Tony Cliff

The employers’ offensive


Ten years ago productivity bargaining was a new and strange phenomenon to most workers in British industry. Today it is at the very centre of our industrial life. Employers, trade unions and, above all, government ministers have come to champion the cause of “productivity”. The prices and incomes policy, at first hardly more than “wage freeze” in disguise, is now aimed at forcing workers to abandon the straight wage claim in favour of a productivity deal. Already more than 30 percent of industrial workers are covered by such deals. Many are coming back for the second or third “bite at the cherry”. But an increasing number of workers are finding that they got a very bad bargain – that the relatively large wage increases have soon been eaten away by inflation, but the conditions they sold and the changes in work practice they accepted have become a serious threat to job security, earnings and, above all, trade union organisation within the factory.

The central argument of this book is to show that “productivity” is part of a major offensive by the employing class of this country to shift the balance of forces in industry permanently in their direction. The author has investigated over 100 “deals” in order to discover the underlying trends that go to make up the offensive, to show how techniques such as time and motion study, measured day work and grading schemes are aimed at “disciplining” the workers and undermining the power of the shop stewards who, more than anything else, have been the instrument by which workers have maintained their standards in the last 20 years.

In addition to investigating almost the entire output of the Prices and Incomes Board, I have drawn directly on the experience of workers who have been involved in productivity deals in a whole range of industries. In the final chapters I attempt to draw up a strategy for fighting productivity deals and conclude that the total nature of the employers’ offensive requires a total strategy in reply – that is, a socialist strategy.

There is no doubt that in the field of productivity bargaining employers are at an enormous advantage when it comes to access to information, facts and advice. This book aims to give shop stewards and their members the same advantages, and to play a small part in arming the working class to resist the “productivity offensive”. As far as possible I back up statements with facts and figures that socialists and militants in the unions will be able to use in discussions with fellow workers.

Not many people will want to read the book right through at one go, so it may be useful to have a short summary of it. In this way it will be easier to look up different parts of the argument as they are needed.

The structure of the book is as follows:

Part I: Reasons for the employers’ offensive (Chapter One).
Part II: Nature of the offensive – the nature of productivity bargaining (Chapter Two to Chapter Eight).
Part III: The legal attack on workers’ rights (Chapter Nine).
Part IV: The ideological argument (Chapter Ten).
Part V: The role of the unions (Chapter Eleven and Chapter Twelve).
Part VI: How to resist (Chapter Thirteen).

The present book tries to aid militant workers and socialists in understanding the general nature of productivity deals and their various specific features. The book aims to help to develop a working class strategy which fits the current industrial and political objective situation but at the same time uncompromisingly asserts the primacy of rank and file control, both at the place of work and in the union, and over the state.

As productivity bargaining is rooted in government incomes policy, the present book is a continuation of a previous work, for which the present author was responsible – Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards by Tony Cliff and Colin Barker (London, 1966).

The central theme of this book was:

(1) Changes in the nature of capitalism – increasing size of monopolies, sharpening international competition, radical technological progress, etc – make it necessary for capitalism to “plan wages”, to have an incomes policy.

(2) Incomes policy is nothing but a wages policy, shifting the distribution of the national cake to the advantage of capital.

(3) The main butt of attack of employers and state will be the shopfloor organisation, shop stewards committees and the like.

(4) Anti-strike legislation will be enacted to discipline the rank and file.

(5) The state will strive to incorporate the trade unions into partnership with management, and incorporate the shop stewards into the official union machine.

(6) The general attack on workers’ conditions and organisation will lead to general resistance – economic, ideological and political.

(7) A new workers’ movement would arise, overcoming the fragmentation of the working class.

Looking back, three and a half years later, it is clear that the above analysis – to be precise, points (1) to (5) – stood the test of time. However, the analysis in points (6) and (7) erred by telescoping the process. Life proved much more complex than the theory put forward. The general incomes policy did not stem the rise of all wages. It affected different sections of the working class differently. Government incomes policy was transmuted via numerous and very varied productivity deals. In addition, the process of general integration of the trade union bureaucracy into the state was uneven and very contradictory – some union leaders moved to the left, while others continued to drift to the right. The generalisation of workers’ struggle was impeded also by subjective factors – the lack of a strong militant socialist party to unify the class.

The present book is both a continuation and, I hope, an improvement on the previous one.

I hope the book will prove useful. For workers and socialists today, as always, there are three tasks in the struggle for socialism – studying the changes in capitalism and the working class, making propaganda among other workers, and organising for struggle. If this book can help at all in these three tasks it will have served its purpose.


Last updated on Last updated 12.5.2003