It is hoped that this guide will be of assistance to local authority archivists as actual or potential custodians of labour records. It deals with trade unionism in its various local manifestations, rather than with the labour movement in the widest sense (political, co-operative, working-men's institutes and so on).
Two points should be stressed at the outset. The first is the diversity of types of records likely to be encountered. The second is the importance, particularly in the case of smaller unions, whose archives may not have survived, of printed ephemera, such as handbills and contribution cards (which often incorporate a brief set of rules).
'National' unions limited to one locality
It was once common, especially on Merseyside, for locally based unions to exist, sometimes in rivalry with national ones. The titles of such unions may be misleading. For example, the National Plumbers' Society was restricted entirely to Liverpool and Birkenhead. Where, for geographical or historical reasons, an industry is heavily concentrated in one area, e.g. the ceramic industry in the Potteries, a union catering for that industry will normally be based in the dominant locality. In such cases, a record office within that area would be the appropriate place of deposit.
Types of record
For any union, whether regional or truly national, the minutes of its executive council and principal committees and the proceedings of its conferences will constitute its prime record. Union publications, particularly regular journals, are valuable sources and when the minutes have not survived, journals can often be used as substitutes. Agreements between union and employers are at the heart of collective bargaining and should be preserved, with the proceedings of the conferences or meetings which produced them. It should be noted that little trade union correspondence prior to 1945 appears to have survived, whether at national or local level.
Trade union branches and districts
The branch is normally the local unit of national trade unions' organisation. A number of branches will be located within a district, which often has full-time paid officials, as opposed to the branches which have lay officers. Branch records should include minutes, membership registers, and correspondence. They are not usually bulky.
District records should include committee minutes, collective bargaining proceedings and agreements with employers. These three classes should be preserved. Circulars received from the union's head office (e.g. duplicated national executive minutes or group secretary's circular letters) are prime candidates for destruction but check that the head office records have been deposited elsewhere. District office records will also sometimes include circulated material received from trades councils or federations (e.g. the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions). It is likewise desirable that the availability of these circulars should be checked before disposal.
Shop Stewards' Committees
Shop stewards' committees are often found in the larger factories or plants. They exist in three variants : the union shop stewards' committee; the joint shop stewards' committee (of several unions); and the combine committee (with members from several plants). In the last two instances the records cannot belong to any one trade union because several unions are represented on the committee. The records of a shop stewards' committee are particularly in danger whenever the plant in which the committee operates is closed : those record offices which monitor closures with a view to accessioning business records should consider making parallel enquiries regarding shop stewards' committee records. Certain other trade union records can also be preserved in this way, e.g. those of newspaper union chapels (i.e. branches).
The committees tend to keep minutes as a formal record of decisions but their other records are informal e.g. rough notes of conversations may be preserved, but internal memoranda are not likely to have been used at all. Ephemera such as posters and handbills thus acquire a special value : they will frequently have been produced during a major event or crisis. Similarly any periodical issue by the committee should be preserved, as should the convenor (or any member)'s correspondence and/or daily working notes. The political activities of the committee or some of its members may result in the accumulation of scarce publications.
These are joint employer/employee bodies on which the employees may be represented by shop stewards. Minutes are the principal record of works committees : duplicate signed minutes may be kept by both sides of the committee. Works committee minutes may be deposited in a record office with either company or shop stewards' records. (The term Works Committee is sometimes used to denote the senior shop stewards of whom the workers' side is composed.)
Trades councils exist to co-ordinate the work of trade unions locally, e.g. by organising support for unions involved in an industrial dispute, and in wider political issues. Trades councils often fulfilled a specifically political role before the establishment of local Labour Parties, when their title would have been 'Trades & Labour Council'. The Modern Records Centre has two important sources on trades councils: annual reports and other publications transferred from the main University Library, 1873-1978, and the Trade Union Congress registry files and publications, 1920-1992.
Minutes form the prime record of a trades council. Its financial records may be of special interest where they include the accounts of dispute support funds or quasi-political campaigns, e.g. Milk for Spain funds. Records relating to municipal politics will be preserved by most record offices : the value of records relating to local industrial disputes ought not, however, to be overlooked. Trades council periodicals should be preserved unless readily available elsewhere in the locality.
Trades councils may have provided office accommodation to affiliated unions : care should be taken not to remove non-trades council records without authority, but at the same time to seek them out and ensure their preservation.
The collection of records may well produce contacts with local veterans of the labour movement who might be willing to give a tape-recorded interview. In such cases the appropriate regional labour history group, local university department or other relevant body should be contacted as soon as possible, to ensure that the opportunity is taken.
Where a record office is not in a position to cater for banners, badges, commemorative cups and other artefacts which may be offered with a deposit of records, an appropriate local museum or the National Museum of Labour History in Manchester should be informed.
Useful Sources of Information
1. H.A. Clegg (Fox & Thompson), A history of British trade unions since 1889, vol. I 1889-1910, vol. II 1911-1933, vol. III 1934-1951 (OUP, 1964, 1985, 1994) is the standard work for the period which it covers.
The most accessible general introduction to trade union history is H. Pelling, A short history of British trade unionism (Penguin Books, 1963 and subsequent editions). For the origins of the labour movement in its widest sense, E.P. Thompson, Making of the English working class is also available in a Penguin edition. A.G. Tough, 'Trade unions and their records', Archives, vol. XIX, no.83 (April 1990), pp.121-144, is a helpful analysis of trade union record creation.
2. For the period before 1800 broadsheets relating to specific disputes and official records where legal action was involved are likely to furnish the principal evidence of collective action by the workforce. For example, C.R. Dobson, Masters and journeymen. A prehistory of industrial relations 1717-1800 (London, 1980).
3. Biographical information : J. Bellamy and J. Saville (eds.), Dictionary of Labour Biography (multi-volume, 1972-).
4. Bibliographical information : G.S. Bain and G.B. Woolven, A bibliography of British industrial relations (CUP, 1979); G.S. Bain and J.D. Bennett, A bibliography of British industrial relations 1971-1979 (CUP, 1985); R. Harrison, et al., Warwick Guide to British Labour periodicals (Harvester Press, 1977); J. Bennett and R.A. Storey, Trade union and related records (Univ. of Warwick Library, 1979 and later editions) provides a concise guide to major deposits of trade union records.
5. Artefacts : J. Gorman, Banner bright (Allen Lane, 1973); R.A. Leeson, United we stand (Adams & Dart, 1971) deals with membership certificates and similar documents.
6. Keeping your records : a policy statement on local labour movement records, issued by the Society for the Study of Labour HistoryLink opens in a new window.
7. Further information or advice may be sought from the Archivist, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick Library, Coventry CV4 7AL. The Centre's Information Leaflet No.1 gives details of all its publications.
- People's History MuseumLink opens in a new window (includes Labour Party archive).
- Hull History Centre (holds extensive labour history records).Link opens in a new window
- Working Class Movement LibraryLink opens in a new window (holds extensive labour history sources).