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Colin Barker

Sweetness and Light

(Spring 1964)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.16, Spring 1964, p.33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Essence of Trade Unionism
Victor Feather
Bodley Head, 10s. 6d.

Mr Feather is Assistant General Secretary of the TUC, and his book reflects this fact. The short history of British trade unionism in the first two chapters is a proud account of the growing ‘modernisation’ and ‘sense of responsibility’ of the unions, of their growing ‘prestige’ and acceptability to management. The Mond-Turner talks, which ‘laid the foundation of much modern trade union thought’ (p.26), are a high point in the history, and take as much space as the General Strike, where his brevity allows Mr Feather to skate over the role of the TUC. However, the best that Mr Feather can say for the role of the TUC during the thirties is that they ‘envisaged’ better social security provisions (p.27). His is a brief and bureaucratic history, in which administrative forms mean more than real social content.

The same approach typifies his presentation of the activities and purposes of the unions today. Unofficial stoppages are ‘helpful neither to workpeople – or employers – or the union’s responsible leadership’ (p.60). (Mr Feather really should go out and ask some of the workpeople who are not helped by unofficial stoppages where they get most of their wage-rises from.) He supports management ‘rights’ as laid down in union-management agreements against workers who are ‘unreasonable and obstructive’ (p.83). His vision of the ‘two sides’ in industry is of ‘the two sides working towards the same goal, recognising the merit of the other, understanding the rules and observing them.’ (p.86). Where there is a conflict in nationalised industries, the ‘proven national interest’ (that hoary old myth of class society) must come before the interests of the workers. There is no conception of different classes in society with fundamentally opposing purposes, all problems are administrative, all conflict is regrettable. Mr Feather seems to have no sense of the real problems that technological change creates, indeed he devotes no more space to this than he does to the problem of making an effective speech. Anyone who ever thought that the working class could ever get anything from the TUC need only read this book to be quickly disillusioned; it is bourgeois to the core, and boring to boot.

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