Trade unionism in the spinning industry dates back to the late eighteenth century. Combinations of spinners were active in the some of the industrial disputes of the early nineteenth century.
The trade unions established by mule spinners were probably the first specifically for machine-minders in the emerging factory system, where they quickly established themselves as an elite of the workforce. These early trade unions were essentially local affairs, concerned with the enforcement of wage lists in a particular district. Attempts at more co-ordinated action had not proved successful; in 1837 mule spinners in the North West had set up the Association of Operative Cotton Spinners, which brought together many existing district associations. The aim was to make possible general industrial action, involving all mule spinners, to regularise pay and working conditions. However the Association proved unable to build up the financial reserves to do this, partly because of resistance from the districts, which jealously guarded their autonomy.
Prospects for a stronger central union improved in the prosperous years following the Cotton Famine and, in 1870, the Association was refounded as "The Amalgamated Association of Operative Cotton Spinners, Self-Actor Minders, Twiners and Rovers of Lancashire and Adjoining Counties" (the name was later shortened to "The Amalgamated Association of Operative Cotton Spinners and Twiners", and it is henceforth referred to as the "Amalgamation"). Among the reforms introduced in this period was the standardisation of subscriptions from each branch. These monies were used for a central reserve fund, allowing the Amalgamation to equalise burdens during a strike or lock-out. Previously exhaustion of funds had forced smaller and poorer branches to break ranks during general industrial action.
Among the administrative changes introduced was a larger executive council, and a more professional, full-time post of general secretary. These reforms soon proved their worth; by the mid-1870s all the district associations had joined the Amalgamation. By the 1880s over 80% of all mule spinners were members, rising to almost universal coverage by the twentieth century. Membership peaked at 25,309 spinners in 1919. Almost two-thirds of members were from the Oldham and Bolton provinces, which dominated the affairs of the union. This success in recruitment made the Amalgamation one of the richest trade unions in the country at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The Amalgamation remained a federation of largely autonomous districts, with the branches responsible for most aspects of collective bargaining, especially the administration of wage lists, and friendly society activities. Policy was effectively determined by Bolton and Oldham members, with their built-in majority in the Executive Council. Unlike other major trade unions, a large centralised, bureaucratic organisation did not develop in the twentieth century. The grass-roots a remained powerful voice through their membership of the General Representative Meetings, the Amalgamation's legislature. Delegates were elected by the branches proportionate to number of members. The Meetings called strike ballots, and could veto measures proposed by the Executive Council. The latter, consisting of fifteen elected members (nine of whom were working spinners) and three officers (later reduced to two), was responsible for policy formulation and execution. For example, it oversaw wage negotiations with employers' association, and had certain discretionary powers over the conduct of strikes.
The Amalgamation had very few professional staff; for most of its existence appointing only a General Secretary and President (a Treasurer was also appointed until 1932).
These officials were appointed by the General Representative Meetings. The General Secretary was responsible for supervision of disputes, certain welfare tasks, collective bargaining with employers, and membership of various industry-wide bodies and general trade union committees. His post was summed up as "visiting, advising and reporting", and he often seemed a less powerful figure than his counterparts at the head of the Bolton and Oldham provinces, who possessed larger staffs and more impressive head-quarters. Only in the very last decades of its existence, did the Amalgamation become more powerful than its component members, as bargaining and other industrial matters shifted to an industry-wide basis. This was particularly the case after the introduction of the universal spinning list, or 'Evershed' List, in 1949, which abolished local determination of wage rates.
The Amalgamation was a 'closed' union, i.e. one which did not recruit outside a particular trade. Membership of the union was confined to mule spinners (including specialists such as twiners), and to men. Women were successfully excluded from mule spinning, although they dominated ring spinning, which was slowly eroding the dominance of the mule. Ring spinners were organised by the Cardroom Amalgamation.
The Amalgamation was concerned to maintain the mule spinners' customary control of work practices. Spinners usually worked in teams of three; the spinners and his two assistant, the piecer and little piecer. The team was paid a lump sum by employers, which was then divided up between them by the spinner. Piecers enjoyed relatively poor wages, but were compensated by a strict seniority system of promotion within the mill, granting spinning posts to the most senior piecer. Declining opportunities for piecers in the inter-war period saw considerable discontent with this system, and it was partly to prevent the piecers forming breakaway unions that they were admitted to the Amalgamation in 1919, though with fewer rights than the spinners. Following the recommendations of the Evershed Report 1945, the position of piecer was abolished and replaced by that of spinning assistant. Due to recruitment problems, women were allowed to take the latter position, and could therefore become members of the Amalgamation (the veto against them becoming spinners remained).
Industrial disputes in the spinning industry had often been violent in the mid-Victorian era. By the late nineteenth century, however, industrial relations were stabilising, although they were still far from harmonious. In 1893, the important "Brooklands Agreement" was signed, encouraging joint discussion between unions and employers before strikes and lock-outs could take place. By the inter-war period, economic problems were discouraging all-out industrial militancy, and despite some serious disputes, there was a growing trend to work with employers. Collective bargaining became highly formalised, and unions and employers co-operated on a number of non-wage issues. Industry-wide bodies, such as the Cotton Board and various joint commissions of enquiry encouraged this development.
The Amalgamation remained an independent trade union until its demise. Despite co-operating with the Amalgamated Weavers' Association and the Cardroom Amalgamation in bodies such as United Textile Factory Workers' Association, its members viewed the idea of a single textile trade union with suspicion. The Amalgamation was also affiliated to the General Federation of Trade Unions, set up in 1899 as a mutual insurance body for smaller unions, and to the TUC. It was originally one of the Congress's more important members and until the 1940s had continuous representation on the General Council.
The Amalgamation was also an early supporter of the Labour Party, where it tended to support the Party's right-wing.
The fate of mule spinning, and hence the Amalgamation, was effectively sealed in the 1950s. The Cotton Industry Act, 1959, had a considerable impact, subsidising the scrapping of old machinery, in particular, the mules. By the mid-1960s the Amalgamation was having difficulty meeting all of its obligations to remaining members. By the early 1970s, most of its constituent districts had been wound up, although mule spinning survived for a little longer at Haslingden and in West Yorkshire. In 1974, the former Cardroom Amalgamation, now known as National Union of Textile and Allied Workers, united with the Weavers to form the Amalgamated Textile Workers' Union. The Amalgamation did not join this body; instead it was decided to wind up the union and pay out the remaining funds to members and former members. The Amalgamation was removed from the Register of Trade Unions on 26 June 1976, although its officials remained active for some time after, disbursing dissolution pay.
The archive contains a wide range of records. Records include minute books, benefit registers, cash books and other financial records, rulebooks, wage lists, cuttings books, general secretary's notebooks, publications and numerous correspondence and subject files. Very few records from the nineteenth century have survived. Most records date from the period 1940 to 1976, and the collection is therefore very informative on the decline of the Lancashire cotton industry. There is much material relating to the major issues of this period: new working practices, protectionism and trade policy, the Cotton Industry Act 1959, and conditions in cotton mills.
The archive has been divided into the following classes:
ACS/2 Minute Books
ACS/3 Financial Records
ACS/4 Contribution Records
ACS/5 Welfare Records
ACS/6 Subject and Correspondence Files
ACS/8 Wage Lists and Agreements
ACS/9 Published material
ACS/10 Newspaper cuttings books