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International Socialism, Autumn 1968


Editorial 3

Trade Union ‘Reform’


From International Socialism (1st series), No.34, Autumn 1968, pp.3-4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


’Our problem,’ Donovan declared, ‘is the strike which is both unofficial and unconstitutional.’ The Royal Commission’s analysis of the existing set-up in labour relations contained little that was new. It was a relatively realistic and sophisticated account of the rise of workshop bargaining, and of its implications for wages policy.

Realism and sophistication, in ruling-class terms, extended to its proposals, at least in a negative sense. The Report very cautiously edged away from recommending any serious change in the legal position of strikers, official and unofficial, on the grounds that the use of the law against strikes would provoke more troubles than it would settle. The law itself risks falling into contempt, and the notion of a heightening of class conflict remains sufficiently frightful to inhibit any frontal assaults on trade unionism, official or otherwise. The events in France (or, for that matter, last year’s waves of solidarity action in the Roberts-Arundel strike at Stockport) stand as a warning.

Nonetheless, the Royal Commission, along with the mushrooming official and unofficial agencies concerned with labour relations, does propose a number of ‘solutions’ to continuing wage-inflation and the lack of managerial control in workshop affairs. Wage freeze, despite its small successes to date, still finds its teeth blunted by ‘outmoded systems and structures’ of bargaining and wage payment. It is the proposals for the reform of these ‘systems and structures’ that pose the real threat to organised labour.

The ‘reforms’ are of various kinds, depending on their source and the particular situation of the factory or industry. The fragmentation of the bargaining situation, reflected in the contemporary labour movement, is accepted as a new basis for ‘reform’ by our rulers. Each factory or company, with State aid in the form of managerial consultancy advice and support, is to re-shape its production and payments system. Whether the ‘reform’ takes the shape of the much-publicised ‘productivity deal’ or the less well-known ‘measured day work’ or ‘Scanlon Plan’ wage systems, the aim is the same: increases in workers’ output tied to restrictions in wages. In some sectors (so buses, railways, etc) an industry-wide approach is made, but in the majority of industries the emphasis falls squarely on changes at factory or company level, in line with the changed realities of postwar bargaining. But however the approach comes, the intended results are similar: an increase in the rate of exploitation – measured in terms of wage costs per unit of output – of the existing (or surviving) labour force by worsening working conditions and reducing the size of the labour force, along with a restoration to management of initiatives and control in bargaining generally. Thus piecework comes under the hammer, both as ‘inflationary’ and as ‘anarchic’ – workers on piecework can bump up their earnings and maintain a degree of control over the pace and conditions of work.

What is alarming for socialists is the weakness of organised labour’s response to the new attacks. From union officialdom the reaction is, effectively, acceptance of the new pattern of bargaining, regardless of the formally ‘Right’ or ‘Left’ stance of the union leadership. While to the ‘Right,’ the NUR can cheerfully sell the jobs of thousands of railwaymen down the river, on the ‘Left’ the T&GWU has supported the idea of one-man buses and split-shift working which similarly lead only to redundancy. Both unions have played the strike brinkmanship game out fully.

Even more serious, however, than the general collapse of the union bureaucracies is the lack of an organised and articulate response from rank-and-file militants. The fragmentation of the movement since the war, the general lack of politics on the workshop floor, leaves the factory militants unprepared and isolated. The ‘official’ Left, in the Labour and Communist Parties, has long since ceased to have anything serious to say to industrial militants about their most immediate problems, beyond exhortations to vote for ‘our Hughie’ or some other nominee in this or that national or local election. In place of debate or policy on the new approaches from managements, nothing but platitudes and confusion emanate from the old Left. Convenors and rank-and-file militants with good records on the old issues find themselves accepting management proposals for ‘productivity’ with no serious alternatives to put to their workers.

On the industrial front, even the ‘unofficial’ Left is weak. The various rank-and-file publications that have appeared in the last few years are still tied to a relatively abstract militancy that lacks articulation in short-term programmes that connect with a socialist strategy. Their role as organisers of opposition still waits to be fulfilled. Yet the vacuum on the Left, which is more deeply felt in industries than in other spheres, cries out to be filled. Only in one or two small places – among Post Office Engineers, among London teachers and possibly among London printers – is there even a beginning of an organised rank and file response.

In industry, the challenge to the revolutionary Left is considerable, as are the possibilities. The Left’s problem, here as in France, is that of making itself credible and useful to the industrial working class. The links are developing, partly through the ad hoc responses to particular local struggles in which small groups of socialists here and there have distinguished themselves in the past few years. We have to use those links to develop them further, and to go on beyond the ad hoc response to consider policies and formulate demands for particular industries and unions. The development of genuinely militant, genuinely rank-and-file based opposition factions in the unions, fighting for meaningful demands against both the employers and the union bureaucracies, must be a part of the current revolutionary agenda. Small as the forces of the organised revolutionary Left in industry are, the beginning must be made.

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