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The General Federation of Trade Unions – 120 years old and getting stronger

The Star looks at the unique contribution the GFTU, umbrella organisation of the class struggle in Britain, has made to building the institutional strength of our movement

THE digital archives of the GFTU, retained by the Bishopsgate Institute, reveal a forgotten world of solidarity among industrial trade unions that very much shaped the culture of Britain.

The distinguished historian Dr Alice Prochaska wrote the first history of the GFTU in 1980 and revealed the indispensable support hundreds of small GFTU affiliates gave to each other for decades.

The GFTU was often the sole source of financial support in employers’ lockouts or when trade unionists were victimised and made unemployed.

It established a pension scheme for trade union officials, which is still in existence today, and extensive research and education services, grants and bursaries for study or when members were in hardship.

The GFTU’s current PhD researcher is focusing on how the GFTU was able to campaign on so many issues over the years — for instance, in winning support, employment and re-education for returning WWI soldiers 100 years ago.

Along with the TUC, the GFTU was the key player in forming the Labour Representation Committee, which went on to form the Labour Party.

Its walls are graced by elaborate certificates of thanks from grateful unions that would not otherwise have survived the brutal assaults of employers in the early 20th century without the financial and political support of the GFTU.

Great labour movement figures like Thorne, Curran, Tillett, McArthy, and Mary Quaile were associated with its early formation and a huge photograph in its HQ of the 1909 CIO conference in Toronto reminds us that for years the GFTU was the organiser of international solidarity for the whole British trade union movement.

The organisation still retains a strong internationalist spirit and discusses international issues at every executive committee meeting and sends youth and other delegations overseas to study events, as in most recently a visit to Venezuela and Poland.

Current GFTU president John Smith, former general secretary of the Musicians’ Union and now leader of the International Federation of Musicians, highlighted the imaginative cultural work the GFTU has done.

“There’s more than one way to stir the hearts and minds of people to join unions, sustain them and win campaigns, and arts and cultural work play a crucial role in this. Without roses there is no bread,” he says.

“We held the biggest trade union arts festival in recent times, encouraging cultural workers across the genres to trade unionise, network and work with new audiences and enrich union education and campaigning.

“We also held a cultural festival with Britain’s Kurdish communities with performers and Kurdish political speakers from throughout the world.

“We have brought to attention for the first time some brilliant plays about key moments in trade union struggles. And what better way to celebrate our 120th year than with our programme of films at the Home cinema in Manchester on the theme of women organising.

“Trade unions must touch all aspects of life and consciousness and our cultural work is transformative for those involved. Arts should be used more in trade union education and we have completely revised our face-to-face trade union education programmes and the principles on which they are based.”

GFTU general secretary Doug Nicholls said he was proud of the forward-looking nature of the organisation these days.

“We have done a range of things to deepen the thought and impact of trade unionism.

“Not only have we got over 50 practical, money-saving new services for affiliates, but if these services are used then the income generated is used to sustain more free education for members and other forms of support.

“We are reinventing the kind of mutuality and co-operative model that gave birth to unions in the first place. We are investing our cash in our own assets, not the banks.

“We are also literally building with bricks and mortar, and apart from creating new learning spaces, we are building new rooms at our hotel and conference centre so that trade unions and their members can enjoy quality accommodation and food and service in a relaxing country setting, knowing that their expenditure is recirculated back into the movement.

“Where else do you find unions setting up a publishing company for trade unionists which has published such exciting books as we have?

“Our next book, with a foreword by Jeremy Corbyn, is in graphic novel format and celebrates the history of working people’s struggles for rights and democracy and peace. It is aimed at counteracting the disappearance of history from the trade union and school curriculum.

“Our executive studies carefully and visits trade union movements in other countries and we were very struck by how the Australian and New Zealand trade unions had to rebuild.

“We are conscious and strategic about growing the unions and supporting new ones. Every affiliate, whatever their membership size, has a seat on our executive, and we hold every other year a very engaging union-building conference which over the last four years has helped several new organisations get recognised.

“We are simply not going to regrow the movement by poaching from each other and standing still in a complacent shadow of past glories.”

Oshor Williams of the Professional Footballers Association who becomes the GFTU’s first Bame president this week commented: “This is a critical moment for the movement. Twenty-six million workers are not in trade unions. Collective bargaining is down to around 20 per cent.

“But if you look at the unions with the highest membership density and engagement and the most extensive collective bargaining coverage, they are in the GFTU.

“Our affiliates have a generosity of spirit, not a parochialism. We are sharing the positive experiences of those well established supporting the development of new and developing trade unions, often those starting from scratch.

“We have consciously sought to build a new generation of leaders and our young members’ events each year have done that brilliantly.

“Our training support for union officials and now our forming of the trailblazer group to introduce an apprenticeship for trade union officials and our new ways of training trade union trainers all show we are as pioneering as our predecessors.”

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