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International Socialism, Spring 1962


Henry Collins

British Trade Unions


From International Socialism (1st series), No.8, Spring 1962, p.31.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Trade Union Situation in the United Kingdom
Report of a Mission from the International Labour Office
ILO. 7s. 6d.

This is the third in a series of factual surveys on freedom of association – the first two dealing with trade unions in the United States and in the USSR. The ILO mission spent six weeks in Britain during the Spring of 1960. Its results are embodied in this report of 123 pages and monumental dullness.

The mission seems not to have had much detailed knowledge of British trade unionism before its arrival and six weeks was certainly too short a time for its members to get the feel of a complex and rapidly changing situation. The traditional division of British trade unions into craft, industrial and general unions is accepted uncritically, though as a system of classification it is now almost useless. Clegg, Killick and Adams, who used a much more workable system in their Trade Union Officers, could have helped them here. Nor is it only “in the past few years” that the AEU has opened its membership to semi-skilled workers and to women.

The chapter dealing with Trade Union Government and Union Democracy is, to put it as gently as possible, inadequate. In page after page of solemn commonplace the importance of adequate member participation is laboured, but problems arising out of the election or appointment of officials, of executive elections and of annual conferences are not so much as mentioned. The role of shop stewards, on the other hand, is discussed in several sections of the report, usually with the insight, penetration and objectivity of I’m All Right, Jack.

A summary of joint negotiating machinery and of provisions for conciliation and arbitration is provided accurately and, within the limits of space, comprehensively. But it could just as well have been written in Geneva where the ILO library is, no doubt, sufficiently stocked. The breath of reality rising from factories, workshops and industrial disputes was well filtered before it reached these pages. An official report of this nature cannot, in fairness, be expected to come out with startling new generalisations or explicit judgements – though a number are implicit in the treatment of shop stewards. But the value of this type of report can fairly be questioned. If a team is to be expected to produce results of greater worth than could a moderately competent research worker, sitting at home, then clearly it must) be given more time, scope and opportunities.

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