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International Socialism, Spring 1980


Richard Hyman

British trade unionism:
post-war trends and future prospects

From International Socialism 2 : 8, Spring 1980, pp. 64–79.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to the Lipman-Miliband Trust.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


I am happy to accept the invitation to respond to Steve Jefferys’ article analysing modern British trade unionism. [1] I say ‘respond’ rather than ‘reply’, since much of his treatment of trends in the labour movement during the past forty years is uncontentious. While I am myself mentioned in two paragraphs of Jefferys’ article as holding views which require criticism, the ‘clear position’ attributed to me is not one which I recognise as my own; on the contrary, at a number of points Steve offers implicit or explicit challenges to parts of the IS/SWP tradition which are closely in line with my own thinking. This is not to suggest that my own interpretation does not diverge significantly in parts from that of Steve Jefferys: that is the whole reason for submitting this response. But the sharpness of my objections to aspects of his approach should not be taken to imply that there is not a considerable convergence between many of our arguments.

Modern British trade unionism: origins and development

Fundamental to Steve’s whole analysis is the existence of ‘two absolutely critical periods, 1940–45 and 1969–74’. The effective starting point for his account is the second world war, which ‘permanently altered the relationship between the national officials of the trade unions and the employers. It replaced conflict by co-operation’ (p. 10). Collaboration at the national level was moreover replicated within the factories, with the formation of Joint Production Committees which (from June 1941) were vigorously backed by the Communist Party. The overriding commitment to ‘the battle for production’ had the effect of ‘narrowing down the horizons of militants and in fostering nationalism within the working class’. Yet at the same time, the legitimacy assigned to the officially sponsored Joint Production Committees helped consolidate shop steward organisation, implanting workplace-based (and potentially relatively independent) trade union machinery within the factories (pp. 14–15).

The post-war years saw the consolidation of the autonomy of workplace trade unionism. While national officials still refused to fight, shop stewards took over the defence of their members’ interests. Hence the rise of ‘unofficial’ strikes and earnings ‘drift’. Yet shop-floor struggles were essentially parochial; in the main, the perspectives of shop stewards focused on negotiation and compromise with ‘their’ employer rather than on issues and strategies affecting the working class as a whole.

Steve locates his second turning-point in 1969–74, when the offensive of British capital and the state ‘drew a working class response of a depth and political character unprecedented since the 1920s’ (p. 23). More specifically, Jefferys argues (pp. 24–5),

four qualitative developments took place during these years which still mark it out distinctively from most of the preceding half-century: (1) New tactics were used which more directly challenged management authority; (2) Solidarity strikes re-appeared; (3) Political token strikes appeared; (4) Trade union consciousness spread very rapidly from the traditionally militant sectors to the low-paid, the public sector, women and recent immigrants.

Though the impact of mass unemployment caused a downturn in the class struggle from 1975, Steve’s conclusion (if I understand correctly his rather opaque final section) is that this represented only a temporary setback to the political advance achieved in the ‘second critical period for modern trade unionism’.

My first reservation with this account of post-war labour history is the emphasis placed on the two ‘turning points’. Any historical process involves both change and continuity, and it is always possible to quibble with attempts to identify key moments of transition. Certainly wars are often associated with major transformation, and 1939–45 was no exception. Nevertheless, Jefferys’ treatment of this period is in some respects surprising. To state baldly that the war ‘replaced conflict by co-operation’ suggests a remarkably simplified view of previous labour history. Steve must be well aware of the collaborative tendencies of much nineteenth-century trade unionism – for example in the crafts, cotton, coal-mining or iron and steel, particularly in the third quarter of the century. He is also, I am sure, familiar with the growth of national collective bargaining around the turn of the present century and the associated isolation of national union leadership from the membership in the localities: a process often leading to conflicts in which central officials joined with employers in seeking to suppress and discipline local activists. And the elaboration of an extensive bureaucracy between the wars – with the accumulation of new layers of officialdom in the giant new amalgamations, the further consolidation of national negotiating machinery, and the weakness of workplace organisation under the impact of mass unemployment – is likewise familiar enough. [2] There was a continuity between the accommodative tendencies long evident in official trade unionism in Britain, and the explicit articulation of an ideology of class collaboration in the Mond-Turner talks of 1927. And in the same way, the ideology of national unity in the second world war, rather than causing a radical break with a militant past, served to consecrate long-established traditions of class harmony.

Awareness of historical continuity is essential if we are to grasp adequately the specific significance of wartime workplace organisation. While Steve makes a brief reference to the shop stewards’ movement of 1914–18, the contrasts and affinities between the two world wars are not clearly delineated. Both wars were preceded by several years of growing unionisation and struggle. Both occurred in the context of a generalised commitment of most workers to the war effort (indeed working-class chauvinism and militarism were stronger in the first war than the second); but at the same time there were wholesale changes, pressures and grievances within the workplace which helped generate discontent. And in both cases, shop steward organisation contributed in the main to fewer strikes than might otherwise have occurred. For while the role of revolutionaries in the first world war is often emphasised, any account is one-sided which fails to note the stabilising effects of day-to-day shop steward representation. This point was stressed in Cole’s contemporary discussion:

it would be a great mistake to conclude, from the fact that the shop stewards were actively associated with almost every important strike or dispute in the munitions industries during the war, that the sole or main pre-occupation of the great majority of them was the stirring up of unrest. Unrest, indeed, came a great deal their way, and some of them helped a good deal in giving it form and direction; but the main activities of most of the stewards and other workshop representatives were concerned with the countless difficulties which arose in the readjustment of conditions which had to be made in order to adapt the industries of Great Britain to the needs of war ... Almost every one of these readjustments was a potential source of friction and dispute; and the fact that the vast majority of them were accomplished without trouble shows that the shop stewards played a big part in preventing and settling difficulties as well as in conducting disputes. It would have been impossible without strong workshop organisation among the workers, to carry out the changes which were indispensable. [3]

In this respect – even if in a less formally legitimated manner – workshop organisation in the first world war anticipated features of the Joint Production Committees a quarter of a century later.

There were of course also important differences between the two wars. One of these is noted by Jefferys, but he does not elaborate its full implications: the contrasting roles of politically committed workplace leaders. In 1914–18 a small core of revolutionary workplace activists sought to draw together the fragmented shop-floor struggles into a co-ordinated movement; and at certain key moments achieved an influence out of all proportion to their numbers. [4] But in 1941–45 the dominance of the Communist Party amongst politically conscious stewards reinforced class collaborationist institutions and helped prevent the growth of any co-ordinated oppositional movement. [5] The importance of ‘rank-and-file leadership’ – and of its distinctive political perspectives – in mediating between national officialdom and the mass of union members extends far beyond the specific context of wartime.

A second and remarkable difference between the two wars is the relative failure of collaborative structures – despite the lack of co-ordinated opposition of any significance – to suppress conflict.

Table One: Strikes 1910–1920 and 1935–49

Annual Averages

Number of Strikes

Strike-Days (000s)




















Table One indicates, for both world wars, levels of pre-war, wartime and post-war strike activity (omitting the years in which war commenced and ended). It can be seen that in the first war there was a decline in the number of strikes during the war, and a very sharp fall in strike-days (since those stoppages which did occur were resolved quickly). The extent to which conflict was held back is indicated by the great upsurge in disputes after the war. But in the second war there was a considerable increase in the number of stoppages, and strike-days declined only slightly; while there was only a small post-war rise in disputes. (One academic wit made the comment that the strike rate seems to fall when the CP supports militancy, and to rise when it supports industrial peace.) [6] These statistics are perhaps a caution against exaggerating the impact of collaborative workplace institutions in the second world war. There was a great deal of hard bargaining, particularly over piecework questions, and workers were often willing to strike in support of their demands. The rate of wartime ‘wage drift’ suggests that many workers refused to submerge their own interests within a morass of patriotism.

All this implies, then, that world war two was less dramatic a watershed than Jefferys insists. The point which I would stress is that the ideology of national unity, rather than initiating decisive institutional innovations, actually helped perpetuate in changed economic conditions the machinery of national collective bargaining which had become consolidated in the years of high unemployment. Because formal negotiating arrangements were not adapted to conditions of full order books and full employment, exceptional scope existed for ‘informal’ pressure at the point of production. And shop stewards, faced by managements which were typically unsophisticated, uncoordinated and indecisive, were well placed both to push up earnings and to exact a high degree of job control. Strong workplace unionism was to an important extent a product of a vacuum in official collective bargaining structures and in employer policies. It is certainly true that shop steward organisation in the second world war (as, in most centres for most of the time, was true of the first) was in the main fragmented, parochial, and anxious to achieve compromise. But Steve Jefferys fails to demonstrate that this was due to a positive commitment to the ideology of national unity, rather than primarily a continuation of the traditional pragmatism of British unions on which Engels remarked more than a century ago. [7]

There was thus a substantial historical basis for the gradual developments in British industrial relations in the two post-war decades: the growth in the number of shop stewards, in the workplaces and industries covered, in the range of issues negotiated domestically, in the proportion of the pay packet derived from shop-floor bargaining. That the declining hold of national pay settlement dates from before the second war is indicated by Clegg: ‘with one or two setbacks ... earnings rose faster than wage rates continuously from 1938 to 1968 in industries in which shop stewards appeared to have some power, in industries in which they appeared to be weak, and also in industries in which there was little trade union organisation at any level’. [8] The process conventionally termed ‘wage drift’ – and re-named ‘wage drive’ within the IS tradition – was thus a gradually increasing outcome both of workers’ shop-floor pressure and of employers’ responses to tight labour markets. Similar – though less readily quantified – processses of drive or drift also affected workplace job control, leading to significant long-term shifts in the ‘frontier of control’ in some establishments.

Ruling-class reaction to these tendencies was not – as Jefferys argues (p. 15) – a sudden development of the 1960s. From an early stage, sophisticated commentators saw in workplace-based trade unionism an important source of the poor performance of British capitalism by comparison with major competitors (reflected in low productivity and investment and high prices). ‘Wage-push’ inflation was a popular theme of the 1950s, and formed the rationale for the appointment of a Council on Prices, Productivity and Incomes by the Tory government in 1956. ‘Restrictive practices’ were a constant focus of criticism both during and after the war [9], and concern over this issue helped stimulate the trend towards ‘productivity bargaining’; the pioneer deal agreed at Esso’s Fawley refinery in 1960 stemmed from management concern at the level of ‘worker-controlled’ overtime, averaging seven hours a week in the 1950s and lifting earnings one third over basic wage rates. [10] Shop stewards and workplace militancy as such were targets for widespread attack by newspapers, filmmakers and Tory politicians throughout the 1950s: leading the TUC to condemn unofficial strikes in 1955, and initiate an enquiry into shop steward activities in 1959.

Yet at the same time as shop stewards became popularly defined as a problem (and here the parallel with 1914–18 is significant), a contradiction was increasingly evident in the role of autonomous workplace trade unionism; and sophisticated observers were fully aware that this contradiction could be exploited by managements in the interests of orderly and stable production. Turner, Clack and Roberts, in their detailed study of the car industry, stressed that

in general relations between managements and stewards appear to have settled down in recent years. No strikes of any size over the recognition of stewards, or the refusal of facilities for them to function, have been reported from car plants during the 1960s. The stewards are already an ‘establishment’.

They went on to note that in becoming ‘established’, stewards had developed a

dependence on the management itself. In a sense, the leading stewards are performing a managerial function, of grievance settlement, welfare arrangement and human adjustment, and the steward system’s acceptance by managements (and thus in turn, the facility with which the stewards themselves can satisfy their members’ demands and needs) has developed partly because of the increasing effectiveness – and certainly economy – with which this role is fulfilled.

Attitudes towards militancy were, at the very least, ambivalent:

they are attempting to control a number of pressures to which they are subject, including those from the management and outside union officials, but especially including pressures from particular groups and sections of work-people themselves. Which is not to say that leading stewards (or, for that matter, local union officers) may not sometimes indicate that a ‘spontaneous’ demonstration will help to secure or expedite a settlement. Although on the whole, the stewards here appear as attempting to minimize trouble; but when trouble seems inevitable, they attempt to assert their leadership, in order to maintain their authority over the operatives.... But, in general, the stewards’ organisation is under pressures that compel it towards certain responsible patterns of institutional behaviour – ‘responsible’ at least in the sense that its leaders are obliged to balance a variety of group interests against the particular sectional claims with which they are confronted, and to bear in mind the long-term desirability of maintaining good negotiating relations with managements. [11]

Other commentators identified similar pressures towards ‘responsibility’. The main findings of research conducted for the Donovan Commission in 1966 were that ‘for the most part the steward is viewed by others, and views himself, as an accepted, reasonable and even moderating influence; more of a lubricant than an irritant’. [12] Lane subsequently located the contradictions in the shop stewards’ position in their role as ‘simultaneously a rank and file leader, an unpaid personnel manager, and an agent for his union’. [13] And Beynon, exploring the ‘managerial’ facets of shop steward activity, emphasised that ‘controlling the membership is part of the steward’s job. The nature of the relationship between the union and the employer can mean that the steward rather than the manager disciplines individual workers for not working properly.’ [14]

Intimations of these tendencies appear in Steve Jefferys’ narrative. He notes (pp. 21–2), in discussing the productivity offensive against established job controls, that ‘all of this (and more) was assisted by the shop stewards’; and that the formalisation of factory or company agreements increased the disciplinary powers of senior stewards over lower-level representatives. And later (p. 35) he writes that ‘senior stewards were used more widely by both the trade union bureaucracy to help service the greatly expanded numbers of trade unionists and by management to help police their plant-wide agreements’. But there is no systematic discussion of such developments, nor explanation of why these tendencies occurred.

The sources and implications of the disciplinary functions of workplace unionism will be explored in the following section. But at this point we must not lose sight of the other moment in the contradiction. Workplace unionism has developed as a source of both order and conflict, stability and resistance. In different contexts, the balance between these tendencies can vary considerably. Nichols and Beynon make this point, in discussing the ‘sponsorship’ of unionisation and shop steward organisation by management at ICI’s Avonmouth works. ‘The value of trade unionism to management lies in its (apparent) independence from capital … In as far as this independence is real it can create real problems for management. On the other hand where the union becomes seen to be simply another tool of management it can lose all claims to represent, speak for, and commit the people who are central to the whole thing – the workers on the factory floor ... So “incorporation” is no simple process and the function of management in large corporations like ChemCo is to manage the contradictions.’ [15]

Where the balance between autonomy and militancy as against integration and ‘responsibility’ appears to slip, ‘managing the contradictions’ may become increasingly difficult. In such a situation, direct repression may come to represent an attractive capitalist strategy. There can be no doubt that it was widely believed by the late 1960s that shop-floor unionism was ‘out of control’: which brings us to Jefferys’ second ‘critical period’. In his discussion of 1969–74 Steve seeks to distance himself from some of the more romanticised accounts of these years; but in his insistence that a qualitative shift occurred in class consciousness he does not wholly escape the fog of euphoria which enveloped the left in those heady times. While space does not permit a detailed elaboration of this point, it is surely questionable how far the policies of the Heath government can be said to represent a rational and coherent strategy for the British ruling class. The Industrial Relations Act – the central feature of government-union confrontation – was in many respects a sloppy and inconsistent piece of legislation. Considerations of electoral advantage (and the influence of Tory lawyers wedded to the abstract fetishism of the ‘rule of law’) were as significant as the direct interests of British capital in its construction (hence, for example, the provisions seeking to outlaw the closed shop). The blatant anti-union character of the legislation made it easier for militants to mobilise resistance; in the face of a more sophisticated attempt to curb shop-floor power they might well have failed. Similarly, in its handling of wage controls the Heath government at times appeared to invite confrontation.

Thus the ‘qualitative developments’ on which Steve Jefferys lays such emphasis were in large measure a short-term working-class response to exceptional provocation; and a provocation which was not an inevitable outcome of the ‘profits squeeze’ afflicting British capitalism. In principle, the government could have chosen a different strategy, or pursued the one it did with greater subtlety and more likelihood of success. The history of 1972–73 offers support for this interpretation. Heroic tales of mass working-class resistance to the Heath government normally focus on the pressure from below for effective resistance to the Industrial Relations Act, and the growing self-confidence which culminated in the dramatic conflicts of spring and summer 1972; and on the much briefer phase of the second miners’ strike and the election of February 1974. But the period in between is commonly forgotten. Class struggle did achieve new dimensions in the summer of 1972; The Times was not wholly alarmist when it published two panic leading articles in the course of a week. [16] But the crisis subsided almost overnight as the government and TUC came together (in the Chequers and Downing Street talks) to restore order and defend the constitution. By the end of the year, Heath was able to impose the most rigorous and comprehensive pay controls ever experienced in Britain; and this was met by no more than token opposition from any level of the trade union movement. For a whole year the government’s attack on workers’ living standards provoked no serious resistance. [17]

Of the four key features of 1969–74 to which Steve directs attention, one has proved of longer-term significance: the growth of unionisation among traditionally weakly organised sectors of the labour force. But paradoxically, the very persistence of this trend casts doubt on the thesis that it reflects a radical qualitative shift in consciousness.

Table Two: Trade Union Membership 1970–77
(End of Year Figures)


Union Membership

of Labor Force

























For Steve Jefferys, ‘the growth in trade union membership from 1969 was clearly associated with trade union militancy’ (p. 30). This argument would certainly have seemed plausible a few years ago. But the increased unionisation, both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the labour force, has not only continued during the period of ‘the downturn’ in class struggle but has actually grown faster. As Table Two shows, union membership rose by 577,000 in the four years 1971–74, covering an additional 1.9% of the labour force (an annual rate of increase of 144,000, or 0.5% of the labour force). But in the three years 1975–77 the growth in membership was 943,000, an extra 2.3% (an annual increase of 314,000 and 0.8%).

That unionisation should increase – and at an accelerated rate – in a period of record unemployment and diminished class struggle is wholly without precedent. One important part of the explanation must be that throughout the 1970s union organisation has received growing encouragement from large and sophisticated employers, who regard stable machinery of worker representation as a necessary element in personnel policy. Employer willingness to ‘sponsor’ unionisation is indicated by the remarkable growth of closed shop agreements in the past decade (even when they were illegal!); not, as in the past, as a result of pressure from below, but as part of the formal arrangements negotiated over the heads of the workers. A survey of private manufacturing companies conducted in 1978 shows that almost half the trade unionists were covered by closed shop agreements; and of these, half had been introduced since 1971, a third since 1976. Three quarters of the managers concerned saw advantages in a closed shop: in preventing multi-unionism, stabilising bargaining relations, and supporting union discipline over dissident members. As the study concluded:

as company negotiations have generally become more centralised and detached from the shopfloor, formal closed shops have served the interests of union negotiators and employers. By protecting union negotiators from loss of membership or rebellion, the closed shop today provides greater insulation from shopfloor pressures. By the same token it suits employers’ interests if the relatively painless procedural concession of compulsory union membership increases the prospects of compromise and enforceability of agreements. [18]

Needless to say, union membership recruited on this basis need not represent collective organisation in any meaningful sense.

Concepts and Categories

Marxist analysis makes use of a large number of distinctive and often difficult concepts: means of organising and interpreting reality which help reveal fundamental patterns of relationships. ‘The path from Marx’s use of language leads directly to the view of reality which underlies it, and from here to the methods of inquiry and exposition that he felt this view required.’ [19] Marxist terminology often cuts across superficial similarities and differences between phenomena: this is one reason for its difficulty. It is sensitive to internal contradiction and to historical process. And above all it is rooted in an overall theory which gives each concept meaning and coherence in relation to others.

The categories of bourgeois economics and sociology, by contrast, commonly classify and differentiate on the basis of trivial and superficial features of reality. Often they are mechanical and ahistorical. Frequently too they are products of crude empiricism, lacking in theoretical coherence.

Steve’s article leans dangerously towards this latter use of categories. The most glaring example is the weight he assigns to the notion of ‘national interest corporatism’ a term which he attributes (p. 2), rather misleadingly, to Nigel Harris. [20] Nowhere does he explain what he means by ‘corporatism’, or why this much over-used expression is relevant to his analysis; nowhere does he explore the different connotations which the idea of ‘national

interest’ can hold within the labour movement; nowhere does he consider that nationalism in the British working class in 1980 might not be altogether the same as in 1940. In other words, by collapsing four decades of labour movement history within the label ‘national interest corporatism’, he obscures both the contradictions and the changes within working-class consciousness and the ideology of the movement.

If we reject as atheoretical and ahistorical the term ‘national interest corporatism’, we will recognise some remarkable blind spots in Steve Jefferys’ focus. His whole account reveals a glaring form of ‘economism’, in that specifically political ideologies and institutions receive no systematic attention. The Labour party (as distinct from Labour governments) is scarcely mentioned; and the same is true of the CP after 1950. Yet surely it is necessary to examine the changing nature of the social-democratic tradition (and its refractions in the politics of the CP) in order to make sense of the complex and shifting interplay of notions of class and nation within the British labour movement.

For over half a century, the revolutionary left has been celebrating the death of social democracy and of social-democratic illusions within the working class. But the beast is far from dead! One reason is the remarkable flexibility of labourist ideology, with its subtle blend of notions of class and reformism, nation and sacrifice. ‘The function of the Labour Party in the British political system,’ concludes Panitch, ‘consists not only of representing working class interests, but of acting as one of the chief mechanisms for inculcating the organized working class with national values and symbols and of restraining and reinterpreting working class demands in this light.’ [21] It is through a partial adoption of a class perspective that social democracy is able so successfully to sustain notions of ‘national interest’ within the trade union movement; and it is highly dangerous to underestimate the impact of this complex ideology, not only on full-time trade union officialdom but also on the membership and (perhaps most crucially) the ‘rank-and-file leadership’. [22] Certainly the nature and limitations of this impact cannot be adequately comprehended through the category of ‘national interest corporatism’.

There are other respects in which Steve’s treatment of the problem of working-class consciousness seems to reflect more concern with labelling than with understanding. He is captivated by Marx’s distinction between ‘class in itself and ‘class for itself: an analogy which Marx drew, in passing, between the rise of the bourgeoisie to political power and the development of the nineteenth-century factory proletariat. It is far from clear how this distinction helps elucidate the trends in class consciousness in the later twentieth century. On the contrary: the dichotomy can be positively harmful (which may explain why Marx in his mature writing avoided it) by suggesting that working-class organisation and action may be transformed into revolutionary politics merely by the addition of some miracle ingredient.

Certainly it appears that, in counter-posing ‘internationalism’ plus ‘socialism’ to the formula ‘militancy plus reformism’, Steve Jefferys succumbs to the idea that class struggle is somehow constructed out of a number of discrete building blocks and that for success the working class must merely be provided with the correct ones. The question which must surely be faced is whether traditional trade union militancy as such is a sufficient basis for socialist strategy, or whether in certain key respects it must be transcended. I return to this question below.

In other respects Steve’s choice of categories is a more faithful reflection of IS/SWP orthodoxy: notably the opposing pair ‘trade union bureaucracy’ and ‘rank and file’. Yet he is not altogether happy with the mechanical incantation of these terms which has so often substituted for serious analysis. ‘While the CP and left reformists have seen the trade union bureaucracy and Parliament as the agency and means of developing working class consciousness and strength and eventually overthrowing the State, we have argued that the rank and file and the struggle in the workplace are the agency and means of developing working class consciousness and strength and eventually overthrowing the State. Yet a review of the whole period of modern British trade unionism doesn’t allow us to be complacent, neither in the correctness of our formulations at various times nor in the inevitability of success. At times our rank and file orientation has been viewed too exclusively as meaning rank and file versus trade union bureaucrat.’ (pp. 3–4)

Let me extend this rather oblique criticism of the familiar terms ‘rank and file’ and ‘trade union bureaucracy’, neither of which has clear theoretical roots. The former derives from a military metaphor which cannot safely be translated to the trade union context: it implies an absolute division between ‘officers’ and ‘men’ quite inappropriate to the internal relationships of the labour movement. Similarly, the notion of ‘bureaucracy’ has some theoretical coherence within Weberian sociology; but the career structure, authority patterns and bases of legitimacy of full-time union officialdom bear little relation to Weber’s ‘ideal type’. The term ‘trade union bureaucrat’ is typically a derogatory epithet rather than an aid to scientific analysis; insofar as it has any interpretative significance it is to imply a common situation – social, ideological, functional – among full-time officialdom as a whole which differentiates them radically from the rest of the membership.

The slightest familiarity with any British trade union tells us that such a framework is inadequate. In the Transport and General Workers’ Union, for example, it is a ‘lay’ executive which in theory runs the union in the intervals between the ‘lay’ Biennial Delegate Conference. Of course the power of the officials – and in particular the General Secretary – is in reality enormous. But this power rarely derives from crude coercion and manipulation but rather from some form of accommodation between the leading officials and key ‘lay’ participants in the decision-making process. The General Secretary has to win over their support – and may not always succeed (as Jack Jones discovered at the 1977 conference). Or take the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers: can it seriously be suggested that the key dividing line is between all the officials collectively and the rest of the members? Politics in the AUEW revolve around the two major factions (with their internal differentiations) which cut across hierarchical levels. Thus the current dominance of the right rests on a complex system of alliances encompassing tendencies among the Executive, National Committee, organisers, Divisional and District Committees, and branch and workplace activists. [23] And a similar complexity exists in any other union.

Of course there is a ‘problem of bureaucracy’ within trade unionism, in that full-time officials typically acquire interests, perspectives and resources which tend to channel union policies towards accommodation with employers or governments and containment of membership activism. But there are other pressures tending in the same direction; and to build our whole analysis of trade unionism around the notion of bureaucracy is to make a specific group of personnel the scapegoats for problems which are more diffuse and more pervasive.

This leads to the issue of the ‘bureaucratisation of the rank and file’: a form of words which I have used as shorthand for a somewhat complex set of arguments. [24] It should first be noted that the term ‘rank and file’ is normally applied, not to the large numbers of relatively uncommitted unionists who do not normally participate in ‘rank-and-file movements’, but to a fairly small cadre of oppositionally inclined activists. Most notably, within the IS tradition, the rank and file was equated with shop steward militancy. In my view, this tradition often encouraged a romanticised view of shop steward activity: as was seen in the previous section, workplace trade unionism has always displayed contradictory tendencies, involving certain parallels with the role of full-time officialdom. And over the past decade these contradictions have intensified dramatically. Hierarchical divisions within workplace unionism have rapidly elaborated; there are now far more full-time convenors than full-time union officials. The centralisation of plant and company negotiations has concentrated bargaining power within the shop steward leadership at the expense of ordinary section stewards. The disciplinary powers of joint shop stewards’ committees have increased, often providing a new channel for curbing militants. The place of workplace organisation within the official structures of many unions has become more closely defined. Thus there has emerged a substantial stratum of (more or less) full-time senior shop stewards, wielding considerable power within their workplace organisations, and performing a key mediating role between employers, union officials and the ordinary membership (including ‘first-line’ shop stewards).

My purpose in emphasising these developments was not primarily to explain the ‘downturn’, though I certainly regard them as a part of the explanation. Nor am I suggesting that there has occurred a simple and uncontradictory process turning workplace leaders into ‘part of the bureaucracy’ – which is how Steve appears to interpret my argument – and hence that socialist strategy must involve abandoning our past involvement with shop steward activity. [25] My aim is rather to show that the simple distinction between ‘rank and file’ and ‘bureaucracy’ is absurdly oversimplified in current circumstances, and that to build a political strategy upon this distinction is moreover to elevate a partial analysis into a general theory of trade unionism. In essence I would stress that the problem confronting socialists in trade unions is only partially that of the obstructionist machinations of a particular stratum of personnel; much more fundamental are the interlocking effects of the contradictions inherent in trade union consciousness and in the collaborative import of trade union practice in collective bargaining.

In this my views do not perhaps diverge too far from those of Steve Jefferys. The emphasis throughout his article on ‘national interest corporatism’ clearly reflects the presupposition that there is a problem of consciousness as well as a problem of bureaucracy. Elsewhere he writes: ‘it is the grip of reformist politics that is responsible for fragmenting the working class’. [26] To this I would however add that the question of ideology, of political consciousness, is not simply about the ideas inside workers’ heads but involves the practice inherent in their organisation and struggles. In short: is there not a material connection between sectionalism, reformism and the practice of (even militant) trade union representation and bargaining? If so, the task for socialists is not merely to win workers’ acceptance of a different set of ideas, but to overturn a structure of sectionalism and reformism which is built into their practice as trade unionists.

Structural Trends and Socialist Strategy

While Steve Jefferys devotes some space to post-war changes in the structure of the (organised) working class, he does not in my view sufficiently follow through their implications. In the 1940s the major British unions were dominated by male manual workers in traditional industries. Today the typical organised worker is no longer employed in a machine shop, a pit or steel mill; she or he is more likely to work in an office, hospital or school. Yet the traditional stereotype of the male manual manufacturing worker still often seems to underlie conceptions on the left of what constitutes a ‘real’ worker; and seems to underlie some of the notions of ‘rank-and-file’ struggle on the model of the engineering shop steward. Conceptions of revolutionary industrial strategy sometimes appear several decades out of date.

Post-war trends also force us to raise explicitly the question of the significance of trade union organisation and struggle among occupational groups whose class position is ambiguous or contradictory. How do socialists relate to action by supervisors, doctors, senior civil servants or university teachers? [27] Presumably we are reluctant to support actions which seek to restore traditional material advantages to ‘elite’ professions, or buttress the hierarchical control of quasi-managerial groups; but the boundary between ‘progressive’ and ‘reactionary’ struggles is often unclear.

This leads to the more general problem of the internal differentiations within the working class. In what ways do the immediate interests of groups of workers which shape the boundaries of their trade union organisations affect their awareness of their common interests and identity with other sections of the working class. In what circumstances do actions by particular sections or strata of workers assume a divisive character (public sector workers’ interests being defined against those in private industry; male against female; black against white; manual against ‘staff), and in what conditions can they feed into a united struggle? In his discussion of sectionalism which sparked off this controversy, Eric Hobsbawm does identify a serious problem, however vulgarly he presents it; [28] Steve seeks too easily to dismiss the issue. [29]

Even more glaring is Jefferys’ failure to discuss one of the most dramatic post-war developments: the rapid growth of multi-plant and multinational companies. Today’s huge concentrations of capital – often highly flexible and mobile internationally-expose the essential vulnerability of workplace-based organisation and struggle which was the main source of strength of the industrial working class in Britain in the first two post-war decades. A determined and sophisticated company (and in adverse market conditions capital has had to become determined and sophisticated in order to survive) can plan strategically in order to play off workers in one plant against those in the other, to isolate factories where unionism is particularly strong, to divert production and employment from locations where earnings are high and workers’ job controls effective to those where labour is cheap and malleable. [30] Compared with the cohesion of corporate capital, the forms of inter-plant co-ordination among workshop organisations even within Britain are mostly tentative and fragile; while international links, if they exist at all, are even more tenuous. An effective response to the ever-increasing reach of large-scale capital is one of the most urgent and also most difficult issues confronting the working-class movement.

And from this stems a problem which has often been evaded on the left. Does effective resistance – let alone counter-attack – to the growing concentration and centralisation of capital require a substantial centralisation in union organisation and strategy, involving not only greater communication and co-ordination between plant-based stewards’ organisations but also the development of centralised discipline and control? Does fragmented and uncoordinated ‘rank-and-file’ militancy play into the hands of the strategically centralised employer? In short, is the traditional autonomy of workplace trade unionism still compatible with effective working-class strategy in the face of corporate capital? The problems of centralisation and collective discipline as against autonomy and spontaneous mobilisation admit of no easy answers. What is certain, however, is that a solution is in no way assisted if we collapse the whole question within the old categories of ‘rank and file versus bureaucracy’.

Some Points in Conclusion

The task of historical analysis is not to provide ready-made ‘lessons’ but nevertheless to obtain understanding which can form a guide for current practice. What conclusions does Steve Jefferys draw from his survey of the post-war labour movement? His key argument, in my view, is the thesis (p. 43) that ‘in periods when the “national interest” dominates wage bargaining, struggles over pay become much more political’. Hence the prescription (p. 45) that ‘our strategy must be to sharpen working class struggles, to try and lock them into on-going rank and file organisations which bridge the narrow horizons of the workplace’.

Such arguments have a respectable ancestry. ‘The Social-Democrats are now confronted with the task of leading the economic struggle itself, as far as possible, a political character.’ ‘The economic struggle is the most widely applicable means of drawing the masses into active political struggle.’ [31] Of course any major wages struggle, given the current position of British capital and the role of the state as its manager and protector, has a political character; every important pay dispute represents part of ‘the economic struggle of the workers against the employers and the government’. But the politics of the wages struggle need be neither socialist nor ‘pre-socialist’, requiring merely the miracle ingredient of the ‘rank-and-file movement’ to acquire revolutionary direction.

Here Hobsbawm’s argument is again relevant: economic militancy by sectional groups of workers is more often than not viewed by other sections of the class with indifference if not actual antagonism; and efforts by socialists to make such militancy the basis of class unity have been notably unsuccessful. And here too it is impossible to ignore what is one of the most significant features of the labour movement in the 1970s (one which Steve barely mentions): the very limited resistance to cuts and cash limits which decimate jobs and dismantle the (already inadequate) framework of the ‘welfare state’; and the remarkable level of trade union acquiescence in mass unemployment of inter-war proportions. This is indeed a major retreat from post-war trade union political principles; and at the same time it introduces a new form of division within the working class: between those whose employment seems relatively secure, those whose jobs are clearly vulnerable, and those without work at all. The American notion of a ‘dual labour market’, in which trade unions appear increasingly as complacent organisations of the relatively advantaged, is closer to Britain today than at any time since the war. [32]

My conclusion is therefore to question whether class unity, class consciousness and class struggle can be developed merely by a strategy of ‘politicising’ trade union militancy in its present form. Given the material and ideological bases of sectionalism within the working class, such a strategy will necessarily prove self-defeating. It is not their situation and experiences within the employment relationship alone which constitute workers as a class: these are as much a source of division as of class unity. ‘Consequently, however much we may try to “lend the economic struggle itself a political character”, we shall never be able to develop the political consciousness of the workers... by keeping within the framework of the economic struggle, for that framework is too narrow.’ The task of revolutionaries in the 1980s must be to get out of the ghetto in which traditional strategies of ‘rank-and-filism’ so easily confine us, and seek to develop solidarity and struggle around every section of the class and every arena of its oppression. [33]


1. Steve Jefferys, Striking into the 80s – Modern British Trade Unionism, its Limits and Potential, International Socialism 2 : 5, Summer 1979.

2. A discussion of inter-war developments can be found in Richard Hyman, Communist Industrial Policy in the 1920s, International Socialism 53, October–December 1972.

3. G.D.H. Cole, Workshop Organization, Clarendon Press, 1923, pp. 3–4.

4. See James Hinton, The First Shop Stewards’ Movement, Allen and Unwin, 1973.

5. It is worth noting that the wartime role of the CP was not unprecedented. From 1937, with the overriding commitment to the campaign for a ‘Popular Front’, oppositional activity in the unions was brought to a virtual halt.

6. H.A. Turner, The Trend of Strikes, Cambridge University Press, 1963, p. 12.

7. ‘... The indifference towards all theory which is one of the main reasons why the English working-class movement crawls along so slowly in spite of the splendid organisation of the individual unions.’ Prefatory Note to The Peasant War in Germany (1874) in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1958, I, p. 652.

8. H.A. Clegg, The Changing System of Industrial Relations in Great Britain, Blackwell, 1979, p. 13.

9. See for example F. Zweig, Productivity and Trade Unions, Blackwell, 1951.

10. Allan Flanders, The Fawley Productivity Agreements, Faber and Faber, 1964, p. 57.

11. H.A. Turner, Garfield Clack and Geoffrey Roberts, Labour Relations in the Motor Industry, Allen and Unwin, 1967, pp. 212, 214, 222.

12. W.E.J. McCarthy and S.R. Parker, Shop Stewards and Workplace Relations, HMSO, 1968, p. 56.

13. Tony Lane, The Union Makes Us Strong, Arrow, 1974, p. 197.

14. Huw Beynon, Working for Ford, Penguin, 1973, p. 140.

15. Theo Nichols and Huw Beynon, Living with Capitalism: Class Relations and the Modern Factory, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977, pp. 129–30. ICI and Avonmouth appear in their book respectively as ‘Chemco’ and ‘Riverside’.

16. Though Steve is right to emphasise the limitations evident even in the months of maximum struggle (pp. 24, 27–8): political strikes were confined to a limited section of the trade unionists, and normally depended on some degree of official endorsement; while the anti-government consciousness of such groups as dockers still contained important elements of nationalist ideology. To these points one may add that in general the trade union response to the Heath attacks was to reaffirm the traditional dichotomy between ‘industrial’ and ‘political’ issues: hence the popularity of such slogans as hands of the unions’ and ‘free collective bargaining’ – not least among CP trade unionists. The argument for offensive political struggle received little support.

17. I commented on the limited basis of the mood of revolt in 1972 in Industrial Conflict and the Political Economy, Socialist Register, 1973, where some of these points are argued in more detail.

18. Moira Hart, Why Bosses Love the Closed Shop, New Society, 15 February 1979, pp. 352–4. There is no reason to assume that these trends in private manufacturing are untypical of other sectors of employment.

19. Bertell Ollman, Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society, Cambridge University Press, 1971, p. xii.

20. ‘Nigel Harris describes the key role of war in laying the basis for the shift to “national interest corporatism”,’ writes Jefferys, and refers the reader to p. 67 of Competition and the Corporate Society (Methuen, 1972). Anyone who turns to this page will find that Nigel Harris does no such thing: at this point he is primarily concerned with Disraeli’s ideal of ‘one nation’ which has exerted a continuing influence on Tory philosophy. Nowhere in his book can I find the composite term ‘national interest corporatism’. In any case, given that Harris is concerned to analyse the development of Conservative attitudes to state economic intervention, it surely needs some justification to take from him the key category for a study of the labour movement.

21. Leo Panitch, Social Democracy and Industrial Militancy: the Labour Party, the Trade Unions and Incomes Policy, 1945–74, Cambridge University Press, 1976, pp. 235–6. The most detailed Marxist analysis of the post-war labour movement, Panitch’s study deserves serious critical attention, but does not get a mention in Jefferys’ article.

22. Reluctance to accept this uncomfortable fact is evident in Steve’s discussion of workers’ acquiescence in the wage controls of 1966–67 and 1975–77 (pp. 19, 33). He attributes this to the weakening effects of unemployment, without confronting the evidence which suggests that most workers at the time actually approved of strict pay curbs.

23. Are right-wing ‘lay’ activists part of the ‘rank and file’? In practice, of course, we reserve the term for those of whose policies we happen to approve; the rest presumably are honorary bureaucrats!

24. See The Politics of Workplace Trade Unionism: Recent Tendencies and Some Problems for Theory, Capital and Class, 8, Summer 1979.

25. His article notes in passing a number of these developments; but he insists (pp. 35–6) that senior stewards differ from full-time officials in that they receive ordinary workers’ wages and are subject to regular re-election; while he appears to believe that he has contradicted my own position in arguing (p. 44) that ‘the experience of 1977–79 shows quite decisively how the “stratum of shop steward leaders” was either removed, by-passed by other stewards or forced into action’. But firstly, I have nowhere suggested that the position of senior stewards is identical to that of full-time officials. Secondly, some full-timers are far from generously paid, some convenors derive considerable ‘informal’ perks from their positions. Thirdly, the re-election of many senior stewards is largely a formality, whereas some full-timers face serious electoral opposition. Fourthly, full-time officials are sometimes removed, by-passed or forced into action: remember 1968–74? (All of which goes to show that there may be some significant overlap between the two positions.) But finally, as I argue here, my concern is to direct attention beyond the question of who acts in particular ways to the more complex issue of why they do so.

26. Is Fords the Spark?, SWP Industrial Discussion Bulletin, November–December 1978, p. 4.

27. The abstruse and often perverse analyses of such writers as Poulantzas and Carchedi do represent serious attempts to grapple with important political problems. To grasp theoretically the complex internal differentiations of the working class and its underlying unity – as well as its relationship to other strata – is a question of practical as well as ‘academic’ significance.

28. The Forward March of Labour Halted?, Marxism Today, September 1978.

29. It is simply no answer to write (p. 42) that ‘in every open dispute between the working and ruling classes, the reality of an ongoing class struggle threatens to shake the complacency of sectionalism’. Was this really true in the case of the toolroom disputes? And when, in any case, does a particular sectional strike become a moment in an ongoing class struggle? Steve’s argument is either tautological or just plain wrong.

30. For an example see Huw Beynon and Hilary Wainwright, The Workers’ Report on Vickers, Pluto, 1979.

31. This is a joke. The quotations are taken from the ‘economists’ whom Lenin bitterly criticised in What Is to Be Done?

32. The Right to Work Campaign may be seen as a recognition of this problem. But is this recognition integrated within the overall political strategy of the SWP?

33. This article was written in July 1979; only since then have I read the debate within the SWP which formed the context for Steve Jefferys’ article, and what is clearly intended as a reply by Tony Cliff: The Balance of Class Forces in Recent Years, International Socialism, 6, Autumn 1979. Cliff provides his usual wealth of anecdotes and homely metaphors, ending with an argument which might seem similar to my own: ‘industrial militancy alone is quite ineffective. General social and political questions have to be faced’ (p. 47). But his stirring conclusion on the need to link immediate struggles to the struggle for socialism offers no concrete guide to action. In this respect I am almost wholly in agreement with the policies set out by Steve Jefferys in his article Caught on the Hop? (SWP Industrial Discussion Bulletin, February–March 1979, pp. 4–5), where he stresses the need for serious and sustained rank-and-file work within struggles at the point of production, as against grandiose and substitutionist notions that a limited number of revolutionary militants actually constitute a ‘rank-and-file movement’.

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