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Colin Barker


(Autumn 1965)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.22, Autumn 1965, p.30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Industrial Relations: What Is Wrong with the System?
Allan Flanders
Faber, 12s 6d (cloth);
Institute of Personnel Management, 8s 6d (paper)

British Trade Unions Today
Clive Jenkins & J.E. Mortimer
Pergamon, 12s 6d

Flanders is concerned with the impact on the ‘British system of industrial relations’ of two interrelated phenomena: the state’s increasing concern ‘to restrain the pace of the upward movement of wages’ and the growing importance of workplace bargaining. Both these tendencies are the products of full employment in the postwar economy. The traditional system of collective bargaining, shaped in different circumstances, no longer meets the needs of British industry. His analysis, if somewhat prolix, is basically accurate – as far as it goes: British capitalism (not a word he uses) needs to have its wages bill controlled, but all proposals for greater centralisation of control ‘to restore order and to advance economic planning’ meet up with the seemingly insoluble problem of bargaining power on the shop floor. He brings together largely familiar data on the need for planning and the rise of workplace bargaining, and attempts to order it in terms of a static classificatory system of concepts. A not useless description of changes is abstracted from the social context and formalised into the narrow but wordy confines of academic ‘industrial relations’. Flanders’ lack of theory – or rather his discipline’s lack and its isolation from sociology – betrays him into woolliness and what is commonly the anti-Marxist’s chief complaint – lack of realism. His solutions are vague and hopeless: a ‘three-tier system of industrial relations’ at state, industry and workshop level is required. For this to be successful there must be ‘greater authority and influence’ for central bodies, and ‘strengthened relations’ between unions and employers’ associations and their respective members. These in turn depend on ‘agreement on policy ... the ultimate sine qua non of successful planning’ Put crudely this means that ‘national’ interests must be put before those of ‘class’; at the local level ‘a realistic basis for cooperation’ must be found. The solutions are ‘compromises’ and ‘golden means’, free bargaining under nationally stipulated conditions (!), ‘a general sense of direction in which to travel’, etc, etc.

His industrial system has no built-in dynamics of change, no inherent structural faults that make all his solutions irrelevancies; he accepts the values of those in whose interests the system operates, nor does he question its assumptions critically or look behind the fact of full employment to its causes and its essential instability. He wishes to be fair about a system that denies justice. Trade unionists and directors will find little to help them here; personnel managers and the other poor wretches in the crossfire may find some comforts.

Jenkins and Mortimer are disappointing, for one might have hoped for more. They know that wolves are wolves, and that calling them sheep will not help. For one thing it is difficult to know quite for whom they are writing – perhaps some inquiring Young Liberal. As a short text on the nature of trade unions their book is better than most, but that does not take us very far. Their trade unions are reacting to changes in a historical void (while at least Flanders does take account of change). But there is fuzz on the edges of their descriptions whenever touchy problems appear: ‘despite the efforts which have been made to shape the constitution (of the TGWU) to provide for democratic control, there have been difficulties’ (p.9; my emphasis); it is also pertinent to ask if all the problems of union democracy are constitutional ... The actions of the union officials in the Fords victimisations in 1963 are muffed over with generalities. And so on. There is useful material in this book (in particular an excellent summary of an analysis of claims submitted to the Industrial Disputes Tribunal and the Industrial Court on page 104), but the Discovery of Britain needs more thought than this, and also less concern to do a cover-up job. To work comrades!

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