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Colin Barker

Lex v. Labour

(Summer 1966)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.25, Summer 1966, p.30.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Shop Stewards and Shop Committees: A Study in Trade Unionism and Industrial Relations in Australia
Orwell de R. Foenander
Melbourne UP/Cambridge, 37s 6d

It is a pity that this is the only book available on the subject, for a comparison between British and Australian shop stewards could have been invaluable, and not only to socialists and trade unionists.

Digging about in Foenander’s book, however, it is possible to pull out some points. Australian trade unions, at the official level, are subject to much more extensive legal control than are their British counterparts (at the time of review). In particular, there is a system of compulsory arbitration of disputes and of quite close legal control over union activities, in which it appears that the union leaderships largely acquiesce (as no doubt will their British equals). However, full employment and rapid technological developments together have not, if Foenander is to be believed, produced the same degree of militancy in Australian workers that we find in Britain. (It should be noted, though, that Foenander does not support his conclusion with any measure, of strike activity for instance, and he provides no explanation for this difference.) However, as in Britain, relations between rank-and-file union members and their officials have tended to worsen, and ‘not infrequently’ the labour courts hear disputes between workers and union officials (p.18).

Australian stewards have fewer formal bargaining powers than British stewards. They are excluded from any right to bargain on such matters as job evaluation, overtime, time-and-motion studies and rate-fixing. Nevertheless, they ‘have at times displayed amazing astuteness in discovering possibilities and opportunities for the framing of demands to the advantage of workers’ within the sphere to which they are restricted. No data are provided, unfortunately, on the effect of such local bargaining as they can engage in on wage drift or inflation. As in Britain, workers put pressure on their stewards: ‘Unhappily there appears to be a tendency, in some workers at least, to look upon the shop steward solely as a promoter of their own interests’ – which at law the steward should not be. And stewards, especially those organised into multi-union committees, call and lead unofficial strikes.

The real threat to the Australian union bureaucracies comes from these multi-union committees of stewards, both at plant and at area level. Composed as they are of members of a number of unions, these committees are less susceptible to control by the officials of a single union, although in a number of cases such committees have been closed down by the heavy hand of officialdom. The Australian CP has been associated with several of the multi-union committees, but, as Foenander notes, stewards’ political views trouble the union officials not a whit, as long as a committee ‘refrains from initiating or embarking upon a course of action in contravention of the official aims of the union’ (p 104). The Australian TUC (ACTU) has been sufficiently concerned by the activities of multi-union shop committees to draw up sets of model rules for them, which have (alas!) been largely ignored. Only among workers in federal government employ have there been any significant applications for formal ACTU endorsement of their procedures by shop committees (a fact that is unfortunately left unexplained).

Multi-union area committees are strongly disapproved by all the union leaders and employers’ associations. Regrettably, Foenander notes, some individual employers do business with them (to save trouble) – and this is ‘symptomatic of a poor social outlook’ (p.111) on the part of such employers. Area committees have been responsible for developing political attacks on official union policies and activities, for unofficial strike levies, and for assistance, support and leadership to unofficial strikes. Readers will be heartened to learn: ‘It is indeed difficult to escape the conclusion that, in more than a few instances, area committees have come to constitute a standing danger to peace in industry, making it impossible to view them otherwise than in the light of an industrial nuisance’ (p.115). As in Britain, dissatisfaction with their union officials contributes largely to the importance of the area committees (p.119), though there is no investigation of other reasons for their rise to notoriety.

Readers will probably have gathered from the quotations given what Foenander’s attitude to shop stewards is: plain reactionary. What is difficult to convey is the incredible archaism and pomposity of his style, and the extraordinarily legalistic approach to questions of union organisation. His concern is not to explain why stewards and stewards’ committees are important in Australia, but to attempt to define their (very limited) legal position. Thus for instance the multi-union committees are at best semi-official, but Foenander is not concerned to consider the real implications of this state of affairs; all that interests him is whether the union rules really allow for these committees to exist. It is doubtful, too, whether an Australian steward has a precisely defined and valid legal claim to be elected; but so what? Thousands are. His is a lawyer’s approach to rules, not a sociologist’s: he has no sense of the naturalness of rule-breaking in a society, or of the way in which rules are normally and continually manipulated for group ends. The ideal for him is rigid adherence to the law, as defined by the judges – a prospect that might make a liberal Tory quake. Because of his overwhelming focus on the minutiae of the law, he contributes little to the understanding of the phenomena he supposedly analyses. At 37s 6d for 137 pages I cannot recommend anyone but socialist millionaires to add this book to their collections. Some digging in a library copy might provide a little illumination – no promises, however.

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