ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, November 1977


John Rose

Grunwicks – Union Power


From International Socialism (1st series), No.103, November 1977, pp.27-28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Joe Rogaly
Penguin Special £0.80

‘The trade unions are too powerful. That is why you are having such difficulty winning; even though your demands are just.’

This is the extraordinary message, Financial Times feature writer, Joe Rogaly, has for the Grunwick strikers in his Penguin Special Grunwick.

Revolutionaries need to look twice at this remarkable point of view. At first sight it seems a ludicrous proposition. The reason why the Grunwick strikers have been held back for so long is surely because the unions have refused to use their strength. This of course is correct and is almost self-evident to anyone who has been involved in the strike.

But Joe Rogaly is living in a different world to the rest of us. Or at least he is looking at the world through different eyes. It is through the eyes of the Financial Times, the paper that faithfully records the day-to-day needs and interests of British industry.

Grunwick raises in an acute form the dilemma British industry faces vis-à-vis the unions. Namely that despite all the concessions the unions have made, British industrialists feel still they need to extract much more freedom for manoeuvre from the unions. They want to achieve this without a showdown. They want to do it by asserting their authority at one remove through the ‘rule of law’. Since the union leaders say they respect ‘the law’ it should be possible to draw them in. The only trouble is that every attempt to do this has so far failed. Because of this the Grunwick strikers and groups like them must now suffer the consequences. The cynicism and ruthlessness of this position is not obvious at first. But then the English ruling class have always been the world’s experts at masking their unbridled nastiness.

Anyway Rogaly’s argument goes something like this.

There is a way of achieving justice in our society. That is by relying on the law. But the trouble is that the trade unions have consistently placed themselves above the law. This means they forfeit both obligations and rights. The trade union attitude towards the law has meant that there is little legislation regulating the relations between employer and union at the workplace. Certainly George Ward should not have sacked all the strikers. But there would have been legal guarantees against this sort of abuse against the weaker elements in our society if only the trade unions had earlier agreed to surrender to law some of their more powerful activities (like the closed shop). In other words, they’re saying we’re not prepared to start backing the weak sections until you start toeing the line.

The Tories tried and failed to bring some legal sense to industrial relations. Now with the present government things are even worse. The trades unions are not only outside the law. They are also virtually a component of government itself. Rogaly calls the Labour Government-TUC axis the ‘new establishment’ – and he doesn’t like it.

Trade union involvement in government encourages arbitrary interpretation of the law. This usually means ‘when in doubt – support the unions’. This explains why the Attorney-General refused to act against the Union of Post Office Workers when they threatened to ‘interfere with the mail’. Despite the fact that they would be in clear breach of the law.

Even Lord Scarman is criticised for playing this game.

In his report on the Grunwick strike Lord Scarman was able to back the unions by declaring that although George Ward had acted completely within the letter of the law, he nevertheless had acted at the same time outside the ‘spirit’ of the law. (p.162).

By widening the gap between the letter and the spirit of the law Rogaly hints that Scarman is inadvertently aiding trade union attempts to bring the law into disrepute.

Which is all very surprising and upsetting because Lord Scarman used to be in the forefront of those calling for a ‘Bill of Rights’ which would attack Trade Union Power.

In 1974 the then. Sir Leslie Scarman delivered something called the Hamlyn Lectures, English Law – The New Dimension where he argued that trade unions were outside the rule of law and ‘that one of the merits of the rule of law is that it is a curb upon power – irrespective of the person or institution who wields it.’

What was needed was a ‘new constitutional settlement replacing that of 1689’ with ‘entrenched provisions (including a Bill of Rights) and restraint upon administrative and legislative power, protecting it from attack by a bare majority in Parliament.’

There is now an organisation agitating amongst other things for a Bill of Rights – namely the National Association for Freedom. One of its founder-members Robert Moss called in his book The Collapse of Democracy for the protection of private property to be explicitly written into such a Bill and like Scarman argued that all these ‘rights’ should be beyond the reach of a simple majority of Parliament.

Joe Rogaly doesn’t like the NAFF.

‘It arouses a feeling of deep unease. It is not a group with which one would want to associate oneself ... any defence of individual freedom, by people from apparent affluence, that is couched in terms that show little feeling for what it can be like to be really poor ... is not only unpleasant, it can lead to attitudes that in the end must arouse the very forces of outraged revolution that these people fear so greatly.’

Yet Rogaly boasts that he was a supporter of many of the things that the NAFF stands for long before they came into existence. He cites opposition to the closed shop, support for the private sector of the economy and support for a Bill of Rights as three examples of this.

What does unite this Financial Times journalist, the NAFF and Lord Scarman (at least before he began doing the ‘new establishment’s’ dirty work) is agreement on the definition of the problem.

The problem being of course Trade Union Power. The system will not work unless it is curbed. Indeed the only way the system works at all is if Trade Union Power is drawn directly into running the system.

What is wrong with this? The trades unions have co-operated with a Labour Government in the most sensational assault on working class living standards this century. Yet still our ruling class are not satisfied.

The ruling class really resents governing in this way. There is sheer snobbery. Jack Jones isn’t really one of the boys even if he does deliver the goods.

In any case he does not and cannot deliver all the goods. Far more speed, far more efficiency is required in industry. This means breaking up key pockets of organised labour. It’s taking too long to bargain over things like this with the likes of Jack Jones. At least we must reduce in law his bargaining power.

There is a general sense of insecurity. 1974 with the miners was a close shave. The old certainties are collapsing everywhere. A seemingly untameable global economic crisis; the disintegration of the United Kingdom following on the heels of the disintegration of Empire.

But above all there is the constant reminder that Trade Union Power can never stabilise the situation for ever. Direct rule through Laws that appear ‘fair’ rather than relying on the union bosses is much safer. The problem is that none of them, with the exception of NAFF, have a strategy.

A few weedy Labour turncoats like Paul Johnson, Woodrow Wyatt and Reg Prentice are rushing to the arms of Mother Tory. But she is an illusion. Smiling Jim Prior, the unions’ friend, won the argument about, for example, the closed shop, at the Tory Party Conference, not Keith Joseph.

Joe Rogaly doesn’t know what to do about it either. He is in any case trapped by his own arguments from seeing a solution.

He explains Grunwick perfectly at the beginning, of Chapter 9:

‘The answer is that Britain is still two nations; the class conflict continues.’

He goes on to mount statistical information to demonstrate the truth of this.

He, nevertheless, end the same chapter developing his main contention that the unions are too powerful!

Trade Union Power even when it serves the interests of the class enemy is nothing more than a perverted form of workers’ power. This is what our rulers know and fear. Workers are reasonable men and women, which Joe Rogaly clearly understands, and will tolerate a great deal. But they have the power to heave forward and send the system crashing. There is an ever menacing sense of this every time our rulers realise their survival depends on the unions’ top brass. The top brass, after all, has its power based purely and simply on the Strike Threat, which can easily become the property of the rank and file.

Ironically it is George Ward himself who is doing more to undermine Trade Union Power than all the clever words of Joe Rogaly. If he wins unorganised sections are more likely to remain unorganised. Hence the potential strengthening the trade union movement is stymied.

A ‘new establishment’ will have again showed that it can be relied upon, however reluctantly, to let even the most ruthless of employers assert themselves.

Yet there is a twist to the tale. The more the Labour-TUC axis clears the road for the employers’ the broader becomes the base that is alienated from it. Peace is bought at a price of storing up trouble for the future.

Our rulers keep indicating that deep tensions are going to have to be stirred before they achieve a solution to their satisfaction.

The lofty references to the act of settlement of 1689 providing the kind of precedent that is required to finally curb Trade Union Power is a reflection of this.

1689 closed the English Civil War period and set the seal for the establishment of Bourgeois rule through the creation of the free market economy based upon private property. Commercial expansion globally resulted in England industrialising first and dominating the world through Empire.

What is needed, now nearly 300 years later, is a new internal settlement which shatters union power, and destroys its threat to the private property system. Nothing short of a counterrevolution will achieve it, in truth. The problem will not be expressed in such stark terms though Grunwick is a test of strength of forces such thoughts to the minds of both sides.

‘Before the mass picketing,’ writes Rogaly, ‘the attitude of the Government and the TUC seemed to be “here is a recalcitrant employer he must be brought to heel” but afterwards when the disturbances had had their effect on public opinion it changed to “we must cool this down before it overwhelms us”. The change between these two attitudes is itself a comment on the fragility of our institutions; one is reminded of the description by Alexis de Tocqueville of how a similar internal rotting away during the period of the ancien régime led inexorably to the revolution in France in 1789, although at the last moment, even when it was underway, no one realised what was happening, or why.’

The seeming inability of our rulers to use the law to tame the unions suggests then the inner rottenness of legal institutions reminiscent of a pre-revolutionary situation.

Put in another way this means that the state is having increasing difficulty controlling the working class; that the ruling class is having increasing difficulty governing in the old way.

Who are we to disagree?

Top of page

ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 5.1.2008