Trades councils: building coordination and solidarity in the strike wave

by Linda Taaffe, Waltham Forest Socialist Party, former secretary of Waltham Forest Trades Council

After several decades of workers facing cutbacks and wage squeezes while being hamstrung by anti-trade union restrictions, 2022 saw the logjam well and truly busted wide open.

Activists, including delegates to trades councils, who helped keep trade unions together and campaigning over many years, have all got a welcome boost. Thousands of workers have taken as much as they can bear. The fightback has begun. The slogan ‘All strike together’ has found a huge echo among strikers and supporters alike.

Waltham Forest Trades Council
Waltham Forest Trades Council.
Photo: Waltham Forest Trades Council

After a lifetime of trade union activity and having been secretary of Waltham Forest Trades Council (WFTC) for nine years, I recently stepped down at our AGM. Looking back over the role of myself, Socialist Party members, and other active trade unionists, we helped to develop the trades council through many campaigns up to the present strike wave.

Trades councils are part of the structure of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and they can play a very useful role in supporting trade unionists in all kinds of ways, both in day-to-day issues like fighting cuts, and on big national issues, like campaigning against the new Tory anti-trade union bill.

The highlight of my time was definitely ‘Butterfields won’t budge’, when we campaigned with local tenants to defeat the attempts of a venture company to evict tenants en masse. We declared very early on that housing was a trade union issue, and set up a WFTC housing sub-committee. Nowadays the situation is even more dire, with rocketing rents. The last family we helped resist eviction is still in the council house she was allocated “temporarily”!

On the huge 1 February strike, there was a big demo in London, and around the country striking unions held local rallies and demos. In many areas trades councils took the initiative to call demonstrations. Swansea trades council organised a lively, successful demo — boosted by its authority as a TUC body. The same is true in Bristol, Hull, and many other places.

1926 general strike

In the 1926 general strike, many trades councils broadened out to become in effect ‘councils of action’, where local unions came together to ensure strike policies were maintained. In some areas, like the North East, parts of London and Liverpool, the formation of councils of action had trades councils at their heart. In some instances elements of ‘dual power’ existed, where vehicles with necessary goods only moved with permission of the council of action.

In the nine days of the general strike, there were 400 trades councils and 147 councils of action involved. In Cowdenbeath in Fife, “all motor vehicles had to get permission from the trades council before travelling up the Great North Road. We had pickets on various parts of the road to ensure that no-one passed without permission of the trades council.”

1926 General Strike book
1926 General Strike: Workers Taste Power

It is reported in the history of the TUC how our Walthamstow trades council at that time got the electricity workers to shut off the power to the local cinema, because it was showing biased and negative Pathé news of the strike. They reported everything to the TUC leadership.

An old Militant (predecessor of the Socialist) supporter, Herbie Bell from Tyneside, was a dispatch rider for his trades council, collecting reports of what was happening and where help was needed in various areas of the North East.

In Liverpool during the 1970s, the Liverpool Trades Council drew together local tenants’ associations to fight the Tories’ Housing Finance Act, and was then joined by various organs of the labour movement. For a while it became a joint body with the District Labour Party.

By the time of the marvellous 47 Labour councillors who, in 1983-87, refused to cut the city’s budget and roused a whole city against Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the District Labour Party was in constant session, with not only Labour members but masses of trade unionists, on vital issues about what to do next, how to consolidate the campaign and much more.

Despite many differences, there are relevant parallels today with 1926. A 24-hour general strike, a partial general strike or rolling generalised strike action could well happen. In the face of the cost-of-living crisis, with the prospect of winning more pay, trade union membership is starting to climb. 40,000 teachers and support staff joined the NEU between the announcement about the national strike on 1 February and the day itself. The TUC has had an 800% increase in enquiries about how to join a union.

Trades councils are local bodies representing the TUC and are keen for affiliations for a relatively small sum. If you are a member of a union, then get your branch to affiliate to a trades council in your home or work area and ask to become a delegate. It’s a simple and well-recognised procedure. If you can’t get to your own union branch meeting for any number of reasons — working hours, distance etc — then ask your branch to affiliate to the local trades council so you can be involved in trade union activity near to your home.

Trades councils very much need younger members to get involved, as well as those in the gig economy. The BFAWU bakers’ union who recruit in McDonalds, pizza places, bars and cafes are very friendly towards trades councils. Unite organises hospitality workers and GMB has just organised the first-ever strike in Amazon in the UK in Coventry. Today there are fewer big industrial workplaces; but the small local workplaces are just as important.

WFTC used the strike wave to open as many lines of communication with unions as possible. We got a lapsed CWU Royal Mail workers’ branch to renew affiliation, two new affiliations from an RMT London Underground branch and an ASLEF rail branch, as well as encouraging some existing delegates to start coming along again.

We would like to keep in contact with picketers, and for them to come along and make the trades council a vibrant ‘council of action’, based on the ground, in local workplaces, and ready for discussion and debate about the way forward in the coming class struggles, whatever form they take.

Can you help to build your local trades council? Contact the Socialist Party for info and assistance!