Liberation from work as well as liberation at work has endured down the ages as an important first principle of the trade union movement. Look at the old trade union banners and their rallying slogans: "Out of darkness into light," "Shorter hours and longer life," "The cause of labour is the hope of the world" - all stirring reminders that the labour and trade union movement was not founded simply to fight for the weekly wage but to secure a better quality of life in a better world. So, when Will Thorne, Ben Tillett and Eleanor Marx got together to found the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers of Great Britain and Ireland - the forerunner of the GMB - exactly 120 years ago this year, their purpose was clear. It was to build a national union committed from the very outset "to obtain for the same work the same wages for women as for men" and to recruit and organise all workers, semi-skilled and unskilled, in all industries and in all trades. It is often overlooked that the cause which lit up the union in its infancy was not a demand for higher wages, but a campaign for shorter hours. Indeed, reducing the hours of labour was initially, in Will Thorne's own words, "the whole aim and intention of the union." It was the sole demand backed with the sole weapon of strike action. Strike pay was the one and only benefit that the new union offered.
From its very beginnings in 1889 the union became a key proponent of the international eight-hour-day movement - and the eight-hour day became a founding principle of new unionism, not least because of the resolve of Will Thorne and the agitation of Tom Mann. And so it was no accident of history that the first victory of this new unionism was the abolition of the twelve-hour day, replaced by eight-hour shifts without any reduction in wages, at the Beckton Gas Works in London's East End in July of that year. The following month, the London dockers famously struck not just for the "dockers' tanner" but for an end to casualisation and the "call-on" in another important milestone in the new era of trade unionism. These pioneers of our movement understood that long hours and miserable conditions brought about early death for working women and men. They also knew that shorter hours would help in the fight against unemployment. It is a pity that this is not grasped in government circles today. Just over a fortnight ago, on the very day that trade unionists were out on the streets commemorating the 2009 International Workers Memorial Day, Labour government ministers joined those in Brussels blocking the removal of the opt-out from the Working Time Directive's 48-hour-week provision.
One minister even shamefully crowed that he had "delivered on a pledge." Presumably this was a private pledge made to the CBI and big business, because it was in blatant defiance of the publicly expressed policy of both the TUC and his own party conference. It also overturned the principled stance taken by most Labour and Socialist Group MEPs in a crucial European Parliament vote in Strasbourg last December. Today's ministers could be pardoned for ignorance of what happened 120 years ago. The real problem is that too many of them too often give the appearance of having forgotten that, as representatives of the party of labour, they were selected and elected to Parliament as servants of working people - the producers who create the wealth, not those who happen to own it - this is unpardonable. Of course there are those who have argued that we shouldn't be dependent on the European Union for delivering workers' rights anyway and must instead turn to industrial struggle. And, on one level, the story of the birth of the gas workers' union might seem to vindicate this analysis. However, while there is power at the point of production, this power will at best nibble away at the effects of exploitation, not tackle the root causes of class conflict. Remember that it took 40 years from the birth of new unionism to elect a British parliament on the basis of equal and universal adult suffrage. All of the experience that we have built up over the years tells us that there must be a dual strategy of both industrial and political action by trade unions.
In other words, so much can be achieved to advance the cause of working people inside the workplace but so much more can be achieved by wider social and economic transformation brought about by political and parliamentary action outside it. Working time is, after all, a health and safety issue. Legally enforceable minimum standards and statutory rights when it comes to health and safety at work must be taken as a given in a civilised democratic society. These rights and responsibilities should not simply be left up to the arbitrary results of local negotiations between trade unions and employers any more than burglary should be left up to the burgled and the burglar. They are matters of public interest. It is worth recalling, too, the maxim of one of William Morris's Edinburgh-based Socialist League comrades, John Lincoln Mahon, who observed: "Trade unionism means securing to the workers a larger share of the fruits of their labour; socialism means securing to the workers the full fruits of their labour." That's why trade unions need to be involved in politics, to advance not just the pecuniary wage but the social wage of decent housing and pensions and of free education and health care that is needed to build the caring sustainable society, to secure economic and political democracy and to promote peace in the world as well as on the shop floor.
In light of this bad decision to retain the 48-hour opt-out, such a view of trade unionism also means finding renewed vitality for the campaign to reduce working time in this period of economic recession and rising unemployment. Led by the trade union movement, this campaign must reach out to other social forces with both a pragmatic and an emotional appeal. Working time has become one tool for releasing pressure in sectors like the automotive and whisky industries in the teeth of the current slump. In some cases this is merely a temporary redistribution of working time by bringing forward leave entitlement, in others it is a straightforward unpaid lay-off. The point is that working time is rising in the consciousness of workers and rising back up the agenda of the trade union movement. This must be seen as part of a wider debate about the future of work. To this day, a reduction in working hours remains one of the GMB's fundamental objectives as set out in the union's rule book and most other trade unions retain it as a policy goal. Reduction in working hours is the underlying faith which brought the trade union movement into existence as part of the long struggle to humanise work and to reorganise the economy.
For a century, reductions in hours were won by valiant effort and selfless sacrifice by our trade union forebears. But Britain's historical legacy of non-regulation of working time paved the way for actual hours worked to rise from the 1980s onwards, much of it in the form of unpaid overtime in the service sector. When the history of our own time comes to be written, let us be able to say that with a bit of new energy and determination, mixed with some of that old idealism, and combining political and industrial action, we pursued our great historical goal and won.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.