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International Socialism, Summer 1966


Dave Peers

The Notebook



From International Socialism (1st series), No.25, Summer 1966, p.4.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Dave Peers writes: The Geddes Report on Shipbuilding runs true to form with recent Government-sponsored inquiries into other industries, and therefore contains few surprises. Once again, the State is to be the midwife to monopoly by subsidising mergers and capital re-equipment, and once again the workers are exhorted to drop their ‘restrictive practices’ in the interests of productivity and exports. Nevertheless, there are features of the British shipbuilding industry which pose particular problems for the trade unions involved. Its products, except for the small proportion of naval work, are exposed to the full competition and vagaries of the world market, and yet the industry has very little control over its costs. Only a quarter of the total cost of a ship is incurred in the shipyard itself (the recent four per cent increase in steel prices has already undermined one of the Geddes proposals for cheaper steel plate for shipbuilding) – so that even if shipbuilding unions were to accept the Geddes’ proposals on industrial relations and urge their members to work their hearts out to give their employers bigger profits than their Japanese, German and Swedish rivals, the effect on the total cost of ships would be marginal. The process of building a ship which requires different trades at each stage of construction, a high proportion of skilled workers and the fluctuations of demand for the product result in periodic laying off of men and give rise to the defensive craft unionism which is characteristic of the industry. The preoccupation with job protection has been intensified by the decline of the industry (there are now 30,000 fewer jobs than there were in 1959) and by the adoption of new techniques, which have virtually eliminated trades such as riveting and blurred the demarcation lines between others such as platers and shipwrights.

Nevertheless, shipyard workers do possess a considerable amount of control over the job, and this position has been improved by the full employment of the last two years which has enabled them to push up their wage rates to the average for engineering. But this position is now under attack from Geddes: the increased size of the firm will provide one danger, but more serious are the Report’s proposed changes in industrial relations. It recommends a new wage structure based upon productivity and work measurement, flexibility of jobs within a trade to overcome ‘overmanning’ along with a redefinition of job divisions, mobility of labour within the new combines, relaxation of controls on the intake of apprentices, arbitration panels for demarcation disputes, and the ‘training’ of shop stewards, viz. ‘... it has been found advantageous for shop stewards and foremen undergoing training to take part in joint sessions with a view to promoting mutual understanding.’ Taken together these proposals would completely emasculate the trade unions in the shipbuilding industry. To sweeten the pill the Report advocates measures to improve safety, fringe benefits, and working conditions, all of which will no doubt be welcomed but in themselves are not sufficient incentive for the enormous sacrifice of union bargaining power which acceptance of the whole Report would involve. At the same time, the traditional methods of shipyard work are in the process of change, and Geddes will only speed a process already well under way. Flexibility agreements already operate in a few yards, and the amalgamation of the Boilermakers’ and Shipwrights’ unions was in part a reaction to these changes. The sell-out at Fairfields however illustrates the lack of a union policy towards new demands being made by the employers, as does McGarvey’s defensive comment on the Geddes Report in his monthly report to the Boilermakers’ Society.

It seems inevitable that increased flexibility of work will come, and a new wages structure of some sort might not be a bad idea in an industry riddled with the ‘blue-eyed’ system. But one hopes that the Boilermakers’ and other unions involved will make the employers pay for flexibility by exacting guarantees of job security and decent rates of pay, rejecting any interference with union control over entry to the trade and job allocation, and most important, preserving the independence of shop stewards.

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