It’s a sign of commitment, an emblem of solidarity, and an integral part of a union’s history. Keri Myers looks at the timeless significance of the union badge
Whether to show union membership or to voice an opinion, trade union badges are an important part of the trade union movement. They have been in existence since the early years of the unions themselves and these little gems are a great way to explore trade union history.
Unions produce badges to commemorate and celebrate their role, as well as to mark anniversaries and length of service; to commemorate victories, strikes, lock-outs and even political persuasions. Not surprisingly there is a thriving and enthusiastic group of badge collectors in the UK and around the world who take collecting very seriously.
In their early days, union badges were used for a multitude of reasons, for example to identify a shop steward on the job or, in some unions, to prove a member had paid their subs when attending meetings. One early reason for creating a union badge was to simply declare the union’s existence. In some instances the badge is one of the most tangible proofs that a particular union ever existed.
These symbols of union recognition are usually designed with parts of the union’s emblem, or a symbol of the craft or trade, to illustrate what the union stands for. Many badges also incorporate the date the union was established along with the union’s motto.
Badges have a huge value in telling the story of how unions develop and merge. For example, badges still survive as a record of the many unions that came together to form the T&G [now itself part of Unite the Union], such as the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union, and the Carters, Lurrymen and Motormen’s Union, established in 1890 in Bolton.
ASLEF use the popular image of a clasped handshake along with two people working on a locomotive engine on their badges. One reason why ASLEF produces them is to celebrate its members’ years of service. It honours them by awarding completion of service badges every five years through to 45 years.
According to General Secretary Keith Norman, one reason his members choose to wear their union badges is to show they are committed trade unionists and proud to be a professional train driver. “It’s a nice way to send a message to the public that they are proud of their union heritage and proud of their chosen profession.” Every member of ASLEF receives a badge from the national office when they join the union and also receives specialised badges that reflect the sector they work in.
For Joanne Delaney, a Dublin supermarket worker and shop steward, her union badge became a matter of principle as well as pride when she was sacked for wearing it on her uniform at work. Thanks to prompt action by her union, Mandate, and support across Europe which led to a high profile campaign, she was reinstated.
The TUC has used badges to represent the larger fraternity since its foundation. The 6,000 strong TUC Badge Collection, including the important Sherwood collection, is now on long-term loan to the People’s History Museum in Manchester.
But that’s only part of what the museum has to offer – its own collection consists of around three thousand badges, around two-thirds of which related to unions. For a taste of the exhibits you can view many badges online on the museum’s website.
As regular Congress-goers will know, it is TUC tradition to issue an enamel badge to their delegates to Congress each year and you will find one in your delegate wallet. Tracing through the history of TUC Congress badges, it’s not quite clear who lays claim to the earliest. The oldest one in the TUC collection is from the year 1904, although Unison (another union with a voluminous badge collection) reportedly owns one from the Swansea Congress of 1901.
Many badges have been just thrown out and lost to history, although luckily there is a group of independent collectors who play an important role in preserving them. Brian Brock from Yorkshire has been collecting badges for the last 15 years. He started on holiday in Malta when he was presented with a badge from their general workers’ union, and it snowballed from there. He now boasts over 2,000 badges from UK unions and around a thousand more from around the world.
Brian is a member of the Trade Union Badge Collectors Society, a UK-wide group that has an interest in badges and trade union memorabilia. They usually meet twice a year to collate their findings in union badge guides and they also produce a regular newsletter.
Brian explains that some badges have a rarity value that creates high demand. Even the auction website, eBay, features union badges. Most badges on eBay sell for between £3 and £4 but some go for as much as £200 if they are really unique. There are also some cases where a union has withdrawn badges before distributing them, which makes them extremely rare and sought after by collectors.
Brian recently acquired a Congress badge from 1919 for £60 and, as time goes on, badges issued prior to World War II are becoming increasingly more rare and valuable.
Another vivid part of badge history is the story they tell during times of struggle. One of the most noteworthy examples is the miners’ strike of 1984-1985. Brian collected over 200 badges during this time. For him they are important because they show just how many different pits and areas were devastated. Just as in the General Strike almost 60 years before, badges were a major source of revenue for the strike fund, selling or £2 – £3 each. Now many of them are highly collectable and have increased in pure cash value because they act as an historical record of the strike.
So, when you receive your TUC badge this year put it on with pride. Our brothers and sisters in the movement have been doing exactly that for years and will continue to do so for many more to come. The badge you are wearing is not just a piece of metal and enamel on your lapel; it is a piece of history in the making – and who knows, if you take good care of it, maybe one day it will be a collector’s item too.
- This article first appeared in the TUC Congress Guide for 2006, and is reproduced here with the permission of the author. At the time of writing, Keri Myers worked for the TUC Library Collections at London Metropolitan University.