Frat Cain


[TU Top Brass and Wages Norm]

(May 1965)

From Socialist Review, Mid-May 1965, p. 3.
Transcribed by Ian Birchall, Nina Kidron & Richard Kuper.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

On the 30th April, the trade-union top brass met to add their Amen to the Government’s 3½ per cent “wages norm.” “There was no question,” said George Woodcock, “of appeal to patriotism or Labour Party loyalty,” but simply of acting “in the interests of trade-union members.” Yet during the weeks before, the same people had accepted on behalf of those same trade-union members increases of 10 per cent (dockers), 9.7 per cent (postal workers) and 9 per cent (railwaymen) – nearly three times the “norm.” And in the coming weeks, after the Amen, they will still be reaching out for – and getting – the norm-plus which is the going rate at the moment.

What are we to make of all this? Can it be that the men who want more in their several union headquarters are satisfied with less in the decorous atmosphere of Congress House? In a way, yes. When brought to face with the consequences of their actions for the system as a whole, those for whom this is an unfamiliar experience can also be brought to see the problems terrifyingly larger than life. And even for those used to padding through the corridors of power it is an unnerving experience to realise that they have nothing to put in the system’s place.

But this can’t be the entire explanation. Even Statesmanship stops short at refusing above-norm pay rises. Perhaps the paradox is formal rather than real? And so it is: the high increases quoted in the press (and in this column) relate to basic wages not to earnings, while the norm relates to earnings. If, as often happens, the basic forms only 50–60 per cent of take-home pay, it can go up by 6–7 per cent without breaking past the “norm.”

But 6–7 per cent is still not 9–10 per cent. There must be more to the explanation. And so there is. Anthony Crosland, the Minister for Education, hinted at it when speaking to the National Union of Teachers’ Conference at Douglas: “teachers’ pay,” he said, “should now go up by more than the incomes and prices norm.” No Minister could do that without Cabinet approval, or without having got clearance from George Brown. So it seems that the Government is in on this first act of wage “normalisation.” While perhaps not welcoming the increases, it is not prepared to resist them.

But if Act I is Give, Act II is Take. In exchange for this boost to their, domestic position, the trade-union brass will be expected to police their members more effectively than hitherto and in particular to arrest unofficial wage-claims and struggles and to break down the rank-and-file job-defences known as “restrictive practices.” – The Hon. Harold Wilson, no less, has set the task (in his speech to the USDAW’s Annual Conference):

“From now on,” he said, “every ounce of increased production will come from better and newer methods ... and an attack on any practice wherever it may be found ... which unnecessarily limits production, or artificially insists on excess in manning of particular jobs, be those in productive industry, distribution, the basic industries, the docks, or the nation’s transport system.”

Nobody pretends that the trade-union brass is going to find the going easy. There would have been such careful preparation if they did. But what with the covering of the Government’s massive propaganda barrage, the disciplining effect of the equally massive deflation already begun, and the strength that comes from fighting a co-ordinated crusade “for England,” they are likely to find it easier than for some time.

The first objects for policing are bound to be the shop-stewards’ committees, site committees and rank-and-file organisations generally. Given the apparent size of the current nationally-negotiated increase their appeal is sure to be dimmed for a while; and given the blast of propaganda their own members’ loyalties are bound to be shaken at the margin. At the same time the trade-union brass know that they form the only possible alternative leadership to their own and one whose collective appeal is bound to grow tremendously as the “norm” and the attack on workshop practice begin to bite, and as the gilt of the current increases rubs off in the shops.

It is now that socialists – and the many non-socialist militants – need increasingly to draw a distinction between our movement and theirs. Our major effort must be to support – blindly – workers on unofficial strike against both boss and brass, and to pack everything into the defence of the autonomous rank-and-file organisations within the labour movement. With the official trade-union machine openly supporting the Government and the Government openly sustaining British Capital, it is our duty to proclaim to the trade-union leadership: Yours is not our policy; it is not a working-class policy; Divided We Stand, United We Fall!

Last updated on 18 February 2017