Help us mark TUC's 150th anniversary

Frances O'Grady, Issue 118/01, p16, 01.01.2018
We’re keen to encourage cultural institutions to mark the anniversary
This year, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) celebrates 150 years 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 his fellow trade unionists: “Why not have a congress of our own?” Shortly after, the trade union movement came together in the city. The delegates resolved to work together “for the purpose of bringing the trades into closer alliance, and to take action in all parliamentary matters pertaining to the general interests of the working classes”. And that’s where it all began. The TUC held its first meeting in Manchester in 1868, a story told in the city’s People’s History Museum. Today, Kay Carberry, the former assistant general secretary of the TUC, sits on the museum’s board.

Following its inauguration, the TUC established itself as the voice of working people in the UK. And it became part of the fabric of British political life, consulted on policy by governments of all parties, campaigning for a better deal for working people, and leading opposition to any attempts to undermine their rights and living standards.

Today, more than 5.5 million people are trade union members. But while we’re among Britain’s biggest voluntary organisations, fewer private-sector and young workers are joining unions.

So, in our 150th year, we wanted to present a new story of the TUC – and show how standing up for working people is more relevant than ever.

We have created a series of snapshots of trade unionists, the TUC150 collection, which is designed to surprise, move and inspire people. Some of the stories are of pioneers – stepping out from the cosy consensus of their day, brave beyond belief. Many are groundbreaking activists. Some did work that led to the rights we have today and the institutions that protect people, such as the National Health Service.

Some stories tell of trade unionists rising to the challenges of their era. Pioneers such as Mary McArthur who, almost a century before it became law, championed a national minimum wage. And Emma Paterson, who set out to establish a union in the 1870s for every job in which women worked.

We also profile trade unionists such as Chris Braithwaite, who in the 1930s fought against Cardiff docks’ colour bar, and Jayaben Desai, who in the 1970s led the “strikers in saris” of Grunwick, a story about the rights of exploited migrant workers that was recently told at the We Are the Lions exhibition by Brent Museum and Archives.

And we tell some impressive stories of working people withdrawing their labour, when bosses wouldn’t compromise and wouldn’t negotiate. From the East End matchwomen who sparked a wave of action throughout the early 1930s calling for better working conditions, to the Ford Dagenham women’s walkout that led to the Equal Pay Act, going on strike is the most powerful weapon available to working people.

These trade unionists played their part in a movement that has shaped two centuries.

Alongside that proud history, we tell stories of today’s trade unionists – still fighting exploitation. Young workers such as Nesa Kelmendi and Shen Batmaz are taking on the might of corporates such as Picturehouse Cinemas and McDonald’s to demand a living wage. Dan Lewis, a temporary call-centre worker, fought for and won a proper contract. And at Sports Direct, the workers are steadily expanding the union, after years of campaigning that has seen them win higher wages and get agency staff the right to permanent jobs.

While much has changed in the past 150 years, the TUC’s mission remains the same: standing up for working women and men, and making sure their voices are heard. We’re keen to encourage cultural institutions to mark the anniversary, so please contact us if you have any ideas.

Frances O’Grady is the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress