Trade Unionism and Socialism

Trade Union Studies

Trade unionists who have done their stage 1 and 2 courses for shop stewards, health and safety reps or passed as a union learning rep may be interested in developing their knowledge to diploma level.

A number of institutions run courses on Trade Union Studies that allow representatives to find out more about the historical, ethical, political and economic foundations of the trade union movement. These courses are particularly useful for anyone considering trade unionism at a higher level or active involvement in a political party.

The TUC encourages all trade unionists to develop their skills and pass them on to others. These courses will require a substantial amount of study in the reps' own time, so they require a good deal of commitment.

Courses can be at various levels, including the Masters level degree in Labour and Trade Union Studies run by the Metropolitan University in London listed below.


Marxism was once the dominant political system of half of the countries of the world. Today it seems unfashionable and naive that the people of a country could have been expected to be motivated to give their best efforts on behalf of the state while receiving little or no benefits themselves.

But no one should underestimate how much Karl Marx (1818-1883) changed the way that people thought over the course of the 20th century. As a result of his ideas, the working class were no longer prepared to be ignored. The polpular movement to see that everyone - regardless of their station in society had a right to vote, a right to education, a right to health care and the right to a minimum wage should be seen as a direct result of the ideas of Marx and the socialist movement.

The trade unions adopted large parts of the Communist Manifesto as a central theme, which gave a unity to their cause. Instead of engineers fighting for engineers' rights and miners fighting for miners' rights and so on - there were now a set of principles that the unions saw would benefit the entire working class as a group. Without this unity, it is difficult to see that the Labour Party would ever have come into power in the 60s, 70s and 90s.

Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was a man ahead of his time. Best known for developing the philosophy of Utiliterialinsm, he opposed slavery, he proposed that the right to vote should be for everyone (regardless of whether they had money or not). He proposed that women have equal rights to men. He proposed prison reform. He opposed the death penalty and the use of physical punishments as a sentence by the courts. He supported free speech. He proposed a national health insurance scheme and a public pension scheme. He was one of the first people to suggest that there should be laws that required the ethical treatment of animals. He also proposed that homosexuality should not be a criminal offence.

In his native England, his ideas were not taken seriously for another century. But Napoleon was sufficiently impressed to make him an honorary citizen of France and a number of his ideas were adopted by the republican government, which may be why France is sometimes referred to as the only country where communism actually works.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was a pioneering feminist who published a pamphlet titled "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" in 1792. She was also the mother of Mary Shelley, the author of "Frankenstein".

A century before the suffragette movement took off, she was making the outragious claim that women were not necessarily inferior to men and that they might be their equals if they received the same levels of education.

The General Strike

"The Subsidised Mineowner" 1925

The General Strike of 1926 took place against a background of austerity measures introduced by the government in the wake of the recession following the First Wiorld War. The main target of these measures were the coal miners, who were expected to have their wages reduced and to work longer hours, whilst protecting the profit levels of the mine owners.

The parallels with the situation today are hard to ignore, with banks protected and multinationals having billions of pounds of their calculated tax revenues waived, while society's most vulnerable people are expected to foot the bill.

The General Strike, which took place over 10 days in May was not directly successful in its aims, but drew public attention to the appalling conditions that miners were expected to work under for low wages and eventually forced the government to act. Even King George V was moved to comment, "Try living on their wages before you judge them."

The Tolpuddle Martyrs

The Tolpuddle Martyrs were a group of English agricultural workers who were sentenced to be deported for the "crime" of swearing an oath to each other to work for a common interest when they formed a friendly society - a type of trade organisation that was a forerunner of the trade unions. The martyrs received a massive amount of support from the public and the organisation of trade unions was soon recognised in law.

The Trades Union Conference sponsors a festival in the Dorset village of Tolpuddle every year on the weekend that includes the 3rd Sunday in July.

William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce (1759-1833) would certainly not have considered himself a socialist and he was opposed to the idea of trade unions and women's rights. However, he was an important social reformer, driven by his Christian beliefs. He was a key player in getting the slave trade made illegal through the Slave Trade Act in 1807, though it continued to be legal to own slaves across the British Empire for another 26 years and another decade beyond that in India.

His other major contributions included reforms of the prison system, public health and education, but perhaps his most important influence was on the public and the church, who began to slowly accept that being a Christian was incompatible with excluding most of humanity from the concept of charity. As such, Wilberforce might be considered one of the driving forces that created the socialist movement that developed throughout the 19th century.

Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) was an upper middle class Quaker who was shown the appalling conditions that men, women and children lived in in Newgate prison. She organised groups of wealthy ladies to visit the prison and they began a lobby, which resulted in her being asked to speak before the House of Lords and gaining the admiration of Queen Victoria herself.

In 1835 she addressed a select committee of the House of Commons and went on to carry out inspections of conditions in gaols across the country, resulting in cleaner and more dignified living conditions for inmates. She is now regarded as one of the first feminists, as even though she lived a century before women would have the vote, she found a way of getting parliament to listen to her voice and deal with issues to which it would rather have turned a blind eye.

Adam Smith

Adam Smith (1723-1790) could possibly lay claim to being the world's first capitalist and also the world's first socialist. His book The Theory of Moral Sentiments made it clear that his version of capitalism was a very different concept than the "greed is good" that seems to dominate big business today.

His most famous work The Wealth of Nations proposed that the labour of mankind was responsible for all humanity's wealth and that to motivate the labour force it was necessary to have a free society in which the workers enjoyed benefits from their toil.

While industrialists and most politicians ignored the parts of his work about freedom and empowerment of the labour force, the concepts of free trade eventually resulted in a legal system that made it possible for the workers to bargain for better wages and conditions, even though it was not until the late 19th century that significant changes for the better took place. Nonetheless, Adam Smith's contribution to today's balance between social ethics and the capitalist economy remains immense.

Jean Jaques Rousseau

Jean Jaques Rousseau (1712-1778) was a Swiss philosopher whose most famous work was The Social Contract. He is perhaps best known for the quote "Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains". His ideas were perhaps more than anyone else's the inspiration for the French Revolution of 1789 and in turn the Russian and Chinese revolutions of the early 20th century. He also has a strong claim to be considered the father of socialism.

Whilst he had more than his share of faults as a human being, he circulated ideas such as a state can only be legitimate "if it guided by the general will of its members" (not just the rich and priviledged), that the law must apply equally to all and that the economic status of all citizens should be broadly similar to each other.

While much of his work may be considered naive and idealistic (rather than realistic), it undoubtedly had a major influence on the philosophers that followed.

Keir Hardy

Keir Hardy (1856-1915) was the first Labour MP and the founder of the Independent Labour Party. Up until the beginning of the 20th century, voters had little choice but to pick between the Conservatives and the Liberals. Independent candidates could stand but had little influence on government policy even if they managed to get elected. Those workers entitled to vote usually voted Liberal, but their interests were not the main concern of the party.

Hardy first got himself noticed as a trade union activist in the Scottish coal mines in the 1870s and managed to get himself blacklisted by the industry at the age of 23. He then became a full time union organiser who organised a series of strikes in 1880, which though officially a failure resulted in mine owners raising wages to get their workers back to the pits.

In 1892 he managed to become the first independent Labour Party member to be elected to parliament, where he advocated reduced income tax for lower earners, votes for women, state pensions and free schooling.

Having lost his seat in 1895, he organised various socialist groups and trade unions into the Labour Representations Committee, which became the basis of the Independent Labour Party in 1900. In 1903 the party made the first Lib-Lab pact and in 1908 he handed over leadershipof the party to Ramsey MacDonald, who had done much of the work on creating the alliance and would become the first Labour Prime Minister in 1924.

Women's Rights

As little as a hundred years ago a wife was considered to be the property of her husband and he was able to sell her unless she was able to make a successful legal challenge - something that  might be nearly impossible, as women were not entitled to own property and unlikely to afford legal fees. Wife sales became less common after the mid 1800s, but still took place into the 20th century. In some cases this was considered a cheap alternative to divorce.

The battle to acheive legal equality for women continued until the 1970s when the Equal Pay Act came into force, and there were many similarities between the Civil Rights movement for racial equality and the women's rights movement throughout the 1960s. However, the legal right to equal pay was not the same as equal access to well paid jobs and on average women still receive substantially lower wages than men. A report in the US in 2008 cited that men earn 30% than women, with the differentials in some other countries being far higher.

The right of women to vote has been slow to be granted in many countries and this is mirrored in restrictions on voting for various ethnic groups. Switzerland delayed giving women the right to vote at all levels of elections until 1990, the last of the democratic European nations to grant universal sufferage. Hong Kong will not have universal suffrage until 2017, Qatar in 2013 and Saudi Arabia has still not brought in a timetable to allow women the vote.

Civil Rights

The civil rights movement started simulaneously in many countries following the end of the 2nd World War. Countries that had fought under the flag of an empire demanded independence and people who had risked their lives in combat sought the same opportunities to vote, earn and be educated as those who had such priviledges only because of their racial or religious backgrounds.

The United States was perhaps the most important arena for the struggle for racial equality and opinions around the world were changed as a result of the publicity. Many US states had what were known as "Jim Crow" laws, which enforced segregation on black and white people. One of the most successful pieces of direct action was against a bus company in Montgomery, Alabama that only allowed white people to sit at the front of their buses. After a black woman called Rosa Parks was arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to a white person, the black community boycotted the bus company and Rosa appealed her fine, the judge declaring such segration to be unconstitutional.

Other types of struggle included that of Catholics in Northern Ireland to achieve equal rights with Protestants and gay and lesbian people to be free of discrimination. While a world free of all forms of intolerance and inequality is still just an ideal, many acheivements have been made and continue to be made while people are prepared to make a stand.