Comment: lessons of history that are still relevant today

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

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.

But our pride and pleasure in the union’s role was made
possible only by learning the lessons of history. As I sat at the Grosvenor in
Park Lane listening to Gordon Brown, Sir Ken Jackson and the president of the
biggest union in the world, IG Metall, expand on modern industrial relations,
the need for American standards of productivity and the role of lifelong
learning in putting the “great” into Great Britain, I knew William Allen would
have understood the argument. After all, he was the first to use it.

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