The General Federation of Trade Unions and its place in labour history

By Alice Prochaska, for the parliamentary reception following the BGCM, 20 May 2019.

The General Federation of Trade Unions embodied the hopes of some of the most visionary labour leaders of the 1890s, that formative period for both trade unionism and the labour political movement.  It was voted into existence by the Trades Union Congress in 1899 at a time of huge changes in the landscape of industrial relations.  

Some of the great men of the TUC (and these founders were almost all men), names like the syndicalist and socialist firebrands Tom Mann and Ben Tillett, and Pete Curran, the gasworkers’ leader and  a noted spokesman for the new unionism, enthusiastically promoted the idea of forging a national and international fighting force.  It would promote the interests of working people and, by joining forces with the political wing of Labour, could bring a new dawn in British life. 

“Unity is Strength” was the motto of the new organisation with its logo, designed by Walter Crane, of a bundle of sticks tightly bound together as in Aesop’s fable of the father showing his sons how much stronger they were together than apart.  “Without violating the traditions of any it hopes to increase the common traditions of all”.

The GFTU’s main raison d’etre was its fighting fund, supplying mutual support to unions during disputes.  Later on it became known as the champion of small, craft-based unions.  But this was not its only role and in its early years its leading members were larger than average unions, playing a big role on the national stage; although the miners and the railway workers never affiliated to the GFTU. In its first decade the Federation also took on a big role in conciliation and argued for a national conciliation and arbitration service to be set up. 

Its financial foundations rested on the contributions of its member unions, which in the early days included about 25% of the total trade union membership of the UK.  Protecting and building up that fund was an important role for the Federation if it was to give support when it was most needed. 

So it made sense to promote the peaceful settlement of disputes before they reached the stage of a strike.  It also made sense to bring unions together in amalgamations wherever possible within particular industries.  The famous Clyde Shipbuilding dispute of 1905-06 involved twenty-one separate unions, to take just one example.   In large-scale disputes of this nature, the GFTU was placed in the invidious position of paying support to members of those unions affiliated to it but not to the others.

Smaller- scale disputes could give it just as much trouble, as the Federation’s conciliators discovered when dealing with the Musician’s Union repesentatives including the legendary Marie Lloyd, who had to be wakened from her beauty sleep at about 10:00 a.m.  “Trade union principles do not apply to the Artistes’ profession” declared the president of the Variety Artistes’ Federation in 1909: surely not a semtiment with which the present- day Musicans’ Union, a stalwart member of the GFTU, would agree.

The Federation’s early leaders were strong exponents of Labour politics, though they came from a wide spectrum:  guild socialists, syndicalists, Fabians, Lib-Lab and Independent Labour Party.   For ten years a Joint Board met regularly to discuss policies and strategy, consisting of the Federation plus the TUC’s Parliamentary Committee and the Labour Representation Committee.  Within and beyond that board, the Federation was influential in the debates and tussles that gave birth to the Labour Party, even issuing its own manifesto on behalf of Labour in 1909. 

It took up the cudgels on behalf of trade unions in general in the national press, and it represented labour in government committees.  It was active too, as the British labour movement developed more international links, which the TUC explicitly left to the GFTU in those years before the First World War.  The British General Federation was a founding force in the International Federation of Trade Unions until, after the war, the TUC’s Parliamentary Committee forced it aside on the grounds that the TUC represented the vast majority of British unions and only one national body was allowed to represent each country in the international federation. 

Edda Nicolson will tell you more about some important work done by the General Federation in the First World War.  Why then did it recede into a progressively more modest role during and after the war?  Fundamentally, there was no room within the British trade union movement for two equally powerful representative bodies.   The TUC, in creating the General Federation in the first place, had set up conditions for conflict.  The creation of the GFTU was intended to unite the resources of labour into a force that would rival the strength of employers. 

But British trade unionism, like British industry as a whole, had grown up on deeply individual, widely disparate foundations.  The strength of the long-established craft unions, like the Lacemakers whose leader William Appleton became the second and extremely long-serving general secretary of the Federation,  was not a collective strength in an era when general labour was growing in power.  Unions that did not experience industry-wide disputes began to wonder what value they were getting from their regular payments into the common pool; and unions were seceding even before the war began.

The General Federation of Trade Unions  gave an important lead in the early days of the International Federation, but that too became a weakness when progressive, younger leaders in the TUC, like Ernest Bevin, the brilliant organiser of the dockers and later a key organiser of the General Strike, decided to play a part on the international scene. 

For reasons of financial prudence, the Federation always refused to sanction sympathetic strikes, and indeed it would have been bankrupted very quickly, had it done so.  That palpably left it on the sidelines in the great struggle of the General Strike in 1926.

So in the middle decades of the twentieth century, the General Federation of Trade Unions became the champion of smaller and more specialist unions, and began to carve out a role that supported their values of closeness to the workplace, pastoral and educational support for trade union officials as well as their members, and generally standing up for the little guy.  

Even here, its role in the complex and ever-changing policy of unemployment insurance, which had begun with the introduction of National Insurance as part of Lloyd George’s welfare reforms in 1911, became fraught with conflicts.  It did not help that Appleton, its increasingly conservative general secretary, publicly advocated against the role of the state in supporting unemployed workers.  An outdated vision of industrial unions that would work with employers to provide for their members in hard times lay behind this policy.  But it was not suited to the politics, nor to the workers’ lived experience, of the Depression. 

The GFTU succeeded better, however, in its role administering health and life insurance. It operated cheaply, and offered higher than average benefits.  Through its insurance work, the Federation developed strong interests in health issues, including occupational diseases and workmen’s compensation.  The pottery workers, subject to lead poisoning, silicosis and the debilitating disease of plumbism, received much attention.  Another industry subject to high occupational  hazards was the felt hat makers, where a successful union campaign to provide fans removing dust from the workshops had dramatically improved the workers’ average lifespan, within just two decades, by nearly nineteen years.

The GFTU in the Second World War was a very different organisation from the proud, internationalist, progressive Federation that had faced the onset  of war in 1914.  Useful and supportive though it still was to its remaining affiliates and financially sound thanks to long habits of caution, and to its investment in the central London property of Central House, its constituencies could seem exasperatingly irrelevant in a time of national emergency.  The exigencies of war-time accelerated the pressures on small unions to merge into the larger ones. 

On the other hand, the Federation was able to do useful work bringing about  amalgamations among its own members, for instance to form the National Union of Hosiery and Knitwear Workers and the National Union of Furniture Trade Operatives, later the Furniture, Timber and Allied Trades Union.  (To me, one the most intriguing of all GFTU affiliates, FTAT with its radical history rooted in the furniture workshops of East London, had a proud tradition of Communist general secretaries and an equally proud tradition of never going on strike.  I never quite managed to sort out the logic of those two positions.)

In these heroic times, the General Federation of Trade Unions stood on the sidelines.  Its role in health insurance for union members was no longer needed, even its insurance contribution supporting workers during strikes was very small-scale. The small unions whose champion it was were seen, often, as obstacles to the rational development of industrial relations on a national scale.   The Hosiery and Kintwear Workers and the Furniture Workers combined to press for the Federation to dissolve itself.  

For the smaller unions in the Federation, however, being able to draw on the support of a national organisation in their negotiations with employers, many of whom were relatively as small in scale as they were themselves, meant a lot.  They voted decisively (21 unions against seven) against dissolution at the annual general council meeting of 1948.  One other consideration of course, weighed with them: their lawyers advised that some of the big battalions who had joined the Federation in its early years but long since seceded, might be entitled to claim a share of the Federation’s accumulated wealth.  So the Federation was going to soldier on, and it  needed to find a distinctive role in the postwar order.

Its publications and research services, its mentoring of and advocacy for union officials, its extraordinary programme of education for all trade unionists: the GFTU that all of you know now grew from that embattled position at the end of the Second World War.  This was  thanks in large part to the leadership of the diplomatic, rather self-effacing Yorkshire textile worker Leslie Hodgson, general secretary from 1952 to 1977,and thanks to his successors, in a line leading to Doug Nicholls today; and to the leadership of numerous leaders among the affiliated unions who have shared a realistic vision of what their organisations needed.   They built on the unobtrusive strengths of the specialist unions.  Their visions and their way of doing things had deep roots in the aspirations and the hard work of the founders.

Most of all, a sense of solidarity, brotherhood and sisterhood so characteristic of the modern GFTU, comes straight from the ambitions of those early days when it seemed that a single fighting force for labour might be forged creating strength in unity.  It comes It comes most of all, from the knowledge of having shared interests even among extremely disparate occupations, and a sense of the values of solidarity and mutual support in the cause of human betterment.

Dr Alice Prochaska is former Principal of Somerville College Oxford, former Pro Vice Chancellor of Oxford Univiersity, she has been a distinghuished archivist, liobrarian and historian and among her several books she wrote 

A History of the General Federation of Trade Unions, 1899-1980 ISBN 9780043310878, 1982. She is currently a Trustee of the GFTU Educational Trust.