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International Socialism, Spring 1967


Editorial 1

Taking Stock of the Wage Freeze


From International Socialism (1st series), No.28, Spring 1967, pp.1-2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


It is hard to face the fact but the freeze has been, by and large, successful. However much one distrusts the figures, the official statistic of a 0.3 per cent rise in wage rates in the last six months compared with around 4 per cent in the previous period cannot be far off the mark, even if earnings will be different. With prices rising slowly, real earnings are likely to be in decline. This is a victory for the Government.

The trade-union militant has found things very tough. Whereas workers in much of industry have found that they could rely on the strength of their own factory organisation during much of the postwar period to push forward wages and conditions, without much thought for national negotiations or for the problems of neighbouring factories, today such ‘splendid isolation’ is a critical weakness. Over a wide area of industry, shop stewards’ organisation is under attack, either directly – as in the present strike at Roberts-Arundel in Stockport [1*], or during recent events at North London’s ENV – or more subtly in British Motor Holdings after large-scale redundancies. The offensive is highly organised and based upon direct links between employers organised in various federations and the government. Evidence of such an alliance is growing and is apparent in the present disputes in the building industry, as in the strike at Sunley’s in Westminster, the subject of an important High Court case over the right to picket. It is clear that a concerted attack is being made on those large building sites in central London where a strong organisation has acted as an effective wage leader for the building industry.

By contrast, the worker finds that the corresponding organisations of the labour movement through which he should be able to create a corresponding unity are outmoded and inadequate. In particular, most trades councils, whose function has been to develop solidarity between trade union branches, have been found lacking – it is a rare case when, as in the Roberts-Arundel strike, a trades council organises a demonstration and mass pickets of support. The weakness derives from the basis of trades council organisation in trade-union branches which no longer have much real power or significance; the councils provide no direct links between factories.

Trade union officials, many unresponsive to their members’ wishes, some corrupted or collaborationist in spirit (and sometimes in fact) do not essentially change the situation. Indeed, in a situation where the keynote is defence such leaders can become a real liability instead of a marginal impediment. It is no coincidence that one of the few groups of workers to have broken the freeze decisively are the draughtsmen whose union, DATA, has a fine record of supporting its membership.

One of the key factors in the success of the wage freeze has been the isolation of the militant. In most cases this has meant that whatever the shortcomings of organisation inside or outside the factory, the major obstacle to a serious and sustained struggle against redundancy has been the workers’ unwillingness to fight. It is important to recognise this, but it must not be used as an alibi for inaction. The Government has had considerable success in ‘selling’ the freeze, and the arguments of phoney equality and national survival have left their mark. In addition, some trade unionists have deceived themselves into thinking they had only to wait until July for things to return to ‘normal.’ However, the success of the freeze is not the whole truth, for it has been broken. In particular, DATA has won quite large increases through local bargaining, backed by its executive and the threat of determined strike action. In Manchester an employer ‘promoted’ 90 per cent of his draughtsmen to so-called ‘Project Engineers’ so that they could get an extra two pounds or so. At the Caterpillar Tractor Company in London, the employer refused to pay an agreed increase on Government advice, but then paid the increase when DATA issued strike notices. So far, the Government has not moved to invoke Part IV in this case, since it is seeking to avoid the publicity that would call its bluff. The workers themselves naturally prefer money to martyrdom, so they are also keeping quiet. But it is important that trade unionists are aware of these cases.

The lessons are the same as before: isolated action for most workers means defeat. The seamen are living witness to the ineffectiveness of isolated action. In those industries not based on factory production – for example, building and transport – rank-and-file committees and action must be developed and strengthened on the model of, for example, the various Joint Sites Committees and of industry-wide rank-and-file newspapers like The Platform, voice of the London busmen until its recent demise. Combine Committees linking different factories in the same group of companies are useful, but the recent experience in BMC shows some of their weakness – resolutions rather than effective action to prevent redundancies were the sole result (cf. Labour, Shop Stewards and Politics, IS 27).

Finally, there is a need for committees such as the Shop Steward Defence Committees and Solidarity Committees that have developed in the last year or so. Such bodies can provide links between factories and unions within a particular locality and focus assistance of various kinds on those under attack. The present committees are in their infancy but indicate one sort of way forward.

Plans to extend the control of incomes and anti-trade union legislation beyond the present period are being currently considered. The wage freeze is to continue in fact if not name. That means that the present shaky counter-measures must be extended and developed. Above all, the cracks in the freeze must be widened, and any attempt by the Government to take further special measures to stop up those gaps will only intensify the pressure. The task of socialists is to give help wherever possible, without becoming trapped in precipitate arguments over political slogans (redundant BMC workers and Vietnamese peasants, Unite!), help to those directly involved in disputes, and, as important, maximum publicity to instances of successful action against the freeze.



1*. cf. the Strike Committee’s excellent Support the Roberts-Arundel Strike, price 6d from 125 Wellington Road South, Stockport, Cheshire.

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