Historical Studies in Industrial Relations

Writing Trade-Union History: The Case of the National Union of Public Employees

Historical Studies in Industrial Relations (2017), 38, (1), 221–254.

Abstract

Eric Hobsbawm and other labour historians identified many limitations in the writing of trade-union histories. One was the concentration on single unions, when most operated in a multi-union environment. Others included a tendency to write a chronicle, not a history, and reluctance to criticize recent or current union leaders (particularly in a commissioned history).

Steve Williams and Bob Fryer admit that their (1928–93) account of the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) relies on union archives and is a ‘somewhat “top-down” history’. They highlight the role of Bryn Roberts (1934–62) as general secretary in building the union, creating a ‘popular bossdom’ before a ‘sponsored democratization’ took place in the 1970s. The authors’ view of NUPE as a ‘family’ and their narrative of progressive national leadership from 1968 sit uneasily with the serious democratic deficit in the under-representation of women in this majority-female union. Their mainly chronological focus does not develop the critical role of (usually male) branch secretaries’ vested interests or the significance of generally appointing full-time officers externally in this overwhelmingly manual union.

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Author details

Lyddon, Dave