Fashion dictates that we are all modernisers now. Which modern manager remains a personnel officer when their contemporaries are HR managers? But I have acquired a new respect for the value of experience through the celebrations of my union’s 150th anniversary.
The Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union was founded in 1851. It was distinctive because it organised skilled people on the basis of a mixture of practical, pre-welfare state benefits, and policies about employment issues. What members really wanted was respect for their contribution to our country’s dominance in the world of manufacturing. They revered what it meant to be an engineer in Victorian Britain.
What they really showed, though, was that they could voluntarily organise a wealthy modern institution. It was a part of working class emancipation to learn the mystery of self-help in creating an institution in a hostile environment. They started a fight with employers over compulsory overtime and piecework, and lost. The employers stood on the right to manage, and won. But the union did not disappear like many of its rivals and predecessors. The organisation was so robust that it lived to fight another day.
What is interesting is the key lesson the union learnt back in 1852. General secretary William Allen told members after the dispute, “We do not anticipate any future struggles such as we have seen for dominance or superiority – struggles in which all victors as well as vanquished fearfully suffer. We think both parties are wiser than they were and more moderate.
“We recognise that for trade societies to advance the interests of the artisan, they must become different from what they have been. They must assume a different form, use another set of means. They must strive for higher objects and, instead of accumulating power to do battle with other interests, they must husband resources to forward that intelligent, industrial process which will lift the operative into a higher condition. This will give him a more stable position, add to his comforts and increase his opportunities for knowledge.”
We had dozens of employers at the recent celebrations, many of them from industries unheard of in 1852. We even forgot old battles and welcomed the Engineering Employers Federation as guests.