Edda Nicolson, University of Wolverhampton
This blog by Edda Nicolson was commended in the 2020 SHS Postgraduate Prize.
‘May I ask the delegate, if he has any charge to make against the Gasworkers’ Union, to make it definitely? At the present moment I am the Chairman of the whole of the organisations in this Federation. If necessary, however, I will defend my own society,’ warned Pete Curran, as he presided over the 1909 annual council meeting of the General Federation of Trade Unions. The GFTU were founded to act as a strike fund administrator for affiliated unions to draw on if their members lost pay through industrial action, and Curran had been Chairman of the GFTU since their inception a decade earlier. This defensive reply was his response to a delegate asking the GFTU to look into ‘the fact that certain societies were continually trespassing upon the trades of other organisations’, which Curran clearly interpreted as an accusation that his union had been poaching members.
If I were one of the GFTU’s 700,000 members reading through this report, I would have had no inkling that the above remark was a veiled dig at the Gasworkers’ Union until Curran gave his reply. Verbatim reports of their annual meetings were compiled with a fastidious reliability that justified their membership fees and entrenched their legitimacy. However, the undercurrent of the strong emotional fractures still weaves through the words of the eighty-five delegates in 1909. This interests me for two reasons: it challenges the picture of orderliness and uniformity that the GFTU were attempting to paint, and also indicates that there is another layer of emotional communication that can illustrate the dynamism of their organisation.
The idea of looking at the emotions behind the British labour movement is not new. In fact, E. P. Thompson’s oft-quoted definition of class includes the idea that a person must ‘feel’ their class through their shared common experiences. So far, identifying and considering the role of emotions in the early twentieth century labour movement has been largely kept in the background, which probably has something to do with traditional labour historiography fearing that emotions are some kind of rationality kryptonite. Bringing the history of the working class out from the shadows of Great Kings and Noble Men brought with it the need to make it rational, appropriate, and acceptable. Thankfully, historical feelings and emotions are now being explored in wider depth, and labour historians are joining in.
It isn’t simply the odd barbed comment thrown across the room at a delegate that didn’t support a call for militancy that highlights the presence of emotions; there is also an emotional rulebook in the culture of trade unions, which was underpinned by the enormous amounts of paperwork that they generated. The GFTU at this time had 120 affiliated societies, which brought together disparate ideologies that ranged from ardent Liberalism to full-throttle revolutionary socialism. Forming and maintaining unity required rules of conduct, which went beyond the usual social norms of the early twentieth century and operated on a particular level of emotional acceptability; no rallying cries for a guillotine were allowed, but certain careful but genuine phrases allowed emotional persuasiveness to enter proceedings. Delegates were ‘given hearty welcomes’ and assured that the ‘feeling and spirit grows’ so that ‘every part [of the labour movement] becomes stronger’. Dissent was voiced with feelings of ‘regret that the conference should consider…’, ‘astonishment that our Chairman would say…’ and annoyance at ‘too much humour’ being used for serious discussions. There was ‘deepest regret’ over their Treasurer’s illness, which called for ‘the sympathy of the whole Conference [to] go out to him’ and that the conference ‘move… that a letter of sympathy be sent from this Federation’ to express their feelings. This collective expression of sympathy through a formal communication was then voted on and agreed to unanimously, as if the feeling of sympathy had to be legitimised and formalised in order for it to be real. The moral pressure to vote for official sympathy produced a unanimously carried motion.
Curran ended the conference by declaring that ‘apart from one or two manifestations of warmth’ the conference had been ‘the best Conference [they] have had’. I would argue that the ‘warmth’ Curran could have done without was a key part of how the GFTU brought together such a variety of organisations in search of a common cause. There had to be emotional jostling – feelings of annoyance, pride, acceptance or anger – in order for delegates to voice the opinions and concerns of their unions. That they did so in an acceptable manner, with an emotional phrase book, and an implied framework of acceptability designed not just by their wider social environment, but by their specific trade union culture, highlights the crucial role that collective emotions played in the GFTU.
This is one small case study, with many paths not yet taken. For instance, it seems that referring to fellow delegates as ‘brothers’ must have been intended to convey familiarity and solidarity, but it is doubtful that Mary Macarthur shared that feeling when she joined the GFTU. I’m intrigued by the colour that emotions add to the fabric of trade unionism, with sub-committees and delegations becoming arenas for enthusiasm, sorrow and hope for change. The potential for emotions history to offer a new insight into what was already a period of profound change is vast.
At least, that’s the way it feels to me.
About the author: Edda Nicolson is a PhD student at the University of Wolverhampton. Her PhD thesis explores the early years of the General Federation of Trade Unions, and she broadly interested in the labour movement of the twentieth century. Her current work centres on emotions in the trade union movement.