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The Trade Union Movement

Throughout the 20th century working class movements and particularly trade unions became more influential. When it came to decisive moments in Britain's history, were trade unions just a noisy pressure group or did they really influence the way government thought and acted?

Review the context material and investigate sources across this time period. Use this knowledge to find your own answers to the question presented in the writing frame tool.

1920s context and selected sources

Picketers during the Dock Strike of 1924.

Britain's economy was going through major changes. The big staple industries such as coal, steel, shipbuilding and textiles faced stiff foreign competition.

Look at the role of trade unions and their relations with the main political parties in this period.

1931 context and selected sources

A scene from a Conservative party political broadcast from 1931 called The Right Spirit.

With Britain in the grip of an economic depression and having failed to unite his own party, Ramsay MacDonald resigned as Britain's first Labour Prime Minister. MacDonald was then asked by the King to form a cross-party National Government to tackle the crisis.

Investigate the impact of MacDonald's policies on ordinary workers and British politics.

1930s context and selected sources

Part of a 1938 Trades Union Congress (TUC) poster encouraging workers to join-up.

During the Depression many people lost their jobs and faced poverty. Trade unions tried hard to represent the views of the workers to the government.

Consider how far the unions really influenced governments in this period.

1950 - 1964 context and selected sources

In 1947 a union official addresses London dockers. In the post-war years efforts were made by the unions to recruit new workers coming into British industry.

Britain faced many new challenges after the end of the Second World War. In order to tackle them, the main political parties agreed to consensus.

Look at the role of trade unions and their relations with the main political parties in this period.

1960s and 1970s context and selected sources

In 1979 trade unionist and shop steward Derek Robinson (Red Robbo) demonstrates against his sacking by British Leyland.

Political consensus began to break down. Social, economic and technological change brought benefits but also tensions between unions, employers and government.

See what the cabinet papers reveal about the strength of trade unions during this period of change.

Further reading

  • Wrigley, C., British Trade Unions since 1933 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)
  • O'Morgan, K., The People's Peace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987)
  • Orwell, G., The Road to Wigan Pier. New edn. (London: Penguin, 2001)