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International Socialism, July/August 1976


Richard Hyman

Birth of the Trade Union Bureaucracy


From International Socialism (1st series), No.90, July/August 1976, pp.23-24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Origins of British Industrial Relations
Keith Burgess
Croom Helm, £8.99

The second half of the nineteenth century is generally recognised as the decisive stage in the consolidation of the structure and orientation of British trade unionism. There were four key aspects of this process. First, stable unionism became established among the relatively advantaged strata of the working-class, in particular skilled craftsmen, and before the rise of socialist organisation propagating doctrines of class unity. Thus the form and practice of unionism was essentially sectional, often involving policies antagonistic to broader working-class interests. Secondly, the era of British capitalism’s rapid expansion and domination of the world market offered unions the prospect of economic gains within the existing structure of society, and made employers (at least those with an ‘enlightened’ understanding of their long-term interests) willing to negotiate and to recognise trade unionism. Hence the economic context permitted the development of collaborative bargaining relationships. Thirdly, since union action did not systematically challenge social stability, governments were willing to abstain from detailed intervention in the processes of industrial relations (though the courts were always ready to take exemplary action whenever there were signs of an upsurge in working-class militancy). In consequence, state power was not regarded as a central problem for the labour movement; political action of any kind was normally considered marginal to the day-today application of craft controls or conduct of collective bargaining. Finally, the administration of large national unions with elaborate systems of financial benefits, or the prosecution of complex negotiations with employers, or participation on formalised conciliation boards or sliding-scale committees, encouraged the formation of a substantial body of full-time officials. Thus there developed at an early stage a considerable trade union bureaucracy, often differentiated from the membership in terms of function, material conditions, social status, relationship with employers and establishment politicians, and preoccupation with organisational and financial stability.

Burgess charts in detail the distinctive manifestations of these developments in four major British industries. In engineering, the rapid technical changes of the years 1830-50 defined the structure of the labour force for the following half century. The new elite of skilled fitters and turners dominated the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, which refused to organise the large numbers of lower-skilled machinists. Financial administration in the ASE was highly centralised, but trade policy was left largely to local initiative. Hence the membership was geographically fragmented, and conditions varied markedly between districts; while the Executive did little to assist individual districts struggling for improvements. This structure was adequate to sustain the interests of a craft minority under stable conditions, but made the ASE highly vulnerable to employer attack when circumstances altered. Thus at the end of the century, with increasing foreign competition and a new series of technical innovations, the newly formed Employers’ Federation inflicted a humiliating defeat in the lock-out of 1897-8. The union’s national leadership was happy to observe the procedural constraints contained in the resulting Terms of Settlement, deliberately designed to restrict rank-and-file initiative. The scene was set for the shop stewards’ struggles of the First World War.

Industrial relations in the building industry proceeded less dramatically. Construction enjoyed steady expansion in a sheltered market; there were few pressures towards technical innovation; the ratio of craft labour was high, and supervision was rudimentary. During the period there was a gradual growth in the significance of general contractors carrying out large-scale speculative contracts, and often providing inferior wages and a high pressure of work; nevertheless, the small-scale employer remained the norm. Union organisation matched the structure of the industry: fragmented between numerous sectional craft societies, often engaged in internecine struggles. The larger employers, initially anti-union, showed a willingness in the 1860s to accept institutionalised arrangements for conciliation, arbitration and negotiation. But unionism remained overall relatively weak; negotiations covered wages rather than working conditions, which varied between trades and districts; there was little effective control over apprenticeships. Relative economic and technical stability kept building free of major conflicts of principle, facilitating the development of a cautious and conservative union leadership; but for the same reason, conflict with the rank and file was only localised and intermittent.

Coal-mining experienced a rapid growth in employment and production over the period. Capitalisation was low, and because labour costs were proportionately high and coal prices (especially in the export areas) volatile, wages were subject to violent fluctuations. The faceworkers (usually on piecework) were an elite, who enjoyed an unusual degree of work control; their earnings were usually substantially higher than the day-wage ancillary workers, whose numbers increased substantially towards the end of the century. For most of the century union organisation was unstable: favourable economic conditions might encourage effective union action, but when circumstances changed and the owners sought wage reductions the outcome was typically a disastrous strike or the erosion of a demoralised membership. Because of regional variations in conditions, the problems of developing organisation above the level of the individual coalfield were particularly acute. The coal-price sliding-scales agreed in several counties in the 1860s preserved the unions concerned from strikes they had little prospect of winning, but turned them into bodies which totally accepted the economic logic of the owners’ position. Resistance to the principle of the sliding-scale inspired the creation of the Miners’ Federation in 1889. uniting the central coalfields; and it succeeded in achieving a membership of over 200,000 by 1893, the year in which it survived a massive lock-out over wage reductions. But the outcome was the acceptance of a system of ‘conciliation’ which differed little from the old sliding-scale principle. The scene was set for the conflicts in the new century between rank-and-file activists and a leadership totally committed to the established procedures; and the overlapping conflict between the faceworkers who traditionally dominated mining unionism, and the majority of workers whose pay and conditions were much inferior.

Cotton was, of course, the first industry to experience the ‘revolution’ of capitalist factory production at the end of the eighteenth century: first in spinning, then in weaving. By the middle of the nineteenth century the technologies of both sectors had been stabilised, and the rapid expansion in markets provided a fertile basis for collaborative trade unionism. In spinning, this took the form of a craft-type organisation of the top spinners, who though not apprenticed craftsmen enjoyed an unusually high wage differential over lower-skilled workers. In weaving there was no analogous body of skilled workers in the main production processes, and indeed the majority of the labour force was female; union organisation was thus open in character. In both cases, though, internal control of the unions became increasingly bureaucratised (with officials appointed on the basis of their mathematical expertise). After 1880 the British dominance in export markets came under challenge, heralding employer attacks on wages, working conditions, and the ratio of minders to machines. The officials proved more accommodative than the membership, and a series of strikes ensued, as well as major lock-outs in spinning in 188S and 1893. The outcome of the latter was the Brooklands agreement which established machinery for centralised collective bargaining on terms highly favourable to the employers.

The great value of this study by Burgess is the detailed evidence of the impact of economic conditions and technical development in each industry on the character of union organisation and industrial relations. Any serious student of the period – which must mean anyone concerned to understand the crucial historical influence on contemporary unionism – will need to refer to this book. Its main weakness is the limited attempt to generalise from the experience in these four industries, to offer an explicit assessment of the contrasts and similarities which are revealed. Burgess’ general orientation is however indicated in his use of two central concepts: ‘aristocracy of labour’ and ‘bureaucracy’. Both notions must clearly have an important part in any adequate interpretation of the development of British trade unionism: yet they can easily suggest too simplistic a picture. The ‘aristocratic’ strata of privileged craftsmen displayed on some issues progressive or even radical orientations; several leaders of the craft societies in the 1860s participated with Marx in the First International. And despite Engels’ enthusiastic welcome for the ‘new unions’ of lower-skilled workers in the late 1880s, these were soon to imitate many of the features of their craft predecessors. (Indeed by the 1920s they had developed into the two general unions which on most issues were consistently to the right of other unions.)

If the notion of ‘aristocracy’ must be used with caution, the same is true of ‘bureaucracy’. Burgess presents plenty of evidence to show the attempts of union leaders to manipulate their organisations and to restrict militancy, and documents rank-and-file revolts against officials’ collaborative agreements with employers. Yet what is striking about nineteenth-century trade unionism is how small and primitive the bureaucracy really was. Until 1866 the total staff of the ASE was the General Secretary and a clerk; not until the 1890s were district officials appointed. The great bulk of union activity – in particular in the craft societies – depended on the participation and initiative of lay activists. Revolts against the leadership were typically localised and intermittent – indeed had things been otherwise, no union leader possessed the bureaucratic resources to cling to office. Thus the question must be faced: did not most union leaders most of the time reflect reasonably accurately the level of industrial and political consciousness of their own membership? Did any significant body of organised workers seriously challenge the accommodative industrial and political orientations of their unions, apart from those occasions when the direct and immediate consequence of such policies was deterioration in conditions of employment? It could be argued that much of what Burgess describes is attributable to the contradictory practice of trade unionism as such in a period of social and political stability: the powerful pressures to contain oppositional activity within a stable bargaining relationship, to avoid frontal confrontations with the power of employers and the state which might smash union organisation itself. This fundamental contradiction was indeed overlaid by those factors which Burgess stresses: the distinctive interests and perspectives of officialdom, the privileged position of a skilled minority. But to seek to explain the development of trade unionism solely in these terms is to neglect the underlying problem of the limitations of trade unionism itself – except where informed and integrated with revolutionary organisations, revolutionary theory and revolutionary struggle.

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