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International Socialism, November 1977


Alan Gibbons

Letter on Workers’ Participation


From International Socialism (1st series), No.103, November 1977, p.21.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


I was interested to read the article on workers’ participation in IS 102. I thought readers might be interested in our experience of a similar scheme. The participation agreement, signed a year ago, incorporates much that is similar to the Leyland scheme. In our factory, a small manufacturing plant of 475 workers, there is however a significant revolutionary socialist presence. The activity of the Socialist Workers’ Party members in the plant has been of virtually permanent struggle against participation.

When the agreement was signed there wasn’t a single SWP member on the steward’s committee and this was reflected in the undemocratic nature of the ballot on the agreement. The militants could only heckle from the sidelines in the question-and-answer session and the workforce accepted the package with massive abstentions. In addition to the obstacles to strong shopfloor organisation pointed to by Dave Lyddon there are two more weapons in management’s arsenal. There is an extremely bureaucratic disputes procedure which entails calling in full-time officials and then a conciliation board before strike action can be taken. Every time a dispute crops up management, union officials and right-wingstewardschorus: ‘But we must abide by the agreement!’ The constitution of the agreement is itself heavily weighted against the militant sections. For example, I represent about 40 manual workers while an office steward representing only 15 members has equal voting power. Worse still the 100 machine operators are represented by a steward who has only the same voting strength as a rep for 8 foremen!

Almost as soon as I was elected steward a warehouseman was dismissed for refusing to load a disputed cargo. Two departments walked out but the third steward refused to call her members together to take a vote and collaborated with management to have me expelled from the site. Most of the stewards took the same line against: ‘unconstitutional action’. Though we won the lad’s job back we had to release the disputed load. The semi-defeat was followed by a joint management-union inquiry into the conduct of the militants among the stewards.

The next revolt against the agreement was by the AUEW stewards who boycotted the Joint Committee, demanding separate negotiations. Our setback had temporarily sapped our members’ will to fight and we couldn’t persuade the stewards in our union, USDAW, to take the same decision. The AUEW fitters were blackmailed into returning to the committee by their officials.

But the most extreme example of the capitulation of the traditional plant leadership has been over wages. We submitted a 30 per cent claim but the inbuilt bias against the shopfloor meant that the refusal to compromise, the determination to campaign for strike action, the regular report-backs were absent. The stewards dithered, isolated from their members, leaving them in ignorance. The militants, a growing group after the purging of two reactionary reps, were still unable to carry the committee and it was agreed to put the management offer to the membership without any recommendation. The SWP group therefore issued a leaflet calling for a rejection of the 10 per cent and leaking the ‘secret’ details of what it involved. The vote was heavily against the 10 per cent. Management then called mass meetings to denounce the SWP and order a revote. Even the moderate stewards had to support the call for a boycott, which was successful. But once more the SWP steward was reprimanded on the stewards committee and the officials hinted at a withdrawal of credentials. Meanwhile a second SWP comrade was being disciplined by management. Both Socialist Worker and SW bulletins have been officially banned.

The claim still stands but the dithering of the collaborationist factory leadership hints at a compromise. For lack of information many workers are becoming apathetic. Participation has meant constant attacks on shopfloor organisation. The only opposition has come from the SWP and we have gained support among the militant workers but the right-wing/ Broad Left current is more and more implicated in attacks on the militants by management. On the one hand there is a growing appreciation of the need for rank-and-file organisation. On the other some stewards are becoming more reliant on the bureaucratised structures of participation. The tension between the ideas of class struggle and class collaboration is becoming more critical.

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