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International Socialism, Winter 1966/7


Editorial 1

Labour, Shop Stewards and Politics


From International Socialism, No.27, Winter 1966/7.
Transcribed by Mike Pearn.
Marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Official labour has decisively broken a long tradition. In and out of office, it has always tried to enforce a strict separation between politics and economics, between the political representatives and the trade-union officers. Let workers worry about wages – we’ll see to welfare; they might be competent enough in the work-place but we are the specialists in Parliament and the Borough Council.

The tradition is in ruins. By imposing first wage restraint, then wage freeze, then invoking the law to prohibit standard trade-union practices and threatening unemployment – even a half hint of direction of labour – the labour Government has brought politics into the work-place as never before.

It has not done so willingly. Its hand has been forced by the decreasing scope for play within the system nationally and internationally; in practice, this means an open insistence by Central Banks that the condition for their financing British capitalism’s pretensions to military and financial greatness is that British workers ultimately bear the cost. However, willing or not, the direction of national policy now depends on the outcome of battle on workers’ home ground, far from the padded seats of Westminster.

The response to Government policy is commanded by professionals. With full employment, an army of shop stewards and comparable work-place representatives has emerged in important areas of industry. They have been created in their present form by the postwar wave of working-class confidence, helped by the connivance of management for whom production without them in today’s conditions of full employment in skilled trades, of vast enterprises, rapid technical change, competing unions and so on, would be inconceivable. Already well-established in printing, engineering and building, they are now developing in docks, shipping and other transport undertakings. They are the natural leaders in the economic struggle, the force to counter the heavy metal of national labour politics with the smaller, more traditional weapons of local bargaining.

Apart from the limited area of industry effectively covered, the stewards have other crucial weaknesses. The exclusive identification with a particular work-place which makes stewards so powerful vis-à-vis a particular management, weakens their links with other work-place organisations and isolates them from sections of the working class that cannot organise themselves easily of at all in that way – many service branches, the old, the unemployed. The stewards will fight the Government’s labour policies as they enter their horizon, but this horizon is narrow, and the tendency will be to fight from isolated rockets, like guerrillas hitting the enemy where they can see him, rather than where it might hurt most, in a co-ordinated, overall – that is, political – way, which will carry an entire industry, not just one shop.

Some shop-stewards know this. Their postwar history is studded with attempts to extend beyond their industrial parish pumps. They have formed Combine Committees in the car industry, in electricity, in may large multi-plant engineering firms, and Joint Sites Committees etc. in building. The results are patchy. For example, the recent redundancies have put the car factory joint stewards’ committees and the BMC Combine Committee to the test without great results. The pattern has been either a token action (the one-day strike walk out by Rootes at Coventry over sackings) or attempts by stewards to obtain mass action that have only led to the isolation of the leading militants from the rank and file. Mass meetings have tended to reject the stewards’ proposals for resistance, with the partial exception that led to the Morris radiators action. In this last case, the stoppage was achieved by the convenor setting a personal example and calling on other workers to follow him – which the mass production sections did, a minority decisive enough to halt production but not to carry the whole of BMC. There seems to have been little attempt by the BMC Combine Committee to involve workers in Birmingham in militant action.

Workers have thus not on the whole developed combative and collectively fashioned organisations during the preceding years of boom. The gap that remains between the working-class leaders and their shop-floor constituencies is a special target for government action to emasculate the stewards. Again, the exceptional unevenness even within one factory, between departments, severely inhibits action: redundancies fall unequally, and the action of one shop does not pull out all. This fragmentation of effort follows from the fragmentation of consciousness that has been the by-product of the past phase of economic expansion, and it is aided by those stewards whose first loyalty is to the established trade unions, rather than to the localised groups that span many trades within a factory or locality: Communist Party attempts to keep in with the national trade-union leadership have often in the past inhibited efforts by militants to organise unofficial defences on the ground, even though no official defences are being created. This is not an argument for a root-and-branch rejection of the trade-union leadership, but it is an argument for compelling activists to make sure they have their priorities right – local defence, firm roots in the factory, are the first necessity.

But even with the best kind of organisation local defence will be confined to the affairs of one firm or, at the outside, one industry. Such organisation cannot of its nature overcome the generalised fragmentation of the movement and thereby co-ordinate the fight against Government policy over the whole front: it is not what this demands, a political organisation, a propaganda agency seeking to unify the disparate responses to different conditions and attacks within a common framework.

Only this will be the precondition for the effective forms of organisation between industries. Something along these lines has already been started in a very modest way – workers’ solidarity or defence committees. They do not extend very far even in the areas where they operate, and their base is too often very insecure, but they do cover certain different trades and different forms of organisation, both trade-union and political. The experience is minute, but enough to support a few tentative comments. They have usually arisen out of a particular dispute or set of disputes (ENV engineering in London; the Seamen’s strike in Hull; engineering in Newcastle; building in Liverpool) and received their initial impetus from workers directly involved in that dispute. They have attracted the most politically-committed workers, and indeed, their successful take-off beyond the particular circumstances which begot them depends almost entirely on the political activists of all varieties who are involved. This crucial role for political militants in industry has exaggerated the patchiness of the development of such committees – the Communist party militants are still the most important single aggregation of such militants( although certainly not a majority of all activists), so that the official CP attitude in a locality can be important. In Surrey, for example, the CP is said to be opposed to new forms of unofficial organisation, even though CP militants are the backbone of the new Surrey branch of the defence liaison committee.

It would be misleading to think of these committees as a force of any weight as yet. Although they have contributed to a number of disputes, and to what might be a very important assembly of rank-and-file trade unionists on 3 December (Beaver hall, London; it meets after this issue goes to press), and although they have provided the most effective propaganda against Labour’s anti-labour policies in the London Industrial Shop Stewards’ Defence Committee’s booklet, Incomes Policy, Legislation, and Shop Stewards, they are still minute and very vulnerable. More than this, the politics are unclear – Communist militants will have to risk jeopardising their Party loyalty in order to prepare really effective local organisations in collaboration with non-CP militants. Equally, the attitude of the new unofficial organisations to the national trade-union leaderships, creates difficulties in regard, for example, to the Transport and General and ASSET, both committed against the freeze at the national level on programmes that are not necessarily consistent with local demands.

However, even if the new committees do not survive, they will have shown a method and direction of work which can have immense consequences. Their inclusiveness makes them, potentially at any rate, a powerful force, and their use of industrial power for political ends a revolutionary one.

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