[Industrial Relations Bill]

(February 1971)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.46, February/March 1971, p.1.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The struggle over the government’s industrial relations bill is far from over as we go to press. But already certain important lessons can be drawn.

The bill is not an isolated measure. It is part of a total strategy of trying to make inroads into some of the gains the working class has been able to make over the last thirty years. It complements other measures, such as the spread of productivity bargaining, the rising level of unemployment, the cuts in the welfare state.

The various prongs of the government’s offensive have one thing in common. They are a response to working-class strength. In the 1930s wages could be cut by arbitrary decision, productivity deals were not needed to permit speed-up, anti-union laws were not needed to discipline a rank and file living in fear of the dole queue.

The Tories do not intend to smash the unions with the laws. Their ambition is rather more limited: to erode the will to fight on the shop floor and increase the separation of union leaders from the rank and file. Their key weapons will not be so much physical as ideological. With the laws in effect, they hope it will be that much more difficult for militants to gain a hearing and that much easier for union leaders to avoid any commitment to industrial action.

The worse hit sections of workers will be those that are already weakest. Those without traditions of militancy will have the seemingly irremovable weight of the law added to the burden of present prejudices and fears. The prohibition on the blacking of goods will make the spread of militant trade unionism form one smallish factory to another, as say, we have seen in the south-west over the last year, much more difficult to sustain.

But for militant groups of strategically placed workers, the laws alone will not do the trick. Official circles recognise this. There has been an interesting debate between the CBI and the government. The CBI dislike the onus on the individual employers to sue for breach of the laws. It is feared that few will be prepared to do this, for fear of aggravating existing labour unrest. Yet the government is unwilling to make such breaches a criminal matter, for the responsibility for implementing the law in individual cases would then lie with the government itself. Failure to act in every case of defiance would bring the whole law into disrepute. But the strategy of the government is not to use the law against every group of strikers, but rather to bring it to bear in certain exemplary cases.

Two recent disputes show how a carefully prepared ideological offensive can bring victory to the employers. In the case of the miners, quite ridiculous talk of ‘subversive elements’ and ‘Peking gold’ was sufficient to isolate militants at a decisive stage, prevent the spread of the strike and drive the men back to work. The power workers’ case was even clearer. Here was a group of workers with unparalleled industrial strength. Yet a carefully orchestrated press campaign succeeded in isolating them and making it possible for the union leaders to abandon the struggle after only a week.

It is in situations similar to these that the government hopes that the threat (rather than the actual use) of legal procedings will succeed. Militants will be further isolated and intimidated. Sections of workers will suffer unnecessary defeat.

The established trade union leaders are completely incapable of responding to the ideological offensive. They share too many of the government’s assumptions. Some even hope to gain from the greater ease of disciplining the rank and file under the act.

At the local level, the same inability to respond predominates. For twenty years militants have been able to improve the conditions of workers by putting in claims that have been conceeded without real struggle. A gap between their consciousness and that of the men they represent has been allowed to open up. The most recent examples of this were on 8 December and 12 January, when many workers ignored the advice of stewards (and even national union leaders) and refused to strike. The Communist Party – with what is still the largest single organised body of militants – is incapable of closing this gap. The Party leadership sees its future as tied to that of the left union bureaucracy. It hopes to gain credit from them for its role in providing a network of vote catchers for union elections. But this role forces it to pretend that such votes represent much more than they do in reality. Further, such pretence means deliberately obscuring the role of vacillating trade-union officials elected with Party support.

These factors make it difficult for militants to respond to ideological attacks in the way they should. Despite the undoubted strength of working-class organisation, and the new willingness of whole layers of workers to fight, the government hopes to shift the balance of power in industry in its favour. It cannot smash the unions (nor does it want to yet). It can, however, succeed in forcing unions to put in smaller wage claims than otherwise, and stewards to opt for productivity bargaining. The laws are the means it hopes will persuade working-class organisations to follow such paths.

This does not mean there cannot be large flare-ups of militancy. These are likely – particularly if individual employers try to invoke the laws without consideration of the general strategy of their class. Yet these can occur against a background of undramatic conflicts in which the attempt is made to slowly erode the conditions and power of workers.

Such an offensive can (only be combated by the building up of a viable revolutionary organisation able continually to intervene at the factory-floor level. Even the barest rudiments .of such an organisation could have decisively altered the outcome of the power workers’ work to rule. The problem in the coming months is to see that the government does not have many more such successes.

Last updated on 18 November 2009