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Trade unions and the First World War

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H&P Trade Union Forum

Saturday 15 November 2014, 11am-1pm, Council Room, Strand Campus, King’s College London

London’s trade unions and the Great War

From the autumn of 1914 London’s workers were thrust into an unprecedented boom economy that changed a chronic labour surplus in the capital into acute and pressing labour shortages. Full employment revolutionised living standards, despite wage rates generally lagging behind the rise in food and other prices. A united front between government and trade union leaders over British war aims co-opted trade unionists into recruitment campaigns while increasing the unions’ influence on industrial and social policy under wartime conditions. All this led to a rapid rise in union membership that continued to a peak in 1920. The constructive use of trade union influence could be seen throughout the many new arms of state administration like military tribunals and local food and pension committees; but there were problems in responding to many workers’ increasingly vocal demands for wage rises at a time of high inflation; and there are abuses of power in some unions’ hostility to women works, to antiwar campaigners, and to the recruitment of ‘coloured’ labour.

Professor Jerry White teaches history at Birkbeck and is an acclaimed social historian of modern London. His latest book is Zeppelin Nights. London in the First World War (Bodley Head 2014).

Women, socialism, unionism and protest

Women’s trade union membership grew during the First World War, as women joined the expanding war industries, especially munitions. They became much more visible as war workers were photographed and celebrated to encourage employers and workers alike to sign up. New styles of protest built on pre-war expansion: working women demonstrated more in London streets.  Trade unionism for women, like women’s work, was still controversial.  Campaigners Mary Macarthur, Leader of the National Federation of Women Workers and Sylvia Pankhurst, of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, used the mass media but disagreed over their relationship to skilled men’s trade unions and to state power and whether the vote would improve women’s lives.  Equal pay was popular with workers but was rarely paid; equal pensions and the right to work, which were less popular, were drowned out by the needs of returning soldiers.

Dr Deborah Thom teaches history at Robinson College, Cambridge and is author of Nice Girls and Rude Girls, women workers and the First World War (IB Tauris 1998).

Tickets are £4 for Trade Union Forum membesr, £8 general entry. 

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