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International Socialism, October 1977


Mike Rossiter

In the Company Union


From International Socialism (1st series), No.102, October 1977, pp.30-31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Living with Capitalism: Class Relations and the Modern Factory
Theo Nichols and Huw Beynon
Routledge & Kegan Paul £2.75

It was a commonplace in discussions about Grunwicks that George Ward’s crude anti-union tactics were anathema to important sections of the ruling class, and Living With Capitalism goes some way to explaining why this may be the case. The book is a description of working life in a chemical plant, named ‘Chemco’, using interviews from various sections of the workforce, and along the way it takes sideswipes at conventional industrial sociological views of process workers.

So the authors describe in vivid detail, the strenuous physical labour demanded of half the work force, shifting raw materials and sacks of the finished product, fertilizer. They point out that the control room workers face loneliness, isolation and continual stress. Management are also interviewed, and revealed as people with a belief in logic and rationality. Yet the book points out, they are there to control a process geared to an irrational market.

And behind all this lie the ideas and tactics of ‘progressive’ competitive capital, embodied in the New Working Arrangement. This was a nationally negotiated productivity deal, which introduced the closed shop in the factory, and the check-off system. It introduced consultation and participation and job mobility and redundancies. Crucially, it replaced the bonus system with nationally negotiated basic rates. The agreement, the book argues, in the same tradition as In Place of Strife and the Industrial Relations Act was calculated to incorporate trade unionism in the company so as to limit any self-activity on the part of the workers, and increase regulation and control by management.

Along with this, management attempt to subvert the shop steward structure, by encouraging ‘safe’ men to stand in elections, organising conferences and lavish entertainment, and generally trying to separate them from the shop floor.

The tactics, in a factory with limited traditions of militancy, worked. The union is seen as something totally separate from the men, and the shop stewards often view their post as a step on the road to supervision and a white coat.

Consequently there is no serious resistance to the redundancies or increased output targets; in fact so irrelevant is the union that several shop stewards had not heard of current national negotiations for a new wage deal, not that it involved them anyway. What resistance there is, is isolated, and individualistic, and never so serious as to force management to talk to anyone other than the full time officials they talk to already. For the authors point out that such tactics of incorporation are only useful so long as the union still holds the loyalty, however minimal, of the membership. But when that fails, so too does the management strategy.

What comes across most urgently from this book is that the firm’s strategy, as much as George Ward’s, is designed to destroy self-activity.

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