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TUC 150th Providing solidarity since 1868

LYNN COLLINS looks at the history of the building which housed the the first TUC Congress 150 years ago

The Mechanics Institute is a grade II-listed building and is best known as the birthplace of the TUC. The Co-operative Insurance Society was also founded in the building and the University of Manchester and the Manchester Metropolitan University also had their beginnings there.

The small Manchester Mechanics Institute was established in 1824 entirely through private initiative and funds to teach “young men the application of science to mechanical and manufacturing art.”

By 1837 they were also offering classes for women, recognising that women had a right to “enjoy a similar education with males” — but, remember this was 1837, the classes included preparation for the “high responsibilities devolved upon them,” principally “the superior management of the household.”

The institute flourished and grew out of its first two buildings, finally moving to Princess Street in 1856. The building contained a large lecture theatre, classrooms, news room and library, which had over 12,000 volumes.

To mark the opening, an Exhibition of Arts and Manufacturers, which attracted 270,000 visitors, was held — and the funds the raised helped pay off part of the £20,000 it cost to build.

Following nearly three decades of success, the expansion of municipal provision of adult education replaced much of what the Mechanics had offered, so it became a technical school and part of Manchester Corporation’s education service.

The technical school, eventually relocated to larger premises on Sackville Street in 1902 and grew into UMIST, now a major part of the University of Manchester.

The building then housed a day training college to train teachers in the early 20th century and Ellen Wilkinson, the famous Manchester socialist who became an MP and government minister, was a graduate.

From 1917 until the 1960s it was the Municipal High School of Commerce and subsequently the College of Commerce. What is now the Manchester Metropolitan University can also trace its roots back to both the original Mechanics Institute and the College of Commerce.

When the College of Commerce moved out in 1966, the building stood empty. In 1968 the TUC, as part of its centenary celebrations, put up the plaque on the outside, but there were no plans to use the building.

For many years local trade unionists campaigned for the building to be rescued and eventually, after many years of campaigning and an imaginative cocktail of funding — including the last cheque signed by the treasurer of the Greater Manchester County Council before it was abolished by Thatcher — was the final piece in the jigsaw, and work was undertaken to reopen the building in its present form in 1988.

The National Museum of Labour History occupied the first two floors and the upper part of building is leased by the Mechanics Centre Trust.

The Trust exists to promote the history of the building and its importance to the trade union movement. It also has a trading arm that offers conference and meeting room facilities.

The first TUC Congress may have been 150 years ago but the agenda and debates are ones that modern day trade unionists are still having, albeit in a very different world of work.

Arguing that trade unions are an absolute necessity is still an absolute necessity in a world where global capital seeks to buy labour for the lowest possible price and individualise the employment relationship. So, rightly, we celebrate all of our modern-day victories to achieve trade union recognition, including most recently for pilots working for Ryanair.

Recognising the importance of technical education is so relevant today, when further education colleges are seeing their budgets cut, and workplace inspections are needed as much today in a working world not of looms and cogs, but of deadlines, unrealistic targets, insecure employment and constant change over which only organised workers can take back control.

Workers in our region, where the TUC was born, know only too well the absolute necessity of trade unions.

Bakers union members in Hovis fought off precarious working practices with their solidarity and action.

Train drivers and guards throughout our region know the importance of defending a safe railway system, and postal workers have shown that with strong union organisation and a collective voice at work, better pay and conditions can be achieved.

The TUC in north-west England has a vital role to play in supporting north-west workers in their collective struggles.

We bring unions together to unite in strength around common campaigns. Public-sector unions, for instance, have shown that working together we can be strongest.

We offer solidarity and support to workers taking action on whatever scale, whether it be the small chiropody department who fought against downgrading of their staff, or industry and sector-wide action that affects thousands of workers.

If unions ask for our support we give it and we recognise, just as those 34 who gathered at the Mechanics Institute on June 2 1868, that changing the world of work can’t just be done on a piecemeal basis.

That first Congress was called to ensure that trade unions, united and organising when not in dispute, could count on the strength and solidarity of our movement when workers took action.

In 2018 our movement does look different than in 1868 and rightly so.

We now recruit more women than men into unions and we have made progress on ensuring our structures reflect the diversity of our movement, but we have so much more to do.

We need to ensure that our movement is accessible to working people whoever and wherever they are. That means challenging ourselves to be better and different.

We need to ensure trade unions are organising where workers now work, that we keep our movement free of any sexism, racism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination, and that we welcome everyone to play a part in our movement, by ensuring our structures are fit for purpose.

This year’s is an anniversary we should rightly celebrate but it must be a turning point too. Trade unions need to begin to grow again both in size and in coverage, to reach new workplaces and forge new alliances to ensure that we campaign for and get great jobs for all workers.

With 150 years of inspiration behind us, we have all to win in the next 150.

Lynn Collins is TUC North West regional secretary. This article is drawn from the pamphlet An Outline History, produced by the Mechanics Centre Trust from an earlier article by Ruth and Eddie Frow.

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