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The annual meetings of the Trades Union Congress have been called the 'parliament of labour.'

Each September for well over a hundred years union delegates from across Britain have gathered to debate the major issues of the day.

They have talked of strikes and settlements; of war and peace; of revolution and reform. Their rhetorical flourishes have produced ovations and laughter. Divisions have opened; and wounds have been healed.

On these pages you will hear the voice of Britain at work. Here are the people who shaped working class history. This is the story of Ben Tillet and Will Thorne, the founders of modern trades unionism; of Ernest Bevin and Walter Citrine, the men who saw the unions through the years of mass unemployment; and of a young Jack Jones on the way to the leadership of the country's first two million strong union. Here too are the remarkable women - Margaret Bondfield - Minister of Labour in the first Labour Government and Anne Loughlin the first woman president of Congress.

It is also the story of the lay delegates who spoke on behalf of their fellow workers - the voice of Britain at work.

This is story of how the working people of Britain responded to the First World War; the Russian Revolution and the General Strike; how they dealt with the Depression of the Thirties and how on the very day that Chamberlain declared War on Germany they met in Bridlington and committed the trade union movement to work for victory on the home front.

Here we see the changing relationship between unions and Labour. At the 1899 Congress the Railway Servants moved motion 14 calling for a special conference to establish a voice for working people within parliament. Within the year the conference had been held and the Labour Representation Committee established (the forerunner of the Labour Party).

Later Congresses lauded the achievements of successive Labour Governments, though more often debated their failings.

Delegates are disappointed by the first Labour Government led by Ramsey Macdonald. Their successors have their reservations about the advances made by the post war Attlee Administration and this story of the first 100 Congresses concludes with the Wilson Government moving towards the ill fated 'In Place of Strife'.

The most recent reports of Congress are contained on the TUC's own website and eventually it is hoped to have the complete story of Congress in one place.

If the Congress was the parliament, the verbatim records contained in these pages are the 'hansard'.

Unions were active in Britain long before the first Congress met in 1868. In the early part of the nineteenth century they had struggled hard to off set the worst excesses of the industrial revolution and employer greed. But they had met with opposition from the establishment -politicians and the press - as well as employers and it was in response to the threat of further legislation curtailing their rights that the unions came together in the late 1860s to form a common front.

The initial model for the Congress was the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the first Congresses received papers from affiliates which they then debated in depth.

But soon more concise 'motions' became the order of the day and before long the modern pattern was established with unions entitled to submit two motions and two amendments each and a General Purposes Committee, established to ensure business was conducted in an orderly fashion. Eventually composite motions were produced to avoid repetitious debates on a succession of similar propositions.

All that remains of the first Congress are the brief hand written notes. But by the following year, when delegates gathered in Birmingham, a reporter was on hand to write out 200 pages of reported speech in a neat hand giving a lucid account of debates that ranged far and wide over six days.

By 1873 we have the first printed report. And by 1909 a full verbatim report. In 1924 the job of official reporter went to one John McIntosh. The firm which he founded has now become Marten Walsh Cherer, court reporters, who continue to report Congress to this day.

And if there is continuity in the reporting then it is also to be found in the subjects for debate.

The 1868 Congress debated, among other subjects, hours of labour and technical education. Today those same topics would appear categorised as working time and learning and skills. The names might have been changed but the subjects live on.

In the early days the principal purpose of Congress was to influence the political process and between Congresses a 'Parliamentary Committee' looked after the unions' interests. In the early 1920s the Parliamentary Committee became the General Council. Then, as now, its composition was intended to reflect the diversity of occupations, interests and variety of unions represented within the Congress. Then as now they presented Congress, for their approval, a report of their work during the previous Congress year and it is on the basis of those reports and these scrupulously recorded debates that Britain's trade unions built their reputation as a serious social and political force whose voice was heard from the factory floor to the Cabinet Room.

Brendan Barber, TUC General Secretary

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TUC badge Ernest Bevin
  Jack Tanner   General Council, Southport, 1922  
  Harold Wilson   Congress 1898  
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