Limits of TUC support 4 industrial disputes

Historically, the TUC General Council’s role in the 1926 General Strike and many other significant industrial disputes has been subject to accusations of ‘betrayal’ and ‘sell-outs’, and in more recent years they have been criticised for refusing to organise ‘generalised strike action’ against government austerity measures. But is such a negative portrayal reasonable given the TUC has demonstrated on numerous occasions its support for many disputes and willingness to galvanise solidarity by the union movement generally?

It has done this through public declarations (recently the #McStrike); encouraging unions’ financial support (during the 1913 Dublin lockout chartering food ships to feed strikers and their families); involvement in negotiations with employers and government on behalf of unions; backing solidarity action short of a strike (in the 1972 miners’ strike requesting unions not to cross NUM picket lines to prevent movement of coal); and coordinating national strike action by the union movement (April 1925 ‘Black Friday’ embargo of coal; May 1926 General Strike; July 1972 strike against dockers’ imprisonment under the Industrial Relations Act 1971; May 1973 against Tories’ incomes policy; May 1980 against Tories’ first Employment Bill; September 1982 in support of health workers’ strike; March 1984 against banning of unions at GCHQ; and November 2011 in support of public sector pensions strike).

Yet arguably while the TUC has often been willing to formally support industrial disputes by individual affiliates, and on occasion even coordinate much broader forms of strike action across the union movement, it has generally only supported such action in a strictly controlled and limited fashion which on many occasions has had the effect of limiting workers’ struggles in ways that have been detrimental to union members aspirations.

In its early years, the TUC’s Parliamentary Committee, as its executive was then called, saw its main function as of lobbying ministers, with industrial disputes the concern of individual unions over which the TUC had no jurisdiction. Only later did it slowly venture into collecting funds for unions involved in major stoppages, and in 1913 called an unprecedented special Congress to discuss coordinating British union solidarity for the Dublin lockout, albeit it decisively voted against sympathetic industrial action and condemned Jim Larkin’s alleged ‘unfair’ attacks upon TUC leaders for acting as ‘apologists for the shortcomings of the capitalist system’.

It took the widespread pre-war labour unrest, moves towards industrial unionism and the ‘Black Friday’ (April 1921) collapse of the Triple Alliance – all of which underlined the lack of effective national coordination to assist affiliated unions involved in industrial disputes – to precipitate the TUC’s structural reform. In 1921, its Parliamentary Committee was replaced by a more representative and co-ordinating General Council, although still without centralising powers as individual unions continued to jealously guard their autonomy and prerogatives. But inspired by increasing radical left-wing aspirations for the TUC General Council to act as a ‘General Staff of Labour’ – mobilising working class forces in outright national conflicts with employers and government – the 1924 Congress amended its Standing Orders so that: a) when requested by an affiliated union the TUC was enabled to intervene if a major stoppage was threatened to attempt to secure a settlement; and b) if such a dispute led to a strike the TUC was required to ‘coordinate industrial action’ and generate moral and material support from the union movement.

On the face of it this represented a remarkable increase in General Council powers, with the aspiration it could be transformed into a centralised organisation reflected in the lead up to the 1926 General Strike by Communist Party calls for ‘All Power to the General Council’. However, it still did not have the power to ‘call’ strikes in support of workers or individual unions, but merely ‘invite’ and/or coordinate strikes called by individual affiliates themselves. So the General Strike had to be sanctioned by a conference of the executives of affiliated unions, albeit it then effectively allowed the TUC to conduct the dispute and take control over negotiations with the government. Moreover, there was an underlying tension in the balance between the mobilisation of the resources of the movement in support of the miners’ union and the intervention of the General Council to try to agree a deal that would enable it to settle the dispute, with the latter becoming paramount. Calling off the General Strike based on acceptance of miners’ wage cuts and a failure to secure reinstatement of strikers was widely viewed as unconditional surrender and bitter betrayal.

Such an outcome dealt a body blow to radical left-wing aspirations that the TUC General Council should act as a ‘General Staff of Labour’. It was not until the 1970s that the TUC again felt able to request unions to take national strike action. In most instances, this has taken the form of political ‘demonstration strikes’ aimed at the government, but on each occasion the TUC has not itself called for strike action by the union movement, but only agreed to support and/or coordinate action that individual affiliated unions have themselves agreed to take. And in more recent years, notwithstanding Congress decisions in favour of ‘investigating the practicalities of calling a general strike’ in protest at austerity, this has not been put into practice.

Another contributory feature of the TUC’s enormously constrained support for industrial disputes by affiliate unions has been the way in which ideological and political loyalty to Labour, especially when Labour is in office, has encouraged it to dampen down strike action so as not to undermine the government. So while it successfully campaigned against the Labour government’s 1969 In Place of Strife proposals to enable the Secretary of State to order ballots before major strikes and ‘cooling-off’ periods for unofficial strikes, with penal enforcement clauses, it subsequently adopted a ‘solemn and binding’ commitment with the government to strengthen its authority over affiliated unions to try to end ‘so-called unauthorised and unconstitutional stoppages of work’.

During the 1975-1977 ‘Social Contract’, the TUC attempted to come to the rescue of the Labour government by urging unions to accept pay restraint and, thereby, curb strike activity, until the policy collapsed with the demand for a return to free collective bargaining. But despite a growing hostile rank-and-file mood towards the Labour government, the General Council refused to mobilise unions in a public campaign against the government’s 10% pay limit, support the 1977-1978 firefighters’ strike, or give its backing to the ‘winter of discontent’ strike wave. Instead, it agreed a ‘concordat’ with the government, with a voluntary code of conduct for industrial disputes involving pre-strike ballots and picketing restrictions.

The TUC has consistently resisted supporting industrial action in breach of employment legislation. So while it campaigned against the Industrial Relations Bill 1971, once it was enacted onto the statue book it advised the transport union to pay a £55,000 fine levied by National Industrial Relations Court for unofficial picketing against containerisation. And when five London dockers were imprisoned for continuing unofficial picketing, the TUC very reluctantly agreed, after five days of escalating solidarity strike action by union members across the country, to support a ‘one-day stoppage of work’ by affiliated unions for the following week – aware that its strike call would not need to be translated into practice because the dockers were being released that very day.

During the 1983 Stockport Messenger dispute, with new employment legislation that threatened fines, injunction and sequestration of assets for mass picketing, the NGA union called a national print strike (that closed Fleet Street) and appealed for solidarity action. The TUC’s Employment Policy and Organisation Committee expressed a ‘supportive attitude’, but this was overruled by the General Council, leading the NGA general secretary, Joe Wade, to complain it had ‘been sold down the river’. While Arthur Scargill kept the TUC at arms-length during the first six months of the 1984-1985 miners’ strike, following the failure of the Orgreave mass picket, the NUM made unsuccessful attempts to secure TUC support for effective solidarity industrial action. Rank-and-file miners’ frustration at the TUC boiled over when a noose was dangled over General Secretary, Norman Willis’ head at a public meeting in South Wales. When the High Court sequestrated miners’ union funds, the TUC again ruled out supporting Scargill’s call for industrial action by the union movement rather than risk being in contempt of court

During the 1986-1987 News International dispute, the print unions faced court writs for attempting to ‘black’ newspaper distribution and ‘unlawful picketing’ and then the sequestration of union funds, and sought TUC support against the electricians’ union whose members (with officials’ connivance) had been instrumental in the secret recruitment of staff in the new Wapping plant. But the General Council refused to direct the union to instruct its members to stop performing work previously undertaken by sacked staff – on the basis this would be unlawful secondary action. Again the unwillingness to take a more robust stance was widely condemned.

An additional limitation in the TUC’s role in industrial disputes has arisen because it has tried to avoid challenging the power of the government and state, with an emphatic rejection of industrial militancy for political ends. Responding to claims that the 1926 General Strike represented a political attack on parliamentary government, the TUC insisted it was an industrial dispute, and a ‘national strike’ rather than ‘General Strike’. In reality, they were well aware that the logic of the strike did indeed threaten to challenge the power of the state – a key factor encouraging them to call it off.

In sum, the role of the TUC General Council (like that union officialdom more generally) is more complex than the simple ‘Brutus’ caricature often levelled by the radical left. Certainly there have been periods when the TUC opposed practically all strikes from 1940 to the mid-1950s, and after the 1984-1985 miners’ strike and onset of ‘new realism’ argued that strikes were outmoded and counter-productive. But the TUC has often formally been willing to support industrial disputes by individual affiliates, and on occasions even coordinate much broader forms of strike action. The relative balance between these dual roles has clearly varied between different historical periods and contexts depending on the relative contradictory pressures placed upon them from both above and below and the dynamics of workers’ struggles. Yet generally, the TUC has been motivated by the desire to restrict action to a demonstrative or token form, often playing an essentially mediatory role encouraging a compromise to end industrial disputes. Significantly left-wing members of the General Council (such as Swales, Hicks and Purcell in 1926 or the so-called ‘awkward squad’ of the 1990s) have often either been unsuccessful in challenging, or have anyway gone along with, the restrained decisions and actions of their more moderate counterparts.

Ralph Darlington is Professor of Employment Relations at University of Salford and author of Radical Unionism (2013, Haymarket)