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International Socialism, Spring 1966


Editorial 1

The Attack on the Shop Stewards


From International Socialism, No.24, Spring 1966, pp.1-3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘Full employment can only be maintained in a solvent society. The consequence of not earning an honest living is unemployment, and we had better face the fact.’ Ray Gunter, Minister of Labour, 8 January 1966.

‘The Engineering Employers’ Federation ... has suggested that unofficial strikers should be fined. They should be subject to a monetary penalty for every day they take part in a strike or other action in breach of procedure.’ Evidence to Royal Commission on Trade Unions, The Times, 25 January 1966.

The Royal Commission on Trade Unions (and, by way of decoration, Employers’ Associations) has crystallised ‘public opinion.’ It is dredging up more than one hundred years’ of boss animosity towards the unions and, more especially, towards the rank and file that created and sustains those unions. The elaborately manufactured hysteria, the slogans of approaching doom to the British ‘nation,’ conceal (whatever Labour may claim) an old-fashioned onslaught on labour. If the employers succeed in introducing their new ‘discipline’ into the factories, helped by the increasing support of the State and by the return of a Labour Government, the shop stewards’ movement immediately becomes the central focus of all industrial struggle.

In the Government’s attempts to strengthen British capitalism, it has adopted the task of disciplining the working class with a vigour and directness the Tories would not have dared to use. Incomes ‘restraint,’ the vetting of wage claims, new restrictions on trade-union negotiating rights and practices, the drive against so-called ‘restrictive’ practices on the shop floor, and above all, the open threats of legislation and penal action against unofficial strikers, all form part of the Labour Government’s service to British capitalism. In return for this the Pound and Wilson’s political reputation are guaranteed together by an admiring middle-class public opinion and the world bankers who saved sterling from devaluation last year. In the long run, it is argued that the new discipline is essential for the development of the new plan-conscious capitalism, able to beat its foreign rivals on the world market. National survival it seems, turns on punishing British workers, so that exports will be cheaper, and will thus enable us to punish foreign workers.

The long-term goal, indicated in the National Plan, is a substantial increase in the volume of private investment, so that the resulting higher profits will fuel the next stage of capital accumulation. That is, if other things are equal and if wages do not encroach on the rate of return on capital invested. Thus, working-class living standards cannot be permitted to rise relative to employers’ profits – the percentage of national income to be devoted to increasing the means of production is to increase at a much faster rate than goods for consumption. No increase in the share of wealth that goes to pensioners is planned.

It is against this background that the shop stewards’ movement in industry begins to assume its new importance. As the curbs on working-class standards and conditions begin to take effect, the stewards feel the pressure of the only effective opposition, the organised worker at the point of production. With the normal channels of protest being progressively dammed – the Constituency Labour Parties by appeals for ‘unity,’ ‘don’t rock the boat,’ and the official trade-union structure by its gradual absorption into the State – there are few alternative methods open for rank-and-file workers to direct their opposition. Right-wing though a majority are, the national trade-union organisations nevertheless have felt the pressure of their members to increase wages, and as a result have had to dither when faced with Government demands and have sought to evade them: thus, their response to George Brown’s insistence on ‘early notification of wage claims,’ making national negotiations even more of a farce than at present, and the imposition of a ‘wage vetting’ role on the TUC.

George Brown’s righteous exhortations to restrain wages have so far fallen on deaf ears with most workers relegating belt-tightening to the next man – also, the spectacle of MPs and Ministers boosting their own salaries and of a Tory, Aubrey Jones, drawing £300 a week as Chairman of the Prices and Incomes Board, urging workers not to receive a twentieth of this, cannot be very instructive It is said that the first offer by the Government to Mr Jones was £140 per week, but that he managed to negotiate an increase for himself to his present weekly wage packet. The upshot of the workers’ lack of conviction is a general eight per cent increase in hourly wage rates in 1965. Leadership by example is more rewarding than leadership by exhortation, and the examples set by trade-union and political leaders (not to mention businessmen) can lead to but one conclusion: wage restraint will be accepted by the workers in the same way as it was accepted by George Brown and George Woodcock. Let the salaries and living standards necessary to support the two Georges be the target all workers strive to reach.

Because of the patent failure of the first stage of the Government’s wage policy, the next stage of the ‘get tough’ process has now started in earnest. Already broad hints of the dire penalties that face trade unionists who seek to defend the interests of their fellow workers have been scattered about like autumn leaves. Harold Wilson, speaking in Liverpool, compared shop stewards to property speculators and called them ‘wreckers.’ Simultaneously, Labour Minister Gunter has revealed his plans for disciplining motor workers by having the unions act as galley-masters. The strategy is simple: get closed shop agreements with the management, then expulsion of militants from the union and thus the black-listing from the industry of unofficial strikers and rank-and-file leaders. In plain terms, opposition to the management spells the sack, executed by the trade unions themselves. The Royal Commission evidence from unions, employers and political parties lays out the weapons that might be used against workers, including the fining and gaoling of strikers. Some employers’ associations demand that unions be made subject to a Registrar of Trade Unions who would draw up ‘model rules’ for each union. If the rules were not obeyed or were rejected, the unions in question would lose their partial immunity before the law in cases of legal action for damages by employers. Just how partial this immunity would be can be seen from the spate of recent promised and executed proceedings against shop stewards, and from the Labour Government’s refusal – to date – to reverse completely the findings in the Rookes-Barnard case. The possibility of union funds being dissipated in such actions is already worrying some union leaders who clearly did not envisage this sort of punishment when they originally jumped on the anti-shop stewards bandwagon. Direct action against stewards and other militants is on the agenda, and a tough period lies ahead. Lest any of the current threats to individual workers be ineffective, Gunter has now, seriously or not, threatened the entire British working class with unemployment unless they obey.

It is in the face of this massive campaign that the natural abilities of shop stewards must be developed and deployed to the full. Of course, not all shop stewards’ committees are direct expressions of rank-and-file feeling; sometimes they are themselves distrusted as part of the apparatus. But potentially, all such committees can in the first instance perform the tasks the trade-union leadership cannot or will not perform at the local level; the trade unions are tied by procedural agreements and, with the best will in the world, cannot respond immediately to shop-floor provocations by the employers. It is here that the struggle begins, and in the past the stewards have shown a multitude of talents for organising their fellow workers, adopting and adapting methods of struggle. In the main however these struggles have been directed only against their individual employers. Now they are faced with the task of organising with their fellow stewards in other firms, in other areas and in other industries to defend themselves against a powerful consortium of employers, Government, Press, Law, Tory Party and trade-union leadership, all equally determined that this time the shop stewards will be curbed, and with them, of course, the rest of organised labour’s will to resist. The first danger in any such growth of the stewards’ movement is that it will bounce against the official union hierarchies immediately it leaves the level of the individual factory. Where the unions draw the line will vary from situation to situation, but the line will be drawn and stewards must be prepared for this as the first threat to their unity.

However, it is the general nature of the threat facing stewards that allows the opportunity for developing them into a widely based movement at all. And the political coloration of the attack being launched upon them indicates the necessity for a political, as well as industrial, response from the rank-and-file movement in the factories. It is an essential first task that rank-and-file workers ensure their own immediate organisation is in good fighting shape; that every factory and place of work has a joint stewards’ committee (including all stewards regardless of their union membership); that every company with different factories is covered by combined stewards’ committees to coordinate activities and prevent ‘splitting’ tactics by the employers. More broadly, the rank and file must find forms of organisation that do the job the old Trades Councils used to do but based on the factories rather than geographical areas.

Most of these tendencies are in their infancy, but the threat to the shop stewards’ movement is now so acute that the implementation of these basic tasks must be accelerated and largely achieved in a relatively short time, creating the conditions for the formation of a national shop stewards’ movement, a conception which has since the first World War existed almost solely in the minds of some of Wilson’s industrial ‘wreckers.’

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