First Steps

GFTU bookI officially started my PhD on 1st September 2017, so I am right at the beginning of this incredibly daunting but exciting adventure. I’m heading into doctoral research straight from my History BA (Hons), so I feel like I am hurtling into the deep end of things! This thought keeps popping into my head: ‘I have effectively been hired to do a job in which I must write more than 90,000 words on a subject, whilst only ever having written a 10,000 word undergraduate dissertation before’. Yikes.

My thesis is about the General Federation of Trade Unions from 1899 – present day. There has only ever been one book written about them (by Alice Prochaska) and it was felt by the GFTU that it was time for an up to date account of their involvement with 20th century trade unionism and working class political culture. I’ll talk more about the process of finding and applying for PhD positions in a later post, because I think that’s something we could talk more about in Social Sciences and Humanities, but for now I’ll just outline my ideas for the direction I will take with the thesis:

Let’s face it: trade union history can be as dry as sand. There has been (with notable exceptions) a great many books written about the inner workings of these organisations that have focused on often mundane meetings and endless minute books talking about resolutions. Don’t get me wrong – these meetings are the backbone of trade union activity, and we as historians (am I one yet? Not sure…) practically feed off these precious documents and data-rich paper trails. But frankly, they tend to make pretty boring stories. What excites me as a researcher is people, no matter how mundane or everyday their lives are. For me, people make their unions what they are, not the speeches of the leaders. I want to write about them and what made them sign up to their unions, to strike with their union or in solidarity with others, and to push for the huge social policy changes that marked the 20th century.

Therefore this thesis will not be a linear history of the GFTU. Instead, I will be looking at themes in political and social working class history – protesting, women’s rights, internationalism, visual communication and worker photography – and finding stories and experiences of people from within the GFTU through these particular lenses.

For now, I am embedded in reading up on general social and political history of the 20th century. I’m planning my chapter headings, looking at potential archives and resources, and generally trying to get my head around research methodologies and managing my work load. From there I will be looking more closely at individual union histories, and conducting some oral history interviews.

So best get cracking!

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