This formal studio portrait (technically a cabinet card) captures the officers of the Stepney branch of the Municipal Employees Association shortly after the union came into being in 1901. Dressed in suits and ties, some in fashionable wing-collars, each wears what is most likely to be the union’s badge on their jacket lapel, ceremonial sashes across their chests recording the office they held.
The MEA had started life in 1888 as the London County Council Employees’ Protection Association, set up to represent manual workers at the new London County Council. Broadening its remit beyond the capital, in 1899 it became the National Association of County Authority Employees, at which point it claimed 650 members. The number more than doubled in a year, and the union once again changed its name to become the Municipal Employees Association in 1901.
The very clear ‘1901’ that can be seen on the sash worn by the branch chairman, seated centre in the front row, would seem to confirm the date of the photograph – the trip to the studio of “Chas Cross, photo artist” at 114 Campbell Road, Bow, organised, perhaps, to commemorate the union’s new identity. Piecing together what is legible in the picture, this is the MEA’s Stepney branch committee for the year: in addition to the chairman, the sash of the man standing on the left carries the word “trustee”, while the name of the union is repeated several times.
In the short term, at least, the MEA continued to thrive, and in 1902 it appointed Albin Taylor as its general secretary. Taylor was a member of the Social Democratic Federation and had been active first in Will Thorne’s National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers, and subsequently in the MEA and its predecessor unions. In 1900, he had represented it at the founding conference of the Labour Representation Committee, and he would soon become a Labour councillor in East Ham.
Membership of the MEA continued to grow under Taylor’s leadership, but he left the union after a series of disputes with its National Executive Committee in 1907, and the following year founded the National Union of Corporation Workers, taking many members with him. The NUCW would later form the basis for the National Union of Public Employees, today’s Unison. The MEA itself carried on through the first world war, but with membership figures in decline, it merged with the National Union of General Workers and the National Amalgamated Union of Labour in 1924 to form the National Union of General and Municipal Workers, today’s GMB.
The Working Class Movement Library holds a significant collection of documents from the Municipal Employees Association, including annual reports, minute books and miscellaneous newspaper cuttings.
Papers on Albin Taylor, his departure from the MEA and the formation of the National Union of Corporation Workers are in Warwick University Modern Records Centre’s NUPE collection.
Further information on Albin Taylor and his dispute with the leadership of the MEA can be found in Serving the Public – Building the Union: The Forerunners, 1889-1928 v. 1: History of the National Union of Public Employees, by Bernard Dix and Stephen Williams (Lawrence & Wishart, 1987).
There are entries for the Municipal Employees Association, the National Union of Corporation Workers and associated organisations in the Historical Directory of Trade Unions: volume 2, edited by Arthur Marsh and Victoria Ryan (Gower, 1980) and volume 5, edited by Arthur Marsh and John B. Smethurst (Routlege, 2006).