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Historical Perspectives

the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU), the TGWU and smaller craft unions like the Sheet Metal Workers. As Jack Tanner, AEU President, declared in July 1940 at the union's annual conference,

"This is an engineer's war. We are fully and personally aware of that fact...It is a machine war with a vengeance. Where it is in the anti-aircraft defences, or the machines on land and sea, or in the sky, it is the engineer who stands behind them all....Such is the grave responsibility thrust upon the membership of our Union, and such is the collective responsibility that all of us present here to-day have to accept....

"As engineering workers, we are in many respects better placed than we were in the last war....Shop stewards are, I repeat, an integral part of the organisation, and they are performing one of the most vital functions in the Union in safeguarding the conditions and rights of our members in the workshops."(2)

Shop stewards were the union's voluntary representatives on the shop floor. As union membership increased, the number of shop stewards also grew. Hugh Clegg estimated that if "the number of shop stewards kept pace with the number of trade union members in the metals-and-engineering group of industries between 1939 and 1943 (the peak year of the war [for production and union membership]), it would have almost doubled."(3) Because so many shop stewards were new to the job, they frequently had to ask full-time officials for advice. As the RIRO for London noted at the beginning of 1942,

"Trade union officials have told us recently of the numerous requests which they receive for their services from factory employees, including new entrants and women, who desire to join Unions. As one official put it: "We do not have to look for members, they come to us nowadays."

"...[W]e are frequently being told in a number of establishments that the patriotism of workers depends upon the extent to which they are able to profit by the war....[I]n these days we are getting into contact with some of the most difficult and stubborn employers who have for some years been waging war with trade unions and who now find that the powers and arguments which they were able to use are becoming less effective." (4)

A year later, the London RIRO observed,

"The small number of employers of any size in the Great West Road area who are still refusing to recognise trade unions are receiving further attention by the shop stewards committee covering that district....We have been able to assist in clearing up a number of recognition cases lately, but there are a few employers who have always successfully resisted the Unions and who have at the same time been careful to give no cause for complaint over wages and conditions."(5)

In the many workplaces where trade union organisation was a new phenomenon, there were often conflicts about the limits of union power. In June 1943, the RIRO noted that a shop steward had been suspended on the Great West Road for using bad language to a foreman.(6) Three hundred workers had gone on strike in protest, in spite of the steward's advice to the contrary. At Ford's giant Dagenham factory,
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Trade Unions and the Home Front by Professor Nina Fishman