Keeping our history alive: the work of the GFTU on history, memory and tradition.

The General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) took part in an international conference initiated by the University of Bochum and the German trade union centre the DGB to explore how trade unions preserve and transmit labour history across the generations. This is the contribution given by Doug Nicholls, General Secretary of the GFTU.

The original GFTU logo designed by Walter Crane
The original GFTU logo designed by Walter Crane.

“You do not know where you are going to if you do not know where you have come from.” This used to be a much-heard phrase in the trade union movement, and there was a rich sense of the past, with the history of the labour movement and struggle for various rights being an integral part of new union representatives’ training courses.

You feel history living and breathing each year at the largest trade union rally, the Durham Miners’ Gala. Their motto is “the past we inherit, the future we build.” The event, attended by hundreds of thousands, is steeped in a tangible appreciation of those who came before us and sacrificed so much. One small gesture of solidarity with this event was to gift a framed poem by the GFTU General Secretary to the organisers, about the history of struggles of miners since ancient Egyptian times.

There are many other important annual commemorative events in Britain for the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the matchwomen’s strike, the chainmakers, the Newport Rising, the Wigan Diggers and others. Such important events look simultaneously back and forwards with a real sense of continuum.

These are annual gatherings with all their associated paraphernalia of images, films, books and pamphlets, which quicken the pulse with a recognition of the living presence of what went before and still shapes us today. The GFTU has sponsored a children’s film festival at the Tolpuddle Martyrs festival and gave a presentation on the works of Gerard Winstanley at the Wigan Diggers.

As a federation of trade unions founded in 1899, the GFTU had a book-length history of its own organisation published in 1982. This accounted for the work of the GFTU from its foundation until 1980. In 2013 we decided to centralise and digitise our main GFTU archives to ensure that they were available more publicly and easily accessible for researchers.

For an organisation embarking on a strategy to inspire a new generation with an understanding of how the culture and the contours of contemporary reality were shaped by trade unionists and campaigners over the years, it was essential to get our own house in order and convey a sense of pride in our organisation and the depth and root of its history.

In order to give the current members of the federation a sense of the importance of its work over generations we agreed to sponsor a PhD Student, Edda Nicolson, to build on Alice Prochaska’s pioneering work. Her research would then be reported as it progressed at various GFTU events as an integral part of the proceedings. Alice and Edda also made contributions on vital elements of the GFTU’s history at the 120th anniversary celebrations in Parliament 2019.

The reality is that the great pioneering labour historians, including E.P.Thompson, Dorothy Thompson, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Christopher Hill, George Rudé, John Saville, Jack Lindsay, A.L. Lloyd, and so on, were not as widely read by workers as they had been in the 1970s. So new ways to convey the power of history had to be found.

Book cover: The Many not the Few
The Many not the Few.

At that 120th anniversary event we launched a graphic novel history of the main struggles in Britain since the peasant revolts in 1381, titled For the Many Not the Few, a history of Britain shaped by the people. This was a conscious attempt to keep alive for a younger generation not just the decisive episodes in the struggles of the people, but to give a sense of continuity of progressive thought, and to do this in a way that was readable for a wide audience, especially young people.

In turn this book length publication inspired us to produce a smaller graphic history of the GFTU Itself.

We were also keen to promote the work of key individuals who had been part of the GFTU and helped to build it. Professor Keith Gildart, one of the editors of the Dictionary of Labour Biography kindly selected sections on GFTU activists and these were circulated to delegates at conferences.

In addition, we sponsored and had performed a play celebrating the life of an early GFTU leader, Mary Quaile, who had a distinguished life campaigning for women workers in the hospitality and low paid sectors. Interesting discussions were held comparing and contrasting situations for women in the 1930s, 1970s and today.

This play was also linked to a presentation at a public event by a strike committee member in the 1976 struggle at the Trico works in London which proved to be one of the most decisive in implementing equal pay for women. The hot summer of 1976 was important for the Labour Movement, and it was the year of the Grunwick strike led largely by Asian women workers. Their efforts were celebrated in a marvellous play by Townsend productions performed at a GFTU arts festival.

The GFTU contributed directly to the performance of another community play produced by Townsend Productions on the Chartists and the long struggle for the universal franchise. The GFTU was asked to say some words at the end of the performance about its contemporary relevance linking past to the present. This play introduced a lot of the young people performing in it to the importance of the Chartists.

At its annual young members’ development event documentary film makers would engage participants in their moving images of campaigns from Britain and overseas to give a sense of the international scope of the movement.

Cover of graphic history of the GFTU
GFTU – a graphic history.

On several occasions the GFTU organised its executive committee meetings in places of historical interest. For example meetings have been held in the Mechanics Institute in Manchester, the birthplace of the TUC, Bishopsgate Institute with its unique collection of GFTU papers and of many notable Labour, trade union and nineteenth century political leaders, at Redhills, the Miners’ Parliament in Durham, and at 10 Downing Street itself!

The GFTU EC felt passionately about the miners’ Redhills building and sought to support them all it could in transforming this inspiring place into a centre of learning, cultural and historic awareness.

The affection with which the movement holds the mining communities led the GFTU to organise a commemorative display of photographs by John Harris of the 1984/85 miners’ strike at the Liverpool TUC Congress and to then permanently display these as a discussion point at its hotel.

Other aids to debate for education groups within the hotel are embroideries of the tree of life produced during the second world war blitz of London by Yvonne Beer. They represent beautiful symbols of defiance and hope. The original enamel logo of the GFTU by socialist artist Walter Crane is in the hotel too, along with some of the very early trade union certificates. These are ornately designed poster size, full-colour art works representing the power and pride workers had in their early union memberships. These certificates have been reproduced as posters and postcards for wider display.

The superb Hidden Project by Red Saunders which has produced exceptional re-created images of key moments in the battles for progress and workers’ political and workplace rights has also been something the GFTU has been keen to make participants on its training courses aware of.

In the British cultural tradition, the place of songs has always been important. Once they were the only way of passing on news from village to village and passing on the values and concerns of working people. With the prestigious Topic Records the GFTU produced a double CD called Voice and Vision, Songs of Democracy, Resistance and Peace to bring to a new generation the voices of previous years going right back to the Middle Ages. At the end of 2020 a CD was also produced uniquely celebrating the river Thames from the perspective of those who had worked on it or along it.

It was considered important to embed historical consciousness more in training so the new representatives’ course was redesigned to include this. In fact, one of the most successful new reps courses was held in the People’s History Museum and began with a specially commissioned performance by Banner Theatre of the history of the movement in song and video clips.

The GFTU was very involved in the establishment of the first standards for the training of trade union officials, and awareness of the history of trade unionism was vital to this new course. So history is built in from the outset of the new training programme for a future generation of officials.

The history of how trade unionists have educated themselves is itself important and in its collection of essays published in book form in 2017 the nature and origins of trade union learning and its wider relationship to adult and community learning are charted.

Artistic expression was seen as essential to conveying the resonance and relevance of the past and to engage a wide audience in its consideration. Two arts festivals were held celebrating the work of a range of community arts organisations that through their chosen media, whether film, poetry, plays, photography, visual arts consciously sought to root the present in the long history of struggles for social justice and democracy.

The work of industrial worker predecessors to develop arts and culture was also celebrated in the GFTU’s support of the Piston, Pen and Press project on nineteenth century working class writers.

Two very public embodiments of a sense of history of the Labour Movement are the badges and banners that are made by trade union branches, national unions and campaigning organisations.

The history of making badges to commemorate key conferences and struggles is a long established one, as is wearing union badges to show pride in membership. The GFTU started to make its own badges and to link up with badge collectors. The excellent newsletter and links to the Society of Trade Union Badge Collectors, packed with historical insights, is circulated by the GFTU and links to its work are on the GFTU website.

The GFTU made an indirect contribution, through its then National Education Officer Dr John Callow, to the history of trade union banners when he published a work on more than one hundred years of banners in one of the GFTU’s founding affiliates the GMB Union. This book followed in an important tradition of books telling the history of the movement through its banners and visual emblems.

Frame from the graphic history of the GFTU
A frame from the graphic history of the GFTU.