100 years of the Scottish TUC


How it all began

by Steve Lawton


IF we don't do it voluntarily, then we are usually reminded that the end of the 20th century is a time to both peer ahead, as well as time to review and compare the present with the past.

The Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) can do this because, as we go to press, the foundation conference of the STUC would have just been completed 100 years ago. It met from 25-27 March 1897 -- the outcome of rising union and political militancy.

And in that significant sense, it is the "why?" of the founding that is of such relevance to a labour movement resurgence today, as it prepares for the 21st century battles ahead.

Towards the close of the 19th century, Scotland was bursting with over 100 individual unions, aside from English-based unions, which had crossed the border. Although, in fact, the reverse had also occurred with the Scottish blacksmiths, for instance, who spread southwards.

Lack of nation-wide communications had meant isolation of many trade unionists' struggles with employers from their English counterparts.

As a result organisational connections were slow to form in virtually all the key industries: building, textiles and tailoring, printing, mining, quarrying, canal and harbour working, fishing and agricultural equipment, baking and cooperage.

By the mid-1890s, influential trades councils had been firmly established in the main centres: Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and so on. As each consisted of delegates from 30 or more local independent trade unions in just one town, this placed trades councils in a vital position as co-ordinators.

What' s more, this meant a solid degree of cross-industry action in defence of all their interests.

And, in fact, Scottish trade unionists had, since Chartist days, been discussing how to make closer links across industry to keep pace with the better connected Scottish employers.

Initially, this developed along the lines of financial assistance, based on same-industry trade union federations which -- in keeping with the practice of friendly benefit societies -- could give financial help to local unions in dispute.

During the 1860s and 1870s Scottish courts blocked unions, which they regarded as illegally impeding trade, from moves to set up "closed shops" or even to recover contribution arrears.

The struggle to protect trade unions' legal rights, and for shorter hours continued all over Britain. And the fierce struggles came to a head in the decision of the Manchester Trades Council to call for what turned out to be the founding of the Trades Union Congress in 1868 -- a congress aimed at unity and protection of unions nation-wide.

In the event, it became a battleground of contending forces, which ultimately led to the exclusion of the very grass-roots movement -- the trades councils -- which were the instigators of this unified action in the first place.

And whereas, up until then, the demands and discussions had centred on Scottish sectional union federation, after 1868 the issue progressed to general federation of union organisations in Scotland. And so, in 1872, the most powerful of Scottish trades councils -- Glasgow United Trades Council -- made a decisive move which only partially achieved its organisational purpose.

It called on "the trade unionists of Scotland" to send delegates to Glasgow on 11 June 1872, to establish "a confederation of the various trade organisations throughout Scotland having a Central Board for direct communication, with the view to strengthening and extending the interests of trade unionism."

The call recognised that working people had, even so, achieved some modest gains in recent times. For one, the fact that a "workman could be dragged to prison as a felon" for breach of contract of employment, no longer occurred. It said: "Only a few years ago, the legalising of trade unions would have been treated as absurd."

But the crucial -- and timeless -- message, recognising that employers now tended to meet and discuss disputes with union leaders, was that it is "only the ignorance of the toiling masses, combined with the want of faith in each other, that gives capital the Herculean power and the lion's share."

It had now become clear that local interests had to be unified if the common interests of the employers were to be taken on successfully. To some extent, the 1871 Nine Hours Movement struggle in the Tyneside shipyards, just across the border, had an influence.

The call hit the mark, somewhat ahead of its time, to square up to employers by recognising that with "the concentration of capital, coupled with the application of machinery to be confronted, a general organisation of skilled labour becomes absolutely requisite." It was signed by John Lang, secretary of the Glasgow United Trades Council on 5 April 1872.

The political fight in the London-based TUC from 1868 would eventually determine conditions for the creation of both a Scottish and Irish TUC.

The London TUC had two main conflicting trends within it.

One, as it turned out dominant trend, was reformist. It believed changes could be brought about by efficient Parliamentary lobbying of the two parties. And this is why the key TUC body -- the Parliamentary Committee -- was set-up. They were keen too, to get working men elected on the Liberal ticket.

In the final two decades of the 19th century, the growth in influence of Marxist ideas and rising militancy of trade unionists, began to have an impact. But the numerous differences in the "left" camps proved to be, as Marx would say, irreconcilable.

While some were thinking that sharp use of administration, or better education and communication was the answer; still others argued that trade unions should be abandoned in favour of independent shop floor industrial action.


In the end, the trade union "establishment" won through with serious consequences for internal democracy: the Committee of the TUC drew up new Standing Orders which aimed to exclude leading socialists and trades councils. The new block voting system gave dominance to a few big trades. These came into operation before the next Congress of 1895 could consider them.

Not surprisingly, all hell was let loose, leading to a protest of 26 delegates (18 of them trades council delegates) assembling on 2 September 1895 before the Congress opened in Cardiff. But in the end little came of it.

In Scotland by 1888, the first Labour Party was born - on the initiative of Keir Hardy who came from a Lanarkshire miners' family -- with the support of trade council members. Known as the Scottish Parliamentary Labour Party, its aims were: "to educate the people politically and secure the return to Parliament and all local bodies of members pledged to its programme."

Included in this radical reformist programme were: the abolition of the House of Lords and hereditary office; land and mineral nationalisation, state ownership of railways, waterways and banking -- and free education.


Though it didn't achieve any of these aims, it had the effect of giving an impetus to trades council conferences in Scotland which were looking at the more immediate issues affecting working people.

Key factors were the long running successful battles in the Tyne and Clyde shipyards, and the international-wide movement for shorter working hours. The issue of hours came to a head through the Scottish rail strike of 1890-1 which led to a Select Committee regulation of their hours. This added ammunition to trade unionists who fought to secure, in law, the miners' eight-hour day.

Overwhelming attention was concentrated in the TUC on these issues -- particularly for a general eight hour working day.

But progress was impeded by the incessant and bitter wrangling between old-school trade unionists -- especially the Parliamentary Committee -- and the divergent views of those trades council activists (many of whom were frozen out) seeking a more representative TUC. Some actually referred to trades councils as the "new trade unions".

Scottish trade unionists, many of whom were in the thick of the TUC maelstrom and would become key members of the STUC, realised that time for action on the home front had come.

Falkirk Trades Council got the ball rolling by calling a conference for 25 April 1896. This was to differ from the 1894 failed attempt which aimed at uniting local trades which had been at loggerheads in several strikes and "were battling against each other" according to William Strang of the Central Ironmoulders union.

At the opening of the 1896 conference, the chairman of Falkirk Trades Council William Marshall said: "The employers had ceased to make war upon the trade unions individually. They had now formed a federation, which was not merely local, but embraced the whole of Scotland.

"The masters could now dictate to the workmen whether they should work at all, and where they should work, and all this tended to show that the workmen must federate to keep pace with the employers."

He went on: "Hitherto the masses had had history made for them; henceforth they would make it for themselves; and by federating the organised trades they...stood a better chance of getting a more equitable share of the fruits of toil and better opportunities in the race of life."


The Edinburgh Trades Council leader John Mallinson felt that federation was the answer because Scottish trade unionists had been given "very little chance" by the British TUC. The discussion of views and experience, in one way and another, tended to agree on a form of federation.

A key point was made by Margaret Irwin of the Glasgow Council for Women's Trades when she emphasised the positive role trades councils played: "In many places they formed the only centre for information regarding labour affairs. There were many parts where the trades council was a really important body, and the benefits of many trades unions would be considerably curtailed had they not these centres of information."

She and others promoted the idea that a body should be created to look at Scottish labour issues, but which was in accord with the TUC. Civil servant and factory inspector Andrew Balantyne of the National Federation Council of Scotland for Women's Trades said predominantly male unions "should take the cue from the women's unions and go in solid for federation".

John Mallinson and John Keir, president of Aberdeen Trades Council, moved the resolution to establish a provisional committee to examine the issue of setting up a means to federation. Another Women's Trades delegate, seconded by a Govan Shipwright recommended: "a Trades Union Conference for Scotland, to include the trades unions and trades councils of Scotland, which shall arrange for united action on Scottish labour questions." This was unanimously adopted.

Six months on from the conference in April 1896, the British TUC met at Edinburgh. The provisional committee had among the issues it had to consider, actually focused on the larger question of federation rather than the setting up of the STUC. This was because at the time of the Falkirk meeting, minds had been concentrated by the engineering employers organising their own federation.

As the British TUC concluded on 11 September 1996, the provisional committee put forward a rather mild draft federation scheme, which called for inter-union co-operation and other forms of assistance. After "considerable discussion" Scottish delegates agreed to look at it again at the next conference.

But at the Congress the lasting move was secured when delegates went on "to consider the advisability of holding a Scottish Trades Union Congress annually". Moved by Glasgow Iron & Steelworker John Cronin, it was eventually carried 22 to 6 against an amendment, which called for its delay until federation had been grasped.

Yet again, a provisional committee was set up. Balantyne, Irwin, Ronald Burrows of Glasgow University and Glasgow Trades Council officers, worked to draft the standing orders. The federation plan was also re-considered. In notifying delegates to the founding STUC, resolutions were sought.

Despite working through the often complex machinery of differing union procedures and practices, or having to wait for their own annual conference, 70 representative delegates attended the first Scottish Trades Union Congress in Berkeley Hall in Glasgow from 25 to 27 March 1897.

There were 56 organisations represented and 38 were Scottish -- not from any English-based unions. In the opening, Duncan McPherson, presidential chair of conference, said that this was not an organisation in opposition to what he called the "British" TUC, it was to make life easier by separating Scottish issues "because that if we want anything well done we have got to do it ourselves."

But he also pointed out that "disenfranchising the smaller trades" by shutting out trades councils and the introduction of the block vote system, had on "almost all questions" given veto power to the biggest unions.

And now, the STUC could get seriously down to the issues. With industry "now at least five times as productive as it was sixty years ago", working class families should reap the benefits in decent housing and standards of living, instead of "intensified want by the side of exaggerated and injurious abundance".

McPherson said: "These are the two extremes of human life and the problem is -- 'How to adjust human affairs so that life for all will be worth living?' The replies given and the remedies offered are numerous and conflicting."

The resolutions focused that on real issues: the need to improve the Fatal Accidents Inquiry Act, compensation, declining industries and what to do about the shift Arbitration Boards, tied house protection, stronger Factory Acts, the Miners' Eight-Hour Bill, and so on.

The issue of land was a big question. It was moved by miner John Wilson. He said: "The workers cannot obtain the full value of their labour and strikes be avoided, until the land, mines, railways, machinery, and industrial capital are owned and controlled by the state for the people."

He said that vast quantities of land were owned by 545 members of the House of Lords and that in land rent alone, 220 million was paid -- that's 100 Years ago! There could be no justification for this, that people should have to pay this "to non-producers for leave to live and work on the land."

On the last day of this historic congress, Margaret Irwin moved that: "A direct voice in the making of the laws which so seriously affect them, by extending the parliamentary franchise to women on the same footing as men."

Almost half the delegates had attended earlier London TUC conferences. But now the mood had moved closer, in this new body, to the socialist organisations. The British TUC welcomed it with silence; the Home Office was threatening. Life wouldn't get any easier, but the Scottish trade union movement moved forward.

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