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Historical Perspectives

management refused to concede any form of union recognition. At the end of 1943, there was a sit-in in the board room by shop stewards, with whom the company refused to negotiate, timed to coincide with a visit by the TUC General Secretary, Walter Citrine, to persuade the management to change their minds about unions. They finally conceded recognition at the beginning of 1944, but would only negotiate with full-time union officials. They refused to deal with the shop stewards, whose activities, they believed, "were more concerned with political operations than they were with industrial representation". (Patrick Hennessy, Ford's General Manager, at the first meeting of the TUC Joint Committee with Ford's management, February 1944.) (7)

The trade union movement did not survive the war unchanged. Unions' institutional structure and culture were significantly affected by the dramatic increase in membership, the extension of workshop organisation and their activists' experiences on the Home Front. The three most important changes were the decline in the number of unions, the increase in the number of women trade union members, and the increase in the number of white collar trade union members. The number of unions declined from 1,019 to 781 between 1939 and 1945, a decrease of over 20 %. Though most of the reduction was achieved through amalgamation, some miniscule, localised unions, catering for shrinking occupations, also closed their doors.

Between 1939 and 1943, the number of women belonging to trade unions increased by nearly a million to 1.9 million. This was significantly greater than the earlier peak of female membership in 1920, of 1.3 million. It is unlikely to have been a coincidence that the TUC President in 1943 was Anne Loughlin, of the Tailors and Garment Workers, only the second woman to hold this high office. On 1 January 1943, the AEU, a stronghold of craftsman's chauvinism, finally admitted women into membership. Jack Tanner, a friend of Sylvia Pankhurst and long-standing feminist, had to bend the rulebook and probably also rigged the postal ballot of members. But he was committed to gender equality and also keen to poach the tens of thousands of women engineers, who had been recruited by AEU shop stewards, into the TGWU in the early years of the war.

Many of these women trade unionists were white collar workers. Clegg cites an increase in white collar union membership of 707,000 to over 2 million. in the decade from 1938 to 1948. Although many of this new intake worked in the civil service and local government, there was also a strategically important number in private industry, as a result of pressure from manual unions on employers to recognise their white collar brothers and sisters. By 1945, most aircraft and engineering war factories had works committees with representation from the draughtsmen's and clerical workers' unions. Having broken down management's resistance, union activists continued to recruit members amongst the growing white collar workforce.

Both the Coalition Government and public opinion was in no doubt that trade unions had materially contributed to the British victory over fascist Germany. It was not merely personal regard which moved Churchill to invited Bevin in June 1944 to join Eden, Smuts and himself in his special train at Droxford, near Portsmouth, from where they could go to see the men embarking [for the D-Day landings]....As they stood watching the men file past and crowd into the landing craft, some of the members of his own union recognised him and called out: "Look after the missus and kids, Ernie."(8) It was evident to all concerned by VE-Day that the trade union movement had earned its place on the plinth, as one of the massy pillars underpinning a stable, democratic and free society.

1) Daily Worker, 27 September 1939
2) AEU National Committee Report, 1943, pp.212-213.
3) A History of British Trade Unions Since 1889, Vol. III, 1934-1951, Clarendon Press, 1994, p.235.
4) National Archive, Kew, LAB 10/358, RIRO reports for 3 January and 25 April 1942
5) NA, LAB 10/359, 30 January 1943.
6) NA, LAB 10/359, 25 June 1943.
7) TUC Files, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.
8) Alan Bullock, The Life & Times of Ernest Bevin, Vol. Two, Minister of Labour 1940-1945, Heinemann, 1967, p.318.

Further reading:

Alan Bullock, The Life & Times of Ernest Bevin, Vol. Two, Minister of Labour 1940-1945, Heinemann, 1967.

Hugh Armstrong Clegg, A History of British Trade Unions Since 1889, Vol. III, 1934-1951, Clarendon Press, 1994.

Nina Fishman, The British Communist Party and the Trade Unions 1933-1945, Scolar, 1995.

James Hinton, Shop Floor Citizens, Engineering Democracy in 1940s Britain, Edward Elgar, 1994.
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Trade Unions and the Home Front by Professor Nina Fishman