Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2


British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics

Alan Campbell, Nina Fishman, John McIlroy
British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, Volume 1: The Postwar Compromise 1945–64
Ashgate, Aldershot, 1999, pp335, £26.00

Alan Campbell, Nina Fishman, John McIlroy
British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, Volume 2: The High Tide of Trade Unionism, 1964-79
Ashgate, Aldershot 1999, pp. 389, £26.00

THESE volumes are part of a series commissioned by the Society for the Study of Labour History, and deal with a multitude of aspects of industrial struggle and its associated politics from 1945 to 1979. They are of particular interest to this reviewer for two reasons. One is that as a shop steward and union branch president for many years, he was an active participant in the industrial disputes and politics described. The other is that as a Trotskyist industrial militant, he has, over the years, sought to understand the reasons for the failure of the various Trotskyist groups to transform the hard work of their industrial militants into a more significant political influence. These volumes provide plenty of empirical evidence and analysis that enable the reader either to confirm or modify existing conclusions.

These volumes highlight the importance of unofficial rank-and-file activity, while not neglecting the rôle of official trade union leaderships and policies. In Chapter 8 of Volume 1, Alan McKinley and Joseph Melling draw attention to ‘wages drift’ in the engineering industry. This was the tendency for actual wages to creep ahead of officially and nationally negotiated rates. ‘Wages drift’ was reflected in the increasing importance of supplementary payments. By 1959, these payments accounted for 27 per cent of earnings in the metalworking and chemical industries, and 14.5 per cent in food, drink and tobacco. This was the result of the increasing introduction of piecework and productivity bonuses. By their nature, they could not be part of nationally negotiated agreements. Being negotiated on a factory level, they inevitably involved shop stewards, not national or regional officials – and were the main source of shopfloor and unofficial rank-and-file action.

As one can imagine, each negotiation of a piecework time for a new job or an altered method on an existing job could be – and was – the source of disagreement, as was the ‘plus-up’ for ‘contingencies’ and rate of bonus. As a shop steward, most of my time was involved in negotiating piecework problems. Unfortunately, the authors give no figures for the proportion of the total number of strikes that arose from piecework disputes, but I would estimate that the majority of strikes, go-slows and lock-outs originated in disagreements over piecework. ‘Wages drift’, a result of a combination of piecework, the growth of shop-steward influence and unofficial shopfloor militancy, contributed greatly to the steady increase in real wages during the whole period covered by these volumes.

Another reason for the frequency of ‘unofficial’ strikes – particularly in engineering – was the York Memorandum – otherwise known as ‘The Procedure for Avoiding Disputes’ that was imposed on the unions following the 1922 lock-out, and which was still in operation in the 1960s. As the authors explain:

The humiliating terms of settlement imposed on the engineering unions after the seminal dispute of 1922 remained the foundation stone of collective bargaining after 1946: the management’s unilateral right to alter work processes and payment systems remained the cornerstone of employer ideology, unchanged from the late nineteenth century.

Regrettably, the authors do not describe exactly what restraints were put on union action. They were considerable. Under the terms of the York Memo, no union could take strike action until a lengthy procedure had been exhausted. If no agreement was reached at shop level, the matter was referred to the Works Committee at factory or enterprise level. If ‘failure to agree’ was registered there, the matter went to a Local Conference involving the district union officials and the local employers’ organisation. If ‘failure to agree’ was registered at the Local Conference, the matter could be referred back to the factory, or referred to a National Conference. This took place monthly at York between the national representatives of the employers’ federation and unions. And there was no guarantee that the matter in dispute would be resolved at York at the first monthly meeting. It might take months for a dispute to be resolved through the procedure – a procedure from which the direct representatives of the workers or the factory involved, the shop stewards, were excluded. So if the dispute was about some worsening of conditions unilaterally imposed by the management, a sacking or victimisation of a trade union member, the management’s unilateral decision took effect immediately, and had to be accepted. There was no question of the disputed change being postponed while the procedure was gone through. If the aggrieved and impatient workers demanded action from the union officials, they would reply that ‘their hands were tied’. No union could call an official strike until the whole lengthy and wearisome procedure had been exhausted. Instead of the York Memo being called ‘a procedure for avoiding disputes’, it would have been more accurate to describe it as ‘a procedure for avoiding strikes’.

No wonder that in these circumstances the workers and shop stewards avoided getting involved in this lengthy procedure and took strike action – which by definition was unofficial, and which the unions had to condemn if they were not to breach the terms of the York Memo. Thus the atmosphere that prevailed in engineering factories was one of lack of confidence in the official union structures and reliance on action from below, led by shop stewards, in defiance of full-time union officials. This led to the development of attempts by shop stewards to develop inter-factory coordination on a combine-wide and industry-­wide basis. For example, this reviewer was secretary of a combine committee comprising shop stewards from 10 factories in the textile machinery makers combine. There were similar committees in the motor industry. But these were not recognised either by the unions or by the employers.

It is clear from the whole history of industrial relations during the period covered, from 1945 to 1979, that an important factor determining wages and conditions was not official union action, but rank-and-file activity and unofficial action, and that the shop stewards were the organisers, leaders and coordinators of these struggles. That they were effective is indicated by the ‘wages drift’ highlighted in Chapter 8.

Tables of the movement of real wages are included in these volumes. They show that in the 20 years covered in Volume 1, from 1945 to 1964, real wages rose in 14 of those years from an index of 87.9 in 1945 to 111.9 in 1964 (January 1956 = 100), that is, by 27.3 per cent, and by nearly 10 per cent between 1964 and 1979. Elsewhere, McIlroy and Campbell, basing themselves on different sources, give a much higher figure of some 30 per cent rise during 1964-78, which seems rather high if we are talking of real wages, taking inflation into account. Taking even the lowest figures, it is clear that the 35 years following the war saw a substantial increase in workers’ living standards.

The main factor making this increase possible was, of course, the general state of the economy, the prolonged postwar boom. However, even in times of rising profits, employers do not voluntarily grant wage increases unless they are forced to do so by either market forces (the supply and demand of labour) or the pressure of trade union activity and workers’ militancy. This is confirmed by the ‘wages drift’ already mentioned, which was mainly the result of workers’ pressure. An interesting fact unearthed by McIlroy and Campbell is that of ‘the wage differential between unionists and non-unionists increasing to the advantage of the former from 28 per cent in 1964 to 36 per cent by 1975’.

The ‘class struggle’, that is, the changing relationship of forces between workers and employers, and between trade unions and the state, and the overall political climate are all significant factors, within the context of the general economic situation, which affect the level of wages. This is demonstrated by the fact that the fluctuations in real wages up or down coincide with the course of political-industrial struggles. For example, 1977 was a year when real wages went down sharply, by over five per cent. McIlroy and Campbell ascribe this to ‘the deflating effect of the Social Contract in 1977… before being redressed by the strike wave of 1978-79’. Real wages rose again during this period by over four per cent.

The interventions of the state and the relations between the unions and the Conservative and Labour Parties and governments are covered in several chapters. These relations varied considerably. Obviously the relations between the unions and the Labour Party were very different from those between the unions and the Conservative Party. The Labour Party was created by the unions to be their political voice, and in fact they were an organic part of it at both local and national levels. The Conservative Party was identified with big business and landed interests. However, despite this important difference, they were both united in their commitment to managing a capitalist economy. And since the unions themselves accepted wholeheartedly that their task was not to overthrow capitalism but to work within it, this made collaboration possible. The parties approached the task in different ways, ranging from collaboration to confrontation with the unions. Naturally their different social bases affected the way they approached this task, but it would be over-simplistic to say that the relationship between Labour governments and unions was always one of collaboration, while that between Tory governments and unions was always one of confrontation. The employers and their political representatives employed a variety of strategies. For example, one of the main concerns of the Tories when they came to power in 1951 was to continue the collaboration between unions and state established during the war. In the chapter entitled ‘The Postwar Compromise’, the authors remark:

Churchill hoped ‘to work with the trade unions in a loyal and friendly spirit’ while the TUC in its turn stated its intention of treating the new government on its merits. Favourable experience of wartime collaboration predisposed the Conservatives to make the maintenance of an open relationship with the unions a priority and Churchill ordered his Minister of Labour, Walter Monckton, ‘to preserve industrial peace’.

In fact, so concerned were Tory governments to ‘preserve industrial peace’ that during the 1957 national engineering and shipbuilding strike (which coincided with a railwaymen’s wage claim), Macmillan’s government leant on the Engineering Employers Federation to soften its hard-line opposition to the union’s claim and to reach a compromise. Nina Fishman, in a chapter on this strike, quotes the brief supplied by Macleod to Macmillan for a meeting with the employers:

[It] … was designed to bring maximum pressure on the employers and he couched the Prime Minister’s appeal in appropriately spine-chilling terms. [It]… reveals how desperately anxious Ministers were to avert industrial conflict on a scale that was likely to jeopardise the fragile confidence in sterling. The employers were pressed into accepting that the government’s support for ‘sensible, realistic’ wage settlements had to be subordinated to the wider national interest.

The general ideology of both Conservative and Labour governments right from the end of the war to the 1970s was one of corporatism, an attempt to involve employers, unions and government in tripartite institutions. In particular, this involved an attempt to integrate the unions into the establishment; hoping that in exchange for concessions on social issues such as pensions, food subsidies, rent controls, etc, and the feeling that they were involved in decisions on high-level policy, the unions would moderate wage claims, and control their own rank and file.

However, by the late 1960s this was coming apart. A combination of growing difficulties for industry in competition with foreign rivals and the inability of the unions to curb rank-and-file militancy (resulting in the ‘wage drift’ mentioned above) forced both Labour and Conservative governments to attempt to curb wild-cat strikes. The Wilson government’s proposals embodied in the White Paper In Place of Strife was the first attempt. Andrew Thorpe, in his chapter on the Labour Party and the unions, summarises what happened.

One result was a degree of union militancy directed squarely at the White Paper. This came at all levels. By the end of April 1969, 14 union executives had supported a call for a special Trades Union Congress to be held to condemn the plans. There were demonstrations and strikes… it was the more militant sections of the rank and file rather than the union leadership that initiated the main challenge to In Place of Strife. But the repercussions were felt at the very highest levels, with political humiliation for Castle, and severe embarrassment for Wilson, who had supported her. On 17 June, the Cabinet, at a ‘very, very tense meeting’, decided against the Prime Minister’s opposition to abandon the plans. Next day a face-­saving agreement was reached, with the union leaders promising to do all they could to contain unofficial strikes.

When the Tory government succeeded Labour in 1970, it also embarked on an attempt to police the unions. But its Industrial Relations Act was met with the same opposition as had In Place of Strife, failed to curb union militancy, and was repealed by the 1974 Labour government.

It was only after the period covered by these volumes that the confrontation with the unions led by Margaret Thatcher, resulting in the defeats of the printers and the miners, finally drastically swung the balance of power against the unions and in favour of the employers.

In all this the union leaderships’ rôle was a contradictory one. On the one hand, as the authors make abundantly clear, these leaderships, accepting the framework of capitalist social relations, were quite happy to accept the corporatist ideology, participate in tripartite bodies, and convince themselves that they were a valued part of the state machine. And so they were, as long as they were able to contain and police ‘irresponsible militants’ and leftists. On the other hand, even the most bureaucratised unions were still basically democratic institutions. For example, in one of the most bureaucratised, the Transport and General Workers Union, though all the officials are appointed for life (until they retire), the national, trade section and regional executives are composed of elected lay members. Thus they have to respond to and reflect rank-and-file opinion, and call official strikes and come into conflict with the employers and even the state, as the accounts in these volumes show.

I have one minor quibble. Describing the controversy over Order 1305, the authors write: ‘One of the last acts of the Labour government was revocation of Order 1305, at the behest of the TUC General Council, whose leaders had become concerned over their own ability to control their members’ propensity to strike illegally.’ They might have mentioned that the unofficial dock strike of 1951 and the failed prosecution of its leaders had a decisive effect on this decision, and also on Bevan’s decision to resign from the Cabinet (cf. Mark Jenkins, Bevanism: Labour’s High Tide, p. 83).

These books provide ample evidence for the effectiveness of trade union action in determining wages and conditions. However, they also highlight the limitations of trade union militancy, and provide no comfort for those on the Marxist left who believe that industrial struggles lead almost automatically to socialist consciousness and, if sufficiently extended, to a direct struggle for working-class power. In this respect, Chapters 8 and 9 in Volume 2 in which McIlroy views the industrial activities of the Communist Party, and of Trotskyist groups such as the Socialist Labour League/Workers Revolutionary Party and the Socialist Workers Party, provide food for thought. What stands out is that despite the fact that in many cases Communist Party and Trotskyist militants won substantial influence and support and led significant struggles, and achieved areas of influence in the unions, this influence and support was rarely reflected in political gains and membership. The Communist Party’s political influence in the country or the working class generally never matched its influence in the trade unions. Although the SWP over a period in the 1970s was very active in the trade unions, publishing rank-and-file papers for car workers, miners, hospital workers, teachers, NALGO, dock workers, building workers, GEC rank and file, etc., with print runs of several thousand, the party itself never became more than a fringe group in the broader political world. The same can be said of the SLL, which at one time had a very strong group in Oxford based on the Cowley factory; earlier on its progenitor, the ‘Club’, working in the Labour Party, won considerable influence on the docks, recruiting many of the unofficial leaders and in fact effectively led the ‘Blue Union’ dock strike in 1954. Yet here, too, they were not able to translate this support into political allegiance based on a conscious acceptance of a socialist ideology, Marxist or other, among more than a handful of workers.

No doubt it will be – indeed, is – argued that these failures to develop mass political influence were due to defeats in particular struggles (for example the Blue Union struggle), mistakes in strategy and tactics and to other factors, for example, the nefarious activities of one Gerry Healy or unhealthy internal regimes.

But in reality the explanation is much more general. Firstly, the general economic and political situation, the context of expanding capitalism, and a long postwar boom in which workers were able to win substantial improvements by industrial action, and during which governments, both Conservative and Labour, were anxious to preserve social peace by concessions and reform, was not propitious for revolutionary politics. True, in the late 1960s and 1970s, the deteriorating situation pushed governments to attempt to curb union power, and this provoked essentially ‘political’ strikes against the Wilson government’s In Place of Strife and the Heath government’s Industrial Relations Bill. But though they were political in the sense that they were directed against state policies, their aim was limited – to force the government of the day to retreat, not to overthrow it, or to demand that it carry out a completely socialist policy. Certainly they did not go anywhere near creating a situation of dual power in which grass-roots working-class institutions competed with the state machine for power. Even when the 1972 miners’ strike prompted the Heath government to resign and call an election, the only feasible replacement was a reformist Labour government, and the only generally accepted way of achieving this (even amongst the most militant miners) was by a parliamentary election.

The most overtly ‘political’ of all the industrial actions of the period was the Upper Clyde Shipyards (UCS) work-in of 1971–72 described by John Foster and Charles Woolfson in Chapter 10 of Volume 2.

The work-in posed, implicitly if not explicitly, the question of workers’ control of industry. Unfortunately, the authors have nothing to say on what actually went on inside the shipyards during the 15 months of occupation, on how work was continued on ships, on how steel and power were acquired and how paid for, etc. Perhaps we can outline the scenario which might have developed, and which no doubt many on the Marxist left were hoping would develop.

The UCS workers want to complete the partly-built ships and launch them (and even start on new ships already designed and commissioned). The employers and the state want to close down the yards: the workers are refused access to the bank accounts of the firms, refused credits, the managements of the steel works and other suppliers refuse to supply the necessary steel and other supplies, the electric power supply is cut, etc. The UCS workers appeal for support; the steel workers decide to supply the steel in defiance of their managers, the transport workers organise transport, using their lorries independently of their bosses, the power workers reconnect the electricity. Looking further ahead, there is the question of disposing of the ships built. Just as socialism cannot survive in a single country, so workers’ control of production cannot continue unless it spreads wider and wider. Such a development would have directly challenged property relations, and would have posed before the whole country the question of who runs the economy. It could not have been tolerated by the state, and would have led to violent confrontation, posing all sorts of political questions.

But developments never reached this stage. I have no detailed information to hand, but my understanding is that the shop stewards dealt with the liquidator – both in terms of bargaining over his attempt to sell off machinery and announce redundancies, and over the release of ships in relation to wages. Presumably steel and other supplies were regulated as part of this process.

The support for the UCS work-in was high within the working class, particularly in Scotland, expressed in two regional general strikes. The work-in also generated wide support beyond the organised labour movement. The authors write:

The ploy of ‘working-in’, which forced the government to accept the continuance of the yards as a going concern, immediately ranged behind the workers the 700 creditor firms which stood to lose all they were owed as well as the custom they depended on for the future. It forced local authorities, even the Conservative/Progressive-controlled Glasgow Council to confront the dilemma of supporting ‘their communities’ or the government. It took leadership of the dispute out of the hands of the official movement and temporarily neutralised a Scottish press which tended towards the Conservative Party (Herald and Scottish Daily Express) or right-wing Labour (Record) This response, of seeking to work upon and include the specific interests of local business and the professions in the regional economy, was based precisely on what [Jimmy] Reid reported to the CP national executive; an analysis of the specific contradictions of monopoly capitalism.

Despite all this, the movement came nowhere near bringing about a social overturn. The struggle for workers’ control did not spread to the steel mills and power stations. But the work-in did force major concessions out of the government. In July 1971, the 8,000 took possession of the shipyards and held them for 15 months. As the authors point out:

By October 1972 when the sit-in ended they had forced the Conservative government to abandon almost all its original objectives. Most of the 8000 jobs remained. Four yards were in operation. Worse still for the government, it had been pushed into a much wider reversal of regional policy. Its original intention in ending credits to the publicly-owned Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) had been to demonstrate its determination to stop support for all ailing industries. Now it had to reverse its entire regional policy and pay for a massive refloatment on the Clyde.

Unfortunately, we have to note that 27 years later the jobs and the yards saved no longer exist. But nevertheless 8,000 workers were kept in employment for longer than they would have been.

Trotskyist critics attacked the Communist Party leadership of the work-in for selling out and betraying because they limited the struggle. They did not press for the extension of work-ins and workers’ control as envisaged in the scenario detailed above. These criticisms were unjustified. Reid and Fairlie may be criticised for wrong tactics. But they cannot be criticised for settling for what was possible, given the relationship of forces and the general level of consciousness and organisation of the labour movement at the time, instead of indulging in ‘revolutionary’ gestures.

The Trotskyist groups all suffered from an over-optimistic view of the political consciousness of the working class and of what could be achieved, and from a simplistic idea of how industrial struggle would almost automatically develop into a political struggle for power. As McIlroy points out in relation to the International Socialists’ industrial policies, ‘the weakness lay in the absence of any political bridge between militant trade unionism today and socialism tomorrow’. If McIlroy implies a bridge could have been built, I would disagree with him, and argue that in the conditions of expanding capitalism and no terminal crisis – when socialism is not on the cards for tomorrow – it is impossible to build such a bridge. However, he shrewdly comments that failing to find or build that bridge – to revolutionary socialism – the International Socialists became economists:

Revolutionary realism became economism. More militancy of the same kind became the answer to everything, to economic problems, to sexism, to racism, to national divisions. As workers became concerned about the inability of militancy to solve the problems of inflation, IS still rejected transitional politics: ‘the best advice we have to give now, apart from “put in a big claim and fight for it” is “establish the right to put in another claim whenever the workers decide”’ … The political and practical benefits of militancy were overestimated, the real problems that it caused for many workers underplayed.

The other main Trotskyist groups, the Militant Tendency and the SLL/WRP, were also unable to build that bridge. Looking at the state of the movement at the start of the twenty-first century, we can see how the hard work and sacrifices of not only the Communist Party’s industrial militants but also the Trotskyist cadres have not brought about mass influence. The Communist Party is no more, and its offshoots are marginalised. The WRP has imploded, and the SWP stagnates. The left remains split into dozens of sectarian groups. As McIlroy points out:

If our account affirms the limits of the revolutionary potential of the twentieth-century working class in Britain and the rooted nature of its acceptance of capitalism, it nevertheless suggests something more substantial and enduring could have been constructed in these years. If, and it is a very big if, a more patient, propagandistic, inclusive approach to constructing socialist networks had been deployed, organisations more organic to the tempo and ethos of British trade unionism might have been constructed.

Other important issues examined in these volumes concern women in the unions, and how immigration and racism were dealt with. Unfortunately, reasons of space preclude a discussion of these themes in this review. Hopefully they will be commented on elsewhere.

It is a pity the high price of these volumes put them out of the reach of many political and trade union activists, for they provide a useful overall view of the period dealt with. And – whether one agrees with all the authors’ conclusions or not – they provide much useful food for thought.

Harry Ratner

Updated by ETOL: 17.10.2011