This year, the TUC celebrates its 150th anniversary and with it, a century and a half of working together to change the world of work for good.
It all started with a simple question. Samuel Caldwell Nicholson, a typesetter and union officer living in Manchester asked: “why not have a congress of our own?” The trade union movement came together in Manchester, resolved to work as one, and the rest, as they say, is history.
This 150 voices project presents a set of trade union stories from the past 150 years. It’s not a history of trade unionism. Nor is it a definitive list of the great women and men of our movement. Instead we present some snapshots of trade unionists whose stories will surprise, move and inspire you.
Some are pioneers – stepping out from the cosy consensus of their day, brave beyond belief. Many are ground-breaking activists. Some did the work that resulted in the rights we have today and the institutions that protect working people, like the NHS. Some stories tell of trade unionists living in extraordinary times – and rising to the challenge of their era.
As you read these stories, we want you think about your own role. These trade unionists played their part in a movement that has shaped two centuries.
What will you do to make trade unions stronger for the next 150 years?
Refusing to sit back is what it’s all about
Three decades before the TUC was set up, the Tolpuddle Martyrs were sent to Australia for the crime of forming a trade union – but lived to see trade unionism flourish. Charly Bacon, a member of BA cabin crew, refused to let bosses get away with paying unacceptably low wages, and knew that the way to win a better deal was to build a strong union. So she recruited several thousand new members in just a few years. Craig Johnstone, a metro cleaner in Tyne and Wear, had had enough of unfair wages. So he took on his bosses with the help of his union and won. And Brian Silver led a successful six-year campaign to save the pensions of his fellow steel workers when their company went bust.
Women have always led in our movement
Shining through so many stories is the passion and commitment of women trade unionists. Pioneers like Mary McArthur who, almost a century before it became law, championed a national minimum wage. And Emma Paterson, who in the 1870s set out to establish a union in every job in which women worked. Lucy Masoud, a fire fighter is supporting colleagues and the community in the wake of the Grenfell disaster. And we tell the story of Frances O’Grady, the daughter of a car worker who founded the TUC’s organising academy – and later became the first woman general secretary of the TUC.
We stand with and for young workers
We have always been a movement for young workers. Today, young workers like Shen Batmaz and Nesa Kelmendi are taking on the global might of corporates like McDonald’s and Picturehouse Cinemas to demand the living wage. They follow in the footsteps of people like Joseph Williams, who was 21 when he founded the Musicians’ Union, and Rosie Hackett, who was 19 when she organised 3000 Jacob’s Biscuits workers to strike. And we tell the story of Betty Tebbs, who became an activist aged 14 when she turned up on the first day of her job at a paper mill to discover the boys were paid 13 shillings while the girls barely got nine.
We change the law – and workers’ lives
Throughout our history trade unionists have won changes to the law of the land. Within three years of our first Congress, we had won a legal structure for trade unionism. And we haven’t stopped. In these stories, hear about how Rita Donaghy championed a national minimum wage and Julie Hayward, a cook, stood up for equal pay for women. And hear the story of Dan Lewis, a temporary call centre worker, fought for and won a proper contract, and became a rep to help his workmates do the same. And we celebrate the many activists of our longest running campaign: the fight for paid holiday for everyone which began in the nineteenth century and was finally won in 1998.
Everyone has the right to an education
Unions have always been a platform, getting working people a second chance to learn. In 1903 we helped found the Workers’ Educational Association, educating generations of workers who left school in their early teens. More recently, Paul McGovern left school at 15 with no qualifications – but got qualified with his union and now teaches others. And Michelle Bateson helps disadvantaged students learn new skills and get into good jobs in manufacturing.
We challenge prejudice and stigma
From our earliest days, unions had Black members – as we see in the story of Chris Braithwaite who in the 1930s fought against the colour bar in the Cardiff docks. In the 1970s, Jayaben Desai led the ‘strikers in saris’ of Grunwick, putting the rights of exploited migrant workers on the national news. As the UK changed, unions changed. Sometimes we’ve had to challenge our own prejudices – but over time we’ve become champions of equality. Today, Satnam Singh Ner has gone from being the only BME worker on his site, to working with his employer to improve diversity in hiring and running training courses for workers from ethnic minority backgrounds. Physics teacher Debbie Hayton transitioned whilst still working in a school, with the crucial support of her union. And Tony Sneddon, who is disabled himself, worked with his union to make sure post offices in Scotland are more accessible for disabled people.
We’re in the DNA of how the UK works
Trade unionists shaped modern Britain. Tired of working people being ignored, the trade union movement founded a political party of its own, the Labour party – and its first leader was the trade unionist Keir Hardie. We fought for a national health service for years – and in 1948, a trade unionist called Nye Bevan created it. Today we proudly stand up for the public sector workers like midwife Gail Cartwright and care worker Evelyn Martin who run the services that protect and support working people every day.
At the darkest times for our country, trade unionists stepped up
When men were called up to serve, women flocked to the workplace to replace them. And they joined trade unions in their thousands. We tell the story of the women munitions workers who became known as “canaries”becausethe chemicals they were exposed to turned their skin yellow. Thousands of trade unionists fought in the two world wars – and the TUC’s home, Congress House, is dedicated to the memory of those trade unionists who lost their lives. Thousands more were part of the war effort, co-ordinated by the trade unionist Ernie Bevin, who was brought into the wartime government to get British industry running at full pelt. And the UK trade union movement helped opponents of Nazism, welcoming German trade unionists in exile like Hanns Gottfurcht and supporting them to rebuild their country once the war was over.
We win for working people
When bosses won’t compromise and won’t negotiate, we use the most powerful weapon of working people, and go on strike. And we win. From the matchwomen who sparked a wave of action in 1888, to calling for better working conditions throughout the early 1930s, to the Ford Dagenham women’s walkout which led to the Equal Pay Act, strike action has proven again and again that when it comes down to it, withdrawing your labour gets results.
Solidarity between working people changes the world
Throughout our history, trade unionists have supported others struggling for their rights. In 1875 the male loom mechanics of Dewsbury came out in support of the women weavers. In 1926, a whole country stood behind the locked-out mineworkers as the UK trade union movement led a general strike. We tell the story of small expressions of global solidarity like that of Welsh miners supporting the black American activist Paul Robeson, and the big story of the trade union movement’s practical support for the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
Trade unionists are everyday heroes
When the TUC launched the Order of Industrial Heroism in 1923 it was nicknamed ‘the Workers’ VC’. The award recognised the bravery of ordinary workers, saving lives in the dangerous workplaces of the day. Among our stories are those of working people stepping up everyday to protect their workmates. People like AH Sutton who stopped a runaway train and George Jones who helped rescue eight workmates from drowning at Killan colliery. And we tell the stories of trade union members in today’s workplaces, fighting the workplace scourges of today – like Pat Heron, challenging domestic violence, and Adam Taylor, working to stop stress at work.
This project has been supported by generous bequest in memory of Jim Hanna, who worked at the TUC in the 1970s. Jim had a strong interest in trade union education and organising the next generation of trade union representatives. He firmly believed that trade unions have made workplaces, safer, better and fairer.