Jim Higgins

[White-collar unions]

(Spring 1966)

From The Notebook, International Socialism (1st series), No.24, Spring 1966, p.6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Throughout the traditional white-collar ranks there has, in recent years, been a considerable increase in militant activity and in the once despised trade-union organisation. NALGO, which a few years ago was frequently written off as irrevocably delivered up to middle-class morality has recently considered strike action, affiliated to the TUC and come out against Incomes Policy. The CAWU has also been brightening its image and between 1955 and 1965 membership has increased from 55,000 to 35,000. In the case of NALGO this excess of militancy clearly derives from their unfortunate experiences with Selwyn Lloyd’s pay pause and in CAWU with the introduction on a large scale of business machines.

Most interesting however and probably most significant – from the point of view of long term effects – is the situation in the expanding technical field. DATA has the privilege of conducting more official strikes than any other TUC affiliate. ASSET has engaged in some serious actions resulting in quite significant advances in recent years. Membership has increased at a fantastic rate (albeit from a fairly low starting point) [1]:










ASSET claim to be recruiting at a rate of 700 members per week. However, even though their rate of increase is high, at 700 new entrants per week it would seem that there is a fair amount of wastage.

Quite clearly the impetus for this impressive advance is due to their close association with a fast-growing sector of industry. But also a number of intangible benefits which in the past have militated against white-collar unionism no longer have the same weight. Staff and salaried status, shorter hours and in particular a closer personal relationship with management count for less when compared wit the very real monetary advances made by manual workers in the growth industries since the war.

The growing disenchantment with management is seldom compensated by a closer identification with manual workers. Jenkins of ASSET goes so far as to say “... push up wages and the differential between manual and skilled men and you will force managements to bring in more automated systems.” The natural follow-up from more automated systems is of course more potential members for ASSET and less members for the manual unions. It is perhaps not surprising that Mr Jenkins is not the most loved (or indeed the most lovable) official in the trade-union establishment.

As a response to this challenge the ETU recently attempted (unsuccessfully) to change the name of the union to the ‘Electrical, Electronics and Communications Trade Association.’ The fact that this makes the organisation sound more like an employers’ association than a trade union is beside the point; the obvious intention was to present a more comprehensive and attractive image to technicians in industry. The AEU, flying in the face of its whole tradition, is making far-reaching constitutional changes to enable it to establish supervisors’ branches. Both unions are, as yet anyway, having small success in this field.

The reason for technicians’ militancy and their leaderships’ willingness to initiate aggressive policies may well be based on a narrow sectional interest, but at the same time to indulge in traditional forms of struggle is to enter, like it nor not, the whole field of working-class action. To declare one’s interest in wider differentials is to agree that a basis for comparison exists and is also to call into being a powerful tendency from manual workers to close differentials. The trade-union pace-setters may change but the class struggle is indivisible.



1. The Statist, 14 January 1966.


Last updated on 19.10.2006