From International Socialism, No.49, Autumn 1971, p.33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The Workers’ Union
Clarendon Press: Oxford University Press. £2.50
Two striking facts emerge from this study. Firstly, the amazing lack of knowledge which exists about the Workers’ Union. Yet as Hyman makes clear, at its peak in 1919 it was the largest single union in Britain and when it later amalgamated with the Transport and General Workers’ Union it provided the latter with the basis for its present membership in the engineering and several other industries.
Secondly, the startling transformation which the Workers’ Union underwent. Started in 1898 by Tom Mann its aim was to organise all workers in one union and to radically change society. It rejected friendly benefits and other things associated with the old-established conservative unions. In spite of the high hopes of its founders it never had more than 5,000 members during the first 12 years of its existence. At the same time its political and industrial aims were modified (Tom Mann left the country in 1900 and had almost no further contact with the union).
But with the ‘revolt of labour’ in the three years up to the first world war when overall union membership rose by 60 per cent and general workers’ union membership by 400 per cent, the Workers’ Union membership rose to 143,000. Its membership was very diverse industrially, with large numbers in engineering and agriculture. Its growth continued throughout the war reaching the half million mark in 1919.
With the war came respectability. The leadership took up increasingly right-wing attitudes and democracy within the union was practically non-existent.
Its decline was as spectacular as its growth. With increasing unemployment in the 1920s its membership slumped and by 1929 with membership down to 120,000, the union financially near to collapse, and its leadership discredited by internal wrangling, it amalgamated with the Transport and General Workers.
This book fills an obvious gap in the studies of labour history of this period. The concluding chapter however is disappointing, for while it clarifies various debates in the ‘sociology of trade unions’, it succumbs too much to the sociological approach and jargon, and fails to develop the analysis along explicit Marxist lines.
Last updated on 19.2.2008