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Colin Barker

The Real McCoy

(Autumn 1967)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.30, Autumn 1967, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Labour Relations in the Motor Industry
H.A. Turner, Garfield Clack and Geoffrey Roberts
Allen & Unwin, 55s.

Industrial Relations in a British Car Factory
Garfield Clack
Department of Applied Economics Occasional Papers No.9, Cambridge, 17s 6d.

After the mass of rubbish that has been pouring out from the publishing houses under the general head of ‘industrial relations’ these two books are very welcome. The larger volume is a detailed examination of the changing patterns and causes of strikes in the British car industry, with a chapter on international comparisons to round it off. It is almost faultless, and provides a mine of information and ideas that make it the best book ever published in Britain in its field. It is impossible to summarise in a brief review; it requires reading, closely. Garfield Clack’s study is a by-product of the larger work, an account of a period of participant observation in a car plant. This adds detail to the more general survey, and again is required reading.

Of particular interest to socialists, perhaps, will be the sections in the Turner volume (and the larger part of Clack’s) on the role of shop stewards. They demonstrate beyond all doubt the growing importance and the institutionalisation of workshop bargaining, and the declining relevance of official trade unionism for the problems of car workers. The shift in issues, especially marked in the 1960s, towards a hesitant, uneven but gradually developing challenge to ‘managerial prerogatives’ is finely documented. So too is another development, noted in passing in IS 27 (cf. The Notebook): the institutionalisation of shop stewards’ organisations, and in particular of the role of the convenor or senior steward, has begun to create a situation in some factories in which the senior stewards in particular have come to take on semi-managerial functions, and have in the process become partially separated from their shop-floor membership.

As a result, we now have a new phenomenon, the ‘unofficial-unofficial’ strike, a strike that lacks the approval not only of the official union hierarchy but also that of the stewards’ organisation too. Turner and his associates suggest, in fact, ‘In the motor industry, at any rate, thus type of dispute appears to be becoming the norm’ (p.223). Clack’s case study demonstrates the way that this works in practice: senior stewards adopt the role of buffer between employer and workers, and are found arguing against strike action up to the point where they clearly cannot win, at which point they assume the leadership of a strike to protect their own organisation. It would seem that the implications of this development have still to be worked out by militants in the industry.

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Last updated: 31.12.2007