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Sunday, 9 September, 2001, 15:23 GMT 16:23 UK
A proud movement's past
TUC demonstration in favour of miniers
Militancy and strikes have declined sharply
As the 135th TUC conference begins in Brighton amid a major row with the Labour government over privatisation, BBC News Online looks at the history of the trades unions and their political influence.

The Trades Union Congress is the oldest, and at one time the most powerful representative body of working people in the world.

Founded in 1868, it co-ordinated the efforts of skilled workers to gain recognition from employers and lobbied the government to give more rights to workers.

It took the unions nearly 40 years to ensure the right to strike, and in the process of political lobbying they established a Parliamentary Committee that eventually became the Labour Party.

From the early days of the Labour Party, most MPs were trades unionists, and the unions provided the funds and the local organisation for the party.

And even the Labour Party's headquarters at the time - Transport House - was also the office of the largest union, the TGWU.

From skilled to unskilled

The importance of the unions in the political process was paralleled by the extension of their own membership to the mass of unskilled workers from their original base in skilled workers.

By the l920s, boosted by the industrial struggles of the First World War, the great industrial unions like the Transport and General Workers Union and the General and Municipal Workers were formed.

They led a general strike in 1926 to support the unsuccessful attempt of the coal miners to maintain their wage rates in the face of the slump.

After the failure of that strike - when the Labour Party for the first time sought to distance itself from the unions - there was the growth of a more moderate faction that sought conciliation with employers.

But in the midst of the slump, trade union power and influence declined.

The pinnacle of power

Bevan with Churchill and King George V
Union leaders like Ernest Bevin joined the War Cabinet
The Second World War boosted union membership to unprecedented heights - and the co-ordination of industrial production brought the unions to the heart of government - with Transport and General Workers Union leader Ernest Bevin becoming Minister of Labour.

The 1945 Labour government did much to strengthen the role of unions in the political system by attempting - at first successfully - to restrain wages and raise productivity by a series of voluntary deals.

These reforms culminated in a "tripartite" system of consultation between unions, business and government. By the l960s it sometimes seemed that the unions were more powerful than the government in setting economic policy.

Mrs Thatcher and the unions

But the power of the unions to set the political agenda proved illusory.

But by the 1970s the unions were held responsible for some of the industrial decline of the UK economy, and pay policy became untenable in the face of worldwide inflation.

Mrs Thatcher's Conservative government came to power in l979 determined to reduce the power of the trade unions.

Her defeat of the miners in strike in l984, as much as the development of legislation to make strike more difficult, changed the climate of industrial relations permanently.

The number of strikes declined to record lows, as unions sought partnership rather than confrontation in a climate of high unemployment.

And union membership went into a steep decline, nealry halving between l980 and l990.

"Fairness, not favours"

After the electoral defeats of the l980s, the Labour Party sought to distance itself from the trade union movement.

Firstly, by introducing One Member, One Vote it sought to reduce the influence of the union bloc vote at Party Conferences.

Under Tony Blair, the process went further. He pushed through the reform of Clause Four, the Labour Party's commitment to socialism, against union opposition.

And he made it clear that he would not repeal the bulk of Conservative trade union legislation.

"Fairness, not favours," would be Labour's policy towards the unions, Mr Blair proclaimed.

Although Labour in power has implemented its electoral commitments to the minimum wage and union rights to recognition in the workplace, the government - in union eyes - has often seemed more interested in wooing business interests.

However, the unions united behind Labour in the 2001 General Election.

But during that election, Tony Blair stoked up the row that now threatens that collaboration by calling for the use of private sector firms to help reform the public sector.

With the majority of union members now in the public sector, it was a challenge union leaders could not afford to ignore.

But the unions may find it difficult to change government policy, now that Labour relies less on either working class voters or trade union money.

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