Here is a timely book which seeks to cut through the gibberish, pseudo-science and financial jargon attached to the “City”, industrial investment and finance, and above all the so-called incomes, prices and profits “plan”.
In addition the authors have sought to evaluate the role and future of that much maligned worker, the shop steward.
Without doubt the first part does a great service to all workers, and I hope that the scholarly treatment will not put readers off. On the contrary, I urge them to read it carefully. A little perseverance to encompass the first page and you will find its simplicity, the refusal to write down, and the whole approach sound. It tears away the devices of so many writers on economics who consistently shroud the subject in such abstractions as to instil in the worker the conviction that this is not his subject, nor his business, but some special esoteric science, the preserve of the “educated”, the employers and the writers of the City page.
The whole question of “incomes policy” has been discussed by some ad nauseam. That history will come to estimate that the plan is no plan at all, that it is nothing but a confidence trick on those who labour, is without doubt, but now that the “experts” have all gone through the cerebral exercise there is the danger that the thing itself will come to be established by the indifference, passivity and, indeed, ignorance of the working class. If the workers are already sick of the matter, and they should be, then let them be assured they are going to be much more so, and of its effects in the future. To avoid this it is essential to understand it – given knowledge one will not be sickened but awakened to its dangers.
The book brings home that it is not more palatable to the working class to trade a Selwyn Lloyd pay pause for a George Brown warning light or a wages stop. Nor is it very original. Stafford Cripps tried and failed. It has been tried and is being tried in other European countries and has failed, and is failing thanks to the resistance of the organised working class. The notion is as old as capitalism and just as anachronistic.
It is in the second part that the book is not so well informed. I do not accept that the extension of shop stewards’ organisations, their increase in number, will automatically lead to the development of a socialist movement. There needs to be politics – working class politics. This is not a question of being militant on economic demands within the factory or place of work alone, or of taking one’s politics from the policies or utterances of the “politicians”, whether of right or left, but of the development of political aims by the working class, and of insisting that it is not a case of our supporting or adopting the policies of political parties but of their supporting the aims and aspirations of the working class.
On the question of so-called “unofficial” strikes it is as well to remember that there is no special virtue in their being unofficial, that their designation thus is solely the business of the union concerned, ie the membership, and it is as well that this is so. It is not the business of the government, the employers or news media. Workers will wait a very long time before the employers will declare a strike official. Where a strike is said to be unconstitutional, in conflict with agreements entered into between the parties, it should be remembered that such agreements are frequently come about by virtue of strike action, that agreements are not the laws of the Medes and Persians, that they are frequently departed from by either side and are subject to amendment and revision. To argue that to incorporate no-strike clauses in agreements arbitrarily removes the possibilities of strikes or lockouts is to deny history. The conflict is there and will not be removed by wishful phrases.
The portion of this book dealing with shop stewards and workshop organisations is extremely timely. The attacks on them, which are after all the fruit of long industrial struggle and the natural development of a measure of democracy, are today unprecedented. An attempt is made here to explain the reasons for this campaign of lies and calumny being heaped against the unions and their officers in the workshops, the shop stewards. Space alone prevents a deeper exploration and analysis of the danger. The new threats of legislation, if unresisted, will rush us back to the Combination Acts. There was unprincipled abuse and pillorying of shop stewards and a cynical exploitation of this kind of McCarthyism introduced in the general election – a suggestion that the shop steward is some kind of monster tyrant strutting around the factory with a noose to hand to apply lynch law. There is a tyranny within factories, but it is imposed by the employer. It is a fact that a blacklist very much applies. It is a fact that in many factories every possible device is used to obstruct, delay and evade the operation of the trade unions exercising their functions. It is a fact that there are employers who deny trade union recognition altogether.
There is, paradoxically enough, a gentler tyranny imposed on the shop steward by some workers. Frequently he becomes their substitute for participation in the struggle themselves – they do sometimes see him as the substitute for their own militancy. There is a tendency at times for some groups of workers or an individual worker to exploit the best qualities in so many shop stewards, particularly the prime reason (in my opinion) why so many accept election to this union office. This is their unquestionable inability to accept injustice to their workmates, their desire to insist that they and their workmates shall be treated with dignity. In pursuit of this they are prepared to, and do, give up their leisure to devote many hours outside work time in dealing with the problems of industrial relationships. No employers devote anything like the time in this direction (perhaps this is just as well). But if the employers applied as much time to production they would undoubtedly have little left to bleat and whine about these dreadful people the shop stewards. Who knows, if they applied themselves to work a little more they might not even need to.
The workers do know that the average steward is ever ready to assist and represent them, and that this is continually done at the expense of the same steward applying himself to the daily task of maintaining his family and paying the rent. A survey of earnings of shop stewards, especially in the production field, where payment by results and piece-work obtains, would surely show that he takes out less on average than his workmate engaged on an identical worktask. That the workers are conscious of this is sometimes shown by their offsetting of the steward’s loss of piece-work earnings through a shop fund. This is not general nor is it the answer. It is the steward’s function to advance the just demands and aspirations of those who elect him, but equally it is imperative that the workers support and participate at all times in that struggle. Only thus can the maintenance of wages and working conditions be assured, let alone improvement be obtained in the present period.
The acceptance of this role can lead to the development of higher aims – socialist aims. It is especially important now for all workers to insist on no retreat, on their right to collective bargaining, on their right to trade unions unfettered by anti trade union legislation – to remember that the attacks on stewards today are truly an attack on the workers. The answer is to attack the attackers, no matter who.
We should thank the authors for their contributions whether or not we accept in toto the political conclusions. The serious research and selfless labour to produce this book is done without regard to any return or gain by them. It puts to shame so many organisations who should be doing just this. With all the lip service to modernisation (whatever that means) of the unions, we should be grateful that there are still volunteers.
1. Reg Birch was a leading Maoist, former Communist Party militant, and top AEU official.
Last updated on 19.4.2003