in peacetime? Why not production for need and for use rather than profit? Why not an end to poverty, misery and chronic ill-health? These ideas really took hold in the minds of millions of ordinary people. The 1945 election, though fought on an out-of-date register, saw the Tories routed with Labour getting a crushing majority demanding a new social order and no return to the ‘hungry thirties’. The TGWU had grown massively and large numbers of women had joined: the union supported the liberation of the colonies, the welfare reforms of the Beveridge Report and backed the election of the Labour government.

In his conclusion, Seifert notes: ‘There is sufficient material in both oral and written forms to allow historians to put together an account of trade unions and, most importantly, the deeds of their members. This six volume ‘official history’ of the TGWU, commissioned by UNITE, will both pass and fail many of the tests set by others looking at such endeavours. The headline purpose must be not just to interpret and record the world – but to change it’.

Dave Sherry is a former TGWU branch secretary and member of the Scottish Left Review editorial committee