Bristol Trade Unions

Amber Druce

Curator – Social History

Trade unions were set up and exist to protect the pay, benefits, working conditions and status of workers through collective bargaining. They can help shape a more hopeful society.

Our collections provide an insight into the history of Bristol trade unions and industrial action. You can also find more paper-based evidence in Bristol Archives (Ref.32080).

Related objects

Trade Union banners

Trade Union banners provide a strong visual message and a clear voice in protests, marches and parades. Traditional designs highlight unity, strength and compassion.

M Shed has a collection of painted silk Trade Union banners that are displayed one at a time on rotation. They’re incredibly beautiful and important historic objects, but very fragile.

The Arrowsmith Dispute

In 1993, against a background of national change in the printing industry and its labour relations, the entire 120-strong workforce of the long-established printing company J.W. Arrowsmith Ltd was dismissed. When everyone was offered reinstatement under changed conditions, including de-recognition of the trade union, only five returned to work. The remainder stayed away. A picket was maintained on the works gate for 18 months.

The Arrowsmith picket line, 1993. © Mike Vine

Both sides in the dispute had a lot to lose and took a determined stand. The employers believed that they had the right under law to set and vary terms and conditions by agreement with their own workforce. They believed that the viability of the company was threatened by the imposition of national pay agreements. After a long period of good relations with their workforce, they were surprised by the breakdown of negotiations that led to the dispute.

The workforce, on the other hand, felt betrayed by the management. They believed that the company could afford to give them a pay increase and pointed to expenditure by the owners and managers that suggested that the firm was not as loss-making as was suggested. The vast majority of the staff remained loyal to the trade union’s stand throughout the 18 month dispute, although in the end they lost their argument.

J.W. Arrowsmith closed as a printing company in 2006.

Related objects