Trades Union Congress

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Trades Union Congress
Founded1868 at Mechanics' Institute, Manchester
HeadquartersCongress House,
London, WC1
5.5 million (2022)
General Secretary
Paul Nowak

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) is a national trade union centre, a federation of trade unions in England and Wales, representing the majority of trade unions. There are 48 affiliated unions, with a total of about 5.5 million members.[1] Frances O'Grady became General Secretary in 2013[2] and presented her resignation in 2022, with Paul Nowak becoming the next General Secretary in January 2023.[3]


The TUC's decision-making body is the Annual Congress, which takes place in September. Between congresses decisions are made by the General Council, which meets every two months. An Executive Committee is elected by the Council from its members.

Affiliated unions can send delegates to Congress, with the number of delegates they can send proportionate to their size.[4] Each year Congress elects a President of the Trades Union Congress, who carries out the office for the remainder of the year and then presides over the following year's conference.

The TUC is not affiliated with the Labour Party. At election time the TUC cannot endorse a particular party by name. However it can point to policies that it believes would be positive for workers’ rights, or to social cohesion and community welfare. It can also politically campaign against policies that it believes would be injurious to workers.

The TUC also runs the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum and annual Tolpuddle Martyrs' Festival and Rally commemorating the Tolpuddle Martyrs and their impact on trade unionism.

The TUC Library preserves documents related to labour history in Britain and other lands.[5] It was established in 1922 and now focuses on expanding the online and digital collections.[6]

The TUC archives are held at the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick Library. The archive contains files from about 1920 up to 2000 consisting of correspondence, internal and external documents, minutes, reports, printed material and press statements.[7]


The TUC campaigns on a wide range of issues relating to the experience of people at work.

The TUC succeeded in forcing Sports Direct to undergo an independent review into their treatment of workers in September 2016.[8]

In October 2016, the TUC's campaign against the Trade Union Act 2016 won 'Best Public Affairs Campaign' at the PR Week Awards.[9]

Key achievements[edit]

  • In 1970 the Equal Pay Act made it illegal for employers to give a female worker different pay and conditions to a male one doing work of equal value.[10]
  • In 1999 the National Minimum Wage was established to protect low-paid workers.[10]
  • In 1999 a limit was placed on working hours, largely as a health and safety measure. This was quickly followed by a minimum holiday entitlement.[10]
  • In 2007 the no-smoking ban was introduced in public areas in response to union arguments that workers were risking their health.[10]
  • In October 2011 agency workers gained the right to receive the same treatment as permanent staff carrying out the same work.[11]


19th century[edit]

Tyldesley miners outside the Miners Hall during the 1926 general strike

The TUC was founded in the 1860s.[12] The United Kingdom Alliance of Organised Trades, founded in Sheffield, Yorkshire, in 1866, was the immediate forerunner of the TUC, although efforts to expand local unions into regional or national organisations date back at least forty years earlier; in 1822, John Gast formed a "Committee of the Useful Classes", sometimes described as an early national trades council.

The first TUC meeting was held in 1868 when the Manchester and Salford Trades Council convened the founding meeting in the Manchester Mechanics' Institute (on what is now Princess Street and was then David Street; the building is at no. 103). The fact that the TUC was formed by Northern Trades Councils was not coincidental. One of the issues which prompted this initiative was the perception that the London Trades Council (formed in 1860 and including, because of its location, many of the most prominent union leaders of the day) was taking a dominant role in speaking for the Trade Union Movement as a whole. The second TUC meeting took place in 1869 at the Oddfellows Hall, Temple Street, Birmingham where delegates discussed the eight-hour working day, election of working people to Parliament and the issue of free education.[13]

Arising out of the 1897 Congress, a decision was taken to form a more centralised trade union structure that would enable a more militant approach to be taken to fighting the employer and even achieving the socialist transformation of society. The result was the General Federation of Trade Unions which was formed in 1899. For some years it was unclear which body (the GFTU or the TUC) would emerge as the national trade union centre for the UK and for a while both were recognised as such by different fraternal organisations in other countries. However, it was soon agreed among the major unions that the TUC should take the leading role and that this would be the central body of the organised Labour Movement in the UK. The GFTU continued in existence and remains to this day as a federation of (smaller, often craft-based) trade unions providing common services and facilities to its members (especially education and training services).

As the TUC expanded and formalised its role as the "General Staff of the Labour Movement" it incorporated the Trades Councils who had given birth to it, eventually becoming the body which authorised these local arms of the TUC to speak on behalf of the wider Trade Union Movement at local and County level. Also, as the TUC became increasingly bureaucratised, the Trades Councils (often led by militant and communist-influenced lay activists) found themselves being subject to political restrictions and purges (particularly during various anti-communist witch-hunts) and to having their role downplayed and marginalised. In some areas (especially in London and the South East) the Regional Councils of the TUC (dominated by paid officials of the unions) effectively took over the role of the County Associations of Trades Councils and these paid officials replaced elected lay-members as the spokespersons for the Trade Union Movement at County and Regional level. By the end of the 20th century local Trades Councils and County Associations of Trades Councils had become so ineffective and weak that many had simply faded into effective dissolution.

The 1899 Congress saw a motion "calling for a special conference to establish a voice for working people within parliament. Within the year the conference had been held and the Labour Representation Committee established (the forerunner of the Labour Party)."[14] The major TUC affiliated unions still make up the great bulk of the British Labour Party affiliated membership, but there is no formal/organisational link between the TUC and the party.

The Scottish Trades Union Congress, which was formed in 1897, is a separate and autonomous organisation.

20th century[edit]

The Parliamentary Committee grew slowly, confining itself to legal matters, and ignored industrial disputes. In 1916 Harry Gosling proposed that organised labour needed an administrative machine. Following the railway strike of 1919, Ernest Bevin and G. D. H. Cole proposed a new system. The Parliamentary Committee became the General Council, representing thirty groups of workers. The General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress became chief permanent officer of the TUC, and a major figure in the British trade union movement. The system was successfully implemented by Fred Bramley and Walter Citrine. By 1927 the TUC had the making of a trade union bureaucracy similar to the civil service.[15]

During the First World War, the Trades Union Congress generally supported the aims of the British Empire. However, in 1915, national conference voted against the introduction of military conscription.

The TUC played a major role in the General Strike of 1926, and became increasingly affiliated with the Labour Party in the 1930s, securing seven of the thirteen available seats on the newly created National Council of Labour in 1934. The TUC pressured the Labour Party into rejecting Ramsay MacDonald's National Government formed to implement spending cuts, and no major trade unions joined his breakaway National Labour Organisation.[16]

A TUC survey of local trades councils who were approached by unemployed marchers for support in 1936 shows widespread support for unemployed workers' protest marches among the local trade union activists. The TUC leadership subsequently tried to distort the result of the survey to justify its own opposition toward unauthorised marches.[17]

In 1958, the TUC's current headquarters, Congress House, was built. It was proposed at the 1944 Congress in Blackpool as a tribute to the lives of trade unionists that were lost in World War II. The idea was quickly expanded on to include conference and meeting facilities now known as Congress Centre. The building was also seen as an opportunity to raise interest in arts and culture, architecture in particular and the chance to design the building was left open to the public as a competition, which David Du R Aberdeen won.[18] From 1979 to the end of the 20th century, the TUC's membership declined from about 12 million to about 6.6 million. This took place during and after the Premiership of Margaret Thatcher, among other contributing factors.[19][20]

21st century[edit]

Frances O'Grady became elected to be the leader of the TUC in 2012.[21] The TUC endorsed a remain vote at the 2016 European Union membership referendum, and O'Grady participated in a televised debate.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "About the TUC". TUC. Retrieved 10 October 2016.
  2. ^ "TUC: Frances O'Grady is first female leader". BBC News.
  3. ^ osdjay (12 July 2022). "Paul Nowak to be TUC's next general secretary". TUC. Retrieved 12 July 2022.
  4. ^ "Congress".
  5. ^ "Trades Union Congress Library Collections".
  6. ^ Chris Coates, "Union History Online: Digitization Projects in the Trades Union Congress Library Collections." International Labor and Working-Class History 76.01 (2009): 54–59.
  7. ^ "Trades Union Congress". Retrieved 10 October 2016.
  8. ^ Farrell, Sean (24 September 2016). "Sports Direct's surrender is just the start, says TUC". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 10 October 2016.
  9. ^ "PRWeek UK Awards Winners 2016: Public Affairs | PR Week". Retrieved 19 October 2016.
  10. ^ a b c d "Trade Unions at Work: What they are and what they do" (PDF). TUC. Retrieved 10 October 2016.
  11. ^ "Agency Workers | workSMART". Retrieved 10 October 2016.
  12. ^ "Our history". Trades Union Congress. Retrieved 21 January 2023.
  13. ^ "TUC – History Online". Retrieved 12 June 2012.
  14. ^ "TUC – History Online".
  15. ^ Allen, 1960
  16. ^ Thorpe, Andrew (1997). A History of the British Labour Party. London: Macmillan Education UK. pp. 76–77. doi:10.1007/978-1-349-25305-0. ISBN 978-0-333-56081-5.
  17. ^ Matthias Reiss, "Circulars, Surveys and Support: Trades Councils and the Marches of 1936," Labour History Review (2008) 73#1 pp 89–112.
  18. ^ "The History of Congress Centre". Congress Centre. 3 February 2020. Retrieved 1 September 2020.
  19. ^ "Trades Union Congress". Encyclopaedia Britannica. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved 25 August 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  20. ^ Harvey, David (4 January 2007). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. OUP Oxford. p. 59. ISBN 978-0-19-162294-6.
  21. ^ Bolderson, Claire (7 September 2012). "Profile: Frances O'Grady". Retrieved 14 January 2020.
  22. ^ "Britain's unions ready to join fight to stay in European Union, top official says". Reuters. 28 January 2016. Retrieved 14 January 2020.


  • Allen, V L. "The Re-Organization of the Trades Union Congress, 1918–1927," British Journal of Sociology (1960) 11#1 pp 14–43. in JSTOR
  • Clegg, Hugh Armstrong, Alan Fox, and A.F. Thompson. A History of British Trade Unions since 1889, vol. 1, 1889–1910 (Clarendon Press, 1964)
  • Clegg, Hugh Armstrong. A History of British Trade Unions since 1889, vol. 2, 1911–1933 (Oxford University Press, 1985); A History of British Trade Unions since 1889, vol. 3, 1934–1951 (1994).
  • Davis, W J. The British Trades Union Congress: History and Recollections (2 vols, 1910–16; reprint Garland, 1984)
  • Dorfman, Gerald A. British Trade Unionism against the Trades Union Congress (London: Macmillan, 1983)
  • Lovell, John, and B C. Roberts. A Short History of the T.U.C. (London: Macmillan, 1968)
  • Martin, Ross M. TUC: The Growth of a Pressure Group 1868–1976 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980)
  • Musson, A. E. Trade Union and Social History (London: Cass, 1974)
  • Renshaw, Patrick. "The Origins of The Trades Union Congress" History Today (July 1968), Vol. 18 Issue 7, pp 456–463; online' covers 1840 to 1868.
  • Roberts, B C. The Trades Union Congress 1868–1921 (Harvard University Press, 1958).
  • Taylor, R. The TUC: From the General Strike to New Unionism (2000). excerpt
  • Wrigley, Chris, ed. British Trade Unions, 1945–1995 (Manchester University Press, 1997)
  • The History of the TUC (Trades Union Congress) 1868–1968: A pictorial Survey of a Social Revolution — Illustrated with Contemporary Prints, Documents and Photographs edited by Lionel Birch; published in large paperback by Hamlyn/General Council of Trade Union Congress in 1968 with a foreword by George Woodcock

External links[edit]