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International Socialism, Summer 1963


Notes of the Quarter

Shop Stewards


From International Socialism, No.13, Summer 1963, p.4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Powers That Be in industry are becoming increasingly apprehensive about the Power That Might Be – the shop steward’s movement. Two recent events remind us that capital (and the labour bureaucracy) are veering more and more towards the idea of policing the as yet imperfectly ‘pacified’ section of the organized workers

The First was the Jack Court of Enquiry into the dispute at Ford last March. After gently admonishing the management for highhandedness and suggesting that it give the unions details of the accused men’s misdemeanours (‘without detracting from the company’s right to discharge unsatisfactory employees’), the report recommended that

The second was an agreement, drawn up in April, two weeks after the Jack Committee reported, between the British Employers’ Confederation and the Trade Union Congress. The parties agreed to recommend, each to its own affiliates, that firms release shop stewards with pay so that they could attend courses during normal working hours. They agreed that ‘there should be consultation with employers about the syllabuses’ (Guardian, 26 April).

These are not isolated events. I is not too long since Byrne, Secretary of the Electrical Trade Union, had occasion to write in the union magazine

‘We want to make it perfectly clear that the ETU will not tolerate any attempt by unauthorized bodies to usurp the functions of the elected leadership.’

Within weeks, leaders of the unsuccessful ‘work-to-rule’ last Winter had been expelled from the union. More recently the executive of the National Union of Vehicle Builders announced their intention of sweeping back the flood. They said in their annual report:

‘It may be that the position of our shop stewards should be restated ... they are under the control of the union through the medium of the branch, or in some cases the district.’

In the light of these moves certain elementary truths need reiteration. One, shop stewards committees and workshop organization have been built up over the years precisely because procedure agreements nearly always work to the detriment of workers, where direct action, correctly used, has proved successful. Two, the only effective training for a shop steward is in the workshop, where he learns to understand and deal with day-to-day problems posed by management as they affect workers; outside the factory, in the kinds of courses now proposed he will be taught to consider problems in the terms of an alien class. Three, the power of a shop steward derives precisely from the fact that he is elected by people who know him directly, who work with him and who therefore share a community of interest with him. He is liable to be removed at any time, as soon, that is, as he ceases to serve the best interests of his workmates. To elect him by any other method would be to retreat from democracy. It would seriously weaken the unions at the point where most of the gains in wages and conditions have been negotiated. (If engineering workers depended on national agreements, skilled men would be earning £10 a week before stoppages.)

It is for this reason, if no other, that a journal such as this is dedicated to the defence of the shop stewards’ movement and its growth under all circumstances.

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