Jim Higgins

Trade unions

Clive Jenkins – Tomorrow the world

(November 1975)

From the Spectator, 8 November 1975, p.596.
Published here with kind permission of the Spectator.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The great trade union growth area of the last fifteen years has been among the white collar workers. In weighty sociological articles, the phenomenon has been analysed and reasons adduced. Big industry has become more impersonal: those with white collars have become numbers in the book just like their blue collar colleagues; differentials between the two types of work have narrowed, with manual workers earning more than those enjoying staff status; aggressive trade unionism has benefited those with dirt under their finger nails and the lesson has not been lost on those with a pen behind their ears.

No union saw this white collar revolution with greater clarity than the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staff (ASTMS). No trade union leader has calculated so carefully or played his cards so cleverly as Clive Jenkins, ASTMS General Secretary. The central core of the union was the old Association of Supervisory Staff, Executives and Technicians (ASSET). In 1945 ASSET had 11,000 members, a mixture of engineering foremen and a few managerial types with a bit of a conscience. It really was of no account, dismissed, slightingly, by other unions as ‘the foremen’s union’. In 1946 ASSET made one of its wiser decisions in appointing Mr Jenkins (at the time a twenty-year-old manager of a tin-plate works) as a Birmingham Divisional Organiser. Within a year Clive had moved on to ASSET headquarters and by the time he was thirty had assumed the office of Deputy General Secretary. Four years later, in 1961, he was General Secretary. With only 23,000 members he was, nevertheless, one of the highest paid trade union officials. Whatever his salary, and it is a closely guarded secret, the union has no reason to regret the cost.

From this comparatively lowly peak Mr Jenkins surveyed the world, decided it was good and that ASSET should get its significant share of the action. With astute calculation he developed his public image, his own private image writ large, that has made him a natural choice for chat show producers and earned the envious enmity of his trade union peers. Brash, abrasive, witty, outrageous, on occasion cruelly cutting, and all cast within a torrent of literate eloquence. In the same way as ladies will block the high street to catch a glimpse of Bruce Forsyth opening a boutique, so will managers, technicians and other white collar elements turn up to hear Mr Jenkins extolling the virtues of collective bargaining. They may come to jeer but they invariably stay to cheer and take out a union card.

Within seven years of taking over as General Secretary the membership was raised to 50,000 and the time for the next breakthrough had arrived. The Association of Scientific Workers, with 20,000 members, was assimilated together with its General Secretary, Mr Dutton, and half a dozen Nobel Prize winners. The AScW was just the first of a succession of smaller unions merged into the ever burgeoning ASTMS: the Medical Practitioners Union, Midland Bank staff, a number of insurance staff associations, and the development of bargaining units for administrative personnel in ICI and other large combines. Today ASTMS has 350,000 members and is growing at the rate of 50,000 each year. Because the field has been so badly organised in the past the perspective is one of almost uninterrupted growth for the foreseeable future. By usual trade union standards subscriptions are low, only 85p per month, but they still yield a healthy head office balance of £2,750,000 per annum.

Now that is real money and ASTMS does not have a cash flow problem. The money is invested in ASTMS offices up and down the country, which provides publicity, saves money, and is a useful hedge against inflation. The union’s headquarters, a somewhat garish item, whose orange exterior lightens the gloom of Jamestown Road, Camden Town, cost £650,000 and is now worth £1,500,000. With luck like that, being clever must be counted a bonus.

But success of this order is not achieved without some cost. There have been jurisdictional disputes with other, less successful, white collar unions. The clerks’ union, APEX, have had their jurisdictional disputes with ASTMS. Most notably and recently the TUC’s instruction to APEX to hand over 3,000 insurance workers to Mr Jenkins’s union has been successfully challenged in the courts. The draughtsmen’s union, the Bank employees have all had their little difficulties with ASTMS in the past. Each year the TUC report contains long and detailed reports of the accusations of ‘poaching’ against ASTMS.

If the number of such cases has declined in recent years that may be because the Bank employees’ union has been out of the TUC due to their registering under Mr Heath’s Industrial Relations Act. This year NUBE has been readmitted to the TUC, despite ASTMS’s strenuous opposition. The outlook is one of less than fraternal amity in this field. If APEX and the NUBE fear that Mr Jenkins wishes to swallow their organisations, that is certainly not a perspective articulated by ASTMS. At present there is enough slack among the unorganised without the need for head-on confrontation with established unions. Time alone will tell the ultimate ASTMS strategy.

Perhaps, however, time will induce, as it has for so many others, a mellowing in Mr Jenkins. Despite the fact that he has a large framed photograph of Ramsay MacDonald outside his sumptuous office, to act as a ghastly warning, there are signs that, as he enters his fiftieth year, he is less concerned to project the well tried public persona. For years he was kept off the General Council of the TUC, by those less talented but with command of the necessary block votes. In 1974 the size and influence of ASTMS could no longer be ignored, the establishment capitulated and Mr Jenkins took his place among the elect. Even now, though, those who take some malicious pleasure in these things, have arranged that Mr Jenkins’s General Council seat should be next to that of Mr Reg Birch, the AUEW Maoist.

For all the smarty boots image, Mr Jenkins is in reality a trade union leader in the pragmatic mould of the British labour movement. Despite his five year membership of the Communist Party in the late 1940s, he is not an ideologue, He joined on a wave of revulsion from Ernie Bevan’s foreign policy and left when the CP bureaucrats tried to tell him how to write a Fabian pamphlet. Like the leaders of the most craft-bound society of artisans he is a union patriot. The membership he hoped to recruit was less easily defined, more difficult to organise and unused to the procedures and ethos of trade unionism. Having got the members it has become necessary to inculcate a level of trade union consciousness, to politicise them.

That ASTMS and Mr Jenkins have been successful is a matter of record, measured in members recruited and cash in the bank. The future, with inevitable problems, is comparatively bright for ASTMS. No recognisable group of white collar workers are beneath Mr Jenkins’s interest. It occurs to me that one grossly underpaid group of workers, suffering mediaeval conditions of service are Church of England parsons. If their collars are reversed they are still white and Mr Jenkins would still have them. It would be a pleasurable thing to see Clive Jenkins in action against the Church Commissioners. He would undoubtedly have his research department diligently searching the Scriptures for divine support.


Last updated on 2.11.2003