Trades Union Congress

views updated May 17 2018

Trades Union Congress

Great Britain 1868


What remains the largest campaigning pressure group on behalf of workers' conditions, pay, and rights in the United Kingdom, the Trades Union Congress (TUC), was founded in Manchester in 1868. A voluntary association of unions, it gave a formal, national voice to previously disparate regional and sectional trade unions. Besides defending the precarious legal status of the unions in mid-nineteenth-century Britain and pressuring the government to adopt legislation favorable to the TUC's interests and to those of its members, the TUC also had a political function. Early leading figures like Henry Broadhurst were Liberals, but the TUC also played a decisive role in the founding (and funding) of the Labour Party in 1900. The TUC reached its peak in the late 1970s with more than 12 million affiliated trade union members, but it has remained at the helm of the British trade union movement despite a decline in membership since then.


  • 1851: China's T'ai P'ing ("Great Peace") Rebellion begins under the leadership of schoolmaster Hong Xiuquan, who believes himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ. He mobilizes the peasantry against the Manchu emperors in a civil war that will take 20 to 30 million lives over the next 14 years.
  • 1857: Start of the Sepoy Mutiny, an unsuccessful revolt by Indian troops against the British East India Company. As a result of the rebellion, which lasts into 1858, England places India under direct crown rule.
  • 1863: Opening of the world's first subway, in London.
  • 1867: Dual monarchy established in Austria-Hungary.
  • 1867: Maximilian surrenders to Mexican forces under Benito Juarez and is executed. Thus ends Napoleon III's dreams for a new French empire in the New World.
  • 1867: Establishment of the Dominion of Canada.
  • 1867: United States purchases Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million.
  • 1867: Meiji Restoration in Japan ends 675 years of rule by the shoguns.
  • 1867: Karl Marx publishes the first volume of Das Kapital.
  • 1871: U.S. troops in the West begin fighting the Apache nation.
  • 1874: As farm wages in Britain plummet, agricultural workers go on strike.
  • 1877: Great Britain's Queen Victoria is proclaimed the empress of India.
  • 1882: The Chinese Exclusion Act, a treaty between the United States and China, provides for restrictions on immigration of Chinese workers.
  • 1884: Chicago's Home Life Insurance Building, designed by William LeBaron Jenney, becomes the world's first skyscraper.

Event and Its Context

Unions in Britain Between the 1850s and 1870s

In the decades after the defeat of Chartism in 1848, the mood of trade unionism was one of moderation and compromise. Its voice was quiet but never silent. The voice of organized labor was more to the fore than that of political radicalism. The "new model" unions were epitomized by the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, formed in 1851, which brought together a variety of skilled craft trades in a national organization, with professionally trained officials. Moderate in outlook, the new model unions (like Robert Applegarth's Amalgamated Society of Joiners and Carpenters) aimed to secure a permanent presence for unions, rather than see them continue to function as fleeting strike organizations. Leaders such as Applegarth and William Allan, the Engineers' secretary, believed they could press their claims more effectively with employers only after these conditions had been established.

Trades councils, local associations of trade unions, were another important development during this period. Trades councils claimed to voice the concerns or interests of a broad section of workers, although larger unions like the Engineers were often not represented. The London Trades Council (LTC) was formed in 1860. Because of the diverse nature of artisan trade unions in London and the presence of national officials like Applegarth and Allan, the LTC was the nearest the trade union movement had to a national voice. Radical George Odger, the LTC secretary, along with Applegarth, Allan, and Edwin Coulson of the Bricklayers' Union, were later dubbed the "junta" by Sidney and Beatrice Webb in their study of trade unionism.

The influence of the junta was contested by George Potter, the voice of radical, small London trades and artisans, in his newspaper the Bee-Hive. Titled after Cruickshank's 1840 cartoon critique of the structure of British society—workers at the base, royals at the top—the Bee-Hive was the LTC's official paper. Its militant outlook concerned the junta, although not because they were disinterested in radical causes; on the contrary, they welcomed Garibaldi to London, favored the North in the American Civil War, and most saw the extension of the franchise to working men as a means to advance union interests. Most (though not Allan, whose union barred him from "political" activity) were thus active in the Reform League, of which George Howell was secretary. The passing of the 1867 Reform Act focused the attention of leading unionists on using Parliament as means of reform.

The Union Question

There was much to reform. The existing Master and Servant Act meant employees (unlike employers) could still be liable to criminal prosecution and prison for any breach of contract. The Glasgow Trades Council led the campaign to amend this, which a select committee duly did in 1867. The legal case Hornby v. Close had thrown into doubt union control of their funds. The court declared that unions were not covered by the 1855 Friendly Society Act (to recover funds from defaulting officers), as they were still technically illegal organizations, acting (potentially) in restraint of trade. Besides their legal and financial standing, the public profile of unions was at issue following the "Sheffield Outrages" of 1866, when unionists in the cutlery trade used violence (including blowing up one workman's house) against nonunion labor. In 1867 the government appointed the Royal Commission on Trade Unions.

For the junta and Applegarth (the first witness), the commission represented an opportunity to secure the legal and financial status of the unions and legitimize their standing in the public mind. To this end they emphasized the responsible activities of the new model unions—Applegarth, for instance, stressed that unions played a minimal role in controlling the volume of apprenticeships. The commission also called into question who spoke for the unions: the Conference of Amalgamated Trades (as the LTC had been retitled) appointed a representative (the barrister Frederic Harrison), but Potter's rival Conference of Trades was also asked to send an observer.

The unions had supporters on the commission, such as Harrison and, Thomas Hughes, the Liberal MP for Lambeth, but there were also opponents. The commission's majority report recommended that unions register under the Friendly Societies aegis, but it also proposed stringent supervision of the unions (for example over their strike funds). A minority report rejected any need for such supervision.

Creation of the TUC

Union leaders, anxious to ensure that government legislation resulting from the commission was favorable and that the union lobby spoke with a clear, unified voice, renewed their efforts to create a national union forum. Various attempts—like a conference of 138 delegates at Sheffield in 1866—had floundered. What succeeded in creating the TUC was a call in February 1868 from the Trades Councils of Manchester and Salford for a congress to be held that following May. The aim of the congress was to create a discussion forum for trade unionism, in part modeled on the National Social Science Association, a middle-class association in which Harrison and Hughes participated and in which the unions had received a reasonable hearing. Although the junta did not attend, Potter did. Among the subjects discussed was "the necessity of an annual congress." The congress was at this stage not a permanent, annual body.

What gradually gave it permanency was the lobbying by labor leaders of the government's legislation. This granted unions legal rights under the Friendly Societies, without interference, but retained measures making unionists liable to criminal prosecution and on picketing. The unions managed to split the Liberals' legislation into the 1871 Trade Union Act (with which they were happy) and Criminal Law Amendment Act (against which they continued to campaign). Partly successful in its lobbying and with Applegarth resigning from the Carpenters' Union in 1871, the leadership passed to the TUC—or more particularly to the small, parliamentary committee appointed by the congress as a permanent, national union voice.

The Impact

George Howell was the first secretary of the TUC's parliamentary committee. With attempts to reform the criminal liability law thwarted by the Liberals, Howell raised the issue (and his old cause) of getting workers elected as MPs. In 1874 miners Alexander McDonald and John Burt were the first two trade unionists to sit as MPs (known as Lib-Labs, in light of their alliance with the Liberals). Though skeptical of Benjamin Disraeli's new Conservative government elected that year, the new government would prove to fulfill the TUC's goal, replacing the Master and Servant Act with the Employer and Workmen Act in 1875, which reduced charges for breach of contract from criminal to civil. Disraeli's government did enact legislation covering hours and conditions and legalized peaceful picketing. In 1875 Howell was succeeded by Henry Broadhurst, a moderate Liberal (and MP for Stoke from 1880) who worked closely with Gladstone and cemented the TUC's links with the Liberals.

The TUC's formation in 1868 marked an attempt to secure the presence of trade unions in British society and to generate some order in a fragmented union movement. Though in essence a defensive measure, it coincided with a period of sharp growth in union membership, though this reversed in the latter 1870s. Despite the advances made between 1867 and 1875, the TUC was ensured a hefty workload due to legal issues, intimidation, the struggle to establish new unions among the unskilled, and the organization of women (who first attended the congress in 1875). The influence of the TUC extended beyond Britain: it served as the model for the Amurican Federation of Labor. Although the TUC was not always an effective national voice, a Scottish TUC was formed in 1897, the Scottish Trades Councils having been partly excluded from the TUC.

Ernest Bevin, the Transport and General Workers' leader and British foreign secretary (1945-1951), claimed Labour was "born from the bowels of the TUC." This may be true, but Labour's parentage was also to be found, like that of the TUC, in the confused strands of nineteenth-century British labor law.

Key Players

Applegarth, Robert (1834-1924): Born in Hull, East Yorkshire, Applegarth was the leading figure in the so-called trade union junta of the London Trades Council. A carpenter, as general secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Joiners and Carpenters (1862-1871), he presided over a tenfold expansion in membership and created the "new model" of trade unions. Though a moderate, Applegarth supported the Reform League (for extending the vote) and was chief advocate of the Minority Report of the Royal Commission on Trade Unions. In 1871 he was the first labor leader appointed to the Royal Commission on Contagious Diseases by William Gladstone's Liberal government. Later a successful businessman, he rejected Lloyd George's offer of a Companionship of Honour in 1917.

Howell, George (1833-1910): Born in Wrington, Somerset, Howell was the first secretary of the TUC's parliamentary committee (1871-1905). He was a shoemaker and bricklayer who mixed with Chartists and was a Methodist and temperance advocate. Campaigning for a nine-hour workday and as secretary of the Reform League (from 1865), he joined the London Trades Council executive in 1861. He agreed not to stand working-class radical candidates against Liberals in 1868 and was later the Liberal-Labour MP for Bethnal Green (1885-1895).

Potter, George (1832-1893): Born in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, Potter published and edited the radical, prostrike Bee-Hive in the 1860s and 1870s. His London Men's Working Association and its 1867 Conference of Trades were chief rivals to the London junta. A carpenter, Potter achieved notoriety in the 1859 building trade lock-out. Despite financial problems (it was rescued by Liberals in the late 1860s), the Bee-Hive gave Potter a basis of support: he was one of two London delegates at the founding congress in 1868 and became president of the TUC in 1871 and chaired its parliamentary committee.

See also: Amalgamated Society of Engineers.



Fraser, W. Hamish. A History of British Trade Unionism,1700-1998. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Martin, R. TUC: The Growth of a Pressure Group, 1868-1976. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.

Musson, A. E. The Congress of 1868. Basingstoke:Macmillan, 1955.

——. British Trade Unions 1800-75. London: Macmillan,1972.

Pelling, H. A History of British Trade Unionism. London:Macmillan, 1963.

Webb, Sidney, and Beatrice Webb. History of Trade Unionism. New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1902.


McCready, H. W. "British Labour and the Royal Commission on Trade Unions, 1867-9." University of Toronto Quarterly XXIV (1955).

——. "British Labour's Lobby, 1867-1875." Canadian Journal of Economic and Political Science XXII (1956).

Additional Resources

Summary Description of the Papers of the Trade Unions Congress. Modern Records Centre, Warwick University (cited 21 January 2003). .

Trade Unions Congress online (cited 21 January 2003).<>.

TUC Library Collections. University of North London.Updated 20 November 2002 (cited 21 January 2003). <>.

—Lawrence Black

Trades Union Congress

views updated May 18 2018

Trades Union Congress. At an early stage of trade union development, the idea of a co-ordinating body emerged and in 1834 the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union was founded. It attracted many members but few funds, and the secretary absconded with what there were. It lasted less than a year. But during the next three decades there was a substantial growth of trade union membership, particularly in the skilled trades. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers was founded in 1851, the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters in 1860, together with a Glasgow trades council 1858 and a London trades council 1860. In 1868 a meeting of 34 delegates in Manchester resolved that annual meetings were desirable, though no machinery was devised. The new organization set up a parliamentary committee in 1871 to lobby on legislation. In 1900 a Labour Representation Committee was established—the forerunner of the Labour Party in 1906. The Scottish TUC was founded in 1897. By 1893 there were more than a million trade unionists affiliated to the TUC, 6 million by 1920, and 12 million by 1979, after which membership went into marked decline. The electoral difficulties of the Labour Party after 1979 caused its relationship to the TUC to be constantly reassessed.

J. A. Cannon

Trades Union Congress

views updated May 23 2018

Trades Union Congress (TUC) Permanent association of UK trade unions. The TUC was founded (1868) to promote trade union principles. Each year, it holds an annual assembly of delegates who discuss common problems. Today, the TUC has c.8 million members.