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Historical Perspectives

Trade Unions and the Home Front

Nina Fishman

The Chamberlain Government's ultimatum to Hitler to withdraw the German army from Poland expired on Sunday 3 September 1939, the day before the Trades Union Congress (TUC) was due to start its week-long deliberations, held that year in the Yorkshire seaside resort of Bridlington. On Monday, delegates agreed that its proceedings should be truncated into two days, enabling them to return home and deal with the multitude of problems which they expected the wartime emergency to throw up. Most of the nearly 500 men and women attending had been union members in the 1914-1918 war. Many of the older delegates, like Ernest Bevin, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU), had risen through the ranks to become full-time officials, leading their unions in confrontations and negotiations with the employers and the Government. Their experience gave them a clear idea of the many changes which workers in 1939 would be asked to make by management and the Government in order to help win this war. Although they were committed to Britain taking a stand against fascism, they were also determined to ensure that there was equality of sacrifice on the Home Front. On 26 September, Bevin warned, on behalf of the TGWU Executive, that if the Government failed to control price rises, 'a very serious wage difficulty is bound to arise'. The Labour Opposition in Parliament had to beware 'not to allow themselves to be exploited by the Government because of their determination to resist the aggressor'(1).

The Government was certainly keen to enlist unions' co-operation in the war effort, but they were reluctant to legislate stringent measures of social control associated with the last war, like the direction of labour, rationing and the relaxation of workplace customs and practices and they wanted to keep employers on side. During the seven months of the Phoney War, unions and their members were often impatient at the apparent failure to put production on a full wartime footing. After the fall of France in May 1940, however, there was a fresh start in the British war effort which the unions played a central role. Ernest Bevin became Minister of Labour and National Service in the new Coalition Government and quickly became the most powerful member of the Cabinet in regard to the economy. His officials on the ground, Regional Industrial Relations Officers (RIROs) wielded great influence with employers in factories producing airplanes and other material for the war.

In the Summer of 1940, the Battle of Britain commenced and the Coalition Government called on war workers to pull out all the stops to maximise production. Bevin exerted his authority to ensure that they were well paid and made strenuous efforts to improve their conditions, for example by making provision for works canteens serving hot meals. He and his officials met union leaders and employers' representatives monthly to try to iron out any production bottlenecks or disagreements about wage rates and working hours. The Government's aim was to involve both sides of industry in the production drive. To this end, Bevin instructed his RIROs to preach the virtues of collective bargaining and union recognition to employers. Union membership grew significantly in these conditions, from 6.2 million in 1939 to 8 million in 1943. Because the demands of the armed forces were met in engineering factories, it was those unions which organised engineering workers who benefited, eg
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Trade Unions and the Home Front by Professor Nina Fishman