This is part one of this post - partially becuase I haven't done the other half yet which will cover the period after the 1918-19 police strikes, but also becuase they are two fundamentally different periods in police unionism history. I also would like to do a piece or two on prison officer union, probation officer unions and also court staff as i think these are areas of interest
The formation of unions for police officers came as a result of dissatisfaction over pay and conditions prior to the First World War, although the first recorded instance of collective action dates back to 1872. Most grievances either related to conditions of service (in particular ruthless military discipline practiced within the force) as well as pay disparity between different regions. This led to the formation in 1913 of the Metropolitan Police Union, which soon expanded to have a branch for provincial members and in 1914 became The National Union of Police and Prison Officers (NUPPO).
It is worthwhile noting that the State has always been especially opposed to granting those working for the State the same trade union rights as other workers. NUPPO was no exception. As Rob Reiner notes in The Blue-Coated Worker, “Membership was secret and the Union met in a clandestine way. This was necessitated by the Union’s illegal status… Policemen discovered to be members were suspended.” (pg 20.)
NUPPO began forging links with the labour movement, whom its leaders were sympathetic to. This of course was made more complicated by the role of the police in repressing strikes, but the union became affiliated to the Labour Party, the TUC and many local trades councils.
The deteriorating position of police incomes during the First World War meant that they had gone from being relative to that of a skilled worker to just below that of an unskilled worker. This led to an increase in membership of the union, and importantly leadership of the union passing from ex-police officers to an executive of current police officers, several of whom were committed socialists.
In 1918, an event occurred that led to Sylvia Pankhurst describing it as “The Spirit of Petrograd”. This was the police strike in the late summer. The immediate stimulus for the strike was the dismissal of Constable Theil, a leading member of the union on August 27th 1918. This led to the union resubmitting its previous demands for recognition and a pay increase, as well as now demanding Thiel’s re-instatement, with an ultimatum that the union would strike if these conditions were not met. The deadline was ignored and the strike started on midnight August 29th and was almost total, by the August 31st approximately 12000 Metropolitan police officers were on strike. The government of Lloyd George was quickly forced to concede to the unions demands on pay, conditions and the re-instatement of Thiel. However, the question of union recognition was not completely answered by Lloyd George saying that he could not recognise a union in wartime.
Although not fully recognised, the concessions led to an ease of repression against union activists and also a massive expansion of the union itself. Moreover, both in recognition with it’s loyalty to the workers movement and realising its own strength the union publicly declared that its members would stop repressing workers, and not be used for strike-breaking. The union in London also fought for democratic control of the police force rather than the despotic control of the Home Office appointed Commissioner, General Macready.
A battle emerged over the newly created elected representative board which was to negotiate wages and conditions with Macready. The union made all the officers on the board ex-officio members of its executive and dominated it. It used this board to extend its control over police deployment and refused to pass on orders against the interests of police officers and workers alike.
However, on 24th February 1919, after the board refused to accept one of Macready’s orders he moved against the union and drew up plans for elected three different boards each representing a different ranks of the police force, constables, sergeants and inspectors individually. Union activists were dismissed and the Home Secretary in support of Macready that any policemen who retained membership of the Union would lose their jobs, and on 8th July 1919 starting bring forth a bill to ban police from being members of a trade union. Crucially, however, the government combined repression with concessions that vastly increased pay and used the new three-tier representative structure to establish the Police Federation, a kind of company union that still exists today.
The union had already balloted on strike action over recognition, improvements in pay and the reinstatement of a union activist, getting 44,599 in favour with only 4324 against. However, they blundered when they called off action after reports of Macready bringing in the military to strike-break against them. In fact the government had been planning against them ever since making the concessions the previous year. The union tried to lean on the rest of the labour movement for support, however, a combination of opposition to a strike from the tops of the movement as well as the difficulties of convincing workers who had previously had the police used against to come out in support of the police, meant that the supportive action that took place quickly dissolved away. Most of the police did not come out, when the last ditch strike action took place as the bill prohibiting union membership was read out in parliament. Indeed, only in Liverpool was the strike a success with over half the membership coming out, but it was eventually suppressed, with all strikers dismissed from the force.