Tony Cliff
& Colin Barker

Incomes policy, legislation and shop stewards

Chapter Seven: Shop stewards and unofficial strikes

Going through “procedure”

The rank and file of the trade unions have to deal not only with the employers and the state, but also with the trade union bureaucracy. This, like the proverbial wheelbarrow, moves only as far as it is pushed and no further. And being a very rusty wheelbarrow, it takes a great deal of effort to make it move at all. The trade union bureaucracy sticks to procedure, in other words to formal agreements negotiated with the employers. Procedure dictates that when workers are in dispute with employers they should use all the constitutional rungs before they declare a strike.

Procedure is usually an extremely tortuous process, involving a number of stages: negotiation between local union officials and management; then negotiation between more senior union representatives and the district employers’ association; and finally negotiations between national union officials and national employers’ associations. In industries with joint industrial councils the final stage of negotiation may be at the council itself or else a committee of the council.

In engineering the process of procedure takes, on average, about three months. Quite often, if no agreement has been reached at the end of all the stages of negotiation, the entire process is begun all over again.

Not only is the process very slow indeed, but the number of cases that are resolved is tiny. Thus in 1959, for instance, of 147 cases involving the 1,300,000 manual workers in federated firms in the engineering industry that were sent to the central conference in York, only 14 were settled (23 were referred back, 42 were retained in the hands of the central authorities, in 56 cases a “failure to agree” was recorded, and so on). [1]

It is hardly surprising to learn that in only a very small number of cases were strikes in the engineering industry “constitutional”, i.e. declared after procedure was exhausted:



Number of constitutional
stoppages recorded





















Thus over a period of ten years, in which there were literally hundreds of strikes in the engineering industry, the average number of “constitutional” strikes was only three a year!

One of the nastiest features of procedure is that it is very discriminatory. Workers are not allowed to bring about a change in, say, wages or conditions until procedure has been exhausted, but employers are free to introduce changes in conditions, in speed-up, piece-rates, etc, and only after the change has been made can workers take them through procedure. Workers are not allowed to withdraw their labour until they have gone right through procedure. Employers are free to sack workers without going through procedure first.

Yet the York memorandum, with its “provisions for the avoidance of disputes”, still survives in the engineering industry after 50 years – and this after decades of sharp opposition to it among engineering workers. [3]

It is only on very rare occasions that official strikes take place before procedure has been exhausted. As a result, strikes are nearly always unconstitutional. But not only this – they are also nearly always unofficial.

Unofficial strikes

Outside the declining industries (coal mining and textiles) and to some extent the docks there has been an uninterrupted growth of strike movements over the past three decades, as the following table shows:



Annual average number of man-days
lost through disputes (thousands)

Average number of man-days lost yearly
in disputes per 1,000 insured persons














Shipbuilding and
ship repairing







Coal mining







and vehicles





















Food, drink
and tobacco







As one expert, Professor Turner, has noted:

If one takes ... that five-year period up to 1961, one finds that the number of workers reported to have been involved in strikes is comparable with that in the five years of unrest up to and including 1926 – the year of the General Strike itself – and that the number of separate strikes reported is very much higher than for any comparable period since figures first began to be systematically collected in the 1890s. [5]

And furthermore:

If one puts mining aside as the special case it is, the frequency of strikes for all other industries over the past few years immediately shows a very different aspect. And this is so marked that it is worth detailing. For ten years up to 1956 the reported annual number of stoppages fluctuated around 500 (which was also pretty similar to the rate for the immediate pre-war years). In 1956 itself it was 570, but the number then rose: in 1957 to 640; in 1958 to 670; in 1959 to 780; in 1960 to 1,180; and in 1961 to 1,220. [6]

Continuing the figures from the point at which Turner left off, we find [7]: in 1962, 1,244; in 1963, 1,082; in 1964, 1,456; and in 1965, 1,496. In other words, from 1956 to 1965 the number of strikes recorded by the Ministry of Labour nearly trebled.

Actually many strikes escaped the net of official statistics. Firstly, go-slows, overtime bans and cases of working to rule are not recorded in official statistics. Secondly, the number of actual strikes which have not been reported to the Ministry of Labour and thus have escaped being tabulated is very large, especially nowadays when strikes tend to be shorter in duration (see below). Thus, for instance, during an official inquiry into a dispute at the firm of Briggs Bodies in April 1957, the management complained that in the previous 18 months it had experienced 234 stoppages, but that of these only a dozen were reported in the press or recorded in official statistics. Similarly, early in December 1960 Ford claimed that it had had 57 strikes that year in its Dagenham plant, but that of these only ten had been publicly recorded. [8] And again, the shipbuilding employers estimated that in the first nine months of 1958 there had been 1,068 stoppages of work in their industry, although less than 100 of these were included in the annual statistics for that year. [9]

It appears that over the last year or so the tide of strikes has risen very sharply indeed. Thus, for instance, in the car industry the number of hours lost in strikes has been as follows [10]:











Pressed Steel



































Of the strikes today the overwhelming majority are unofficial. On the docks:

Out of 421 strikes since 1960, 410, accounting for about 94 percent of days lost, have been unofficial. This percentage of days lost through unofficial strikes is substantially greater than the corresponding percentages in a number of other industries involving heavy manual work, for instance shipbuilding (46 percent), engineering and vehicles (49 percent) and construction (36 percent). [11]

As regards the mines, “Since 1926 there has been no nationwide strike sanctioned by the National Union of Mineworkers, and since 1939 every single dispute has been unofficial, unsupported by the National Union of Mineworkers”. [12]

Of the 498 strikes in the car industry in the first six months of 1965 only four were given official backing by the unions. [13] And the trend is for more and more of the strikes to be unofficial. Thus in 1936 and 1937, according to the Ministry of Labour, about one third of the strikes were official. [14] Today, according to the same source, the proportion has dropped to about one twentieth. And if account were taken of all the strikes which fail to get recorded in the ministry’s statistics, then the proportion of official strikes would be even smaller. The small amount of support given to strikes and strikers by the unions is made very clear by the fact that the total amount spent by all unions on strike benefit in 1963 was £462,000, or about 11d per union member per year. [15] Death benefits were larger, at £1,011,000. Clearly union members get more from their organisations when they are dead and buried than when they are alive and fighting.

The impact of the few

To have a great impact it is not necessary for the number of workers on strike to be large. From an employer’s point of view there is a relation between the capital/labour ratio (or “capital intensiveness”) of the firm or industry concerned and the cost of a strike. The greater the capital intensiveness of an industry, the more important it becomes, in order to cover the capital charges, to keep the plant running fully and continuously. Idle capital is a luxury which a capital-intensive industry can afford even less than it can afford idle labour.

It does not, of course, require a withdrawal of labour on the part of the entire personnel of a highly mechanised undertaking to bring the whole plant to a standstill. A strike by a relatively small number of key workers – for instance, forklift truck operators who remove finished products from the end of a production line – can cause the stoppage of a whole factory at a cost, in terms of lost production, which mounts to hundreds of thousands of pounds in a very short time. [16]

The impact of a strike by a quite small number of key workers is especially great in the motor industry, where the interdependence between large numbers of firms is very great indeed. Thus, for instance, BMC buys its components from no less than 4,000 different suppliers, and Standard-Triumph has 3,000 suppliers. [17] A strike in any of the supply firms or in the transport companies connecting them (or taking the cars away) can well lead to a standstill in the factories of the main car producer. This is illustrated clearly by the following short list of a few of the strikes that took place in 1965 [18]:




Workers laid off

Lost output

17 January

Morris Cowley


6,000 for 11 days
by BMC

24 February

British Road Services

200 drivers

1,000 by BMC


Pressed Steel

Not known

6,400 for 2½ weeks
by Rootes

8,750 cars –
£4½ million

28 May

Austin, Longbridge


5,000 by BMC

£2 million

15 June

Nuffield Bodies,

16 transport drivers

1,000 by BMC



Computer maintenance

2,000 for 2 weeks
by Rootes

4,000 cars


Birmingham Aluminium

80 die-casters

21,000 by BMC

£8 million


Sidgwick & Collings,

300 delivery drivers

5,000 by Ford

None – short time
was imminent


Short but effective

On the whole the British working class is relatively so strong at present that the overwhelming majority of strikes are of very short duration, especially when we compare them with the strikes of the 1920s and 1930s. Then strikes were protracted, defensive struggles, often ending in defeat and demoralisation [19]:


Number of workers
involved (thousands)

Number of working days
lost (thousands)

Average number of days
worker on strike

















Thus the average length of strike in 1953-64 was less than one third of that in 1927-38, or about one tenth of that in 1919-26. (Of course, if we could take account of all the strikes that are not registered with the Ministry of Labour, the table would show a still more significant shift in the size of strikes.)

In the period 1919-26 the employers were on the offensive. Although the workers were on the defensive, they were very tough opponents, and thus the strikes were drawn out, often over weeks at a time. But a long series of heavy defeats and the crushing misery of mass unemployment finally demoralised the workers, and strikes in the period 1927-38 were both fewer and shorter. But today the situation is very different again: workers since the war have, although in a very fragmented way, themselves been on the offensive, and they have been confident and tough as perhaps never before. For one thing, for a whole generation they have known not one serious defeat, at least on any scale that can compare with the bitter and exhausting defeats of the 1920s.

It is no wonder that today the most perplexing issue facing management is “labour relations”. It is a great deal easier for the bosses to calculate and predict the behaviour of inanimate machines than of people in a class divided society: “It is hardly surprising that the Austin works manager used to spend 90 percent of his time on questions of industrial relations”. [20] And the same was true at Vauxhall too: “The former vice-chairman, Sir Reginald Pearson, said that he spent between 60 and 75 percent of his time on labour matters”. [21]

Shop stewards

And who leads the struggle at plant level for improved pay and conditions? Who acts as the main organiser of the unofficial movement? Who spearheads the wage drift (or wage drive) strike? Who really worries the management? Above all, the shop stewards committees and similar rank and file committees. In the engineering industry shop stewards first appeared at the end of the 19th century, and during the First World War they became very prominent. The struggle that they led at that time culminated in the National Administrative Council of Shop Stewards in 1917, and in the fight for the 40-hour week in 1918-19. [22] By about 1920, with a rise in unemployment and an enormous offensive against the working class from the employers, the shop stewards’ movement that had been born during the war was as good as wiped out. But in many individual factories shop stewards survived throughout the 1920s and 1930s, partly because their activities during and immediately after the war had forced the unions and the employers to recognise their existence in formal agreements. But as the trade position began to revive in the late 1930s a revival in the number of engineering shop stewards began: “While the exact numbers are not known, the increase was indicated by the fact that the average payment to stewards for the four years 1935-38 was nearly three times as great as for the preceding four years”. [23]

During and since the Second World War national wage agreements have become more and more of a “floor” for earnings, a general framework within which domestic plant-level bargaining, largely carried out by the stewards, has grown up. As we showed in Chapter Five, “wage drift” has come to play an increasingly important part in the earnings of many British workers.

Some very interesting statistics relating to shop stewards in the engineering industry show clearly the acceleration in shopfloor representation over the past few years. In the eight years from May 1947 to June 1955 the number of AEU shop stewards in federated establishments rose by 24 percent, or about 2.8 percent a year. As against this, in the period from June 1955 to December 1961 the number rose by 39 percent, or some 4½ percent a year. [24]

The total number of shop stewards in Britain is not known, and estimates vary widely. One source estimates them at about 90,000 [25], another at between 100,000 and 120,000 [26], and yet another at 200,000. [27] Shop stewards are characteristically to be found in large firms especially.

In small firms they are much more rare. About a half of all British trade unionists are covered by shop stewards’ organisations, and this half is typically the best organised section of the trade union movement, and also often the most militant.

Workers are often much more involved in the elections of their shop stewards, and show more interest in stewards’ work than they do in branch elections or branch activities. As we showed in the last chapter, there are a number of related reasons for the decline of the union branches. One estimate was that only about 4 percent of members of the TGWU attend union branch meetings. And according to another estimate, only one trade unionist in 20 takes anything like an active part in the life of his branch. [28]

In a research project from the University of Cambridge, 100 workers were interviewed at the Vauxhall factory at Luton, of whom 79 were members of trade unions (AEU or NUVB). Of these 79, only four said that they regularly attended branch meetings, and 57 said they never went at all. Only 36 of the 79 took the trouble to vote in the union branch elections (and NUVB ballot papers were actually taken onto the shopfloor for workers to fill in) – 27 out of the 79 never voted at all. This apathy towards branch unionism was not, however, the whole story. There was a great deal more interest in shop unionism – 66 out of the 79 regularly voted for shop stewards, and AEU shop meetings were attended by one man in every three. And many of the men who were interviewed spoke of discussions on trade union matters which they had had on the shopfloor either among their mates or with their stewards. [29]

Another survey showed that on average 53 percent of a steward’s duties are concerned with discussions with members and other shop stewards (32 percent) and negotiations with management above the level of foreman (21 percent). Only 16 percent was spent on grievance dealings with foremen, 11 percent on forms of joint consultation, 8 percent on other meetings, and 6 percent each on rate fixing and correspondence. [30] Tony Topham has summed up the position of the stewards well:

(1) We are witnessing a rapidly accelerating drive for worker representation on the shopfloor, which is displacing the concessionary management device of joint consultation. (2) The shop steward’s constituency is of a size which renders him properly subject to democratic pressures from below – he is dealing with people who know the situation ... (3) The steward’s main role is concerned with issues arising directly between his constituents and management – his role in the union’s machinery (“other meetings”) is minimal. [31]

Those who support the idea of an incomes policy, too, have perceived the crucial role of the shop steward in bargaining, although the solutions they propose are exactly those which we are concerned in this pamphlet to counter:

It is one thing for the TUC to sign the Statement of Intent, for the delegates to the Labour Party conference to cheer Mr George Brown’s promises of a “just incomes policy”, but it is quite another matter for these sentiments to gain much support where it really matters, on the shopfloor ... The measure of success with which the TUC and its member unions are able to win over the rank and file will depend either on the extent to which the former are able to impose their will or on how successful they are in persuading the shopfloor to follow their lead. [32]

The urge to control

Both the rise of the shop stewards’ organisations and the number of unofficial strikes are symptoms (among other things) of the common aspirations of the working class – towards workers’ control. Under capitalism the worker is a cog in the machine, with no say in the running of production, and no part in the creative organisation of his work. The growing number of strikes in Britain express the worker’s rebellion against this subordination, this mutilation, limitation and alienation of his own creativity, only too clearly.

The situation is illustrated by an article that appeared in the Economist at the time of the Grimethorpe coal strike of August-September 1947, a strike that paralysed 63 collieries and cost 600,000 tons of coal. After 36,000 men had kept the strike going for three weeks in the face of strenuous attempts on the part of the NUM to get them back to work, the Economist wrote:

The issue which is being fought out at Grimethorpe ... can be summed up as a struggle between rationalisation and syndicalism. The argument over the extra working at the coal face appears to be merely the pretext for a showdown on whether control is to be exercised by an all-powerful board or whether the workers are to be given a measure of influence in the management of their own pits. Many miners expected nationalisation to result in workers’ control. Instead it has resulted in a large bureaucratic machine leaving the individual miner face to face with the same managers ... But the men have rebelled. They refuse to use the conciliatory machinery or to use the offices of the more remote union representatives. There seems to be no other explanation than that they wish to decide the issue for themselves. [33]

The urge for workers’ control is becoming more stridently expressed in strikes, as the decline in the proportion of strikes over purely wage issues shows:

In the 20 years of high employment from 1940 the proportion of strikes about “wage questions other than demands for increases”, and (particularly) about “working arrangements, rules and discipline” rose remarkably – from one third of all stoppages to three quarters ... One could say that these disputes all involve attempts to submit managerial discretion and authority to agreed – or failing that, customary – rules, alternatively, that they reflect an implicit pressure for more democracy and individual rights in industry. [34]

The TUC inquiry into Disputes and Workshop Representation confirms for 1958-59 that the majority of strikes involve an issue of managerial authority. [35] It is only if one understands the deep urge to control, and to overcome the basic alienation of workers in capitalist production, that one can understand the “folly” of workers who lose more money in waging a strike than they could possibly gain even if they won it completely. How else, too, can one explain the non-monetary causes of so many strikes?

A determination not to have the conditions of their work entirely dictated to them, a refusal to recognise what the capitalist press sometimes refers to as “management’s inalienable right to manage”, and a simple assertion of their quality as human beings rather than as the dumb animals that capitalist production requires them to be much of the time constantly expresses itself in the struggles of workers on the shopfloor, whether they refuse the foreman the right to swear at them, resist speed-up, or deny that management has the right to decide how long a girl may spend in the lavatory.

Even in strikes for monetary causes, the rebellion against the basic alienation is never far from the surface. One writer put this very well:

Wage claims are motivated much more frequently by rebellion against working conditions than by rebellion against the economic burden of exploitation borne by the labour force. They express an insistence to be paid as highly as highly as possible for the time lost, the life wasted and the freedom alienated as a result of working in such conditions. The workers insist on being paid as much as possible, not because they put wages (money and what it can buy) above everything else, but because, as trade unions stand at the moment, they can dispute the price of labour power with the employers, but not control over conditions and the character of the work. [36]

And in one of the very few detailed studies of a single strike, an American sociologist showed how a group of relatively backward, semi-rural workers expressed their resentment at increased supervision and tighter discipline by striking for a wage rise:

To the extent that workers viewed the changing social situation in the plant as “increased strictness”, and most did, their reaction was influenced by their notion of what was causing these changes. In large measure, workers perceived these changes as economically motivated. As one worker said bitterly, “They’ll do anything to save a nickel.” In other words, “strictness” was held to be due to the company’s effort to save money at the worker’s expense. In such a setting, a wage demand became a punitive retaliation – it was an effort, as one worker put it, to “hit the company where it hurt – in the pocketbook”. [37]

The shop stewards’ organisation as such is nothing but the expression of workers’ urge to control their own destinies. In setting rules for the manning of machines, in insisting on safety standards, in demanding a say in the pace of work, in seeking control over overtime and shift work, the workers announce clearly that they are no passive cogs that management can push about as it will. Similarly the demand to control “hiring and firing” (or at least to veto managerial decisions on this question), a demand that has led to innumerable strikes since the war, represents a challenge to the employers’ authority at its most vital point.

In one and the same plant two opposed and quite contradictory powers – management with their foremen and workers with their stewards – face one another. The two camps put forward two opposing principles and sets of demands – the prerogative of authoritarian management versus the democratic self-expression of the workers.

It is true of course that this demand for workers’ control is only partial, it is essentially defensive, it is fragmentary, and it is bound by the limits of the shop or the factory. But this demand for workers’ control, a demand that is voiced in a thousand different ways every day that workers go to work, is the embryo of full working class control at every level of society, political and economic alike. For socialists it is the most important fact about modern industrial capitalism – for the “bloody-mindedness” of workers, and the thousand and one ways in which they express their demand, implicitly and explicitly, for control over their own lives, is the embryo of workers’ power, of socialism.

“Buying the rulebook”

Over the last few years there have been a number of “productivity package deals”. These deals have been negotiated at a number of large plants in the oil, airways, electricity supply, chemical and metal industries, and to date as many as 20 have been signed. The most famous of them all, and the pioneer, was the 1960 agreement at Esso’s Fawley refinery. A great deal was said at the time of the negotiations about the “need to relate wages to productivity”, the “elimination of restrictive practices”, and so on. But the central feature of this package deal was an effort by the management to buy out the rulebook in order to eliminate all the elements of workers’ control, however limited, that existed in the refinery, and more specifically to cut the power of the shop stewards. This merits special attention, particularly as agreements of this sort are likely to spread further. [38]

The Fawley oil refinery near Southampton belongs to the Esso Petroleum Company and employs more than 2,000 workers. In 1960, after two years of negotiations between the management and the unions, a new package deal was signed that was quite unlike anything previously negotiated in Britain:

Briefly, the company agreed to provide large increases in its employees’ rates of pay-of the order of 40 percent in return for the unions’ consent to certain defined changes in working practices that were hampering a more efficient utilisation of labour. These changes included some relaxation of job demarcations, the withdrawal of craftsmen’s mates and their redeployment on other work, additional temporary and permanent shift working, and greater freedom for management in its use of supervision.

The second, equally remarkable, feature of the agreements was their radical approach to the problems of systematic overtime – that is, overtime which, by being permanently maintained at a high level, had become built into the firm’s wage structure, labour policy and work habits. By 1959 this had reached an average of 18 percent of total hours worked. Under the agreements management undertook to reduce this drastically over a period of two years and, among maintenance workers, to a stated target of 2 percent. The wage increases were to be given in five instalments, spread over the same period, so that they compensated for the dwindling overtime elements in the workers’ weekly pay packets. [39]

The management’s motives in seeking this agreement were twofold. They were anxious to increase the rate of profit on their operations, and they were equally anxious to curtail the power of the shop stewards in the refinery.

Esso is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, and during the second half of the 1950s the rate of profit in the US oil industry was being squeezed. The company was therefore concerned to cut its labour costs. As far as this objective was concerned, the agreements were a great success for the management. Although the figures given in the official account do not permit of any close analysis, management had no financial reasons to regret its “initiative”: “The agreements, far from costing the company anything, showed a profit even in immediate terms”. [40]

Although the workers received quite large wage rises, the intensification of effort that was required of them by the package deal more than compensated the company. Labour costs per unit of output were reduced after the agreement. Productivity per worker increased by over 45 percent, while take-home pay went up on average by only 30 percent.

But in its attempts to curtail the power of the stewards the management was a great deal less successful. However much the package deal may have resulted in an increased rate of exploitation, it certainly did not diminish the role of the shop stewards. Far from it. Yet this was what the inner managerial group at Fawley had intended:

They all cared, or came to care, about what they regarded as an abdication of responsibility on the part of management in labour relations. This had taken the form of allowing things to drift so that, by default, the initiative had passed increasingly into the hands of the shop stewards. The “group” wanted management to manage, to use its authority purposively with due regard for the human consequences of its decisions. [41]

Up to 1960 the existence of a large amount of overtime had strengthened the hand of the shop stewards, for they had maintained control over its distribution:

It helped to bring about a shift in authority from the union delegates [full time officials] to the shop stewards. The full time officials had no say in determining the amount of this substantial part of the workers’ pay packet. Their role was confined to the negotiation of rates. Moreover, here was a procedural aspect of industrial relations, the administration of overtime distribution, which was largely excluded from their control. Finally, overtime provided a convenient basis for a sanction which the stewards could apply – the rise in the fortunes of the unofficial movement among them coincided with the use of the overtime embargo.

The management intended that with higher pay, the abolition of overtime and the removal of “restrictive practices” there would be a radical diminution in the power of the shop stewards. But things worked out completely differently: “The shop stewards’ influence on negotiations was enhanced”. [42]

The administration of overtime had been an important foundation of the stewards’ authority in the workplace. With its reduction they had to find other outlets for their activities, and the Blue Book provided them. In submitting it to the unions, management was asking them to agree to an extension of its rights to act in ways from which it had previously been barred. [43]

In this aspect of the exercise – persuading the work groups to cooperate or at least not to resist change – the stewards were the key figures. Whether management and union officials liked it or not, they were forced to come to terms with them wherever they enjoyed the backing of their work groups. [44]

In determining their attitudes towards many of the proposed changes in working practices especially, they had to be guided by the senior stewards’ views, and even perhaps leave the decision entirely to them. For one thing, the stewards knew far more about the relevant facts and the men’s reactions [than did the union officials]. [45]

The cutting of overtime and getting rid of restrictive practices meant an increase in supervision. Where productivity agreements are associated with a change from piece-rates to time-rates, the need for tighter control by supervision is emphasised even more. For under piece-rates supervision can be quite loose. Once the rate is fixed the worker acts partly as his own foreman, because if he doesn’t work his pay will drop. Under time-rates there is nothing apart from the foreman to make the worker keep working hard.

The abolition of piece-work is supposed to cut the power of the shop stewards, however, because they are the people who negotiate the piece-rates. But because a change to time-rate leads to tightening of supervision, there is increased conflict between workers and foreman which can only lead to a further strengthening of the power of the shop stewards, and even to more frequent spontaneous unofficial workers’ action.

At Fawley it is clear that instead of increasing the management’s freedom of action, the package deal limited it still more, because the stewards refused to allow the management to go one inch beyond what had been formally bargained (despite vain hopes on management’s part that the agreements would be read “in the spirit rather than the letter”). In short, the shift from conventional bargaining to intensive plant-level productivity negotiations had the important effect of enhancing the role of the stewards and making them still more central in the politics of the refinery.

The lessons from Fawley are clear: “Managements that engage in productivity bargaining have to be prepared to devote more, not less, of their time to labour relations and to expect that their tasks will become more onerous and exacting”. [46]

It was after the concluding of the Fawley agreement – the agreement intended to strengthen managerial authority – that the first unofficial strike in the history of the refinery took place. [47]

Productivity agreements or not?

Whether workers are bribed as at Fawley, or blackmailed as at the Fairfields shipyard [48], into selling their rulebook, experience will prove that they cannot for long sell “restrictive practices” which are really rank and file job defences, intended to restrict the authority of management. Five years after the signing of the Fawley agreement the employers have become wise to the inherent contradictions in the new set-up. Thus when the Confederation of British Industry gave evidence to the Royal Commission on Trade Unions it stressed “the dangers of Fawley-type productivity agreements”:

It was ... suggested by the CBI that if restrictive practices were bought out it could lead logically to the creation of new practices, which the workers would then want to sell as a saleable commodity. Mr John Davies, director-general of the CBI, said he understood that new restrictive practices had grown up at Fawley since the agreement was signed. [49]

Shop stewards’ organisations: weaknesses and strengths

In evaluating the shop stewards’ organisations at present, it is important that trade unionists and socialists are very clear about their weaknesses and their points of strength.

The most significant weakness of shop stewards’ organisation today is its fragmentation. As the concentration and centralisation of capital have increased, through the processes of merger and takeover, the great combines running a number of plants across the country have become very prominent. Thus for instance ICI employs 110,000 workers in 100 plants in Britain alone, BMC employs 85,000 in 11 plants, and so on. The need to combine and coordinate the activities of shop stewards at least between the plants of a single combine is self-evident. But moves towards such coordination have been quite slow and faltering.

We have only to remember how the workers at British Light Steel Pressings were beaten after a 13-week battle in 1961 [50] to see the importance of these weaknesses. BLSP is part of the Rootes combine, but the BLSP workers were defeated because the stewards in the main part of the combine, in Coventry, did not black the goods from their sister plant in London. The fact that there existed a Rootes shop stewards committee consisting of delegates from the various factories that met regularly once a month did not in itself guarantee united action. And a comparison of wages and conditions in the Rootes factory in Linwood with those in Rootes at Coventry shows how far we still are from unity between stewards even within a single combine. Nor are the reasons difficult to understand. Negotiations are done on a local basis, in a particular factory or even a particular shop. Demand for workers varies greatly between different districts. There is a great unevenness in strength of organisation, in traditions of militancy, and so on.

Added to the above difficulties is the sharp opposition of the trade union bureaucracy towards any industry-wide link-up between shop stewards. Thus in 1960 the General Council of the TUC, referring to “organisations linking a number of joint committees, either from several factories under the same ownership (for example, BMC) or throughout an industry (for example, electricity generating)”, stated that their “effect is often a challenge to established union arrangements”. [51] As for “attempts to form a national centre or to call national conferences of stewards irrespective of the industry in which they work (for example, the abortive conference in December 1959 convened in the name of the Firth Brown stewards, or the organisation which goes under the name of the Engineering and Allied Trades Shop Stewards National Council)”, the TUC officiously warned:

The aim of the sponsors of this ... type is to usurp the policy-making functions of unions or federations of unions. Unions are advised to inform their members that participation in such bodies is contrary to the obligations of membership. [52]

And if this warning was not enough, the TUC went on, “Unions should be more vigilant, and if, after a warning, a steward repeats actions which are contrary to the rules or agreements, his credentials should be withdrawn”. [53]

In 1959 the shop stewards committees at Firth Brown (Sheffield) and Ford (Dagenham) jointly called a National Shop Stewards Conference. The Communist stewards play a leading role in both factories. The executive of the AEU banned the conference. Bro Caborn, the convenor at Firth Browns, was suspended from holding office for one year.

The Power Workers’ Combine was formed some time ago to fight for improved conditions in the power industry. As usual, the reaction of the full time officials was rapid and hostile. The unions (ETU included) declared that following the last settlement the Power Workers’ Combine was no longer necessary. On 14 November 1960 Frank Foulkes, president of the ETU and chairman of the Electricity Supply Industry National Joint Council, declared, “Unofficial bodies are not in the best interests of the industry.” Bro Wake, secretary of the combine, was then disciplined by the AEU. [54]

Since then the threat of expulsion from the ETU of Charles Doyle, the electricity supply shop steward who led the unofficial power workers’ combine, and the order to stop publication of the Power Worker have been in the same bureaucratic vein.

Nevertheless, despite the many bureaucratic checks that are placed on the activities of the various combine committees that link the stewards in different factories, there is no doubt at all of their importance. One of the most powerful is the BMC combine committee, and its meetings have an impact throughout the engineering industry, as was shown recently by two economists. [55] Their article detailed at some length the way in which this impact was made, and the conclusions are of sufficient interest to be worth spelling out.

BMC employs an individual incentive scheme for its production workers, by which each separate job has a rate attached to it, and the rates are adjusted each time there is a change in design or method. These individual incentive schemes of course provide considerable room for negotiations between stewards and management in each of BMC’s 11 factories. Through the constant bargaining over piece-rates, variations are continually developing between the average earnings of piece-workers in the different plants. As the average piece-rate earnings in the different plants go up, the bonus paid to the skilled time-workers goes up too.

All the joint stewards committees in the various BMC plants are affiliated to a completely unofficial combine committee which holds regular formal meetings every two months and coordinates the activities of the stewards in all the main plants.

The committee is primarily concerned with the rates of pay in the separate plants, particularly with piece-rates. The knowledge of the higher piece-rates or earnings in some plants acts as an inducement to those stewards in the plants with lower piece-rates of earnings to catch up. Thus, although the individual incentive rates in the various plants were not centrally controlled by management and permitted variations in average earnings between plants, the unofficial combine committee created pressure to equalise the earnings upwards in all the plants in all the regions. [56]

Ford stewards are in a weaker position. For one thing, Ford pays all its workers on a time-rate, according to grade. There is an unofficial combine committee that links the factories, but “it leads a much more furtive existence than the BMC committee and the official unions, and central management have far more control over the level of earnings in each plant in Ford”. [57]

However, weaker though they are, the Ford stewards are in touch with the BMC combine committee, and through these links they are able to compare their earnings with those won by BMC workers. And in negotiation with Ford management, Ford workers are able to raise themselves up by comparing themselves with BMC. This is also true of the other car firms: “Consequently the combine committees not only create pressures to equalise earnings upwards in the different works of the same firm, but they seek to narrow earnings differentials between firms”. [58]

So gains made by one group of workers in a BMC factory, say in Birmingham, are firstly generalised to the rest of the BMC plants (including the time-workers), then to the rest of the motor industry. But this is very far from being the end of the story:

Virtually all the specialist car producers – Rolls Royce, Daimler, Armstrong Siddeley, Jaguar, Rover Co, etc – are important manufacturers of other products. Consequently the shop stewards in these firms are interested in earnings in more than just the motor vehicle group. For example, a certain luxury car producer manufactures automobiles and aircraft engines. A strong unofficial shop stewards’ combine committee exists in this firm which meets fairly regularly to compare notes about the earnings, incentives and time-rates, and general working conditions in the different works – both the motor vehicle and the aircraft works ... As a result of the existence of combine committees such as this one, pressures are engendered to narrow the differentials between the automobile and the aircraft groups. [59]

And so it goes on. Firms in the aircraft industry like Vickers and English Electric are also engaged in other, non-aircraft business, and the stewards in these great combines are interested in earnings in still other sectors of engineering. As a result, workers throughout the whole engineering industry in the end stand to gain over a period of time from a gain made originally in one factory of BMC.

Quite apart from ethical socialist considerations, it is clear that the motto “Injury to one is injury to all” makes sense in strictly financial terms. The defeat of a strike or other form of action in a factory in the motor industry is a defeat for the workers in the entire engineering industry. And since other, worse organised workers compare themselves with engineers, it is a defeat for the entire working class.

Given the leading position of the BMC workers and their stewards in the motor industry, and the leading position of the motor industry in the engineering industry, it is hardly surprising that, as the table we quoted earlier in the chapter showed, BMC workers have more strikes than other firms in the motor industry. In a very real sense, they act as the vanguard of the wages movement.

As this long example has shown, the principle of “comparison” is very important for workers. But it is also important for the employers, who try to use it in reverse. Where workers compare themselves with their stronger and better-organised brothers, and use the comparisons to improve their wages and conditions, the employers try to force the stronger workers to accept the conditions of the weaker. This is the significance of the recent strike at Ford (Dagenham) in January 1966.

Paint sprayers at Dagenham work in very bad conditions. A few hours work in the paint booths on the production line is sufficient to saturate a worker’s skin and clothes in paint. Because of these bad conditions Dagenham paint sprayers had managed to win for themselves 104 minutes every eight-hour shift in rest periods. On 22 November 1965 the management proposed to the unions at a meeting of the Ford Efficiency Committee (a body set up after the defeat of the Dagenham strike in 1962-63) that bonus rates for paint sprayers should be increased by 2d an hour, but that the rest times would have to be cut. The unions would have none of this. The main argument used by the management, however, was that shorter rest times were in force at their Halewood plant, and what was accepted by Halewood workers would have to be accepted by Dagenham workers too.

The workers at Halewood are in a weaker position than at Dagenham. The Halewood factory was built less than five years ago (with government help) in a special development district, and Ford arrived on the Liverpool scene in the role of saviour (just as Rootes built its Linwood plant in Scotland “to ease the local unemployment situation”). This saintly posture, by both Ford and Rootes, enable them from the beginning to pay lower bonus and overtime rates, and to enforce stricter working conditions than they could do in their older and better organised plants. The strike in January 1966 at Dagenham has led to an inquiry by the motor industry’s “trouble shooter”, Jack Scamp (ex personnel director of GEC), whose findings, when they appear, are likely to support the Ford management’s comparisons between Dagenham and Halewood.

The importance of stewards’ joint action to raise pay and working conditions to the level of those won in the best organised factories is clear. If the stewards don’t do this, the management, faced with a squeeze on their profit margins, will attempt to force the reverse on workers.

The importance of stewards’ links is heightened by the fact that the union bureaucracy cannot be relied on to initiate joint, supporting action. Their hostility to unofficial strikes and unofficial combine committees is well known, but even in the case of official strikes their role is often, to put it mildly, dubious. Take, for instance, the case of the recent strike at the Woolf rubber factory in Southall. There some 600 Indian workers went on strike for seven weeks. The strike was declared official by the TGWU, yet not only was no strike pay given to them (because they were coloured?) but also, even worse, no move was made by the union officials to have goods produced by scabs at Woolf’s boycotted by workers at Ford or Vauxhall until the last week of the strike. There are 13,000 TGWU members at Ford, and the strike could have been much more successful if joint action of this sort had been initiated sooner. The weaknesses due to the isolation and self-sufficiency of the local stewards revealed themselves in this dispute too, for it was several weeks before the first collections in support of the strike were being taken in even the best organised local factories.

Fragmentation is a problem necessarily faced by any movement based on the workshop. But it is a problem which can be overcome, as was shown by the shop stewards’ movement that developed during the First World War and the period immediately following it. Take, for instance, the case of Leonard Hargreaves, a fitter employed at Vickers factory at Brightside, Sheffield. A skilled man, he was called up to fight in the trenches for the glory of Britain while dilutees remained in the factory. [60] This was a contravention of an agreement between the unions and the government of the day.

The shop stewards’ committee of Sheffield demanded that he be released in line with government assurances, and a mass meeting held under its auspices on 13 November threatened to strike unless its demands were complied with. On 15 November Hargreaves was released from the army, and the government agreed to meet the society to devise a scheme which would meet their objections. This news did not reach the Sheffield workers and on 16 November they struck work as planned, and two days later workers from Barrow-in-Furness came out in sympathy. Work was resumed only when Hargreaves appeared on the platform at a mass meeting of the men and confirmed that he had been released unconditionally. [61]

A mass strike in defence of one worker! Actually many of the strikes at that time were massive affairs. Today the majority of strikes are, by comparison, quite small. There are more shop stewards than ever before – many more than there were 50 years ago – but still there is not a movement. [62]

This doesn’t of course mean that there are no bridges at all between workers at different places of work. In the engineering industry, as we have shown, these bridges exist, and are often very important in spreading gains made in wages and conditions. And joint action in defence of workers who are sacked is far from rare. Take the case of the Turriff dispute in 1965 – 308 workers were locked out by Turriff, the building contractors, from their Barbican site in London. It was only when stewards from a large number of sites in and around the Barbican area rallied to the aid of the Turiff workers and a meeting of stewards called for a day’s stoppage and mass picketing on 24 September that the tide turned. From this to victory was but a short step. Or again in late January 1966 a group of lorry drivers were sacked by British Oxygen in Wembley. There was an immediate strike by all drivers, not only in this depot but in another three depots of the same company, that assured the workers immediate victory.

Even so, with these and all the other examples of solidarity that can be quoted, it is still premature to talk of a shop stewards’ movement.

Besides fragmentation there is another associated weakness of the shop stewards’ organisations of today – on the whole, the horizons of these organisations are quite narrow. They tend to react to events more than they shape them, and they pay more attention to wages than they do to the equally important question of redundancy.

Above all, the problems of people who cannot defend themselves very well – people like old age pensioners, nurses, etc – are not central in workers’ activities and thinking. It is true, of course, that thousands of workers – lorry drivers, dockers, engineers – showed a wonderful generosity of spirit in going on sympathy strike in support of the nurses’ pay claim in May 1962. But still we must admit that action like this is the exception, not the rule.

Then again the shop stewards’ organisations are largely restricted to the narrow horizon of economic, trade union demands. They are, largely speaking, politically apathetic. To limit oneself to economic demands, of course, is to deal with the results of the capitalist system as a system, and to miss the causes, the roots of the system. As Rosa Luxemburg, that great socialist revolutionary, put it, “Economic, trade union struggle is a labour of Sisyphus.” Sisyphus was a mythological king who was condemned to spend eternity rolling a huge stone to the top of a hill, from which it kept rolling back, so he had to start over and over again, incessantly heaving the boulder up the hill. As long as the capitalists own the means of production, workers – whether their wages are high or low – will still be oppressed, alienated, exploited. Capitalism cannot be abolished “step by step”. As Tawney put it, “You can peel an onion leaf by leaf, but you can’t skin a tiger claw by claw.”

This does not mean of course that the economic struggle – that “labour of Sisyphus” – is useless. After all, Sisyphus did develop strong muscles as a result of all his labours. And in the same way the industrial workers, through the struggles at their places of work, learn self-confidence, self-reliance and strength.

When in the future the capitalist system enters into sharper contradictions, and when the speeds of the different escalators on which workers rise vary less and less, then out of the shop stewards’ organisations will rise a new socialist movement, much mightier than ever before. Its roots will be in the class struggle at the point of production, and it will lead the fight against all forms of oppression – economic, national, cultural or political.

To defend and extend the shop stewards’ organisation of today is to build the socialist movement of tomorrow. To fight for the socialist movement of tomorrow is to strengthen the shop stewards of today.




1. A.I. March and R.S. Jones, Engineering Procedure and Central Conference in 1959: A Factual Analysis, British Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.11, no.2.

2. A.I. March and R.S. Jones, Engineering Procedure.

3. See J.B. Jefferys, The Story of the Engineers (London, 1945), pp.231, 236, 234.

4. Final Report of the Committee of Inquiry under the Rt Hon Lord Devlin Into Certain Matters Concerning the Port Transport Industry, Cmnd 2734, August 1965, p.4.

5. H.A. Turner, The Trend of Strikes (Leeds, 1963), p.2.

6. H.A. Turner, The Trend, p.8.

7. Ministry of Labour Gazette.

8. J. Rescoby and H.A. Turner, An Analysis of Post-War Labour Disputes in the British Car Manufacturing Firms, Manchester School of Economic and Social Studies, May 1961.

9. Times, 25 April 1960.

10. Financial Times, 2 February 1966.

11. Final Report, pp.4-5.

12. N. Dennis, F. Henriques and C. Slaughter, Coal is Our Life (London, 1956), p.63.

13. Financial Times, 18 October 1965.

14. H.A. Turner, The Trend, p.14.

15. Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations, Written Evidence of the Ministry of Labour (London, 1965), p.52.

16. C. Chivers, The Pattern of Collective Bargaining, in B.C. Roberts (ed.), Industrial Relations: Contemporary Problems and Perspectives (London, 1962), p.133.

17. G. Turner, The Car Makers (Harmondsworth, 1964), p59.

18. Economist, 4 September 1965.

19. Written Evidence, p.68.

20. G. Turner, The Car Makers, p.80.

21. G. Turner, The Car Makers, p.124.

22. J.B. Jefferys, The Story, pp.181-192.

23. J.B. Jefferys, The Story, pp.241-242.

24. A.I. Marsh and E.E. Coker, Shop Steward Organisation in Engineering, British Journal of Industrial Relations, June 1963.

25. H.A. Clegg, A.J. Killick and R. Adams, Trade, p153.

26. A.I. Marsh and E.E. Coker, Shop Steward.

27. TUC Report 1960, p.128.

28. M. Harrison, Trade Unions, p.110.

29. Data taken from J.H. Goldthorpe, Orientation to Work and Industrial Behaviour Among Assembly-Line Operatives: A Contribution Towards an Action Approach in Industrial Sociology (Unpublished, Department of Applied Economics, Cambridge University, 1965).

30. A.I. Marsh and E.E. Coker, Shop Steward.

31. T. Topham, Shop Stewards and Workers’ Control, New Left Review, May-June 1964.

32. M.H. Spicer, The Importance of the Shop Steward, Statist, 25 December 1964.

33. Quoted in S. Papert, Strikes and Socialist Tactics, in A Socialist Review, p.125.

34. H.A. Turner, The Trend, p.18.

35. TUC Report 1960, pp.125-126.

36. A. Gorz, Trade Unionism on the Attack, International Socialist Journal, April 1964.

37. A.W. Gouldner, Wildcat Strike (London, 1955), p.33.

38. For a general official account of the Fawley negotiations, see A. Flanders, The Fawley Productivity Agreements (London, 1964). For an excellent article on package deals generally, see T. Topham, The Implications of “Package Deals” in British Collective Bargaining, International Socialist Journal, September-December 1964.

39. A. Flanders, The Fawley, pp.13-14.

40. A. Flanders, The Fawley, p.246.

41. A. Flanders, The Fawley, p.102.

42. A. Flanders, The Fawley, p.199.

43. A. Flanders, The Fawley, p.201.

44. A. Flanders, The Fawley, pp.202-203.

45. A. Flanders, The Fawley, p.203.

46. A. Flanders, The Fawley, p.207.

47. A. Flanders, The Fawley, p.102.

48. The method used at Fairfields is quite interesting. Firstly, it must be remembered that shipbuilding and ship repairing is more strikebound than any other industry. A worker in the industry lost on average 2.3 days on strike annually in 1956-64. The comparable figures for the docks were 1.1 days and in textiles 0.03 days (Final Report, p.4). Thus the shipbuilders have to be disciplned! Secondly, the use of “nationalisation”, with the state owning half the capital and with union funds brought in to collaborate with private capital, is intended to soften up workers’ resistance. Thirdly, once the employers in Fairfields force the workers to give up “restrictive practices”, employers in other shipyards will use this as a lever against their own workers.

49. Financial Times, 24 November 1965.

50. There is an excellent account of the BLSP strike in K Weller, The BLSP Dispute: The Story of the Strike, Solidarity Pamphlet no.8 (London, no date).

51. TUC Report 1960, p.129.

52. TUC Report 1960, p.129.

53. TUC Report 1960, p.130.

54. K. Weller, What Next for Engineers? (London, no date).

55. S.W. Lerner and J. Marquand, Regional Variations in Earnings, Demand for Labour and Shop Stewards’ Combine Committees in the British Engineering Industry, Manchester School of Economic and Social Studies, September 1963, pp.261-296.

56. S.W. Lerner and J. Marquand, Regional Variations, p.282.

57. S.W. Lerner and J. Marquand, Regional Variations, p.283.

58. S.W. Lerner and J. Marquand, Regional Variations, p.284.

59. S.W. Lerner and J. Marquand, Regional Variations, p.284.

60. Dilutees were unskilled workers brought in to do skilled workers’ jobs during the First World War.

61. J.B. Jefferys, The Story, pp.181-182.

62. But the Hargreaves strike was the shop stewards’ movement at its best. The problem of fragmentation was, in fact, less acute in Sheffield than elsewhere. Both today, as has been shown, and during the 1914-22 period, shop steward organisation was most powerful and well developed in the more economically dynamic sectors of the engineering industry – then armaments, now motor cars and aircraft. In Sheffield this presented no problem, as over 60 percent of the metal workers were employed in five big armament firms. On the Clyde, for example, where armaments production employed no more than 20 percent of the engineering workers, the problem of expanding the shop stewards movement from the arms firms into the more important shipbuilding and marine engineering firms held back the development of the movement for several years. The Clyde Workers Committee suffered a resounding defeat in the spring of 1916, largely because of its failure to build a bridge to the mass of engineering workers in the shipyards and the marine engineering firms. They failed in this because they had been content to regard themselves as the key section of the workers (which they were), a section sufficiently powerful to be in a position to dispense with the task of drawing other sections of the class into the struggle (which they were not). Shop stewards in the key sections of the engineering industry today, faced with a government offensive under the name of the incomes policy, would do well to learn from this defeat of an earlier shop stewards’ movement.


Last updated on 19.4.2003