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International Socialism, January 1976


Richard Hyman

Activists’ Handbooks


From International Socialism, No.85, January 1976, pp.28-29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Activist’s Handbook
Bob Houlton

Statistics for Bargainers
Karl Hedderwick

Joyce and Bill Hutton

The Organised Worker
Tony Topham
Arrow Books, 75p each

These booklets, specifically designed for trade union education in a reasonably inexpensive paperback edition, are the first in what may well represent a useful series. The publishers have organised the texts in three loosely co-ordinated sets; these four books claim to cover key skills for trade union representatives, while subsequent sets will focus on ‘the bargaining context’ and ‘understanding industrial society’.

Joyce and Bill Hutton provide a simple and well organised primer in numeracy. This serves as a valuable basis for Hedderwick’s text, which concentrates on the interpretation and use of official labour statistics, and includes an effective critique of the Retail Price Index. The other two booklets are quite different in character. Houlton draws on personal trade union experience in discussing a number of the pitfalls to which the trade union activist is vulnerable, and suggests strategies to cope with such problems as communicating with members, relating to the official union organisation, and handling the press. Topham offers a more systematic and more orthodox analysis of various aspects of the shop steward’s role.

These texts have obvious limitations. That two of the four concentrate on statistical issues implies that the content of trade unionists’ arguments, rather than the strength of organisation with which these are backed, represents the key determinant of success – indeed, Hedderwick makes this assumption explicit. The uninitiated reader, moreover, may well find Hedderwick’s presentation at times excessively complex. The two books which focus on broader aspects of workplace representation are limited by their restricted attention to power relations within trade unions. Houlton does indeed offer some important, but all too brief, comments on the nature of power in industrial relations, and on possible conflicts between stewards and full-time officials. But Topham, despite emphasis on the need for rank-and-file control of policy, does not discuss conflicts of this kind or, indeed, the more general constraints on militant unionism imposed by a capitalist environment.

It is clear that the series cannot in itself provide an adequate educational basis for socialist trade unionists; but used with care it can provide a useful source for the training of industrial activists.

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