Seven labour history anniversaries in 2022

In 2022, as every year, it is possible to look back and see significant milestones in labour history taking place 25, 50 or 100 years ago. Here we recall seven memorable events, each a quarter of a century further back in time. They include labour movement victories and defeats, and like all of history their interpretation and significance continue to be contested – the role of Feargus O’Connor in Chartism no less a matter for dispute 175 years on than that of Tony Blair as prime minister just 25 years after the election of a ‘New Labour’ government.

1997: 25 years ago: Labour government elected by a landslide
Incoming prime minister Tony Blair and a jubilant crowd of supporters. Click for larger image

After eighteen years in opposition, Labour came to power in May 1997 with a landslide majority, its 418 seats exceeding anything in its history. One of its earliest actions was to sign the European Charter on Workers’ Rights, paving the way for new legal limits on working time, the right to paid time off and other improvements in working conditions. The first queen’s speech of the new government also set out plans for a statutory national minimum wage and for a series of constitutional changes, including referendums in Scotland and Wales on devolution, and a Freedom of Information Act. The election saw a doubling in the number of women MPs, up from 60 at the time of the 1992 election to 122 in 1997, of whom 101 were Labour MPs. With Tony Blair serving as prime minister until 2007 and Gordon Brown taking office until 2010, the Labour Party enjoyed an unprecedented 13 years in office.

Also, the Provisional IRA declared a ceasefire, paving the way to peace talks and the Good Friday agreement of 2008. The people of Scotland voted in favour of a devolved Parliament with tax-raising powers; in Wales, voters supported the creation of an Assembly by a narrow majority of 50.3% to 49.7%.

1972: 50 years ago: Striking miners win a 27% pay rise
Front page of the NUM paper The Miner: ’We’ve won’. Click for larger image

At the start of the 1960s, miners’ take-home pay was considerably higher than that of the average manufacturing worker; but despite massive improvements in productivity and the closure of unprofitable pits, by the end of the decade they lagged behind. At the end of 1971, the National Union of Mineworkers’ annual conference agreed to submit a 43% pay claim. The National Coal Board responded with the offer of a small pay rise, but when that was rejected they withdrew all proposals, and on 9 January 1972 the NUM began its first national strike since 1926. The strike was the first in which the NUM deployed flying pickets on a large scale to seek solidarity from other workers, and the tactic proved effective, with rail and power station workers refusing to handle coal. On 9 February, after the weather took a cold turn, the government declared a state of emergency and introduced a three-day working week. The dispute came to a head with the ‘Battle of Saltley Gates’, when thousands of miners and supporters from other unions closed Nechells gas works following running battles with the police. After intensive negotiations, the strike came to an end after seven weeks, with the miners returning to work on 28 February with a pay rise of 27% and some improvements to benefits. Victory in 1972 would set the tone for further confrontations between miners and government that eventually led to Conservative prime minister Ted Heath’s fall from office two years later.

Also, a national docks strike by 42,000 dockers in protest at the threat of redundancies led the government to declare the second state of emergency of the year. The TUC suspended 32 trade unions and eventually expelled 20 for registering under the Industrial Relations Act. Twenty-four members of the construction workers’ union UCATT were arrested for picketing building sites during the first ever national building strike; the subsequent convictions of the Shrewsbury 24 were finally overturned in 2021.

1947: 75 years ago: Attlee government nationalises coal industry
‘Managed by the National Coal Board on behalf of the people’

On 1 January 1947, Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government brought the coal industry into public ownership. With the early introduction of a five-day week, the number of mineworkers increased from 695,000 to some 717,000 by the middle of the year. For the miners, this was the culmination of a struggle over many years, starting with battles to improve pay and safety. However, the setting up of a National Coal Board to manage the industry meant that its workers had little more say than they had under private ownership, and production continued to be for profit rather than social need. Labour’s nationalisation of the coal industry was its most totemic economic initiative, but the public ownership programme was far more extensive, including, arguably, the setting up of the National Health Service and the nationalisation of the rail, electricity, gas and steel industries.

Also, a Housing Act passed in 1946 came into effect, as a result of which four out of five homes (around one million in all) built during Labour’s time in office were council properties. The Trades Dispute Act introduced in the wake of the 1926 general strike was repealed.

1922: 100 years ago: Transport and General Workers Union is founded
Election leaflet for Shapurji Saklatvala, Labour candidate for North Battersea. Click for larger image

The Transport and General Workers Union came into existence on 1 January 1922, formed from the merger of fourteen trade unions, many of which had emerged from the great docks strike of 1889 and the wave of organising among largely unskilled and low-paid workers which followed. In its early days, the TGWU was most closely associated with its first general secretary, Ernest Bevin, who had been national organiser for the  Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union. From the start, the TGWU adopted a complex structure including both regional and trade groups. Given its size, the union played a significant role in both the TUC and Labour Party, and its position on issues such as nuclear disarmament would later be highly influential within the wider labour movement. Under Bevin’s leadership and that of his successors, the TGWU absorbed a further 100 trade unions, outstripping large single-industry organisations such as those of the railwaymen and miners to become the biggest union. In 2007, the TGWU merged with Amicus (itself the product of numerous mergers) to form Unite.

Also, the Labour Party under J.R. Clynes claimed second place in the November general election, taking 142 seats and forcing the Liberals into third position. The Irish Free State came into existence, ending the Irish War of Independence, but leading to a bloody civil war between pro- and anti-treaty forces.

1897: 125 years ago: Amalgamated Society of Engineers defeated
Robert Blatchford’s socialist newspaper The Clarion was among the few wholehearted allies of the ASE during the dispute. Here’s its front page cartoon (11 December 1897) shows its assessment of the impact of the freedom of employment and freedom to manage clauses. Click for larger image

By the beginning of 1897, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, the richest and most powerful union of its time, had achieved an eight-hour day (or 48-hour week) for many of its members. Its London District Committee now sought to enforce this with all employers in the capital, and on 30 April issued a circular calling on those that had not yet given way to concede a reduction in hours with no loss of pay, and warning that overtime would now cease. But in the decades since the ASE had first won a nine-hour day through industrial muscle, engineering employers had become larger and more able to withstand union pressure. More importantly, they had also established an effective Engineering Employers Federation. The Federation now warned the ASE that in the event of a strike in London, employers across the country would suspend one in four members of the ASE and its smaller allies. It soon became clear that employers could and would enforce this, and by September the union was facing defeat. In parallel, meanwhile, a more fundamental issue was at stake. The ASE jealously guarded the right of its members to skilled work, often at the expense of members of other unions; employers resented this encroachment on their right to choose who to employ, as did other unions whose members were confined to lower-paid jobs. The employers’ assertion of their ‘freedom to manage’ now became a part of the Federation’s proposals for a return to work. As the dispute stretched on into 1898, the employers showed no signs of softening their position, and neither industrial nor financial support was forthcoming from other unions to an extent which would make a difference. The union’s compromise proposal for a cut to 51 hours a week was rejected. By the end of January, the union had agreed a return-to-work proposal with no cut in hours, but the inclusion of clauses on ‘freedom of employment’ and ‘freedom to manage’. It was a resounding defeat, signalling the emergence of a more organised and effective force on the employers’ side. Disappointed by the failure of other unions to stand by them, the ASE left the TUC on a pretext in 1899 and did not return, except for a brief period in 1906, until 1914.

Also, Sidney and Beatrice Webb publish Industrial Democracy, the second of their two highly influential books on trade unionism. Scottish TUC founded in Glasgow.

1872: 150 years ago: Joseph Arch founds agricultural labourers’ union
Joseph Arch, depicted on a later agricultural workers’ union banner.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, more people lived in towns and cities than in the countryside. But millions stilled worked as farm labourers, and their wages were among the lowest in the land. Early in 1872, according to his own account, three labourers from Wellesbourne in Warwickshire asked Joseph Arch, a Primitive Methodist preacher and himself a farm labourer, to help set up a trade union. Expecting a small gathering in a pub, he instead found himself in front of a mass meeting. That night, 27 March, a few hundred labourers, shepherds, carters and cowmen agreed to set up the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers Union. They immediately embarked on a series of small strikes, and within three months the union had sixty branches; by May, after making contact with district unions now emerging elsewhere, they had formed the National Agricultural Labourers Union with Arch as president. The union’s immediate aims were for a nine and a-half hour day and a minimum weekly wage of 16 shillings. Within two years the union had 86,214 members and wages were rising, by as much as 4 shillings in places. But a combination of a farmers’ lockout, bad harvests and cheap imports proved a fatal combination, the NALU withdrew its support for the fight against lockouts, and the union collapsed. Arch went on to become a Liberal MP, but made little impact in Parliament. The NALU staggered on until 1896 before calling it a day, and it took a further decade for rural trade unionism to revive in the shape of what would become the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers.

Also, the Ballot Act 1872 introduced secret ballots for parliamentary elections – one of the six demands made by Chartists a generation earlier.

1847: 175 years ago: Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor elected an MP
Feargus O’Connor, elected MP for Nottingham and later immortalised in stone in this statue. Click for larger image

With the right to vote restricted to the propertied and wealthy, there was never much chance that the Chartist movement would win a significant number of parliamentary seats – as they themselves were well aware. However, by running candidates they could force their opponents to go to a full, and expensive, ballot rather than taking a cheap unopposed victory on the hustings. The careful use of financial support, and the threat of a Chartist opponent, could also help firm up the support of middle class sympathisers in Parliament. At the general election of August 1847, the National Charter Association’s national central registrations and elections committee spent a grand total of £470, of which £33 went to Halifax where Ernest Jones was expected to win a parliamentary seat. Unfortunately, neither Jones nor any of the other NCA hopefuls were elected. However, there was a surprise in Nottingham, where the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor was returned as MP. This was so unexpected that the O’Connor’s own paper, the Northern Star, failed to send a reporter to the count. Nine other radical liberals endorsed by the NCREC were also successful. Much of O’Connor’s time in Parliament was spent dealing with the financial and political woes of the Chartist land plan and the fall-out from the contested Chartist petition of 1848. By 1852, O’Connor was suffering episodes of severe mental illness, and was admitted to an asylum. He died in 1855.

Also, The Factory Act 1847 introduced a maximum 10 hour working day in textile mills for women and for boys aged 13 to 18. Following the failure of the potato crop in both 1845 and 1846, this was to be the worst year of the Irish famine, with disease and death widespread, and matters made worse by laissez-faire government policies and the widespread evictions of tenant farmers unable to pay their rent.

Further reading

This is not intended to be a full bibliography of any one of the events set out in the accounts above. Rather it provides a signpost towards some further reading and research. On some topics, such as the 1897 engineers’ strike, there is a relative paucity of published material; on others, such as the 1997 Blair government, there is a great mass of books, articles and other sources.

Among those to have published memoirs or diaries of the 1997 Labour government are the former prime minister Tony Blair, his spokesman Alistair Campbell, and Cabinet ministers Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson. A more detached account can be found in Andrew Rawnsley’s Servants of the People, Eric Shaw’s Losing Labour’s Soul?, and Jon Davis and John Rentoul’s Heroes or Villains: The Blair Government Reconsidered. Cabinet Office files covering the early years of the Blair government are available in The National Archives.

There is rather more published on the miners’ strike of 1984-85 than on the events of the early 1970s, however Andrew Taylor’s two-volume The NUM and British Politics (Ashgate, 2003 & 2005) takes the union’s story through from 1944 to 1995, and deals both with nationalisation in 1947 and the 1972 dispute a quarter of a century later.

The Modern Records Centre at Warwick University holds the Archives of the Transport and General Workers Union, however documents relating to its regional organisations and role in the wider labour movement can be found in other local and specialist collections. Books include The Making of the Labour Movement: The Formation of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, 1870-1922 by Ken Coates and Tony Topham (Spokesman Books, 1994). UNITE History Volume 1 (1880-1931): The Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU): Representing a mass trade union movement (Liverpool University Press, 2021) by Mary Davis and John Foster promises to be the first of six volumes on the history of Unite.

There is an entry for the National Agricultural Labourers Union in the Historical Directory of Trade Unions, volume 2 by Arthur Marsh and Victoria Ryan (Gower, 1984). An autobiography, Joseph Arch: the story of his life: told by himself, was published in 1898. The Barford Heritage local history website has a page on Joseph Arch.

The best account of Chartist history is Chartism: A New History by Malcolm Chase (Manchester University Press, 2007). There are, however, many books on aspects of Chartism, focusing on individuals, localities, the Chartist press and other areas. Further information can be found on the Chartist Ancestors website.

There are a number of general histories providing an overview of the trade union and labour movement, among the best are: A History of British Trade Unionism by Keith Laybourn (Sutton Publishing, 1997) and A Century of Labour: A History of the Labour Party 1900-2000 (Sutton Publishing, 2000). Numerous records and document collections on labour history can be found in archives and libraries. The Society for the Study of Labour History’s archives and resources committee has created a directory of these institutions. Additional guides to resources for the study of labour history can be found in our Advice & Reference section.