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International Socialism, April/Maly 1969


Editorial 1

Incomes Policy


From International Socialism (1st series), No.36, April/May 1969, pp.1-2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


‘Industrial relations are in a bad way and will not be improved unless the trade-union leadership is subjected to heavy pressure.’ (Andrew Schonfield, member of the Donovan Commission, quoted in The Observer, 19th January 1969.)

Ever since the British ruling class began discussing ‘incomes policy’ seriously, it has been clear that legislation restricting the right to strike must follow. The White Paper (humorously entitled In Place of Strife) is therefore no surprise. Its proposals make sense in relation to the government’s general wage-freeze strategy.

This operates at two related levels. The first and most obvious results from the financial precariousness the government has had to contend with for four years now; the need to prevent marginal economic failings avalanching into massive balance of payments deficits. What has mattered here is placating the gnomes by making token gestures to assure them that Labour really is on their side. Hence the frequent and ostentatious displays of hostility to the demands of organised workers, the willingness to openly smash a particular group. The charade acted out over the building workers’ penny was typical. As New Society noted (19th December 1968), ‘The gnomes were getting restive. Incomes policy had not hit the headlines for months.’ The builders were ideal for bashing. They add nothing to the export drive; their unions, although large, are ramshackle and ill-organised. They are newsworthy, and at the top they will keep quiet if told to do so. Perhaps more than anywhere else in industry real organisation depends upon relatively isolated militants on individual sites. These might easily squeeze the penny and more out of their employers, but this would be unpublicised, and meanwhile the unorganised and unmilitant would go quietly to the wall.

But this has not been and could not be in itself a long-term strategy. For it does nothing about the firmly entrenched organisations in the key areas of the economy. Financial instability would be aggravated by any serious conflict here however much the gnomes might welcome the intentions behind it. Hence the substantial rise for the tally clerks, the hasty climbing down when faced with union-wide solidarity in the post office. Even the engineers got more than many sections of the ruling class would have liked. Although the unorganised or barely organised, those without unions or those in completely bureaucratised unions, those who could not immediately effect the overall performance of the economy, the nurses, the busmen, the contracting electricians, have all suffered, The Economist could still claim (1st February 1969) that the second half of 1968 saw ‘the highest pace of wage inflation for twelve years’.

If this were all the government strategy involved, the situation would be relatively simple. Eventually the ruling class would have to stage a major confrontation with a significant section of organised workers and, in order to try to achieve a quick victory before a balance of payments crisis overwhelmed them, probably escalate the level of class violence to heights unknown since the war. But this is a policy it fears, with memories of France ‘68 still fresh in mind. In nearly every case since the war (the only exceptions being the busmen, in 1958 and the seamen in 1965) the government has backed down before this point was reached. For instance, troops have not been sent in to the docks for nearly twenty years.

At present a strategy which operates on a different level and is in some ways a more dangerous one is preferred. This involves using the wage-freeze straitjacket to encourage workers to opt for the productivity deal. This latter course is intended to solve British capitalism’s long term problems. Incomes policy sets the limits to what can be obtained by traditional bargaining; productivity must pay for any increase above this.

But what is involved is not just a question of income distribution. At stake is the balance of power at shop-floor level that determines this. The intention is not just a once and for all trick that makes the workers produce more for less, but a systematic long-term attempt to emasculate on-the-job organisation.

The productivity-deal strategy makes no sense unless there is someone to impose it at the shop-floor level. This cannot be adequately done by shop stewards who are directly controlled by the rank and file. What is required then is control in the hands of a middle layer of technocrats and bureaucrats. Therefore the stress is not just on productivity deals, but on such deals as

  1. are made directly between the national union bureaucracy and the local management,
  2. provide both with access to the shop floor (which they do not have at the moment) to enable them to know what is actually happening there and ‘discipline’ those involved, and
  3. do away with those work practices (such as piece working, day-to-day negotiations, shop control of individual overtime working) that at present make the stewards’ organisation decisive.

In short the aim is to shift the locus of power on the workers’ side from organisations over which there is decisive control from the bottom up (stewards’ committees, etc.), to organisations in which rank-and-file control is highly restricted and at best indirect (the national trade-union bureaucracy). Once this is achieved it is hoped that even the stewards can be transformed into ‘policemen’, as they have been in the UAW in the States. The employers may well be prepared to distribute considerable financial incentives to achieve such a state of affairs. This may take the form of an apparent victory for the national union organisation after a token struggle. The true picture would only be revealed at the shop-floor level and even there not immediately.

The role of the White Paper and proposed legislation in all this is clear. On the one hand they aim to create an ideological climate in which the transfer of power from the bottom to the top is made easier. On the other hand they aim to establish the beginnings of an institutional framework that will actively encourage such changes. The Commission on Industrial Relations (CIR) will aim to act as ‘a disseminator of good practice and a focus of reform by example’. Like the PIB it will be effectively another management consultancy firm, backed by powerful government research facilities. Its chief tasks will be to extend and ‘improve’ procedural agreements, to develop more acceptable rules on dismissal and discipline, to encourage ‘effective and fair redundancy practices’, to help ‘bring shop stewards within a proper framework of agreed rules in their firm’, etc. Further it is to encourage union amalgamations, so as to provide the unified frame work within the factory that can ‘control’ stewards (government money may be available to help struggling bureaucrats to come together), and to persuade unions to take on more full-time officials. The aim must be ‘one union for one grade within one factory’, with the ‘career prospects’ of full-time officials improved.

One aim of the legislation is to make unions bring their rule books into line with the exigencies of ‘discipline’ within the factory. It is into these that the teeth of the legislation are designed to bite. The CIR will be assisted by a new Registrar of Trade Unions with whom such rule books must be registered. These must cover among other things, elections, ballots, discipline and the appointment and functions of stewards. Unions fairing to register will be fined and rule books that do not ‘adequately cover’ the topics listed will not be registered.

This has certain implications that militants will no longer be able to evade. For more than twenty years it has been possible for militants in industry to operate as if there were two distinct structures within the union; on the one hand, a localised shop or factory organisation built around the stewards’ committee, more or less a law unto itself, engaging in those battles of most significance to the men on the shop floor; on the other a national union bureaucracy of little direct concern that occasionally tried to intervene in shop-floor affairs but usually ineffectively. These were never, however, parallel structures independent of each other. The militant depended upon the national structure – to provide him with the credentials that would make him acceptable to the less militant workers, to give ‘legitimacy’ to what was being done at the shop-floor level, and above all to provide a milieu in which he could make contact with militants in other factories and other trades. Despite the inadequate and even oppressive nature of the apparatus it prevented fragmented militancy every degenerating completely into isolated parochialism.

The new situation will make peaceful co-existence between the militants and the apparatus more and more difficult. Even the ‘Lefts’ in the trade-union bureaucracy welcome productivity bargaining as the easiest way for them to appear to offer gains to the workers without mobilising for action.

Rank-and-file organisations have only themselves to rely on – not only for on-the-job protection but also for developing national counter-offensives. Bargaining on a plant or combine level carried out over the heads of the stewards by national union officials has to be countered by immediate and direct action by the rank and file. This can only be led by stewards’ committees that themselves operate on a wider basis than previously, that is, through effective combine committees, etc. Already we see the first tentative steps in this direction at ICI, AEI-GEC, BMC, and Fords. For the first time in fifty years stewards are beginning to organise for national, inter-plant action outside, and even against, the national union structure. This does not mean that the national union organisation is irrelevant, or that it will go completely over to the bosses. But it does mean that collisions between the official union structure and the militants will become much more frequent. On the one hand the state will try to absorb the bureaucrats; on the other militant workers will try to retain their own independence by organising on a more widespread basis at the rank-and-file level. In response to these opposed pressures the national officials will follow contradictory and vacillating policies. They will search frantically for some easy way to satisfy both – here again the apparently innocuous productivity deal will be useful.

All these factors begin to raise one central issue – that of control. Who controls in the factory – the employer attempting to erode existing work practices or the men defending conditions and organisation that past struggles have won? Who controls in the union – the official attempting to be a more or less willing taskmaster for the monopoly state capitalist concern or the rank and file he confronts? The question of workers’ control ceases to be an academic matter for discussion at occasional conferences and becomes a living issue at the point where it really counts.

To fight a battle around these issues successfully the habits of the past are not enough. The trade-union consciousness of the past twenty years, which focussed around issues of more money, solidarity within the single shop and a minimal dependency on a bureaucratised national structure, is no longer adequate. If the whole issue of control is avoided then a clear analysis of what is happening and what needs to be done is impossible. That is why all the old organisations, from the CP rightwards, have so little to say. Only new ideas – or rather very old revolutionary ones – can begin to explain the offensive and how to resist. We have to provide these, linking them to what workers are willing to fight for in particular situations and to stress the need for organs of class self-reliance operating on a much wider basis than hitherto.

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