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1927 Trade Disputes Act

1927 Trade Disputes Act

As a result of the 1926 General Strike, the Conservative Government passed the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act. This legislation outlawed general strikes and sympathetic strikes, and banned civil servants from joining unions affiliated to the Trade Union Congress. This act also hurt the Labour Party by forcing union members to make a positive decision to pay a levy to a political party. Instead of "contracting out" as stipulated by the 1913 Trade Union Act, union members had to "contract in". As a result of this legislation, the Labour Party lost about a third of its subscriptions.


Restrictions on strike action

The Act declared unlawful secondary action and any strike whose purpose was to coerce the government of the day directly or indirectly. These provisions were declaratory insofar as such strikes had already been ruled unlawful by Astbury, J in the National Sailors' and Firemen's Union v Reed. [1] The Act reaffirmed his judgment and gave it the force of statute law. In addition, incitement to participate in an unlawful strike was made a criminal offence, punishable by imprisonment for up to two years and the attorney general was empowered to sequester the assets and funds of unions involved in such strikes. [2]


Section 3 of the Act declared unlawful mass picketing which gave rise to the intimidation of a worker. [3]

Political levy

Section 4 of the Act mandated trade union members to contract-in to any political levy which their union made on their behalf. This resulted in an 18% fall in the income of the Labour Party, which was heavily reliant upon union funding. [4]

Civil service unions

Section 5 of the Act enjoined civil service unions from affiliation to the TUC and forbade them from having political objects. [5]


The Act was particularly resented by the trade union movement and the Labour Party. Indeed, one Labour MP described it as "a vindictive Act, and one of the most spiteful measures that was ever placed upon the Statute Book". [ 6 ] The second minority Labour government introduced a bill to repeal various provisions of the Act in 1931 [ 7 ] which was not passed. The Act was eventually repealed by section 1 of the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act 1946. [ 8 ]

After the election of Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party reintroduced their ban on secondary action, first with restrictions in the Employment Act 1980 and finally banning it altogether in the Employment Act 1990 . This is now codified in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.

1927 Trade Disputes Act - History

It is easy to underestimate the significance of British trade unions in the 1950s. Unlike the previous decades, the events in which the trade union movement was prominent have hardly passed into British collective memory. Indeed, the Conservatives' victory in the three general elections, 1951, 1955 and 1959, have usually been interpreted as being evidence of trade unions' marginalisation in British life. It is Suez and the Angry Young Men and Harold Macmillan's epigram, 'You've never had it so good', which come to mind rather than the activities of the nine million men and women who were union members.(1)

In fact, the three Conservative Prime Ministers of the 1950s, Churchill, Eden and Macmillan, were all strongly committed to maintaining the good relations with the trade union movement, which the previous Labour government had developed. Churchill appointed the popular and very charming Sir Walter Monckton as his Minister of Labour and took care to ensure that Monckton was able to pursue his job without worrying about any reaction from the backbenches against 'cosying up' to the unions. Conservative Central Office had been traumatised by the size of the Labour vote in 1945, which had held up very well in 1950 and 1951. A high-level decision was taken that Conservatives not only had to respond to working class concerns, but be seen to respond and take trade unions, their representative institutions, seriously. This approach was continued under Eden and Macmillan, who were actually even more strongly committed to close co-operation with unions.

Perhaps the most tangible evidence of this was their refusal, despite pressure from their backbenches and constituency organisations, to re-enact the 1927 Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act. When doubts were expressed, the continuing high level of union membership was cited as ample proof of unions' continuing strength. Moreover, the eye-catching recruiting leaflets on the web-site show that unions were far from complacent. Union officials and activists were well aware of the challenges posed to their collective morale and coherence by the full employment of the 1950s. They recognised the new conditions in postwar Britain and looked for ways to adapt union organisation to them. Unions became serious modernisers, concerned to become more inclusive and to respond to the new needs of the workforce.

Employment in manufacturing had risen to an all-time peak of 39% of the workforce in 1951, and it remained at a high level throughout the decade.(2) Facing chronic labour shortages, employers began to adapt working conditions to attract women with childcare responsibilities back to work. Unions responded by mounting recruiting campaigns targetting women, and creating new internal institutions to ensure women's voices could be heard and reflected in union policy. Whilst these efforts did not succeed in increasing female membership, the historically high level of 25% organisation reached in 1945 was maintained.(3) Union officials and activists also made strenuous efforts to interest young people in unions and involve them in union activity. Trade union education expanded, and the TUC itself took the lead in many areas as the photo of a TUC course on production problems shows. Unions also organised a wide range of activities to cater for their members' leisure time interests. These included cycling speed trials, amateur athletics competitions, swimming meetings and amateur boxing events. Other unions were often invited to send their members to compete, and a keen rivalry between between unions who competed for members on the shopfloor, (e.g., the AEU and the TGWU), was reflected in the accounts of these sporting occasions which appeared in union journals.

Another important postwar development was the increased interest amongst white-collar workers, in both the public and private sectors, in trade unionism. No doubt impressed by the advances being won by manual workers, enterprising and idealistic young members of white-collar unions inaugurated ambitious recruiting campaigns and made plans for a new kind of union organisation which would cater for the particular needs of specialist, expert and professional workers. These efforts provided important foundations for the future growth of white-collar unions in the 1960s.

A notable difference between the British trade union movement and its western European and North American counterparts was the comparative lack of internal political conflict. In the 1950s, cold war divisions, which had threatened to pre-occupy union activists in the late 1940s, largely disappeared from view. Even the unexpected events inside the Soviet Communist Party and the Hungarian revolution in 1956 failed to re-open serious divisions. The Transport and General Workers Union prohibition on communists holding full-time and lay union office was effectively ignored at the shopfloor level. The TGWU's general secretary from 1956, Frank Cousins, was a man of the left. His election by a large majority in a full membership ballot was seen as clear evidence that the TGWU's turn to the right under Arthur Deakin had been temporary. Cousins steered the TGWU back to the left-of-centre ground. His high profile speeches at successive Trades Union Congresses declared a willingness to treat with the Conservative government on incomes policy, provided it moved towards a democratically planned economy in which wages had equal claim with profits to the surplus generated by industry.(4)

In the late 1950s, the weakening pace of economic growth presented a new dilemma for unions and government. Manufacturing employers were increasingly unwilling to concede wage increases and better conditions in the face of falling profits. Their representatives warned the government that they expected support for their resistance to union demands which they considered irresponsible and undermining for Britain's competitive position in the world market. Whilst the government was anxious to support industrialists, they were also unwilling to be seen to be unresponsive to unions' concerns. For its part, the union leadership was well aware that members expected continuing improvements in their standard of living. The sharp recession of 1956 presented the recurrence of a deeply worrying problem, unemployment. In late June, the British Motor Corporation made six thousand workers at its Longbridge factory redundant without either pay or notice. The shop stewards' committee responded by calling a strike, which lasted for six weeks, strongly supported by Frank Cousins, despite the fact that it was the engineering union, the AEU, whose shop stewards had taken the lead.

In March 1957, national strikes in shipbuilding and engineering produced what the Observer described as 'the most serious crisis since 1926' in industrial relations. The government successfully applied strong pressure on the employers to concede substantial wage increases. The AEU emerged with a renewed reputation for militancy and an increased membership. Young men who had hitherto taken little interest in union affairs were now drawn into the union's sub-culture and eventually became shop stewards and branch officials. In June 1958, Frank Cousins took charge of a bus strike on London Transport which he had done his best to avoid. This time, however, the government were determined to have a confrontation with the unions in order to restore their own credibility as being willing to face up to the need for industry (including the publicly owned London Transport) to live within its means. Having been careful to settle a pay claim from the railway workers, including those on the London Underground, first, the government was confident of being able to ride out the strike. This they did, despite the fact that Cousins had great difficulty in persuading busworkers to return to work without having received any meaningful concessions.(5)

Even though the government had won this high-profile victory against the TGWU, Macmillan refused to follow up this advantage. Renewed pressure for legislation to render unions more responsible to their members and in the conduct of collective bargaining was resisted by the Cabinet and Conservative Central Office, reinforced by the Ministry of Labour. The trade union movement was still viewed as being a moderate force and a symbol of Britain's uniquely successful democratic institutions. And the TUC's new general secretary, George Woodcock, who took office in September 1960, certainly intended to ensure that unions continued to live up to this image. Though keen to make some prudent internal reforms of unions' own institutions, Woodcock was confident that British unions would endure, because they were mostly doing a good job of representing their members.

Professor Nina Fishman, Senior Lecturer, History, University of Westminster, School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Languages

(1) Figures for union membership can be found in British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, Vol. I, The Postwar Compromise, 1945-64, eds. John McIlroy, Nina Fishman, and Alan Campbell, published by Ashgate, Aldershot UK, 1999 (pp.103-4).

Trade Unions

Union, membership, strike, war, post-war, movement, increase and council

As a consequence of these various influences, between the early days of the war and the year 1'92o, the membership of trade unions doubled, reaching the figure of 8,337,00o, of whom 00o were men and 1,342,000 were women. During this time the number of women trade unionists was actually trebled. Similarly, there had been phenomenal increases in the membership of unions catering for the less skilled workers. Before the war, what are known as the general labour unions had already become factors of some importance in the trade union movement. During the war period, their strength increased rapidly. The number of organised non-manual employees also rose much above the pre-war level.

But just as rising wages are closely followed by a rise in the curve of trade union membership, so unemployment and falling wages are accompanied by a decline in it. The onset of the grave trade depression after the temporary post-war boom led to a decline of trade union membership amounting to 20.6% in the first 12 months, and a further 15.2% in 1922, the total roll of trade unionists falling in two years from 8,337,00o to 5,616,000. The net loss on the previous year's figure was less than 4%, whilst during 1924 there was a net increase.

The backwash of the trade depression, and the disillusionment which followed the shattered dreams of post-war "reconstruction" had spent themselves. The trade union movement had shed the temporary passengers, and those who entered its ranks through the abnormal influences of the war and early post-war periods and a definite attempt to stem the tide and re-create a powerful trade union movement had begun to take effect. The established minimum trade union membership may be taken as being about 5+ millions, an increase of over a million on the figures of 1913.

From 1924 onward the general council of the Trades Union congress has pursued a policy of propaganda, first by means of a national "back to the unions" campaign and then by special activities with a view to the spread of trade unionism amongst women and agricultural workers respectively, whilst individual unions, though impoverished as the result of the long depression, renewed their efforts to secure an increasing membership. But the efforts which were made to increase trade union membership met with a rebuff as a consequence of the National Strike of 1926, which led to a shrinkage of membership. Since then, how ever, organising activities have been resumed with the result that members are being recovered. After 1926, the trade unions

were far more concerned with rehabilitating their membership and finances than with the formulation of new demands. Indeed, their negotiations were primarily directed towards defending exist ing standards. The weak negotiating position of the unions was one of the reasons for the lull in industrial stoppages after the settlement of the miners' dispute in 1926, whilst it was a con tributing factor in the acceptance of the idea of the "Mond Turner" discussions. The ebb and flow of direct action since the war is reflected in the table above (p. 378).

The broad distribution of trade union membership amongst the various industries is shown in the table on page 381.

1 All rules of a trade union made and approved in accordance with the requirements of section three of the [2 & 3 Geo. 5. c. 30.] Trade Union Act, 1913 (in this Schedule referred to as " the Act of 1913 ") as amended by the Act of 1927, shall be amended so as to conform to the requirements of the Act of 1913 as originally enacted and to provide for giving the notice to members hereafter in this Schedule mentioned, and as so amended shall be approved by the Registrar of Friendly Societies (in this Schedule referred to as " the Registrar ") within six months after the commencement of this Act or within such further time as the Registrar may in special circumstances allow and if the Registrar is satisfied and certifies that rules for the purpose of complying with the provisions of this paragraph have been approved by the executive or other governing body of a trade union he may approve those rules and those rules shall thereupon have effect as rules of the union, notwithstanding that the provisions of the rules of the union as to the alteration of rules or the making of new rules have not been complied with.

2 Upon the rules of any trade union made for the purposes of the last foregoing paragraph being approved by the Registrar, notice shall, in accordance with the rules, be given to the members of the union acquainting them that each member has a right to be exempt from contributing to the political fund of the union and that a form of exemption notice can be obtained by or on behalf of a member either by application at or by post from the head office or any branch office of the union or from the office of the Registrar, and if within one month after the notice given to members in accordance with the foregoing provisions of this Schedule any member of the trade union gives notice in accordance with the provisions of the Act of 1913 of his objection to contribute, the exemption conferred upon him by that Act shall, in lieu of taking effect as from the first day of January next after the notice is given, take effect as from the date on which the member's notice is given.

3 Notwithstanding anything in this Act, no member of a trade union shall, until the expiration of one month after notice has been given to members in accordance with the provisions of the last foregoing paragraph, be required to contribute to the political fund of the trade union unless he is a person who might lawfully have been required to do so if this Act had not been passed.

4 Notwithstanding anything in subsection (1) of section three of the Act of 1913, the fact that rules of a trade union have not been amended as required by paragraph 1 of this Schedule or approved by the Registrar shall not prevent the application, so long as the period limited by or under that paragraph for approval of the amended rules has not expired, of funds of the union to political objects to which the said section three applies.

(IGP) IAS Pre: GS - Indian History - Modern Indian History: Labour Movement

1. The earliest labour leaders were Sasipada Banerjee of Bengal, S.S. Bengalee of Mumbaiand N.M. Lokhanday of Mumbai.

2. First labour organization was Working Men’sClub founded in 1870 by Sasipada Banerjee at Kolkata. Sasipada Banerjee published the journal Bharat Sramjeevi.

3. N.M. Lokhandav could be regarded as the first leader of the Indian workers. In 1890 hefounded Mumbai Mill hands Association and protested against the poor conditions in the factories. He published the journal Dinbandhu.

4. Other important workers organization were the Kamgar Hitavardhak Sabhan (1909), the Social Service League (1911), Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants of India (1897), Printers Union of Kolkata (1905) Postal Union inMumbai.

5. The Chennai Labour Union, founded in 1918by B.P.Wadia was perhaps the first trade union organization of Indian on modern lines.

6. On Oct. 31, 1920 All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), which was influenced by the Social Democratic ideas of British labour party. It was also influenced by moderates like N.M.Joshi.

7. The first session of AITUC was held in Mumbai. Lala Lajpat Rai was the President & Dewam Cham Lal was the Secretary.

8. First session was attended by C.R. Das, V.V. Giri, J.L. Nehru, S.C. Bose, Sarojini Naidu, Satyamurti and C.F. Andrew.

9. Gandhi founded Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association also known as Majdur Mahajan in1918-20.

10. A Giri Kamgar Mahamandal was founded by A.A. Alve and G.R. Kasle in Mumbai. This emerged as Girni Kamgar Union in 1928 under thecommunists.

11. Split took place in AITUC in 1929 session which was presided over by J.L. Nehru over the issue of affiliation and issue of boycott of royal commission on labour.

12. In 1929 AITUC was divided into two groups.

  • The Reformers called Geneva Amsterdum Group, which wanted affiliation with the International Federation of Trade Unions.
  • The Revolutionary or Moscovite Group which wanted affiliation with Red Labour Union (RITU).
  • AITUC was affiliated to pan-pacific secretariate and to the Third International.

13. In protest N.M. Joshi withdrew and formed All India Trade Union Federation in 1929. V.V. Giri was its first president.

14. Second split took place in 1931 and Red Trade Union Congress was founded.

15. In 1933, N.M. Joshi & R.R. Bakhle founded National Trade Union Federation.

16. Unity was restored in AITUC in 1940.

17. A pro-government Union was founded IndianFederation of Labour.

18. Indian National Trade Union Congress was founded in 1944 by Nationalist leaders led by Sardar Vallabhabhai Patel.

The British Trade Disputes Act of 1927

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Past Prime Ministers

3 August 1867, Bewdley, Worcesterhire

14 December 1947, Stourport-on-Severn, Worcestershire

Dates in office

1935 to 1937, 1924 to 1929, 1923 to 1924

Political party

Major acts

Trade Disputes Act 1927: following General Strike, introduced to limit powers and of trade union movement. Affected funding of Labour party too.

Government of India Act 1935: gave limited powers of self-government. Heavily opposed by Winston Churchill.

Public Order Act 1936: introduced to deal with street disturbances following marches by supporters of British Union Fascists and their opponents.

Interesting facts

He served under 3 monarchs.

“There is no country … where there are not somewhere lovers of freedom who look to this country to carry the torch and keep it burning bright until such time as they may again be able to light their extinguished torches at our flame. We owe it not only to our own people but to the world to preserve our soul for that.”

Stanley Baldwin had a double inheritance. His father’s family were wealthy industrialists and he helped his father create what was, from 1902, one of Britain’s largest iron and steel firms, Baldwins Ltd. His mother’s family had artistic and literary interests: his uncles included the artists Sir Edward Burne-Jones and Sir Edward Poynter, and Rudyard Kipling was a cousin.

His father, Alfred Baldwin, was also Conservative MP for West Worcestershire (Bewdley) from 1892. On Alfred’s death in 1908, Stanley succeeded him as MP. His business experience helped his appointment as Financial Secretary of the Treasury in 1917, in David Lloyd George’s wartime coalition government. Concerned at the financial costs of the war, under the false name of ‘FST’ in a 1919 letter in The Times he appealed for voluntary donations by the rich to help reduce the war debt. He himself gave a fifth of his own wealth.

In 1921 he entered the Cabinet as President of the Board of Trade, but in October 1922 he played a leading part in a Conservative rebellion that overthrew the coalition government and the premiership of Lloyd George. In Andrew Bonar Law’s Conservative government he became Chancellor of the Exchequer.

When Bonar Law retired through illness in May 1923, Baldwin became Prime Minister. Determined to help reduce unemployment, he called a general election in November to seek support for a policy of trade protection. Failing to retain a majority, his government resigned in January 1924. Its replacement, the first Labour government also lacked an overall majority and, after it was defeated in another general election in October 1924, he returned as Prime Minister.

His second Conservative government was responsible for several notable achievements: the Locarno non-aggression pact, expansion of pensions and house building, local government reform and extending the right to vote to women aged over 21. Baldwin’s particular concern was to reduce social tensions and secure industrial peace. Although faced by the General Strike in May 1926, his combination of firmness and conciliation guaranteed its defeat.

After the Conservatives lost the May 1929 election, Baldwin endured a severe party crisis, with attempts to force his resignation as party leader. Against considerable criticism from the main popular newspapers, he successfully fought back with a still-famous condemnation of the great ‘press lords’.

During the 1931 financial and political crisis, he contributed to the formation of a coalition government, led by the former Labour Prime Minister, James Ramsay MacDonald. As Lord President of the Council, Baldwin at first sought to promote international disarmament, warning of the difficulty of defence against air attack: “the bomber will always get through”. However, as the threat from Nazi Germany became obvious, he accepted the need to arm again and introduced new defence programmes each year from 1934 to 1937, against Labour and Liberal opposition.

He became Prime Minister of the national government in June 1935 and in the autumn he won a general election, promising to continue to improve national defences. When seeking to avoid war with Mussolini’s Italy over Abyssinia, in order to focus effort against Hitler’s Germany, his Cabinet was embarrassed by an early disclosure of a compromise settlement (the Hore-Laval pact). In retrospect, the national government’s policy of combining armed deterrence with efforts to bind Hitler and Mussolini into a general European settlement seemed not enough. After the Second World War broke out in 1939, Baldwin became a leading target for those – especially Winston Churchill – who thought more could have been done to speed up rearmament and prevent war.

Faced in late 1936 with King Edward VIII’s proposed marriage to the twice-divorced Mrs Wallis Simpson, which met widespread disapproval, he took the lead in making it plain that if the king persisted he should give up the throne. His management of this abdication crisis was highly praised.

Baldwin’s most notable position was his support of parliamentary democracy during times when revolution and dictatorship were common European experiences. In the 1920s he sought to prevent class conflict and mix the Labour movement into the party system and, in the 1930s, he became an international figure in the defence of democratic and Christian values. From 1938 to 1939 he led a major appeal to provide financial assistance for Jewish refugees from Nazi brutality. His post-1939 reputation as a guilty man who failed to resist Hitler or to rearm persists as a popular myth, but has been overtaken by modern historical scholarship.

On his retirement from government and party politics in May 1937, he was created Earl Baldwin of Bewdley.

Unity After The War. The Repeal of the Trade Disputes Act

In a recent pronouncement, “The War and the Peace,” which was adopted at the last Labour Party Annual Conference, the Labour Party outlines its views on reconstruction after the war. It is based on an assumption which all experience shows to be an illusion, the assumption that the struggle between the classes will be absent after the war. It states that “war has taught us that without Socialist principles there can be no security,” and in another passage it assumes that there is agreement between the capitalists and the workers about reconstruction: —

“We note that all classes in our society, as at no time in our history, are united to assure to ordinary men and women the full implications of that victory for Freedom and Democracy for which we are fighting.”

If we bring these two passages together and ask if war has really taught the Conservative Party and its supporters that Socialism is a necessity, the answer is obvious.

We do not need to wait till the war is over to see that the defenders of capitalism have not changed their aim or their methods. Reference was made in these columns recently to an article in the Sunday Dispatch (June 8th, 1941) by Mr. F. C. Hooper, “one of the biggest business men in the Midlands and North.” The article was called “The Cranks who want to Change Britain,” and its one argument is that in the main pre-war Britain was all right and should not be changed. A similar view appears in an appeal for funds issued by Sir Thomas Barlow, Treasurer of the Manchester Conservative and Unionist Association, reproduced in the Daily Herald (August 27th, 1941). Sir Thomas takes the Labour Party to task for seeming to have the idea “that the war is being fought to save trade unionism,” and goes on to insist that “the fundamental rights of freedom and particularly of private ownership must be maintained in any new order of society, and there can be no surer safeguard of this than a strong and virile Conservative Party emerging from the war.”

So while it is true that all kinds of people may agree on the loose phrase “victory for freedom and democracy,” when it comes to translating the phrase into concrete terms Sir Thomas Barlow means no interference with private property.

How little the war-time suspension of the party conflict really means in relation to reconstruction is shown further by the fact that the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party and the Labour Party have each set up their own committee to consider and make recommendations on reconstruction. If there were really unity why the separate committees?

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