Forging a single union for the iron and steel industry

The organisational history of trade unions in the iron and steel industry is a complex one. The photographs here, published by the ISTC in the early 1980s as a series of postcards, show the banners and membership certificates of some of the organisations that form part of that story.

Banner of the Cleveland District of the Associated Iron and Steel Workers of Great Britain. More images below.

Trade union membership in the iron and steel trades ebbed and flowed over the latter half of the nineteenth century along with both the fortunes of the industry and the changing organisational fortunes of the numerous organisations that arose to represent workers in specific trades. By the end of the century, at least seven unions of significant size were in existence.

Faced with clashes between unions that led to serious weaknesses in disputes with employers, and constant poaching of members, the TUC eventually took a lead, and in 1910 set up a sub-committee to promote a planned programme of mergers and rationalisation.

Although there was little immediate response to this initiative, a dispute in 1915 at Consett led to further discussions and, two years later, to an ingenious but organisationally complicated solution. With help from the TUC, the main unions now established both the British Iron, Steel and Kindred Trades Association (known as the Central Association) and the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation.

All unions in the industry (including the Central Association) were expected to affiliate to the new ISTC and pay affiliation fees. Individual unions were not expected to give up their separate existence immediately, but the ISTC would take over their official and organising staff, and be responsible through a central committee of general secretaries, for all purely trade union functions.

In addition, unions would cease recruiting new members and would in due course disappear, with the Central Association taking over as the membership body for all new members and, as the old unions gradually declined in numbers through natural wastage and were eventually wound up, existing members.

Of the seven main unions, two withdrew from the scheme, and just three of the remaining five signed up from 1 January 1917: the British Steel Smelters, Mill, Iron, Tinplate and Kindred Trades Association; the Associated Iron and Steel Workers of Great Britain; and the National Steelworkers, Associated Engineering and Labour League – giving the new union a total membership of 52,460.

Both the Amalgamated Society of Steel and Iron Workers of Great Britain and the Tin and Sheet Millmen’s Association failed to win a majority in favour of joining the new union at first ballot, but did so a few years later, in 1920 and 1921 respectively.

The new BISAKTA/ISTC arrangement provided to be an enduring solution to organising production workers in the industry for more than half a century. By the early 1980s, however, the steel industry was in sharp decline, and with it membership of the union. In 1984, BISAKTA legally absorbed the ISTC, but took on its name.

Faced with a declining core industry, the ISTC diversified into new industries and occupational groups. In 2000, it merged with the old-established Power Loom Carpet Weavers and Textile Workers Union and the National League of the Blind and Disabled, both of which could trace their histories back to the nineteenth century. And in 2004, the ISTC name finally disappeared when it merged with the National Union of Knitwear, Footwear & Apparel Trades to form a new organisation called Community.

Further information
Records of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (ISTC), the British Iron, Steel and Kindred Trades Association (BISAKTA) and predecessors, (1865)-2004 in the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

Men of Steel, by Sir Arthur Pugh (Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, 1951).

Historical Directory of Trade Unions: Volume 2, by Arthur Marsh and Victoria Ryan (Gower, 1984).