Tony Cliff

The Bureaucracy Today

(June 1971)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.48, June/July 1971.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

For a quarter of a century after World War II the role of the trade union bureaucracy in its relation to the rank and file workers on the one hand, and the employers and the state on the other, was of a specific pattern. The last couple of years smashed this pattern radically.

The Post War Pattern

In 1936 and 1937, according to the Ministry of Labour, about one third of strikes were official. [1] Thirty years later the proportion had dropped to about one twentieth. And if account were taken of all the strikes which fail to get recorded in the Ministry’s statistics, the proportion of official strikes would be even smaller. The small amount of support given to strikes and strikers by the unions was shown by the small sums spent on strike benefits – a total for all unions of only £462,000 or about 11d per union member per year in 1963. [2] Death benefits were larger at £1,011,000. Clearly union members got more from their organisations when they were dead and buried than when they were alive and fighting.

One by-product of the increasing independent power of the shop floor organisation was the rise of ‘wage drift’. Workers’ earnings came to depend on two main factors: firstly, industry-wide bargaining between the national trade union or group of unions and the corresponding employers’ organisation; and, secondly, bargaining within the individual firm. Generally speaking, national minimum rates are bargained on the national level; at the local level negotiation takes place over such matters as piece-work rates and other forms of payment-by-results, additions to wage rates such as bonuses, and local rules and practices including the manning of machines and demarcation questions.

National bargaining in the two-tier system between the union or group of unions and the employers’ organisations determines the national minimum wage for a particular industry. This is not necessarily what workers in that industry earn, however. Thus, for example, in June 1968 the national standard time rate for an engineering fitter was £12 15 8, but the actual average earnings for fitters (excluding overtime) was £22 15 0d. [3] The difference between nationally negotiated wage rates and actual earnings is called the ‘wage drift’.

The assimilation of the trade union bureaucracy into the state went on increasing over the same three decades.

In 1931-32 there was only one government committee on which the General Council of the TUC was represented according to the TUC directory of committees; by 193435 the directory listed six such committees, and the number has been increasing steadily ever since. [4] The Second World War in particular saw a change in the relationship between the unions and the state. ‘No established right of access to the government was conceded to unions ... until the Second World War ... The long duration of the war and the much longer duration of post-war economic problems encouraged its establishment. Indeed, communications often moved in the opposite direction.Erequently it was the Prime Minister or one of his ministers who wanted to meet the trade union leaders.’ [5]

After the Tories came to power in 1951, the union leaders towed no desire to diminish their rights of access to the government or their policy of collaboration with it. Thus the General Council of the TUC stated:

‘It is our long-standing practice to seek to work amicably with whatever government is in power and through consultation with ministers and with the other side of industry to find practical solutions to the social and economic problems facing this country. There need be no doubt, therefore, of the attitude of the TUC towards the new government.’ [6]

Indeed, the policies of the union leaders frequently reflected this relationship. Their views were often considerably closer to those of the Tory government than they were to those of many of the union rank and file. As a far from unfriendly commentator noted, ‘The TUC leaders, led by Deakin of the Transport and General, Tom Williamson of the General and Municipal, and Will Lawther of the Mineworkers’, saw to it that the cautious and moderate policy which they had pursued under the Labour government was maintained under the Conservatives. Among other things, they ensured that resolutions denouncing all forms of wage restraint – such as were regularly submitted to Congress by the Communist-dominated unions – were voted down by adequate majorities.’ [7]

Despite the fact that the Conservative government had no ‘emotional bonds’ with the unions, the number of governmental committees on which the unions were represented rose from 60 in 1949 to 81 in 1954, and these covered a wide range of subjects. The most prominent of these committees were the two general advisory committees, the National Joint Advisory Council to the Minister of Labour and the National Production Advisory Council on Industry. [8]

The convergence of union leaders and the state was impelled further by Labour’s coming to power in 1964. The tie-up of union leaders and the state was strengthened by the ideological commitment of these leaders to the parliamentary system and to Labour Party politics. As one writer put it:

‘Union leaders not only reject industrial action for political ends, but show their enthusiasm for the system by involving themselves in parliamentary politics in opposition and as members of governments without reservation. They enjoy the trappings of political power, the traditions and ceremonies and the social distinctions which participation confers on them. Their involvement stems from the pressures of political conformity but it reacts as a consolidating influence.’ [9]

However, the fact that the trade union bureaucracy nearly always opposed workers’ strikes and collaborated with the employers and the state, did not bring it in the majority of cases into actual conflict with the rank and file. The bureaucracy’s bark was worse than its bite. In a number of cases it managed to smash the rank and file organisation-for instance at British Light Steel Pressings (1961) and Ford Dagenham (1962). But usually management retreated under the duress of a short-lived strike, i.e., before the trade union bureaucracy managed to intervene effectively and discipline the workers. Capitalism was quite prosperous and the employers were ready to give way without prolonged and widespread battles.

On the whole the British working class was relatively so strong that the overwhelming majority of strikes were of very tort 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:


No. of workers


No. of working
days lost


Average no. of
days per 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.)

If a strike goes on for only a couple of days the question of whether headquarters supports the strike or not is not of overriding importance. In many cases, a central element in the tactics of to militant was to win the strike before trade union headquarters heard about it!



Changes of the last two years

Over the last couple of years there has taken place a radical change In the pattern of strikes: there are far more large-scale and prolonged strikes:


No. of workers


No. of working
days lost


Average no. of
days per worker
on strike

1953-64 (av)




























Jan-April 1971




The strike wave has been rising radically as can be seen from the above table.

The total of 10,980,000 working days lost through stoppages in 1970 is 60 per cent higher than in 1969 and 223 per cent higher than the yearly average of 3,404,000 for the previous 20 years. The total exceeds that of any other year in the 20-year period, the next highest being 1957, when a widespread stoppage in the engineering industry caused the loss of 4 million working days, and a national shipbuilding stoppage a further 2,150,000 days. [10] The 1970 total includes over one million working days lost by a stoppage in the coal mining industry; 502,000 days lost during a national stoppage by dock workers; and nearly 1¼ million days lost by manual and other local government workers. [11]

The last six months has witnessed a sharp rise in mass strikes of a prolonged nature: 121,695 local government workers out of 850,000 directly participated – each an average of 10 days – in guerrilla strikes over a period of some 46 days; 200,000 postmen were involved in a 47 days strike and 50,000 Ford workers in a 66 day one!

Even the most right wing trade union bureaucracy has not been able to help giving some ground to the pressure of the rank and file under the condition of sharpening class struggle. Take the case of the GMWU. It completely opposed the strike of the 11,000 Pilkington workers (3 April to 21 May 1970). After Pilkington came the GKN strike of 5,000 workers for a period of 48 days. A short time later the strike of 3,000 gas workers in the Midlands for a period of three weeks.

For fear of the rank and file getting completely out of control by running theft own strikes or leaving the GMWU to join other unions, Cooper was forced to give support to a number of strikes, hoping by this at the same time to control them. The change is graphically shown by the amount the GMWU spent on strike pay:


£  11,700


£  84,000





The GMWU spent more in strike pay last year than the whole trade union movement had spent in 1963!

Deakin and Carron opposed practically all strikes; Cooper and Chapple, not to say Jones and Scanlon, support many strikes. Does this change mean that the bureaucracy is less of an obstacle on workers’ struggles now than it was during the twenty-five years after the Second World War? Not at all. When management was relatively soft and strikes short, the opposition of the trade union bureaucracy hardly had an effect on workers’ ability to win. Today, the bureaucracy’s dragging of its feet, its readiness to compromise with management, and its attempts to dampen workers’ initiative are a much greater burden on workers’ struggle.

Far more strikes than in the past now end in at least partial defeat. The 9 per cent for the postmen meant an actual cut in real wages (taking into account that the cost of living it rising more than that, and that deductions increase with extra earnings). The same applies to the power workers, etc.

The bureaucracy plays an especially injurious role in negotiating for changes in working conditions, associated with productivity deals. When piecework was the rage, the shop steward was at the centre of negotiations; when productivity deals covering a whole plant or even more – a number of plants – are under negotiation, the full-time official comes into the centre of negotiations. Selling workers’ tea breaks is not accompanied by the official giving up his own tea (or whisky) break.

One very significant phenomenon recently has been the decline of wage drift. Such a decline was a natural by-product of the spread of productivity deals and hence plant bargaining. The decline was also necessarily accelerated by the rise in the number of official strikes. However, the practically complete disappearance of wage drift over the last six months [12] has been largely the result of the general slack in the economy and the more defensive posture adopted by workers suffering from short-time working and threatened by the sack.

The revolt of the lower paid workers, of workers in sectors lacking traditional militancy, that started some two years ago, began the destruction of government imposed incomes policy. In a whole number of industries – council workers, miners, te2chers, postmen, etc. – a new pattern of militancy emerged.

The Tory government has sought a confrontation with the unions in public employment in order to make them ‘wage leaders’ in a downward movement. To achieve success, the government has been forced into a sharp conflict with the extreme right wing trade union officials (like the GMWU and ETU). Under such conditions the growing body of militants among the lower paid workers has pushed the official leadership into a number of limited struggles with the government.

The Industrial Relations Bill makes it even more difficult for the trade union bureaucracy to continue in open collaboration with the state.

It is true that there are elements in the Industrial Relations Bill trade union bureaucrats do not dislike: the elements which weaken the rank and file. There are other elements in the Bill which all trade union officials, whether left or right, detest: the abolition of the closed shop, the introduction of ‘agency shops’ and the generally greater incursion of the state into the internal life of the unions. The above, plus the rise of the rank and file opposition to the IRB, forced official union leaders to make at least token protests against the government.

The large scale movement against the IRB saw a number of important political strikes – December 8th, January 12th, March 1st and March 18th – as well as the biggest working class demonstration on February 21st since the war. The movement, unofficial in origin, could not have developed on the scale it did without the support of sections of the trade union leadership. This support changed the atmosphere of the campaign and made possible the raising of slogans like ‘TUC must call a General Strike’ and ‘Kick out the Tories’. The leftward shift of sections of the official movement – however limited it was – was the factor that made the slogans conceivable, and this shift reflected real pressure from significant numbers of militants within the movement.

These events have important political lessons. The ultra-left illusions tat the official trade union movement is dead, that it cannot mobilise its membership and that the sole field of trade union activity for revolutionary socialists are unofficial rank and file committees, have been yet again exposed as dangerous nonsense. The danger now is that the opposite illusion may gain ground.

The vacillation of the trade-union bureaucracy between the state, employers and the workers, with splits in the far from homogeneous bureaucracy, will continue and become more accentuated during the coming period.

The union bureaucracy is both reformist and cowardly. Hence its ridiculously impotent and wretched position. It dreams of reforms but fears to settle accounts in real earnest with the state (which not only refuses to grant reforms but even withdraws those already granted); it also fears the rank-and-file struggle which alone can deliver reforms. The union bureaucrats are afraid of losing what popular support they still maintain but are more afraid of losing their own privileges vis-à-vis the rank and file. Their fear of the mass struggle is much greater than their abhorrence of state control of the unions. At all decisive moments the union bureaucracy is bound to side with the state, but in the meantime it vacillates. It is important to see that this attitude actually introduces confusion and disorganisation into governmental policies themselves.

It is wrong to confuse the employers and the state with the ambivalent union bureaucracy, and to ignore the conflicts between them or to brush them aside. Because of its bureaucratic position, the union officialdom is in conflict with the workers, but because of its dependence on its members it is bound to reflect workers’ pressures to some extent. Its policy is not consistent. Even the pattern of its retreats in the face of threats from employers or the state is not completely predictable.

In the words of the Political Report adopted by the National Committee of the International Socialists in May 1971:

‘The Industrial Relations Bill is being pushed through and important sections of the trade union bureaucracy are preparing for collaboration with the government and the employers on the new basis that its passage will create. The fight to defend shop floor organisation and the parallel fight for democratic control of the unions by the members will become more difficult and more important in the months ahead. The sell-out of the UPW strike by the TUC and the Scanlon-Jones left alike is yet another proof, if one were needed, that all sections of the trade union bureaucracy have the perspective of collaboration in the last resort. The difference between Cooper and Jones is that the latter envisages a limited amount of conflict within a framework of continual support for capitalism, the former is not prepared even for that. Scanlon and Jones are concerned with asserting the power of the trade union bureaucracy inside capitalism. These differences amongst the trade union leaderships are important to the extent that revolutionaries can exploit them. To do so requires independent strength.’

The struggle for democracy in the unions – regular elections of all officials, the right to recall them, giving them the average pay of the workers they represent get, the decision on the conduct of all strikes to be taken by mass meetings of workers etc. – will become of cardinal importance. A vacillating bureaucracy needs the steady, controlling hands of the rank and file.

The basic programme of rank and file independence must be the same as that of the shop stewards in the First World War:

‘We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.’

Above all, side by side with the old institutions of the labour movement, trade union branches, District Committees, etc. the rank and file must create new organisations of control – from Combine Committees to Councils of Action – as the needs of the struggle change, as activity and consciousness rise.




1. W.A. Turner, The Trend of Strikes, Leeds 1963, p.14.

2. Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers Associations, Written Evidence of the Ministry of Labour, London 1955, p.52.

3. PIB Report no.49, Pay and Conditions of Service of Engineering Workers, Cmnd 3845, p.51, and Report no.104, Conditions of Service of Engineering, Cmnd 3931, p.37.

4. V.L. Allen, Trade Unions and the Government, London 1961, p.32.

5. ibid., p.12.

6. TUC Report, 1952, p.300, cited in V.L. Alien, op. cit., p.23.

7. Henry Pelling, A History of British Trade Unionism, Harmondsworth 1963, p.235.

8. V.L. Allen, op. cit.

9. V.L. Allen, Militant Trade Unionism, London 1966, p.34,

10. Royal Commission etc, op. cit., p.68.

11. Department of Employment Gazette, May 1971, p.439.

12. see Anthony Harris in the Guardian of 18 May.


Last updated on 19.10.2006