At the end of the 1970s the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) had a membership of over 2,100,000 making it the largest British trade union of the 20th century. TGWU members represented one in five trade unionists in employment. As a general union they were to be found in all walks of life, from car workers to dockers to cleaners. What held the union together was a genuine sense of solidarity and determination to pursue the best interests of all working people across the country.
The founding general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, Ernest Bevin, dominated and shaped his union and held office for over 30 years until 1955, although his involvement in the National Government during World War 2 meant that Arthur Deakin was acting General Secretary from 1940-1945. Deakin went on to be General Secretary until 1955.
Bevin and Deakin were authoritarian, strongly anti-communist, and saw the role of trade unions within a capitalist economic framework. If we put aside the brief tenure of Jack Tiffin who died prematurely in 1955, the next two general secretaries, Frank Cousins and Jack Jones, came from a very different position, left-wing, democratic, challenging the political establishment and campaigning for a better world.
In many ways, even in the days of Deakin’s tenure, the TGWU was always a campaigning union that usually looked beyond the narrow remit of collective, bargaining and protecting its members’ interests, to larger social and political issues and the labour movement as a whole. These issues speak of a more egalitarian, inclusive, socially just society, in which campaigns such as arms conversion, equal pay, challenging low pay, opposing privatisation, supporting workers in the public sector, industrial democracy, pensioners’ rights, health and safety and many others lay at the heart of trade union policy.
Perhaps the best way to characterise the TGWU is to offer the following examples:
- Equal pay. In 1968 the female Ford sewing machinists, TGWU members in Dagenham, campaigned for equal pay and got it.
- Regulation of employment. The TGWU led a campaign for the regulation of the practices of ‘gangmasters’, suppliers of cheap often migrant labour, following the tragic drowning of 13 Chinese cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay in 2004.
- Arms conversion. In the 1970s and 1980s the TGWU along with other unions became interested in ideas for converting areas of the defence industry to alternative socially useful forms of production. Their pamphlet produced in 1983, A better future, is emblematic of this policy.
- Pensioners. Jack Jones when General Secretary of the TGWU campaigned on behalf of pensioners within the union and continued to campaign after his retirement.
- Unemployment. The TGWU was a major supporter of Trade Union Unemployment Resource Centres, which aimed to bring the unemployed into the ambit of the trade union movement, and break their marginalised status.
- Anti-fascism and anti-racism. Bill Morris, General Secretary of the TGWU from 1992 to 2003 was the first black leader of a British trade union and as such was a living testimony to the union’s implacable opposition to racism. From a more positive perspective the TGWU was one of the most active unions in recruiting and organising members among ethnic minorities and encouraging black activists to play an increasing role in the life of the union. Witness the successful campaign by House of Commons cleaners for a living wage in February 2006, and the Gourmet Gate catering workers at Heathrow airport in August 2005.
- Shrewsbury trials and trade union recognition. In 1972 the TGWU along with UCATT supported selective strikes by workers in the building trade in the Shrewsbury area. The central issue of the dispute was getting rid of the ‘lump’ – an arrangement in which sub-contractors casually employed people, offering no trade union or employment rights. Famously Ricky Tomlinson, later of The Royle Family, was one of the people imprisoned for his legitimate involvement in this campaign.
The union amalgamated with Amicus in 2007 to form UNITE the Union.
Archive material about the TGWU
Transport and General Workers Union (TU/TRANSPORT)
The records are mainly uncatalogued and include annual report and balance sheets (1946-1984) and the papers of H Holland of Area 6 (1947-1955)
Resources about the TGWU in the library collection
Geoffrey Goodman, Brother Frank - the man and the union (1969) - Shelfmark: B10
Joseph Goldstein, The government of British Trade Unions: a study of apathy and the democratic process in the Transport and General Worker's Union (1952) - Shelfmark: B49
Ken Coates and Tony Topham, The history of the Transport and General Workers' Union, 2 vols (1991) - Shelfmark: J02
Andrew Murray, The T&G story: a history of the Transport and General Workers Union 1922-2007 (2008) - Shelfmark: I50
- The record: a journal devoted to the interests of all Transport and General Workers - Vol 16 Nos 181-183 (Oct-Dec 1936); Vol 16 Nos 185, 186 (Feb, Mar 1937) AF Transport Periodicals A-Z
- Transport and General Workers record – 1957-1960 (not complete) – Shelfmark: AB Periodicals main sequence
- TGWU record - 1963-1969; 1971-1979; 1981-Aug 1983 - Shelfmark: S49
- T&G record - Sep 1983-1987; 1991-1996
Resources held by the Modern Records Centre
Other records are held at the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick:
Transport and General Workers' Union (MSS.126/TGW, MSS.787/TGW)