Unity Union
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History of Unity

Unity (formerly the Ceramic and Allied Trades Union and the National Society of Pottery Workers)

The earliest record of trade unionism among the pottery workers of North Staffordshire can be found in a 1792 newspaper report that records their efforts to combine for better wages.

Although this was clearly a short-lived attempt at combination, workers in the industry continued throughout the 19th century to try to form unions, many of which proved to be small, specific to particular specialist trades and often short-lived.

Early efforts to combine included the Union of Clay Potters, representing the skilled workers handling the early stages of manufacture, and the Pottery Printers Union, whose members decorated the finished product. In 1825, these two unions called the first official strike in the Potteries – that area of North Staffordshire around Stoke-on-Trent where the industry was most heavily concentrated. The strike was defeated and the union destroyed. A further attempt to create a China and Earthenware Turners Society in 1830 fared no better.

The following year, however, the National Union of Operative Potters was established, with the aim of recruiting all those working in the industry, including those in other parts of the country. Although membership grew to 8,000, the union was again defeated in strikes in 1834 and 1836 and ceased to operate.

During the 1840s, such trade unionism as existed in the industry was entirely non-confrontational. The United Branches of Operative Potters, founded in 1843, opposed strikes, but proved no more resilient than its predecessors, declining over the following decade to a small local organisation. Although re-launched as the National Order of Potters in 1883, it was dissolved in 1890.

Enduring trade union organisation arrived in the Potteries with the revival of trade in the 1870s. Yet many of the organisations established over the following 20 years were tiny in numbers and in ambition. Among those which disappeared – perhaps for want of members – were the Amalgamated Society of Pottery Moulders and Finishers, founded in 1893 and dissolved in 1900, the China Earthenware Gilders Union, which lasted just three years from 1891-94, and the Cratemakers Society, founded in 1872 but no longer in existence by the end of the decade.

Away from the Staffordshire heartlands, membership numbers were if anything even smaller. The Associated Stoneware Throwers, a Scottish union formed in 1877, had just 55 members when it joined the National Amalgamated Society of Male and Female Pottery Workers in 1908. The Bristol Stone Potters Society had no more than 20.

Yet from all this emerged a single, national organisation able to organise effectively through weight of numbers. The National Amalgamated Society of Male and Female Pottery Workers, formed in 1906 from a three-way merger, gradually swallowed up the smaller specialist organisations, becoming the National Society of Pottery Workers in 1919, and the Ceramic and Allied Trades Union in 1970.

The union became Unity in 2005 – and re-launched itself as “a union for all workers, not only those in the ceramics industry”.

Books

A History of the Potters' Union, by F Burchill and R Ross (CATU, 1977)

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