Paul Tims reviews the GFTU's recent booklet celebrating its 120th anniversary
The General Federation of Trade Unions recently celebrated its 120th Anniversary and, to mark the occasion, released a booklet designed to introduce newcomers to its work and goals. Although straightforward in its presentation, it’s a surprisingly dense gem of a document and serves both as a pocket history and an ideological primer.
In the early pages, we learn that the GFTU has its origins in the ideas of ‘New Unionism’ that began to take shape in the 1890s. Although there was considerable division between those who wanted to bring about an end to the capitalist system and those who wanted to develop trade unions within it, many prominent thinkers agreed that a federation to support trade unions was necessary.
The pre-existing TUC initially voted down the idea of a federation in 1896, but later came round to the idea, thanks in part to the writing of P.J. King and the support of Keir Hardie. In 1899, the GFTU was finally created with a remit to provide financial support and advice for unions, enabling them to strike without their members starving or facing legal repercussions. During these early years, the GFTU differed from the TUC that had created it quite dramatically. Whereas the GFTU aimed for day-to-day practical support, the TUC existed to discuss ideas and politics and to get trade union representatives into parliament.
Bolshevism or moderation
It wasn’t until later, during the rise of the USSR, that the GFTU’s ideology began to take on a concrete shape. The body had to choose whether to openly support Bolshevism or present a more moderate face in order to work with the British government to improve workers’ rights and secure the future of the unions. Its then leader, William A. Appleton, chose to steer the organisation away from Bolshevism in order to build an organisation that could work with and influence the UK government.
Ultimately, the labour movement that had spawned the GFTU gave rise to the Labour Party, while the TUC became the UK’s leading trade union body. However, thanks to its willingness to evolve and the astute decisions of its leadership, the GFTU survived and still plays an important role in supporting trade unions today.
The booklet’s potted history is even-handed (it freely admits that the GFTU often plays second fiddle to the TUC) while maintaining a positive vibe. However, the recitation of the organisation’s basic history is far less interesting than many of the individual highlights from that history. The GFTU’s booklet does an admirable job of showcasing the more bizarre, baffling, humorous and outright esoteric moments from its past. For example, we’re told that the miners’ union refused to join, despite the fact that the GFTU had attracted the support of many other large unions. We also discover that Isaac Mitchell, the first General Secretary of the organisation, though enthusiastic and tireless in his work for the union, was also so disorganised in his filing that he once managed to misplace a bond worth £10,000. Though it was successfully recovered, the GFTU was more careful about its bookkeeping thereafter.
However, the most important part of the 120th Anniversary document is also the most subtle. I refer to the insights into the GFTU’s sense of solidarity, which comes across in historical titbits and quotes. For example, from 1935 to 1937, the GFTU made an effort to get chain-makers recognised under new unemployment laws, so they could reap their benefits. From this we can gather that the organisation made a concerted effort to represent smaller unions and less well-unionised professions. This is supported by an earlier quote from Mitchell who (when he stood as a Labour party candidate in 1906) said that he sought to “represent all – except privilege”. We also learn that, during and after the First World War, the GFTU elected to support the admission of former soldiers into trade unions. This hadn’t been common practice before, but it helped cement the organisation’s commitment to solidarity.
Fostering solidarity through culture
The GFTU’s commitment to solidarity goes beyond purely practical matters: it’s enshrined on a deep cultural level. The modern GFTU actively pursues the cultural elevation of the working class in the hope of fostering solidarity. Although the 120th Anniversary booklet only touches lightly on the organisation’s cultural contributions, it’s worth noting that in recent years, they have hosted the country’s largest arts festival for trade unions, held a cultural festival for working-class Kurdish communities, and helped to promote plays about union history. The GFTU is even celebrating its 120th year by screening a series of films about women’s historic struggle to organise as part of the trade union movement. You can read more about that here in the Morning Star.
Perhaps the booklet’s greatest triumph, however, is the sense of continuity it provides between the GFTU’s historic roots and its present-day activities. It was born in the 1890s, in a time of political and ideological debate. Now it provides the tools of political thought to the next generation through accessible, left-leaning education programs. It was shaped by a need for solidarity among different types of workers, and now it regularly meets with trade unions and workers’ groups from around the world, thereby making that solidarity international.
The booklet is available here as a free downloadable pdf. Its graphic format is itself an example of GFTU's commitment to culture.
Paul Victor Tims is a writer and a magician.