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New Unionism

The failure of the Comintern assault on the official union and Labour movement in Britain left the field clear for Citrine, Bevin and their General Council colleagues to strike out in a new direction.

Once installed as General Secretary, Citrine first set about modernizing TUC services and administration for the trade unions. They moved to Transport House, the T&GWU's fine new building, in 1928, where Bevin had all sections of the labour movement 'along the corridor'. Citrine changed the TUC's ramshackle administrative system, symbolized by his renowned card-index system. He made sure that the more mundane but vital work of advising and assisting the two hundred or so affiliated unions was seen as an important service by them. Preparing submissions and lobbying government departments on general legislative policy issues. To get the government to ratify the ILO Convention, for example, for a shorter, 40 hour, week, became a key TUC objective. He also led the strong campaign against the anti-union law of 1927, which became a much needed rallying point for the unions and Labour Party, culminating in the 1929 general election defeat of the Tories.

In all this he was fortunate in having the assistance of some very bright and committed senior staff, many of whom would later become TUC leaders. Citrine's style was very much to 'kick around' with them his ideas and to develop new thinking which would enable the General Council and Congress to recover. His Head of Research, Walter Milne-Bailey (34) was an original thinker. But the more academic socialist intellectuals of the day - the Webbs, the Coles, Laski and Stafford Cripps - did not contribute much to their efforts. (35) The TUC soon developed a reputation for excellence, as the quality of their Annual Reports to Congress testifies.

(34) D. Lyddon, 'Walter Milne-Bailey, the TUC Research Department and the 1926 General Strike', Historical Studies in Industrial Relations 29/30 ,(2010), 123-51.

(35) Citrine, Men and Work, 139, 173, 235, 246.

Citrine explained his radical vision and sense of direction: "The principal lesson I had learned was that the trade union movement must exert its influence in an ever-widening sphere and not be contained within the traditional walls of trade union policy ... We must try to expand the activities of the TUC until we could establish an efficient system whereby the TUC would be regularly and naturally consulted by whatever government was in power on any subject of direct concern to the unions." (36)

(36) ibid.

This was a complete change in outlook from that which had led to the creation of the General Council just five years before. Though many of the same people were still on that body, they had adopted Citrine's new approach and persuaded their own unions and delegates to Congress. From a body whose rhetoric suggested that only the overthrow of capitalism would do, without losing their critical edge, they would now address the realities of this economy and seek influence in all spheres of the society. This would have profound implications for the entire world of labour from there onwards.

The Citrine-Bevin partnership

The other key figure helping to bring about this transformation was Ernest Bevin and it is generally accepted that the partnership with Citrine from 1926 onwards was critical. However, it is wrong to see it as the work of two great men, but rather that of a formidable generation of union and TUC leaders generally. The likes of Arthur Hayday of the NUGMW (Municipal & General workers), Alf Purcell of the Furniture trades, Arthur Pugh of the Steelworkers, 'Jimmie' Thomas of the NUR, John Hill of the Boilermakers and George Hicks of the construction workers (AUBTW). (37)

(37) Clegg, A History of British Trade Unions, has short sketches of all other General Council members. 572-81.

With the defeat of the General Strike, they had all learned that, as Lord Bullock put it, 'there were limits not only to their power but also to the use they could afford to make of it unless they were prepared to risk being carried much further than most of them meant to go.' (38) Bevin had also learned that 'the Labour Party is no longer a purely Trade Union party'.

(38) Bullock, Ernest Bevin - Trade Union Leader, 346.

Political influences

It is likely that Citrine moved away from his earlier left-wing ILP socialism soon after the General Strike, as the ILP leadership moved closer to the CPGB/Minority Movement in their criticisms of TUC policy initiatives. By 1930 he openly criticized the fifteen or so ILP MPs for opposing the TUC/LP-supported Anomalies (unemployment insurance) Bill. (39) They were on the verge of being thrown out of the Labour Party.

(39) R. Skidelsky, Politicians and the Slump: The Labour Government of 1929-31 (1967), 324-5.

Nor was he over-impressed by the influential intellectuals around the Socialist League in the 1930s. He felt that 'with rare exceptions', namely Laski and Cole, 'most of them never really understood the trade union movement' and were more concerned with 'discussing ultimate Socialist objectives of a theoretical character', when the real threat was fascism. (40) He says that 'Bevin had little time for them' either, 'I know from his conversations with me that he resented their intrusion into trade union affairs'. (41) With his increasingly busy national and international schedule, Citrine preferred to rely on his own powerhouse of union and industrial ideas at Eccleston Square, where woolly theorising was not entertained.

(40) Citrine has an entire chapter about their dealings with the Socialist League in the 1930s, Men and Work, 293-309, especially at 300-301.

(41) ibid., 301.

They could also call upon some of the best economic thinkers of the period, such as John Maynard Keynes, (1883-1946), who they regarded as 'Britain's foremost economist'. They would confer frequently on the National Economic Council and both Keynes and Bevin briefed Citrine from the MacMillan Committee on the credit and financial system, from 1929 onwards. (42)

(42) ibid., 136-8, 240.

'The Next Step' for the unions

In late November 1927, Citrine launched 'The Next Step in Industrial Relations' in a Manchester Guardian article. Now, "the unions should actively participate in a concerted effort to raise industry to its highest efficiency by developing the most scientific methods of production, eliminating waste and harmful restrictions, removing causes of friction and avoidable conflict, and promoting the largest possible output so as to provide a rising standard of life and continuously improving conditions of employment." (43)

(43) Manchester Guardian (MG) Supplement, 30.9.1927; Clegg, History, vol II, 463-4.

It was a risky step. By appearing to abandon their traditional rhetoric of ideological opposition to capitalist-directed production, this 'New Unionism' incurred strong opposition from those steeped in Marxist or militant syndicalist psychology, such as A.J. Cook and Jimmy Maxton MP of the ILP. However, the vast majority of the General Council were prepared to try it as it offered the prospect of a recovery of union recognition for collective bargaining and serious engagement by managers with the many grievances of workers.

There was no response from the employer organisations, but the major industrialist Alfred Mond of ICI, brought a group of forty large industrialists to meet the TUC and to discuss their broader agenda. They wanted union support for major rationalisation and modernisation plans to meet growing German, U.S. and Japanese competition. Citrine and Bevin convinced their colleagues that this would also protect British jobs, enable higher pay and strengthen union organization. As the joint Mond-Turner discussions embraced many other long-sought union aims, the vast majority of the General Council agreed to the talks from January 1928.

These went surprisingly well, though the official employer organisations vetoed their more radical proposal for a permanent National Industrial Council (an Industrial Parliament in embryo). The NIC would have had equal union and employer representation and joint Conciliation Boards to act in disputes'. (44) For Citrine, and Bevin, another attraction was that it enabled them to counter 'the resurgence of the hostility towards trade unionism' after the General Strike. Even the employer organisations now felt obliged to confer with the TUC on 'matters of common interest' and many more employers were willing to recognize unions.

(44) K.Middlemas, Politics in Industrial Society, (1979), 208-9.