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Colin Barker

The Notebook

[AEU Reorgansation]

(Winter 1966/67)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.27, Winter 1966/67, p.4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Colin Barker writes: Recent press reports indicate that AEU officialdom is looking long and hard at the union structure, and seeking means to rationalise. Jim Conway, the general secretary, has for some time been proposing radical alterations, and a three-man working committee has been examining his proposals. The three men are EC members John Boyd, E.L. Edmondson and Hugh Scanlon.

In particular the branch structure – clearly quite unsuited to present needs – is to be reformed. In one Ilford factory, we learn, the 2,000 members belong to 35 different branches. The remoteness of the branch from the centre of struggle in the factory is thus guaranteed, and the shop stewards’ organisations fill a natural gap. The working committee, following Conway, proposes that the number of branches be drastically reduced from its present level of 3,000. In Manchester, 90 branches will be merged to form 10 branches. Instead of branches based on the place of residence, the place of work will – at least in the case of the larger establishments-–now become the organisational centre of the branch. So far, so good. Factory-based branches would enable a much more direct expression of militancy in the union’s official structure. But this is clearly not the intention. Thus The Guardian (10 October):

‘It is argued that this kind of closely knit organisation would prevent any recurrence of the “workers’ trial” scandals which created such a stir during the general election campaign.’

The guarantee against more ‘scandals’ of this nature, and against the development of uncontrolled militant stewards’ organisations generally, is simple: branch secretaries in large establishments will be appointed on a full-time basis. Immediately the branch secretaries will be placed in a situation where they will be subject to two sets of pressures, union head office and rank-and-file membership, instead of only one, the rank and file. The career element in the job will assume a new weight.

Secondly, in an attempt to bring the unofficial combine committees into line, advisory committees for specialised multi-plant firms, with a full-time national organiser and national executive member as sitting members, are suggested. Again, there is a clear mixture here of positive and negative: formalisation of the present position is a gain; formalisation under the control of the full-time officials will create new problems for militants. Thirdly, dues will be collected in a new way. As things stand, a minimal effort by members is required, a small but important degree of commitment. In future dues collectors will be paid on a pro rata basis, or dues will flow into head office automatically, through the introduction of the check-off system, whereby the employer does the collectors’ dirty work for them. Attendance at the branch, or contact with a collecting steward, will thus have even less direct point, as UAW experience in the US shows. Ability to express the membership point of view will in future not be sufficient qualification for union office, from branch secretary upwards. Special examinations will be introduced. Instead of elections requiring at least minimal commitment through attendance at a meeting, the postal ballot system will operate. In this way a higher proportion of the membership will, it is hoped, vote in the elections, but the voting will now be performed on a private, individual basis. The national committee, at present elected on a divisional basis that despite its unsatisfactory nature does express some small degree of local organisation, will now be re-structured. Divisional committees may be scrapped, and national committee members elected in a national (postal) ballot on a trade-group basis. The last tenuous links between members and national committee delegates will be finally snipped.

The overall effect of these proposed changes can only be a further bureaucratisation of the structure. The struggle for workers’ control of the union will take on new forms, as yet difficult to perceive. AEU members need to discuss these changes now, in good time for the next conference. But if, as seems likely, the EC gets its way on these matters, the struggle in the factories will have to be re-examined. Recent developments in some Midland car factories point the way ahead: militant stewards have insisted that the convenors may not handle grievances by themselves, but only in association with the particular steward involved and at least one ad hoc representative of the men. In this way control over the bargaining process is kept at the shop-floor level wherever possible.

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Last updated: 24 April 2010