What Ernest Bevin did for Trade Unionism

Ernest Bevin – The Trade Unionist

Text of an address by Jack Jones to the Ernest Bevin Society fringe meeting at the Labour Party Conference, Brighton, September 30, 1991

In the 1920s and 30s ‘Lady Bountifuls’ used to circulate around holding meetings among the very poor women, such as the wives of the unemployed, or very low-paid workers, to tell them about the benefits of nutrition and how to make a dinner very cheaply. At one such meeting the women were being told how to make a perfectly satisfactory meal with a cod’s head. Whereupon some bright old lady in the audience asked,” What happens to the rest of the fish?”

I mention this because it is the sort of question Bevin would have asked as a young man in the early part of this century. He had been brought up on a farm. I don’t know if he was exactly illegitimate, but he never really knew who his father was. He was also very poor and had quite a struggle to make a living. Eventually, he moved from a place called Winstrom, in Somerset, to Bristol. There he earned a living as a casual labourer in rather bitter conditions, very poor and struggling to survive, and occasionally getting a job driving a mineral water van. Later this became a more regular job. But he still lived in conditions of quite dire poverty and adversity, and I think it was this that moulded him early on in life into becoming very much of an agitator.

In 1919 Bevin used the example of the cod’s head to demonstrate what the dockers’ wages of that time actually meant in terms of meals for a docker’s family. He was arguing the case for a reasonable wage for dock workers before the Lord Shaw Enquiry, a major inquiry of the time. He was making the case that dock workers, who were then employed on a very casual basis, should be paid enough for at least a survival existence, given the hard work they had to perform. He was confronted by an employer’s advocate who maintained that the wages that a docker then received (eleven shillings a day – and not every day of the week at that) was quite adequate. If the docker, or rather his wife, would pay proper attention to nutrition, they could survive on it. Bevin then went down to Billingsgate, bought a cod’s head, cooked it himself, with the help of his very able secretary, a Miss Fawsey, and paraded this ‘dinner’ before the Chairman of the enquiry, Lord Shaw, to demonstrate the impossibility of expecting the docker, his wife and their four children to survive on that sort of meal. And it helped to make his case.

This was Bevin, emerging from an adverse background, presenting a case before the distinguished advocate, Lord Shaw, and to the employers’ legal men, in an enquiry that had arisen out of the strikes and troubles in dockland at the end of the First World War. And despite his limited educational background he was able to make a case which confounded those in authority. He conducted the case for the dockers over four hours, calling witnesses and so on, using all the attributes of a highly-trained legal man. He brought in what witnesses he could, including dockers themselves, to say what they would do with a cod’s head, and, in his working-class language, got the essential points over. As a result of his brilliant, and indeed unusual advocacy, Bevin established a case which won from that distinguished Court an award of sixteen shillings for an eight hour day (44 hour week), which was a substantial improvement in one fell swoop upon what was then normal. (In much of industry the working week was then 54 hours.)

The important thing that Bevin was trying to argue for was maintenance: that dock workers who were employed on a casual basis should be guaranteed a reasonable income each week. He did not quite win that, but he won the principle of maintenance, the principle of de-casualisation. But one way and another the employers managed to dilute that down so that it never really came into existence in dockland until the Second World War. By this I mean guaranteed de-casualisation, getting away from a situation where workers turned up day by day, or even by the half-day, looking for work. And that even included registered dock workers. The Lord Shaw Enquiry did, however, establish the principle of registration, which would eventually end the system of turning up each half day and often being turned away with nothing. He got a guarantee of some measure of payment, some measure of maintenance, and it was a distinguished achievement to have been able to get that.

This case generated enormous publicity at the time. The newspapers picked it up: the dock worker putting a case that was confounding judges and distinguished advocates. It was typical of Bevin (who was not able to afford Mandelsons), and greatly to his credit, that he would use any and every opportunity to get publicity for his case. And it eventually earned him the title, ‘The Dockers’ K.C.’ My father always talked about Bevin as ‘The Dockers’ K.C.’

Bevin was always anxious to prove the value of advocacy. Although he had led strikes and been involved in them, he knew that strikes could not be the only weapon by which you won major concessions. You had to be able to “seek negotiations”, as he put it. He said that the greatest power you could have lay in establishing the principle of negotiation. If you could negotiate on roughly equal terms – with the power of the strike weapon in the background, and not using it very much – you could establish the right to get agreements. Moreover, if you got an agreement, you should hold to it. It wasn’t right to negotiate, and then tear up the agreement the next day. You tried to ensure that the thing was watertight, and that once you were able to make some progress, the progress, in terms of an agreement, would hold with the workers you represented. That was very important to Bevin.

As he developed his skills as a negotiator and advocate, Bevin was anxious to establish among the members of the union the idea that they should make realistic claims .. Thus he believed it was foolish, as some unions did at the time, and for many years afterwards, to put in a claim for, say, £2 per week, and then settle for a .shilling or two per week. It was quite normal in the 1930s for the Engineering Union to do just that. And it meant that a sense of despondency would set in, and trade unionism did not gain the advances it should have in that period ..

There is another instance of Bevin’s publicity abilities that I should like to mention. It comes from a period when he was unemployed, before he became an official of the Dock Workers’ Union. Bevin had been persuaded to join the Dock Workers’ Union, with the idea that he would become an official, by a man named Dan Hillman. Hillman was a very well-known trade unionist and socialist – the two things were almost indistinguishable at the beginning of the century. And Bevin was a socialist, make no mistake about that; he advocated socialism all through his life. As I say, he was persuaded to join the union in the knowledge that he would be an official and work full time to try and organise what had been a relatively unorganised force in and around dockland. In the process of being so persuaded, he sought to organise the unemployed. He saw the unemployed as a threat to those who were in employment, casual employment as it was. Equally, he saw that poverty had to be challenged. So he organised a group of unemployed people in Bristol. He took this group one Sunday morning to the cathedral church in Bristol during a service attended by the aristocracy and well-to-do people of the city. He organised the g:roup to go into the church, not with banners, but quietly, and one by one, until the entire church was virtually full of unemployed people, ragged, rough and unshorn. It made a tremendous impression on the well-dressed people of Bristol. It was another instance of Bevin’s great ability to use his publicity skills to bring out the conditions of the unemployed of Bristol at that time. And he went on, of course, to try and organise them as trade unionists.

By 1926 the Transport and General Workers Union had been established and the unions were relatively strong. The General Strike was called. Four million people struck work. Unfortunately it was a nine days’ wonder, a failure, for a variety of reasons. But Bevin sought to get the best out of a difficult situation, and to try and turn defeat into some measure of victory. He sought almost immediately after the strike to have talks with employers, and made what contact he could. There were some employers who felt they ought to try and re-establish some relationships with the trade union. The government of the day was inclined to attack the unions at every point. It introduced the Trades Disputes Act, which virtually put the civil service unions out of the Trade Union Congress, withdrew the right to strike, and trade unions to a degree were in a desperate state of defeat.

But Bevin still sought to find out those employers who were prepared to talk, and his main concern was to overcome the victimisation which was prevalent after the General Strike. People who had gone on strike, the leaders certainly, were blacklisted. They lost their jobs. Others who did not lose their jobs were kept out of work for months on end. Bevin was concerned, first of all, with trying to recover the strength of his union, but all the time trying to find ways and means of re-establishing people who had been victimised in employment.

In due course, Alfred Mond, later Lord Melchett, persuaded a number of employers to invite some of the trade union leaders to talks, to see what they could do by way of re-stabilising some measure of industrial peace. These talks were called the Mond-Turner talks. Ben Turner, of the textile workers, was chairman of the Trades Union Congress at the time. Bevin was one of those who advocated that there should be a response to the approach of Mond and his associates. He believed that as long as they were prepared to talk, we should talk. He was denounced, along with others, as someone who was selling out the working class. It was said that the employers only wanted rationalisation, which meant modernisation of industry at the expense of workers. Arthur Cook, who was a very fine leader of the miners, said it was class-collaboration. Cook had very distinct views about socialism and capitalism, and took the view that you should not seek to negotiate, because that almost amounted to class-collaboration. The talks were thus denounced from the start as being wrong.

But Bevin took the view that you must still find ways and means of opening up discussion with employers in order to try and better the situation of working people, by hook or by crook. The result of the Mand-Turner discussions which took place over some time, was that they did get the general declaration which laid down that there should be no victimisation of workers; that trade unions should be recognised; that there should be talks leading to guarantees of employment, guaranteed weeks, for example.

It was a very important development. And as regards Imperial Chemical Industries, the largest employer in Britain at the time, it led to the conclusion of agreements (not only with the T&GWU, but with other unions too) which have stood the test of time. ICI is one of the major employers in Britain where labour-relations have been pretty good throughout the years.

Bevin made it his main business to remove the inhuman treatment both of workers at work and of those who became unemployed. He knew more than most people about the real fear of victimisation in the work place, because he had been victimised himself. It is the sort of situation that is recurring today, and I mention it because victimisation is the weapon by which employers try to browbeat workers against attempts to organise. One of the difficulties, at least for smaller companies, of trying to develop trade union membership, and hold it, is the danger that those who put their head above the parapet will be shot down – put out of work and kept out. Not many people make a song and dance about it, but it is a method that is now being used quite extensively. Trade unionists must seize the opportunity of trying to overcome that problem, as Bevin tried to do, in many ways successfully, in his time.

The General Strike was a failure, but the massive unemployment of later years was a lesson to Bevin of the weakness of Labour. He always wanted to have trade union strength to even up the balance of power in industry and secure the power to negotiate. When circumstances were against him industrially, he used his abilities to persuade the employers not to exploit their strength, and carried the same message to the government of the day. He warned of the dangers of retaliation if their attitude was unreasonable. Some of them took no notice at the time. I would hope that Mr Michael Howard will take notice of that possibility, because retaliation will come eventually. The trade union movement will eventually recover its situation, despite all the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ which have gone against us at the present time. When Bevin was Minister of Labour during the war years he was determined to limit the unilateral power of the employer, and to ensure that a strong trade union movement would develop on a democratic basis. He succeeded in this. It was a tribute to him that he was responsible for the repeal of the Trades Disputes Act in 194 7 (it had been passed in 1927).

Bevin’s greatest contribution as a trade unionist, i.e. from the beginning of the century until he became Minister of Labour, was, I believe, his initiative and driving power in helping forward the development of large-scale trade unionism. He brought into effect, with the Transport and General Workers Union, what was called ‘the one big union’. For years in Britain and America and other countries, the idea of the ‘OBU’ had been talked about. Books were written about it. Meetings were held about it, and socialists proclaimed that it was a good idea. There were organisations like the American Knights of Labour which, to some extent, were established to achieve the principle of the ‘OBU’. But none of them were so effective as the union which Bevin devised. True, it was on the basis of a lot of earlier efforts which had nothing to do with him. But he picked them up. He was a master of picking up other people’s ideas and refining and building on them. Out of that he conceived and developed, indeed was the architect of, what is now the Transport and General Workers Union.

It was a new union. He developed it first of all on the basis of industrial groups linked together by an overall general executive council. There were also regional authorities that administered the finances on a decentralised basis. In other words, at the national stage and the regional stage there was unity of all the trades. Otherwise the trade sections themselves virtually operated as industrial unions. You might say that that was a remarkable development. But Bevin had studied the American Knights of Labour, which was structured very much on the lines just indicated.

When it came to recommending the name of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, he borrowed the title that Jim Larkin had introduced in 1909. The T&G was formed in 19[8. But in 1909, in Dublin, Jim Larkin had formed the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. This was mainly a combination of the existing transport unions, as Bevin’s union was, but it recognised that on the periphery of the transport unions were general trades and industries that ought to be linked together. Bevin had in mind there, of course, things like the mineral water van he used to drive (driving horses, by the way). He had in mind that they were not docks, or road haulage, in the normal sense, or buses or trams, but they were in the periphery, in and around dockland. He wanted to organise the places where the mineral waters were made, and that led him into a lot of other industries.

By developing what was, and still is, the largest union in Britain, Bevin demonstrated the economies of scale. A big union, he said in effect, ought to be able to produce effective service, yet require low contributions. You develop quite considerable finance, which enabled one section to help another. If you have a strike in docklands, the workers on the trams and in road haulage would be able, through one general union, to provide the finance necessary to sustain that strike which on their own might not have been possible.

Bevin took the view that, in dealing with employers of labour (which, as with ICI, were developing in size then), you had to have big unions to have some sort of effective possibility of negotiating with them. He used the example of an elephant and a mouse. An elephant to a mouse is very big, but one elephant to another is just about the right size. He took this view in relation to negotiating equality between employers and unions.

In forming the union, Bevin had in mind trying to deal with some of the real curses which affected the working population of the time. One of the major curses was casual employment. You might think that this was only a matter of docklands. Not at all. Casual employment was rife and typical in practically every industry. Tram drivers were employed on a casual basis, as were lorry drivers and carters. Even skilled trades were employed almost on a casual basis. This was not unusual in my own experience working in the engineering industry. Skilled people would go to work in the morning and be sent home the same day without pay. There was no requirement to make any payment, no collective agreement which said that there should be a wage. So casual employment was a curse of industry in general and Bevin wanted to deal with it. And he succeeded in many industries in getting regulated employment, registration of workers, so that a limited number of workers had preference in getting work. Otherwise, it was open to anyone to go along and get a job for a night, or for a day, and in the process, because they were not organised, weaken the front as regards getting reasonable wages, and some sort of guarantees of employment.

He succeeded to a very large extent.

He carried on the struggle, frankly, as Minister of Labour from 1940 to 1945. He blatantly used the fact that he had taken over the Ministry of Labour to ensure that working people were treated reasonably well. He knew that there was great anti-union feeling among the establishment. In October 1939 Bevin wrote:

“It must be appreciated that in their heart of hearts, the powers that be, the government, are anti-trade union. The ministries and departments have treated labour with absolute contempt. Yet without the great trade union movement the forces cannot be supplied with munitions, nor the country with food. The principle of equality has not yet been won. Equality, not merely in the economic sense, but in conception, and in the attitude of mind of those in power. We do not desire to serve on any committee or body as an act of patronage. We represent probably the most vital factor in the state. Without our people the war cannot be won, nor can the life of the country be carried on. The assumptions that the only brains in the country are in the heads of the Federation of British Industries and big business, has yet to be corrected.”

And later, after six months holding the job as Minister of Labour, he said:

“After six months in office, the trade unions are tolerated so long as they keep their place, and limit their activities to industrial disputes, industrial relationships and similar matters, and are willing to bury all their memories and feelings, and assist the nation, or industry, when in difficulties, and go back to their place when the war is done. But there will have to be a great recasting of values. The concept that those who produce or manipulate are inferior, and must accept a lower status than the speculator, must go.”

He took that view, a socialist view, very deliberately and strongly, and carried it through. And undoubtedly, that influenced much of the policy of the Labour Government when it came into office in 1945. That was to his credit.

In addition, another great contribution he made to progress was raising the status of relatively poor manual workers in industries like the food industry and flour milling, for example, by introducing the principle of pension schemes. The idea of manual workers having occupational pensions, on top of the very low state pension of ten shillings a week, was almost unheard of. But Bevin was one of the first to raise it, and negotiate the idea of pension schemes for manual workers. Not very big, at first, but the principle was important, and began to raise their status to the level of white collar people. Always in his mind was the struggle to get equality of conditions between the manual worker and the staff worker.

One of Bevin’s main activities was his insistence on gaining the power to negotiate. In the process he argued for the need for enquiries, for conciliation, and he was prepared to go to arbitration, when it was questionable on our side. He recommended the introduction of joint industrial councils, joint regulations to that workers and managers would sit on committees to adjudicate on matters affecting discipline, and things of that kind.

These were all new ideas and developments, often brought forward under very great criticism from those who took the view that the only thing that mattered, ultimately, was The Revolution. Such people believed you should conduct industry on a syndicalist basis which would lead towards the revolution, and that there was no solution in terms of some sort of ordered relationship with employers. But Bevin was basically a socialist. Certainly, for many, many years he proclaimed his socialism, and I personally think he remained so to the end. The fact is that he knew he still had to persuade ordinary working men and women that it was worthwhile organising, and that it was important to get results, even limited results, even little steps of progress. At some stages that had to take the form of accepting that there might have to be a reduction in pay, and then to try and make sure that that reduction would be as limited as possible.

In 1931 we nearly had a revolution in this country on account of the great economic crisis. The Wall Street Crash had occurred. There were three million people unemployed, and we had gone off the gold standard, so bad was the situation. The National Government was formed in the course of trying to solve the problems. As so many governments have tried to since, they tried to put the burden on the backs of workers. They decided to reduce unemployment benefit by ten per cent. When they tried to cut the pay of the troops and the navy by ten per cent there was a mutiny in the navy in consequence. Employers, of course, followed the pattern set out by the government, and sought to reduce wages. They succeeded in many cases. There were, in fact, ten per cent wage cuts in a whole range of industries.

Bevin negotiated a seven per cent reduction on basic pay, and five per cent on piece work. It took quite a few years to start to go back on that and get a restoration of the 1931 cuts. Indeed, the trade union movement conducted campaigns to restore these cuts. I remember having a big argument with Bevin – I was a very young man then, and I had come on to the docks from engineering – and questioning him about how the trade union leadership could negotiate reductions in pay, which I did not think was a good idea. He replied that he had done better than other industries, and indeed he was able to persuade my fellow-workers that he had done a satisfactory job in that sense. He managed to hold the situation, and eventually we got a restoration. That was Bevin. He wanted to maintain organisation, despite adversity, rather than disorganisation and anarchy. He succeeded in doing so in a very difficult industry, the docks industry.

As Minister of Labour, Bevin was confronted, of course, with organising the labour force for the war. He introduced very controversial measures such as the ‘1305’, the Conditions of Employment and National Arbitration Order. Technically strikes were made illegal (though we still managed to run a few), and there was compulsory arbitration. But he laid down, as a condition, that all employers would have to observe the recognised terms and conditions in the industry, not only nationally, but in the district, laid down in collective agreements. These were operable in law, so trade union negotiations had a force that could be applied to employers, and many employers who had refused to recognise trade unions, refused to pay trade union wages, had to do so. I could tell you stories of employers who refused to talk to me (I was a young negotiator at the time) but were forced by arbitration to comply with agreements on conditions in that industry. He was very careful to do that.

Then there was his Essential Works Order, which required every able-bodied person, including women, to go to work. He laid down that no employer could dismiss people without the right to appeal to an Appeal Board, which included trade union representatives. These boards could reinstate, which, incidentally, the industrial tribunals today cannot. But they did during the war. And if an employer suspended anybody there would be a right to appeal, and the suspension not only could be lifted, but the employer would have to pay compensation. There were many cases in my experience in which men had three days off, and then got full pay because the employer was proved to have unjustly suspended them. So employers became very much afraid, and began to realise the need to have some sort of ordered relationship with trade unions in consequence of that period. Bevin described that Essential Works Order and ‘1305’ as virtually collective agreements given the clothing of law.

Bevin introduced at a very early stage in the war the principle of Joint Production Committees. First of all, he introduced Yard Committees in the shipbuilding industry, which were to discuss matters affecting production, as well as general relationships. This was a development in industrial democracy – elementary, but nevertheless a step along the road of industrial democracy in shipbuilding. That was picked up not only by Bevin, but also by the unions in the engineering industry. It was followed by the principle of Joint Production Committees, which meant that employers could no longer rule purely on their own prerogative. Management had to take account of the workers’ point of view, and that the latter had a right of appeal to higher authority.

Unfortunately this important principle was not followed up as strongly as it might have been after the war. But it showed Bevin’s interest in the principle of industrial democracy, which, I know, the Bevin Society is very interested in, as I have been. Together with other colleagues in the trade union movement, I had a lot to do with what was later called the Bullock Report. I mention that because there are many instances in which I tried to follow Bevin’s example, much as the Bullock Report follows on from the principles of industrial democracy which he pioneered.

I tried to follow his advocacy of conciliation and arbitration when I drew up proposals, for a Labour government, for the introduction of an Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service, on the grounds that there were times when the strike weapon could not be used effectively. In any case, workers do not use strikes as the sole way of dealing with their problems. It is the last resort. And you have to find ways and means of overcoming problems in industry. And if the employer would not negotiate then you had to go somewhere, where at least you could get some sort of elementary justice.

With the right sort of conditions, conciliation and arbitration could help to get justice without the need to involve workers in strike action. And in my belief the Arbitration and Conciliation Service had proved its worth – so much so that the Conservative government has tried to emasculate it. It has reduced its authority and limited its function. It had quite a useful function in terms of allowing investigations where claims were being made by unions for recognition in industries where there was a limited measure of trade union organisation. And we made progress on that basis because not all workers are ready to take drastic action to achieve their aims. Many workers are not ready for that. The fact is that conciliation and arbitration has proved its worth.

I simply make the point, in conclusion, that a lot of the ideas that we applied at the early stages of the 1974 Wilson government took account of the sort of views which Bevin himself had expressed and had applied over many years.

This article appeared in November 1991, in Issue 26 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.