Duncan Hallas

The Federation

(January 1984)

From Socialist Review, No.61, January 1984, p.32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

History of the General Federation of Trade Unions, 1899-1980
Alice Prochaska
Allen & Unwin £15

Who has heard of the General Federation of Trade Unions? I must admit that all I know about it was gleaned from two short references in Cole and Postgate’s The Common People, the last relating to 1914, and that I had assumed that it had long departed from the land of the living.

Quite wrong. The GFTU is still with us and had (in 1980) forty-one affiliated unions with a total membership of nearly 500,000, most of them also affiliated to the TUC.

It’s continued existence is a striking testimonial to the ability of an organisational machine, given certain minimum material resources and an ability to adapt to changing conditions, to long outlast the circumstances in which it was born and to which it had relevance.

The GFTU was a product of the upsurge of working class struggle in the late 80s and early 90s of the last century (the first mass struggles since the 1840s). It was pushed and promoted by socialists on the basis that it would be “one big fighting federation”, as opposed to the feeble Lib/Lab dominated TUC.

It finally got off the ground in 1899, the year before the Labour Party.

Somewhere along the road, in 1930 as a matter of fact, the GFTU acquired a substantial asset – a seven story building in Upper Woburn Place. With the post-war boom in London office rents this was a prize worth catching and some affiliates proposed to wind up the GFTU and divide up the proceeds.

They were foiled in 1949 and the GFTU lingers on. Ms Prochaska makes a valiant attempt to show that it serves some useful purpose. The kindest thing that can be said is that she is an able advocate making the best of a hopeless case.


Last updated on 25.11.2003