George Smith (1914-1978) the joiner who built a union

George Smith was the final general secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers, and the first of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians. His son, also George Smith, offers a personal recollection of his father’s life.

As a child at primary school, I recall we were prompted to talk about our fathers’ jobs. I knew my father was a joiner in a shipyard before I was born and afterwards he was employed by a trade union. But I did not know what he actually did. When I asked my mother, she told me he was a secretary and that embarrassed me. How could I tell my mates my father was in a job that was the preserve of women? My embarrassment vanished in later years as I learned more about his work. Almost four decades after his death in 1978, I revisited his life.

Researching my family history, I was conscious that I had left my father’s life until last. I feared that I would have to make visits to distant union offices to trawl though mountains of arcane minutes of many meetings. I still remembered from childhood accompanying my parents to annual union conferences. Whilst the venue of seaside resorts was fun, I was mystified by my spectatorship of conference proceedings. Overcoming my doubts, I identified the Modern Records Centre as the relevant archive and all apprehension dissipated, for the records proved accessible and understandable as the online catalogue had promised. I was also able to read historical sources that offered me further illumination.

Early life
George Fenwick Smith was born in 1914 in Arbroath, Angus to James Smith and Agnes Fenwick. He was the youngest of four siblings and his parents were trade unionists and socialists. Attendance was usual at meetings of Arbroath Proletarian Sunday School, James being secretary. James, a shoe clicker, lost his job in 1922 and the family moved to Dundee for work. Leaving school aged fourteen George’s first job was in a jute mill and not to his liking, so he left for a five-year apprenticeship as a joiner which he completed in 1933. Dundee was badly hit by the Great Depression so as a journeyman George headed for London to find work, returning when there were vacancies in shop fitting. This source of work dried up but the Caledon shipyard had vacancies so George joined its 3,000-strong labour force before the start of the second world war. When war broke out George was exempted from conscription initially by being in a reserved occupation and later on grounds of ill-health. He volunteered as an ARP warden.

Inspired by the values and beliefs of his parents, George became active in the labour movement. In 1933, becoming eligible, he joined Dundee Third Branch of the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers. He also became a member of the ILP like his father. In the ASW George was elected from his branch to the district management committee which co-ordinated the activities of branches in the area. He was elected its secretary in 1942. As a result, he acquired a firm grasp of the rules and procedures of the union which he never lost. He acquired other responsibilities as a delegate to both the National Federation of Building Trade Operatives and the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions. He was also a trade union representative on the wartime Local Appeals Board for workers dismissed from the Caledon shipyard. As a shop steward he was elected to the yard committee – a joint production committee comprising representatives from management and workers and charged with improving production and hastening victory in the war. Membership of the committee gave George experience in representing members and collaborating with other trade unionists.

George Smith, General Secretary of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians
George Smith, General Secretary of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians.

National organiser
In 1945 George successfully applied for the new full-time post of national organiser for Scotland. He became responsible for union organisation throughout the whole country from his home in Dundee. He frequently visited the new dam being built at Pitlochry, Perthshire as part of a hydro-electric scheme to bring electricity to the Highlands. Pitlochry was a remote, inhospitable and accident-prone site. It stuck in his memory long afterwards.

George found the ASW was well organised and strong in urban industrial areas but lacking resources and strength in small towns and rural areas. He also felt there were insufficient opportunities for members to decide policy. Some branches were calling for organisational reforms and George sided with them. Changes he advocated included the adoption of a national conference (before its inauguration in 1947) and the introduction of a regional tier. He called for reorganisation of the ASW into regions and defined districts with periodic delegate conferences. He expected the changes he supported to strengthen the Society. He kept his belief in the value of regionalisation but its application only became possible many years later. He was encouraged in his belief that the ASW structure was outmoded by Vic Allen’s study of trade unions published in 1954. It suggested the ASW was still, to an extent, organised along the lines adopted by Robert Applegarth nearly a century earlier.

In 1948, George stood for election to the vacancy of general secretary but was defeated by the incumbent assistant general secretary, formerly a member of the executive council. Then in 1949 he was one of the 23 candidates for the vacant post of assistant general secretary. After a prolonged election process he was elected in the last round with a large majority over his two remaining rivals. His election brought the family from Dundee to Manchester and the headquarters of the ASW.

As assistant general secretary, 1954, was a significant year for George because of two incidents. One was his change of political affiliation the other was a dispute with the five-member full-time executive council of the ASW.

George had joined the Communist Party in 1942, relinquishing his early political allegiance to the ILP. He was persuaded to take this short ideological step by a close colleague and party member on the yard committee. It had been a comfortable home for him politically but since becoming assistant general secretary his experience had been extended further and he had become increasingly disenchanted with the Communist Party. He had come to feel it was a purveyor of shibboleths, principal of which was the notion of the proletariat. George’s knowledge of the ASW membership – the silver arsed craftsmen – had deepened and he now believed a less doctrinaire and more pragmatic approach was the best way to promote their interests and those of working class people in general. He left the Communist Party, joined the Labour Party and his trade union outlook continued to evolve.

The dispute with the executive council arose from the absence of the general secretary on sick leave. The executive council decided to appoint one of its members as acting general secretary. George took great exception to the decision and challenged it as a contravention of the Society’s rules. He appealed to the nine-member lay general council and a special meeting was instigated. It rescinded the decision of the executive council and in effect rebuked it. In his dispute with the executive council George demonstrated qualities that he possessed throughout his life as a leading trade unionist: a mastery of trade union rules and his determined and forceful character.

General Secretary
As assistant general secretary George was elected successively by comfortable majorities, as he was in 1959 to the vacant post of general secretary.

On taking office George was well aware of the conservatism of the membership. He knew that in 1952 the union nationally had agreed to admit semi-skilled workers and women but in practice the decision was not upheld by all branches which only encouraged the recruitment of skilled workers. In 1959 the annual conference overwhelmingly rejected a resolution calling for one union for the building industry.

After election as general secretary, George identified the fall in membership as a serious matter confronting the ASW. It had dropped from a peak of 200,000 in 1948 to 187,000 in 1959. He asserted that reorganisation was required (along the lines he had espoused years earlier). He told members a more appropriate structure would raise membership and improve services thereby strengthening the union. He proposed regional structures and national biennial conferences supplemented by regional conferences. However, only minor alterations of district structures were accepted by the ASW. The silver arsed craftsmen remained sceptical of organisational change.

In the same year he became general secretary, George was elected to the general council of the Trades Union Congress. In 1960, George Woodcock became its general secretary and he had a distinct philosophy of trade unionism that reverberated with George’s own developing outlook. The premise of Woodcock’s view was that governments since the second world war had accepted a responsibility that they had hitherto eschewed for management of the economy, including full employment. For governments to fulfil their responsibility, they required the support of trade unions. That might include restraint and changes in trade union structure and practices. If trade unions failed to act responsibly in the democratic age, they risked a loss of political influence.

George’s modernising instincts were encouraged by TUC initiatives to foster re-organisation of affiliated unions. Negotiations began between the ASW and other unions but reached no agreement. However, in 1965, George was successful in securing amalgamation with the small National Union of Packing Case Makers.

UCATT badge
UCATT badge

Creation of UCATT
It took several more years before an agreement for amalgamation was concluded between unions in construction. Declining membership and ensuing financial difficulties were influential factors. The Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians was formed in 1971 from the amalgamation of four largely craft unions , the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers, the Amalgamated Society of Painters and Decorators, the Association of Building Technicians and the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers. The ASW was the largest and strongest union of the four.

The creation of UCATT owed much to George himself, for he was the dominant personality in the negotiations. There were no alternative plans proposed. His design for UCATT had a regional structure (that he had long espoused) biennial conferences and periodic election for general secretary. He eschewed the opportunity to create a sinecure for himself by proposing that the office of general secretary be subject to periodic election. In many unions at this time, after an initial election, the incumbent in the post did not face further elections. George was elected comfortably as general secretary just as he had been consecutively in the ASW. But he never took election success for granted and throughout his life vowed to return to being a joiner if he was defeated. He took pride in his work as a joiner and at home kept a great treasury of tools should they be required.

UCATT’s organisation included a full time executive council. George had long believed that a full-time executive council was an anomaly but it was not feasible then to translate that belief into practice. As a result, he had to work with a much enlarged executive council until its membership was reduced over time by retirements.

Soon after UCATT was created, as a result of rejection of the claim made by the unions for improvement in wages and hours, the first and only national strike in the building industry was called in 1972 and lasted thirteen weeks. The financial and organisational demands of the strike seriously threatened the union in its infancy. Nonetheless, the strike was successful and achieved the largest ever increase in wages for building workers. It was a remarkable achievement because only about one-third of employees in the industry were trade unionists. Although four trade unions were party to the strike, UCATT had the largest membership in construction and George played a decisive role in negotiating the settlement.

In its obituary of him, UCATT credited George with the merger that had led to its formation and with having left behind a strong and powerful union. UCATT’s membership increased from 262,000 in 1971 to 344,000 in 1978. The Times newspaper described him as an influential union leader, a man of great shrewdness and integrity and a doughty bargainer.

George Smith was a worthy successor to Robert Applegarth, the first national leader of the union representing joiners and carpenters. Applegarth is credited during his time as a general secretary (1862-1871) with increasing union membership and making the union a significant force. A century later, George led the reorganisation of unions that formed UCATT. Its formation united joiners and carpenters with other trades and in so doing increased trade union membership and strength in the construction industry. UCATT did not last as a separate union indefinitely however, for it merged with Unite in 2017. The years from 1978 that led to that merger are of course another story.

Sources of information
Allen, V.L. Power in Trade Unions, London, 1954.
Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers Collection.
Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians Collection.
Smith, G. My Scottish Common People, Oxford and Shrewsbury, 2018.
Taylor, R. From the general strike to new unionism, Basingstoke, 2000.
Undy, R. and others, Change in Trade Unions, London, 1981.
Wood, L.W. A Union to Build, London, 1979.

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