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International Socialism, June 1976


Richard Hyman

Trade Union Education


From International Socialism (1st series), No.89, June 1976, pp.28-29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Industrial Action
Ernie Johnston

Pay at Work
Bill Conboy

Work Study
Jim Powell

Workers’ Rights
Paul O’Higgins
Arrow Books, 85p each

These are the second set in a series designed for trade union education by the Society of Industrial Tutors (the first set was reviewed in IS 85). Each booklet of just under a hundred pages focuses on an area of practical concern to workplace activities. Three of the four should prove of considerable value to trade union activists.

The one exception is Conboy’s text on payment systems, which reads in many respects like one of the reports of the late and unlamented Prices and Incomes Board. His main concern is to argue the evils of payment by results and the virtues of measured day work, and in a highly tendentious and one-sided fashion. He takes it for granted that any sensible trade unionist will happily agree a change from PBR to MDW, will need to negotiate only around the details rather than the principle of its implementation, and will be particularly anxious for MDW to operate ‘efficiently’. The following passage is a give-away.

‘Whatever the manner of its introduction, the more sophisticated the scheme the greater the load will be on low-level management and supervision. If union negotiators honestly believe that these people will not be able to shoulder the load, then they should say so to management. Let management train (or recruit) the people to do the job properly ...’

Try telling that to the stewards at Chrysler! Who would guess from this passage that the main purpose of most companies in introducing MDW is to, contain long-term movements in labour costs and tighten control over the labour process: objectives that any trade union organisation worth its salt will want to resist all along the line. A workers’ handbook on payments systems would heed to provide a balanced discussion of how far PBR systems, despite the disadvantages to which Conboy devotes so much attention, can by appropriate strategies be used as a means of collective workers’ control; and how workers under a system of MDW can carry on a constant struggle against ‘effective’ management so as to resist speed-up and redundancy. But this is a handbook for academics and managers, not for workers; it is a disgrace that it should be published in such a series.

Johnston’s booklet is very different. From his experience as AUEW convenorat CAV-Lucas he discusses a range of questions relating to the strategy and tactics of industrial struggle. Topics include the formulation of strike demands; the organisation of a strike committee; overtime bans and working to rule; sit-ins and work-ins; and picketing. Johnston also discusses some of the problems involved in strike action beyond the level of the individual workplace, and in particular the difficulties associated with multinational companies.

Some criticisms could be made of his treatment of these issues. He overstates the success of a number of recent struggles (in particular where the Communist Party played a leading role); he is somewhat equivocal on the role of full-time officials in strike situations; he makes a slanderous attack on the role of IS in the 1970 Pilkington strike. Even so, this fills a long-felt need as a guide for workers and stewards engaged in struggle, and in particular for those with little strike experience.

Powell analyses various aspects of method and time study and job evaluation. Unlike many writers on this subject he makes clear that none of these techniques are genuinely scientific: all involve guesswork and arbitrary judgement. More importantly, all are applied within a framework of rules which typically reflect the employer’s priorities. Powell’s basic argument is that stewards faced by a management wishing to use these techniques can best defend their members’ interests if they understand them, and in particular will only then know how best to negotiate the rules within which they may be used and which techniques should be resisted altogether. What also emerges clearly from this text is the need for effective workplace organisation to provide the muscle behind any bargaining that takes place.

O’Higgins achieves the remarkable feat of making British labour law (including the most recent legislation) seem almost simple. He stresses that many aspects of the law are profoundly unsatisfactory from the trade unionist’s point of view; and that the judges who apply and interpret it are naturally biased against working-class interests. Nevertheless, he argues, some elements of labour law do provide rights which can be used to advantage by workers’ representatives who have some understanding of this complex topic. O’Higgins does not attempt to suggest that workers should rely on the law to the exclusion of collective struggle; indeed he is highly critical of the extent to which unions have been willing to incorporate in collective agreements conditions which are no better than the minimum legal standards, rather than treating these as a basis to be improved on in collective bargaining. He is particularly caustic at the failure of most unions to treat safety at work as a serious issue in negotiations.

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Last updated on 16.3.2008