The workers’ councils

Submitted by Anon on 30 June, 2006 - 4:51

At the time when the General Council issued its call to Trades Councils, these bodies, taken as a whole, were organisations accustomed to monthly delegate meetings, with fortnightly or monthly meetings of Executive Committees. Practically in all cases there were no paid officials, and some even of the most energetic Councils had no premises of their own. With one or two exceptions, no preparatory work of any kind had been undertaken before the call was issued. For all practical purposes, the Councils were organisations suddenly asked to take on a new and urgent task, without any but the vaguest suggestion of how they should carry it out. The work was carried out, and viewed as a whole it was carried out effectively. With very few exceptions indeed the Councils displayed energy and initiative to an extent that astonished all who had known them in the preceding period. Councils which had never had any real existence, Councils which were considered moribund, as well as normally active Councils — all seemed to get a sudden inspiration, developed new forms of organisation and activity, drew in numbers of new helpers and for the first time in their history — at any rate in their recent history — became the real expression of the local movement.

Form of organisation

The first matter which had to be settled was the question of organisation — what form of controlling body should be set up, and through what machinery it should work. In some cases the initial meeting was a specially summoned General Meeting of delegates, but in most cases it was a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Council, sometimes with the addition of special individuals or representatives. In any case, it was apparent from the start that the existing Trades Council could not function as it stood; within the Council’s area there were many trade union branches which were not affiliated, and also in many cases the political organisations were distinct. Further, the General Council’s instructions were to act in conjunction with the local organisations of the unions involved; and these local organisations acted through special strike committees, distinct from the branch machinery which was represented on the Council by branch delegates. The essentials for successful work in the emergency were wider representation and more direct contact with the strike committees.

There was one experience on a national scale which gave a definite pointer, and which accounts for the similarity of the organisation set up more or less simultaneously by the Trades Councils in every part of the country. In August, 1920, the formation of the national Council of Action was accompanied by the formation of local Councils of Action. The Government’s abandonment of the attack on Russia on that occasion meant that the Councils of Action were never called upon to act, and after a few weeks of purely formal or propaganda meetings they “withered away.” But like every other experience the Councils of Action of 1920 had left their mark, and in the emergency of 1926 the Trades Councils turned instinctively to that form of organisation, and even in many cases used the name. The following groups the names under which the various special organisations (those replying to the questionnaire) appear to have functioned, omitting indeterminate descriptions:

Functioning as Number

Councils of Action 54

Strike Committees 45

Trades Councils 15

Emergency Committees 8

Other descriptions 9

Some of the other descriptions were “Disputes Advisory Council” (Aldershot), “Vigilance Committee” (Lincoln), and a few were described as “Industrial Committees”. Dunfermline reports:

“A Council of Action was formed prior to the strike, but somehow great objection was made against the name, therefore we had to change the name to Strike Committee, under the direct control of our Council.”

Except in a few cases, where the Strike Committees apparently refused any organised link with the Trades Council, the directing local organisation was in effect a Council of Action uniting all local labour organisations. In two cases of those reporting (Croydon and Gateshead), the Trades Council formed a “Council of Action” which sent delegates to the local Central Strike Committee. In such cases the use of the word Council of Action is misleading, as it was usually applied to the co-ordinating body, not to a subsidiary group.

Constituent elements

In the majority of cases where the composition of the Council of Action (or Central Strike Committee) is clearly stated, the constituent elements were:

Trades Council representatives, usually the Executive Committee.

Strike Committee representatives from each of the unions (or groups) involved.

Representatives of other unions not affiliated to the Trades Council.

Representatives of special groups, such as the Labour Party where that organisation was distinct; Labour councillors or Guardians, Women’s Organisations etc.

In other words, the Council of Action really united the whole of the organised labour movement in the area, with the sole but fundamentally important exception of the Co-operative Societies. Co-operative Guilds were of course, connected either directly or through the Trades Council or Labour Party; but only in a few cases is there any definite mention of Co-operative representation.

The only point of principle that emerges is that there was no standing order and no plan of organisation under which action could be taken automatically. But this is only one aspect of the lack of preparation which affected the whole situation.

At all times and above all in an emergency such as the general strike, the refusal of any group to co-operate with the Trades Council — the embodiment of united organised Labour — deserves the strongest condemnation.

To sum up… the co-ordinating body in an emergency must be a Council of Action or Joint Strike Committee composed of representatives of every section of the organised movement in the locality — industrial, political, co-operative. No narrower basis can express the real needs of the workers or be really effective. And this conclusion leads to another: the need to establish the Trades Councils of this basis in times of peace, so that they are ready, without delay or the possibility of friction, to act in any emergency that may arise.

The unity and harmony reported by the majority of Trades Councils must become general and must apply in the everyday work of the Councils, as well as in a General Strike. Fortunately, much of the spirit of the Nine Days has survived. Many Trades Councils report the affiliation of bodies hitherto unaffiliated and in several areas as Trades Council has been formed where none existed before. It is essential to the movement that greater progress should be made in this direction, until every Trades Council is a fully representative body maintaining regular contact with every Labour organisation in its area.

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