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Workers Socialist Review

Magazine of the Workers Socialist League
Affiliated to the Trotskyist International Liaison Committee

Written: 1983.
First Published: May 1983.
Source: Published by the Workers Socialist League.
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Workers Socialist Review
No. 3, April / May 1983

What happened to the stewards’ movement?

Alan Thornett looks at how the official leadership has sabotaged union resistance to the Tories; why it has been able to; and how we can tackle the problem.

For many years the shop stewards’ movement in Britain was the envy of militant workers all over the world. Yet since the late 1970s it has suffered severe setbacks, and in some sections of industry its organisation has substantially broken down in the face of the management offensive.

How did this happen? Why has such a powerful movement offered such comparatively weak resistance? What were the weaknesses which left the stewards’ movement prey to the sell-outs by union officials?

A clue is offered by the vanguard of the employers. Interviewed recently on BBC television (Newsnight, Wednesday March 23), Michael Edwardes, fresh from his successes in BL, was asked if he had regarded himself as anti-union.

Although he would obviously deny such a self-evident truth, his reply was very interesting and very candid. He not only denied that he was against the unions, but stressed that he had developed a very close relationship with the General Secretaries of the unions in BL. In fact, he said, he had been fighting their battles as well, by taking the power away from the shop stewards and giving it back to the officials! *

Edwardes’ cynical admission of the way he exploited the divisions between the shop floor movement and the full time union bureaucracy points to the central component of the employers’ strategy and that of successive governments.

For the union leaders as much as for the employers, the most important – and alarming – feature of the growth of the shop stewards’ movement in the industrial unions in the 1950s and ’60s was the degree of independence it achieved from the full time officials and the top leaders of the trade unions.

In the strongest organised industries, like cars in the 1960s (particularly the second half of the 1960s), shop stewards’ committees were effectively able to negotiate their conditions, call strikes and organise themselves effectively outside of the control of the trade union officials. There were defeats – such as in Fords in 1961 – but in general the shop stewards’ movement extended its influence and achieved a considerable degree of control in the plants.

One factor which contributed to this favourable balance of forces between the unions and the employers was the prevailing conditions of economic boom.

From 1950 to 1970 – the period of the most important development in the shop floor movement in the industrial working class in Britain – world capitalist production expanded faster than in any previous period. Significant economic growth took place in every one of the major capitalist countries without exception. The average standard of living in the advanced countries as a whole doubled in that period. Workers won the right to regular wage increases, and increased their wages in real terms. Unemployment in the advanced countries was comparatively low. In many countries, like Britain, immigrant workers were drawn in to fill vacant jobs. Women – despite discrimination – were increasingly drawn into the labour force.

Although the boom in Britain was feeble compared with countries like Japan and West Germany, that period still saw the fastest growth ever known. Production per head grew at a rate of 2½% per year, as against 4% in the advanced countries as a whole.

Various factors combined to make the situation of the British economy significantly worse than the other advanced capitalist nations. In particular the development of British industry at an earlier historical stage left it ill-equipped to compete with other capitalisms which had either gained vastly in strength during World War 2 (the USA) or effectively reconstructed major industry using the latest technology in the aftermath of the war (Japan, West Germany).

The situation now is marked by mass unemployment, loss of bargaining power on the shop floor, and destruction of the traditional methods of struggle which had grown up in the post-war period. Central to this is the decline of manufacturing industry. The all-time high of manufacturing employment in Britain was over nine million, in 1965. In the ten years between 1972 and ’82, the workforce declined from 8,096,000 to 5,500,000, an overall fall of 31%. In the four years between 1978 and 1982 alone, the decline was 22%.

In the traditionally best organised manufacturing sections, which have a correspondingly high degree of shop floor organisation, we find the following decline:

Decline Total
’72-’78   ’78-’82   ’72-’82  
Engineering 8% 20% 28%
Shipbuilding 4% 20% 24%
Metal manufacture   8% 37% 45%
Vehicles 5% 28% 33%
Metal goods 6% 23% 29%

The ending of the post war boom at the end of the 1960s, and the onset of a period of acute economic crisis for the world capitalist system brought particularly acute problems in Britain. Since then every government – Labour and Tory alike – has tried to tackle the crisis of British capitalism in basically the same way, by seeking to restructure and rationalise the most antiquated sections of industry and to drive up the rate of exploitation of the working class.

In each case this has meant austerity programmes – incomes policies, factory closures, cuts in public services, increased unemployment and attacks on the structure and rights of the trade union movement. For wage-cutting governments and collaborationist union leaders alike the key obstacle to this was the shop stewards’ movement. Yet in the event, as the offensive has pressed forward, and the union officials have revealed more openly their abject refusal to fight and their determination to sabotage struggles that do erupt, the shop stewards’ movement has shown its inability to confront the problem.

One reason for this has been that the attack has been pursued simultaneously on many fronts. On one level, the efforts of Wilson’s first government – the Royal Commission on Trade Unions, the ‘trouble shooting’ of Jack Scamp, the Prices and Incomes Board and Barbara Castle’s ‘In Place of Strife’ – failed to contain the rank and file, so too did Heath’s heavy-handed anti-union legislation and state pay laws.

But more effective means of undermining the power of stewards were taking shape. Employers (with the support of key union leaders) began to force in new flat rate methods of payment – such as Measured Day Work – designed to break the grip of sectional stewards on pay negotiations; and at the same time the fight was stepped up for national level rather than plant level bargaining, thus doubly strengthening the hand of union officials remote from the shop floor, and reducing the scope for action in individual plants. The effect has been to hold pay and. other struggles back to the level of the weakest plants in a combine, and dramatically weaken the role of stewards and the rank and file in dealings with management and with their own, less and less accountable, officials.

Year    Number of  
Striker days  
striker days  
Unofficial as  
percent of
striker days
as per cent
of total
number of
strikers (thou)
1966 1937 2395 1224 51
1967 2116 2783 2391 86
1968 2378 4719 2506 53
1969 3116 6925 5291 76
1970 3906 10,908 7614 70
1971 2228 13,589 3506 26
1972 2497 23,923 5694 23
1973 2873 7145 5132 72
1974 2922 14,845 7735 52 7498 51 1626
1975 2282 5914 4785 80 5002 83 809
1976 2106 3509 3015 86 2308 70 668
1977 2703 10,142 7630 75 8057 79 1166
1978 2471 9405 5353 57 7678 82 1041
1979 2080 29,474 5962 20 22,552 77 4608
1980 1330 11,964 1883 16 10,896 91 834
1981 1338 4266 308* 9* 2292 54 1513
1982 1454 7916 1864 24 2382

* The breakdown into unofficial and official strikes covers only the first nine months of 1981.
Since then the Department of Employment has stopped giving figures.

Participation and collaboration

Elsewhere, management has adopted the opposite tactic, and – as in steel, the water industry and the NCB bonus scheme – attempted to scrap or override national negotiations in order to pick workers off section by section, force in productivity deals and break up hard-won agreements.

Perhaps the most insidious damage to the stewards’ movement was the political corruption introduced in the period of ‘participation’ ushered in by Wilson’s National Enterprise Board and the Ryder plan for British Leyland in the mid 1970s. By sucking a whole layer of convenors, shop stewards and union officials into a framework of collaboration with management, this set-up stuck a major blow at the independence of the shop stewards’ movement from the bureaucrats and the management.

Though many of the trappings of participation were scrapped following the advent of Edwardes in BL, the damage lingers on. And it has been compounded by the pervasive nationalist agitation by union and Labour bureaucrats for import controls, which has brought whole layers of the stewards’ movement to see the fight for jobs and wages as bound up with the preservation of their ‘own’ British employer against ‘foreign’ competition.

It is in this general context that we must see the particular role played by the Thatcher government, whose election in 1979 represented a major new stage in the attack on the unions.

Thatcher began to tackle the problems of capitalism in a more ruthless, consistent, and, from the viewpoint of the fundamental interests of capitalism, a more effective way.

She immediately introduced a harsh monetarist strategy, aimed at depressing the economy still further and designed also to force the least efficient companies into bankruptcy – creating conditions where the only way the individual employers can survive is more effectively to attack their workforce.

By applying this policy harshly to the basic industries such as steel, shipbuilding, engineering, car production and now coal mining, she is bringing about a restructuring of British industry with a much reduced industrial base.

This is linked to the imposition of harsh cash limits on public services which are severely damaging education and health and welfare care. Privatisation policies are being introduced throughout the public services and nationalised industries.

The net result of these policies is to create something which is fundamental to monetarism – mass unemployment.

Over the past three years, average gross earnings have more or less kept in line with inflation as the latter has declined. Between 1979-80 and 1982-3, the average working man’s gross earnings rose 39 per cent, while prices also rose 39%.

The picture for previous years is: pay ahead of the retail price index in 1975, behind in 1976 and ’77, ahead in 1978 and ’79.

In fact the living standards of employed workers have been eroded. The rise in the cost of living has been higher for the working class than for the better-off (for example, rents have risen sharply while mortgages have become cheaper because of increased tax relief). And the effect of the Tories’ tax changes has been to make a married man on average earnings with an unwaged wife and two children 4.3 per cent worse off on real take-home pay than in 1979-80.

Meanwhile the Tory tax changes have made those on £20,000 to £30,000 a year some £400 a year richer. Those getting over £30,000 a year were “much better off”, according to the Financial Times (23.3.83). And pay rises for top managers have been averaging 10 to 15 per cent, well above the figure for workers.

However, those in work are still relatively well off compared to a growing hard core of unemployed who are, to use the US monetarist jargon, ‘peripheral to the labour market’. Today six million people in Britain live below the official poverty line, 1.5 million more than in May 1979.

Everyone knows that under the Tories mass unemployment is deliberately created as an act of calculated policy. For them it creates the best conditions to restructure industry and drive up the rate of exploitation of the working class and also the best conditions for the other fundamental plank of Tory policy – an all-out attack on trade union rights.

Four years of Thatcherism have seen a massive, coordinated, consistent campaign against the trade union movement in Britain and (it must be said) with a high degree of success.

Anti-union laws have restricted picketing and made solidarity strikes and strikes which are “mainly political” unlawful. The unions face law suits and massive damages in the event of such strikes. The closed shop is being undermined. The new provisions put forward in Tebbit’s latest Green Paper are likely to force changes in union rule books and make postal balloting before strikes compulsory. Now they are considering making strikes in the public services illegal. On top of this they propose to cut the financial links between the unions and the Labour Party by forcing workers to contract in to rather than out of the political levy. These legal moves, however, remain to be fully exploited by the government and the employers. At the moment by far the most serious aspect of the Tory attack has been the way they have organised the employers for an all-out offensive at shop floor level. The spearhead of this was Michael Edwardes and Ian MacGregor on the board of BL.

Labour’s appointee Michael Edwardes, greeted in office by a standing ovation of BL convenors led by ‘Communist’ Derek Robinson, became the Tory government’s leading representative in industry, and BL was made a testing ground for Tory industrial policy. Edwardes was given unlimited money to fight strikes, and MacGregor was moved to BSC to do the same job. Now MacGregor is to go on to the NCB. In other nationalised industries like British Rail, such methods are already well advanced.

In every industry, public and private, the advantages of hardline management forcing through rationalisation are being tested out. Ford is the latest example.

A result of the Tory successes is that the number of stewards has declined. Their facilities to operate have been severely restricted in many industries and protective agreements have been scrapped by management.

So why has there not been an effective fightback against Thatcher?

It must be said straight away that this is not due to a reluctance of the working class to fight. Of course it is not true that every section of workers is sitting waiting to walk out on strike against the Tories. That is not the case even in the most militant periods. Nor does it mean that every vote for strike action will be won (although many of them have been). It means that throughout the period of this government, the combativity and militancy of the working class has been sufficient to defeat the government, had leadership been given.

Repeatedly since Thatcher came to power, she has had to face mass action by powerful sections of workers – but almost every time they have been defeated by the actions of their leaders.

The 1980 national steel strike was left deliberately isolated. The 1981 BL strike was sold out. The 1982 ASLEF strike was ruthlessly smashed by the TUC, who threatened to expel the union if they refused to go back to work.

The 1982 8-month action by health service workers was defeated by the refusal of the leadership to call an all out strike when such an action was possible.

While the water workers’ strike was a significant partial victory, the defeat of the NUM over closures by the vacillation of the left leadership of Arthur Scargill more than redressed that advantage.

The position of the top trade union leaders has been clear. They have remained politically opposed to bringing the government down by the mass action of the working class. Meanwhile every time the Tories have been given a victory over a section of workers, it has been used as the authority to press home the advantage at shop floor level – to tear up agreements, victimise militants, refuse pay increases, or even demand reductions in pay in order to ‘save jobs’.

In January 1980, 5 per cent of BP was sold, reducing the government holding to 44.6%. The National Enterprise Board was told to sell off holdings in profitable companies – the major sales were ICL, Ferranti and Fairey. The government’s share in British Aerospace has been reduced to 48.43%.49.36% of Cable and Wireless has been sold. The National Freight Corporation has been sold. British Rail hotels have been sold, and the government wants to put the rest up for sale along with Sealink ferries and all BR’s remaining property holdings.

The government is also selling the Transport and Docks Board, Amersham, and the oil production interests of BNOC. It has the power to compel British Steel and British Telecom to set up joint private / public subsidiaries and then sell them off. It has postponed the sale of British Airways, BL, the warship yards of British Shipbuilders, and the gas showrooms.

While the government has been able to go much further with the nationalised sectors than with the public service sector, they have certainly not proceeded as far as they had wanted to. The majority of changes have taken place through the straight transfer of shares from the state to private concerns. The one area in which they came into direct conflict with the unions was over the sale of gas showrooms, with a job loss of 30,000. A very effective one-day strike saw the sale deferred.

The ideology of the trade union leaders has been revealed as the Achilles heel of the working class. Faced with mass unemployment the officials have no answer and no alternative. Faced with closure after closure, and redundancy after redundancy, they have nothing to say except to negotiate on redundancy pay. Most will not even go so far as to question the figures trotted out by employers to ‘prove’ the case for sackings.

Their answer to closures, cuts in services, or the problems of the capitalist economy itself, is compromise. “You can’t get blood out of a stone”. If you fight you will make things worse.

Perhaps the most classical and succinct expression of this political attitude came recently from an American steel union leader, Joseph Odorcich. Explaining away his agreement to a 41-month pay deal which will cut his members’ wages by 9%, he argued:

“To have a union you have to have a company – and that company has to make money”. Instead of starting from the needs of the workers, and the defence of their interests, he sees first the problems of the employers. It is no coincidence that this view is expressed by Odorcich from a political standpoint of supporting one of the twin political parties of US capitalism – the Democrats. There is nothing socialist or anti-capitalist about such a reformist position, no matter how much it may be garnished with rhetoric.

The same view guides the actions of the British trade union and Labour bureaucracy, and explains their repeated betrayals of the interests of the working class. Their first concern is to preserve the viability of the capitalist employer and the system as a whole: only within that framework do they seek reforms and concessions for the workers.

The problem is that politically the shop stewards’ movement is predominantly the same as the trade union leaders. Like the officials, they have no answer to the ‘viability’ argument and closures. Like the officials, they have no independent working class programme with which they can give a lead.

It is true, of course, that the shop stewards’ movement is different from the official bureaucracy. It is closer to the members, more exposed to their pressure and influence; it is not bureaucratised or corrupted in the same way (although many convenors have become bureaucratised, particularly in the period when they had the most power). The basic motivation of most shop stewards has been to defend the workers against the management.

Nor can most stewards avoid the pressures of the class struggle in the ways open to full-time officials (hiding out in union offices, avoiding meetings with the rank and file). Stewards may retreat, resign office, or be bought off by management: this happens to many of them. But equally stewards face the material struggles which can drive them towards political development and a consistent fight against the employers, which is not the case with officials.

Workers share the reformist politics of their leaders, but not in the same hardened way. They can learn very quickly in the course of a struggle (as they did in the steel strike, the ASLEF strike, the water strike, and the South Wales miners’ strike). Once they begin to fight, they are not limited in the same way as the hardened reformist.

Given the chance to struggle and policies which point in a politically anti-capitalist direction, workers can make a break with reformism, and their political consciousness can develop rapidly.

So long as the bureaucrats succeed in keeping the lid on struggles by the shop floor membership, such possibilities remain latent rather than actual. From the appearance of events under such conditions, the working class can seem deceptively weak and passive, and there is a danger that the potential for the development of a new, militant shop floor leadership can remain untapped. This is indeed one of the reasons why the union bureaucracy is so determined to prevent an escalation of struggles against the employers and the Tory government.

Yet for all the efforts of the Tories and the TUC hierarchy, the recent period has not proved by any means entirely negative for the development of shop floor leadership. Last year’s health pay dispute produced a new development of shop stewards’ committees; similarly, the few weeks of the water strike saw the rapid emergence of a strong layer of militant stewards as a new force in a section of workers that has not taken national action since 1926.

Even as we go to press the eruption of a mini-strike-wave against speed up in Ford and in BL’s Cowley, Longbridge, and Jaguar plants, and struggles in the print and on the docks, underline the combativity of sections of workers who have suffered at the hands of the employers’ offensive, and shown the necessity for the development of a new, revolutionary leadership at shop floor level.

Wages are made up of a number of different elements: basic, shift, overtime. etc. There is a growing tendency for the proportion of the basic to decline and the variables to increase.

In the ten highest-paid male manual industries these variables average 31.9% of the wage. However, for a large section of the working class, and women in particular, this mechanism for increasing wage levels is not open. Women, with a few exceptions, are not allowed to do night work, and they work in jobs with a fixed rate of pay which excludes bonus earnings etc.

Since the Equal Pay Act, women’s earnings have remained around three-quarters of male earnings. The proportion now is 1 per cent lower than the 1975 level. If the basic rates continue low, this can only have the effect of further depressing wages of women (and all who work on fixed rates).

The most dramatic changes in earnings are taking place among youth. Up until this year youth earnings had held up well as a proportion of adult rates. The government now employs directly or indirectly through their various schemes 500,000 youth, a massive share of the labour market. This September, traditional apprentice schemes will end, the barrier between youth on government schemes and those directly employed will have been broken down. The going rate will then be £25 across the board, as youth wages are levelled down to that of the government training schemes for boys and girls between 16 and 18.

This scandal has been greeted as a victory by the TUC. The POEU, in negotiating their 8½% wage increase. excluded the apprentices who will start this year. Chapple has also signed industry-wide agreements on the same basis. Quite clearly, for these sections of the unions youth wages are bargaining points for the rest of the workforce.

The harsh reality is that to give consistent leadership in a period of economic crisis and decline requires a revolutionary perspective. It means consciously starting from the defence of the interests of the workers, and the need for political independence from the employers and the union bureaucrats.

Only a leadership which beings from this basis, and which is organised to fight the massive pressures of the capitalist class and the official union apparatus can hold the line against retreats and compromise. Individual militants, no matter how dedicated, stand little chance of withstanding such pressures. This is why a disciplined revolutionary organisation – the Workers’ Socialist League – is necessary in the fight for leadership on the shop floor.

In struggling for an independent policy to defend the working class, the crucial element must be to instil the necessary mistrust of the ‘facts and figures’ paraded by the employers to support their demands for redundancies, speed-up and closures.

This is why the demand for the opening of the books of the employers to inspection by elected trade union committees has such an educational and agitational value, directing attention to the profits and plans of the employers, their secret deals and the links which unite them against the working class.

In campaigning for the ‘open the books’ demand, we must argue also that the crucial question is not the plight of the employers, but the needs of the union rank and file. If order books are declining thanks to Thatcher’s slump, and less work is available, the interests of the membership demand not redundancies but a reduction of working hours – work sharing on full pay. If the employer argues he cannot pay for this, it proves not that workers should give in, but that they must confront the employer – by occupation, supporting strikes, blacking and other solidarity action – to force him to concede their demands.

On a wider scale it is obvious that the needs of the working class (4½ million of whom are already denied even the right to a job) are incompatible with the needs of the crisis-ridden capitalist system. The only long-term answer is in the defeat of the Tory government and the fight for a workers’ government which will nationalise the banks and major industries without compensation as part of a planned, socialist economy.

But such a development will not drop from the skies. A movement against the Tories must be built within the day-to-day struggles on the shop floor, and a revolutionary leadership must be developed to spearhead the fight. As the early Communist International spelled out, Marxists:

“must put forward demands whose fulfilment is an immediate and urgent working class need, and they must fight for these demands in mass struggle, regardless of whether or not they are compatible with the profit economy of the capitalist class or not . . . ”
“if the demand correspond to the vital needs of broad proletarian masses and if these masses feel that they cannot exist unless these demands are met, then the struggle for these demands will become the starting point for the struggle for power”
(Theses on Tactics)

From the defensive struggles to preserve jobs and living standards must come the leadership and mass movement that can challenge and overturn the government and the capitalist system itself.

The crisis that now confronts the shop floor in industry can only be resolved by the construction of a leadership based on this conception.

* Edwardes went on to describe how he had been let loose on BL workers by the last Labour government. He voiced his great respect for Industry Secretary Eric Varley, who he said had kept right out of the way and given Edwardes total freedom on tactical decisions and on appointments to the Board. He contrasted this to Tory Patrick Jenkin, who had “intervened” on tactical decisions.

Edwardes also stressed that he had been opposed to state ownership “from day one” of his takeover at the head of the corporation, and had always intended to sell off BL as soon as it became profitable.

Workers Socialist Review Index (1981-84)

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