Shop Steward Movement Originates

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Shop Steward Movement Originates

Great Britain 1898-1900


Shop stewards, or workshop-based union representatives, originated among skilled male workers in the shipbuilding and engineering industries at the end of the nineteenth century. Their functions gradually developed from dues collectors and union representatives to workers' direct representatives who handled a wide range of concerns with employers, who increasingly officially recognized them for that purpose.

Steward organization mushroomed during the World Wars, when stewards built their own independent organizations to challenge official union policy. Their initial concern was the defense of skilled workers, but technological change rendered arguments based on skill increasingly untenable. This circumstance produced increasing steward organization among less skilled workers and women. World War I saw the election of the first women shop stewards.

The steward system spread into many other industries, especially after 1945. Dockers and later public sector stewards led many important disputes in the postwar period. Starting in the early 1980s, many large workplaces closed, which left public sector stewards in the majority. Nevertheless, the steward tradition of direct representation at the point of production was sustained. During the twentieth century the use of the term shop steward moved from an obscure description understood only by skilled engineers into common English usage.


  • 1882: British forces invade and take control of Egypt.
  • 1894: French army captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, is convicted of treason. Dreyfus will later be cleared of all charges, but the Dreyfus case illustrates—and exacerbates—the increasingly virulent anti-Semitism that pervades France.
  • 1899: Start of the Second Anglo-Boer War, often known simply as the Boer War.
  • 1899: Polish-born German socialist Rosa Luxemburg rejects the argument that working conditions in Europe have improved, and that change must come by reforming the existing system. Rather, she calls for an overthrow of the existing power structure by means of violent international revolution.
  • 1899: Aspirin introduced.
  • 1900: Establishment of the Commonwealth of Australia.
  • 1900: The first zeppelin is test-flown.
  • 1900: Sigmund Freud publishes The Interpretation of Dreams.
  • 1900: German physicist Max Planck develops Planck's constant, a cornerstone of quantum theory.
  • 1902: Second Anglo-Boer War ends in victory for Great Britain. It is a costly victory, however, resulting in the loss of more British lives (5,774) than any conflict between 1815 and 1914. The war also sees the introduction of concentration camps, used by the British to incarcerate Boer civilians.
  • 1906: Founding of the British Labour Party.
  • 1909: William Cadbury's Labour in Portuguese West Africa draws attention to conditions of slavery in Sã o Toméand Principe.

Event and Its Context


Shop stewards first appeared in the engineering industry between 1898 and 1900. Their origins lay in two central realities. The first was the tradition of minimal intervention or laissez-faire by the British state in economic activity, which left many potential workplace issues open to local negotiation. The second was serious weakening of the main union, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) in 1898. Employers, increasingly affected by intensified international competition, wished to increase the rate of technological change, reduce relative labor costs, and assert their "right to manage." Employers perceived the main obstacle to these goals as the controls exercised by the ASE. The ASE resisted piece working, systematic overtime, and the "dilution" of their skills by new machinery and the non-apprenticed workers who operated them. The large engineering employers sought to break these restrictions through a symbolic confrontation. In 1897-1898 the engineering employers successfully locked out ASE members and imposed their "Terms of Settlement" on the union. The terms of settlement created a "Procedure for the Avoidance of Disputes" that tied the national union's hands. The terms also had major implications for daily life in the workshops, especially the introduction of piecework, which the union had always resisted.

The union had been seriously weakened and took measures to strengthen its workshop presence. Previously, district committees had received information on workshop events from members. The union then decided to formalize these reports and to change their rules to allow the appointment or election of shop stewards who would be responsible to district committees.

The First Shop Stewards' Movement: World War I

Initially, shop stewards did little more than collect union dues and report on problems to the district committees. The stewards were not recognized for bargaining purposes by employers but became vocal within the union before 1914. Increasingly, union members elected stewards to represent them. In some districts, the steward system began to develop independently of established union structures. In Scotland stewards played a major role in strikes and constituted an effective means for district committees to evade the control of the national executive committee. Soon, many factories had sizeable bodies of stewards who themselves elected a chief steward or convenor. At that time, however, no national organization of stewards existed independent of their union.

World War I brought dramatic developments. The ASE executive was co-opted by the state into the war machine, and "dilution" accelerated in the workshops as war production grew. Many ASE members felt that their national and often their local union bodies were powerless to deal with their growing problems and that workshop representation had to be developed.

In 1914-1919 stewards led a wave of strikes to maintain their privileged position in the industry and their immunity as skilled men from conscription. This brought, for the first but not the last time, action from government and criticism from the media. Nevertheless, stewards built local committees like the powerful Clyde Workers' Committee (CWC). Arthur Mac-Manus, an experienced steward and socialist, headed the CWC, which published its own newspaper, The Worker. These committees federated into the National Shop Stewards' and Workers' Committee Movement, which was independent of the ASE. In Sheffield another socialist, Jack Murphy, wrote the movement's theoretical statement, The Workers' Committee (1917), which advocated an encompassing system of workplace representation and support for official union leaders when they represented workers and independent action when they did not. General unions of nonapprenticed workers, such as the Workers' Union, expanded their membership and appointed their own stewards, some of whom were women.

By 1919 the employers felt compelled to recognize the role of shop stewards in a national agreement. Stewards thus became part of the formally agreed mechanism of industrial relations. Peace brought widespread unemployment, however, and restored the employers' power. In 1920 the ASE led a defensive merger of engineering unions and formed the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU). In 1922 the employers again locked out engineering workers and withdrew the recognition they had given stewards in 1919.

The Interwar Years: From Near Extinction to Revival

Effective shop steward organization was largely extinguished between 1922 and 1935. Many leading stewards continued their activity in political senses, often in the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). The shop stewards' movement, not any British political party, contributed most to early discussions in the international communist movement. Communists, often articulate and resourceful individuals, played a prominent part as leading shop stewards for the next half century, though the great majority of stewards did not share their politics.

Steward activity revived with rearmament and increased demand for labor. Semi-skilled workers in the mass production industries led developments. The General Workers' Union (TGWU), successor to the Workers' Union, led a successful strike at the American-owned Pressed Steel factory in Oxford. AEU shop stewards were already operating in the booming aircraft industry and in 1935, conducted a strike in Hawker's factories. They built a network of shop stewards, the Aircraft Shop Stewards National Council, which later broadened to become the Engineering and Allied Trades National Council (E&ATSSNC), which published their own newspaper, The New Propellor. The E&ATSSNC national secretary for the war years was the CPGB member Len Powell. The organization existed until 1960.

World War II: Engineers at War

World War II brought the election of many more stewards. Employers felt compelled to recognize formally the stewards' right to operate. Because the AEU did not admit women until 1943, the TGWU made great headway in recruiting them and appointed many women shop stewards to represent women who were flooding the arms factories. A central difference with World War I was the opposition to strikes, after the invasion of the Soviet Union, of the CPGB-dominated E&ATSSNC, though there was a rising strike rate during the war. Although some stewards remained dues-collectors, many broadened their roles as they helped solve workers' complex housing, shopping, childcare, and transport problems. Nevertheless, gaps remained in steward coverage even in 1945 with the return of peace.

Extension in and Beyond Engineering

Between 1945 and the mid-1970s, steward representation became dense in engineering as daily arguments on piecework bargains developed in a tight labor market. Large numbers of workers took on the task of representing others, often representing work groups as small as 20.

The war, and particularly the post-1945 period, saw the shop steward system spread well beyond the engineering and shipbuilding industries. The docks and construction industries elected many stewards. Most large engineering factories, docks, and construction sites now had large "Joint Shop Stewards' Committees," sometimes with over 100 stewards electing convenors. By the late 1950s shop stewards started to move into public awareness as they had in 1914-1918. In 1959 the Boulter brothers' film, I'm All Right Jack, appeared. It portrayed the senior shop steward and communist Fred Kite (played by Peter Sellers) as a comically ridiculous and eventually pathetic figure and a cynical manipulator of his members. Stewards and their unions, some argued, were a cause of Britain's relative economic decline and their activities should be restricted. This type of criticism continued until the end of the twentieth century, although workers continued to elect stewards to deal with their workplace problems.

Stewards were prominent in the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU) between 1966 and 1979. The LCDTU, under the leadership of Kevin Halpin, an AEU steward, led the strike movements that defeated the Conservative government's Industrial Relations Act in the early 1970s. Yet by the mid-1980s, many shop stewards' committees had been demolished by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government. Even more significant than political and legal initiatives against them was the decimation of the main workplaces in which they had been located. Although only vestigial steward representation survived in the private sector in the 1990s, steward organization grew in the public sector. Trade unions such as the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE), a previously centralized union led by paid officials, reorganized in the 1970s and developed a steward organization. By 2000 NUPE's successor, UNISON, soon developed into Britain's largest union with probably the largest single group of stewards. In 1900 the typical steward had been a skilled engineering craftsman concerned with "dilution" of the craft or piecework. By 2000 his equivalent was a woman hospital or local authority worker concerned with flexible working systems, childcare, training, and low pay. Surveys conducted in the 1990s showed that roughly two-thirds of public sector workers had stewards. Where they existed, membership satisfaction with union membership was much higher than elsewhere.

Key Players

Halpin, Kevin (1927-): A skilled engineering worker and AEU member. Halpin was an AEU convenor for Briggs Bodies and Ford and a CPGB member. Victimized in 1962, he later worked in ship repair and London Transport. Halpin was chairperson and spokesperson for the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions starting in 1970.

MacManus, Arthur (1889-1927): Born in Glasgow of Fenian stock. An Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) member, he was also a member of the Socialist Labour Party starting in 1906. He was a steward at Singers, Barr and Stroud, Albion Motor Works, and elsewhere. He was founder and leader of the Clyde Workers' Committee in 1915-1916. Deported from the Clyde by the government in March 1916, he was president of the National Shop Stewards' and Workers' Committee Movement from 1916 to 1921. He became chairperson of the political bureau of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and was a member of the executive committee of the Communist International from 1922 until his death in 1927.

Murphy, J. T. "Jack" (1888-1966): Born in Manchester, he started work at Vickers Brightside works in Sheffield at the age of 13. Murphy was an ASE member and a member of the Socialist Labour Party. By 1917 he was leader of the National Shop Stewards' and Workers' Committee Movement and had published his influential work The Workers'Committee. He was a shop stewards' delegate to the second Congress of the Communist International, a founder of the Red International of Labour Unions and was a prominent figure in the international communist movement in the 1920s.

Powell, Len (1901-?):Born in London, Powell was a skilled engineering worker and member of the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU). He joined CPGB in 1926 and worked at the Lancashire Dynamo and Crypto Company in Harlesden where he was involved in publication of a factory newspaper. Powell became honorary secretary of the Engineering and Allied Trades National Council (E&ATSSNC) in 1940.

See also: Amalgamated Society of Engineers.



Croucher, Richard. Engineers at War, 1939-1945. London:Merlin Press, 1982.

Darlington, Ralph. The Dynamics of Workplace Unionism:Shop Stewards' Organization in Three Merseyside Plants. London: Mansell, 1994.

Hinton, James S. The First Shop Stewards' Movement.London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1973.

Jefferys, James B. The Story of the Engineers, 1800-1945.New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1970.

Wrigley, Chris A., ed. A History of British Industrial Relations, 1939-79: Industrial Relations in a Declining Economy. Cheltenham. UK: Edward Elgar, 1996.

Additional Resources


Croucher, Richard. "The Coventry Toolroom Agreement,1941-1972, Part 1: Origins and Operation." Historical Studies in Industrial Relations 8 (autumn 1999): 1-41.

——. "The Coventry Toolroom Agreement, 1941-1972, Part 2: Abolition." Historical Studies in Industrial Relations 9 (spring 2000): 37-70.

—Richard Croucher