Trade Union Congress

In the 1860s Trades Councils were established in most of Britain's main industrial towns and cities. In 1868 leaders of these Trade Councils met in Manchester to discuss the possibility of forming an organisation that would provide a united voice in defence of trade union rights. At the meeting the 34 delegates agreed to establish the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and to hold a meeting every year to discuss issues of importance to the labour movement.

At the third Trade Union Congress in London in 1871 a Parliamentary Committee was appointed. Its purpose was to bring pressure on MPs to amend the 1871 Trade Union Act. In the 1874 General Election the Parliamentary Committee asked candidates certain questions on their attitudes to trade unions, and members were urged to vote for or against them on the basis of their replies. Those MPs elected in 1874 included two miners, Alexander MacDonald and Thomas Burt, who fully supported the policies of the TUC.

Harry Furniss, Punch Magazine (1884)
Harry Furniss, Punch Magazine (1884)

In 1896 Robert Smillie president of the Scottish Miners' Federation helped establish the Scottish Trade Union Congress. His role was recognised when he was elected chairman at its first conference, a post he was to hold until 1899. The Scottish TUC was more radical than the English TUC with many of its leaders being members of the Independent Labour Party.

On 27th February 1900, the Trade Union Congress and representatives of all the socialist groups in Britain (the Independent Labour Party, the Social Democratic Federation and the Fabian Society,) met at the Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street, London. After a debate the 129 delegates decided to pass a motion put forward by James Keir Hardie to establish "a distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to cooperate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour." To make this possible the Conference established a Labour Representation Committee (LRC).

The LRC committee established in 1900 included seven trade unionists and two members from the Independent Labour Party, two from the Social Democratic Federation, one member of the Fabian Society. After the 1906 General Election the LRC became known as the Labour Party.

Primary Sources

(1) Friedrich Engels, Condition of the Working Class in England (1844)

When, on the other hand, the working-men received in 1824 the right of free association, these combinations were very soon spread over all England and attained great power. In all branches of industry Trades Unions were formed with the outspoken intention of protecting the single workingman against the tyranny and neglect of the bourgeoisie. The objects were: to fix wages and to deal, en masse, as a power, with the employers; to regulate the rate of wages according to the profit of the latter, to raise it when opportunity offered, and to keep it uniform in each trade throughout the country. Hence they tried to settle with the capitalists a scale of wages to be universally adhered to, and ordered out on strike the employees of such individuals as refused to accept the scale. They aimed further to keep up the demand for labour by limiting the number of apprentices, and so to keep wages high; to counteract, as far as possible, the indirect wages reductions which the manufacturers brought about by means of new tools and machinery; and finally, to assist unemployed workingmen financially. This they do either directly or by means of a card to legitimate the bearer as a 'society man', and with which the workingman wanders from place to place, supported by his fellow-workers, and instructed as to the best opportunity for finding employment. This is tramping, and the wanderer a tramp. To attain these ends, a President and Secretary are engaged at a. salary (since it is to be expected that no manufacturer will employ such persons), and a committee 'collects the weekly contributions and watches over their expenditure for the purposes of the association. When it proved possible and advantageous, the various trades of single districts united in a federation and held delegate conventions at set times. The attempt has been made in single cases to unite the workers of one branch over all England in one great Union; and several times (in 1830 for the first time) to form one universal trades association for the whole United Kingdom, with a separate organization for each trade. These associations, however, never held together long, and were seldom realized even for the moment, since an exceptionally universal excitement is necessary to make such a federation possible and effective.

The means usually employed by these Unions for attaining their ends are the following: If one or more employers refuse to pay the wage specified by the Union, a deputation is sent or a petition forwarded (the workingmen, you see, know how to recognize the absolute power of the lord of the factor in his little State); if this proves unavailing, the Union commands the employees to stop work, and all hands go home. This strike is either partial when one or several, or general when all employers in the trade refuse to regulate wages according to the proposals of the Union. So far go the lawful means of the Union, assuming the strike to take effect after the expiration of the legal notice, which is not always the case. But these lawful means are very weak, when there are workers outside the Union, or when members separate from it for the sake of the momentary advantage offered by bourgeoisie. Especially in the case of partial strikes can the manufacture readily secure recruits from these black sheep (who are known as knobsticks), and render fruitless the efforts of the united workers. Knobsticks are usually threatened, insulted, beaten, or otherwise maltreated by the members of the Union; intimidated, in short, in every way. Prosecution follows, and as the law-abiding bourgeoisie has the power in its own hands, the force of the Union is broken almost every time by the first unlawful act, the first judicial procedure against its members.

(2) Philip Snowden, An Autobiography (1934)

The Trades Unions were very dissatisfied with the attitude of the Liberal Government to the legal position of Trade Unionism. In 1869, at the instigation of John Stuart Mill, an organisation was formed under the name of the Labour Representation League to carry out a national campaign to secure the return of working men to Parliament. It does not appear to have been the intention of this League to form a party which could be permanently in opposition to the Liberal Party. Mills' idea was that, if the working classes put forward working-men candidates and threatened the Liberal majority, the Liberals would be glad to come to terms and provide opportunities for the return of working men. After the election of 1874 the League placed twelve working men in the field, and of these Thomas Burt and Alexander MacDonald were elected at Morpeth and Stafford respectively.