The Webbs on the development on the trade union bureaucracy

Submitted by Janine on 5 November, 2011 - 6:50

This brief extract from Beatrice and Sidney Webb's 'The History of Trade Unionism' (1894) describes how trade unions became controlled by professionals. We would not share the Webbs' approval of this development, but their description is illuminating!

You can read the eBook here.

Meanwhile the steady growth of national Unions, each with three to five thousand members, ever-increasing friendly benefits, and a weekly contribution per member which sometimes exceeded a shilling, involved a considerable development of Trade Union structure. The little clubs and local societies had been managed, in the main, by men working at their trades, and attending to their secretarial duties in the evening. With the growth of such national organisations as the Stonemasons, the Ironmoulders, and the Steam-Engine Makers, the mere volume of business necessitated the appointment of one of the members to devote his whole time to the correspondence and accounts. But the new official, however industrious and well-meaning, found upon his hands a task for which neither his education nor his temperament had fitted him. The archives of these societies reveal the pathetic struggles of inexperienced workmen to cope with the difficulties presented by the combination of branch management and centralised finance. The disbursement of friendly benefits by branch, meetings, the custody and remittance of the funds, the charges for local expenses (including "committee liquor"), the mysteries of bookkeeping, and the intricacies of audit all demanded a new body of officers specially selected for and exclusively engaged in this work. During these years we watch a shifting of leadership in the Trade Union world from the casual enthusiast and irresponsible agitator to a class of permanent salaried officers expressly chosen from out of the rank and file of Trade Unionists for their superior business capacity. But besides the daily work of administration, the expansion of local societies into organisations of national extent, and the transformation of loose federations into consolidated unions, involved the difficult process of constitution-making.

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