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Colin Barker

Donovan: the velvet glove stays on –
bosses not ready for the knuckle duster

(July 1968)

From Socialist Worker, No. 85, July 1968, p. 8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

AFTER THREE YEARS’ labour, the Royal Commission on Trade Unions has finally reported. The 352-page document (price £1) looks at industrial relations from the point of new of a section of the ruling class today. It is written in the a section of the ruling class today. It is written in the mealy-mouthed way most government documents enjoy, and it is often downright dull.

The Commission is very clear about its main problems. It gives an example of a skilled engineering fitter’s pay packet in a factory in the North East in December 1967. What worries the Commission is the way the pay is made up:

Table 1

Time rate for the industry for a
40-hour week (negotiated between
the Employers’ Federation and
the Confederation of Unions)

£11   1   8d.

Overtime (8 hours at double time)
  £4   8   8d.

Night shift premium
  £3 13 11d.

Lieu bonus, negotiated between
management and shop stewards
in the factory.

£11 14 11d.

Total pay before deductions
£30 19   2d.

In the words of the Commission, “Britain has two systems of industrial relations.” The first system is the official system in which the trade union officials meet officials of the employers’ associations, and settle disputes, negotiate wages, and so on.

But there is more to life than what was written into rulebooks and procedures 50 years ago. It is that “ more ” that terrifies the bosses and the union leaders alike.

The old, official, system has decayed. Since the end of the 1930’s, real bargaining over wages has slipped out of the hands of the full-time officials and has been taken over, at the workplace level, by shop stewards. For very many workers today, like the worker whose pay-packet is shown in Table 1, a considerable part of their weekly wage comes from local bargaining, from unofficial bargaining, from shop stewards more than union officials.

It is the same with strikes. Apart from the mining industry, there is a steady rise in the number of strikes. In 1957 there were 635 strikes (in the official statistics), in 1960 there were 1,166. and in 1967 there were 1,694 ,in all industries except coal-mining.

But what sort of strikes?

Table 2 shows the numbers of official strikes from 1960 to 1966. The figures show that they are not increasing in number.

Table 2

Numbers of official strikes

















So it is the unofficial strikes which have nearly trebled in number since 1957. In fact, they have probably more than trebled, for the short strikes (which are the most common) are not even counted in the statistics.

It isn’t really the numbers of strikes that worry the employers so much. What really worries them is that they can’t control the situation. They want a wages policy, so that they can increase their profits at the expense of the working people. But they can’t get a wages policy that works if it is being spoiled all the time in the factories.

And that is what is happening. In piece-rate arguments, in clashes over overtime, teabreaks, washing-time allowances, travel allowances and a host of other workplace matters, rank-and-file workers and their shop stewards keep pushing up the wage rates.

They do this independently of the unions, and independently of the government. They do it to such an extent that it creates one of the biggest headaches for British employers and for the government’s wages policy.

So, says the Commission the biggest problem in British industry is that things are not controlled, in other words not controlled by the managements.

What the Commission wants to do is to restore “order” to British industry. The bulk of the Report is taken up with a long discussion of what they can do.

Many of the employers’ organisations, the Tory Party and others, have demanded that unofficial strikes be made illegal in some way, or at least give employers the opportunity to take civil action in the courts.

The Commission is terrified of this kind of idea, though they do say that if their proposals don’t work then it may be necessary to “look again” at the idea of legal controls.

Their reasons for rejecting legal action are, first, that employers at the moment are afraid of using the law against unofficial strikers because they know that if a striker is fined or jailed the result will only be more strikes, go-slows, overtime bans and so forth.

Secondly, the Commission are convinced that legal action will not work. The best part of the Report is a two-page Appendix, written for them by Sir Harold Emmerson, who was a senior Ministry of Labour official during the last war.

Emmerson tells how, in 1941, 4,000 Kent miners went on illegal strike in support of a wage claim. 1,000 of the men were issued with summonses, under the wartime National Arbitration Order, and extra JPs and police had to be drafted to serve the summonses.

The result of the trial, in which the men pleaded guilty, was that three union officials were imprisoned with hard labour. 335 were fined £3 (or one month in gaol) and about 1,000 were fined £1 (or 14 days).

In protest, the men stayed out – and the men who could call off the strike were in gaol. After five days the colliery management were forced to sign an agreement, in the prison, with the union officials, giving the men everything they had asked for. But the men refused to go back to work till their officials were released, and after 11 days the law caved in.

No government can cheerfully face this kind of situation again. If the law is brought into disrepute because it cannot be enforced, then the whole basis of “authority” is made a laughing-stock. And no “authority” can bear to be laughed at – people who can laugh at a government will feel strong enough to overthrow it

So the Royal Commission doesn’t recommend such use of legal action. Instead they suggest that, to control workshop bargaining, firms should he required to register their factory agreements with the government.

A new Industrial Relations Commission (a sort of second Aubrey Jones) will be set up to investigate these factory agreements. This way, it is hoped, shop floor bargaining, unofficial strikes and shop stewards will somehow be “regulated” more to the satisfaction of the employers and the government.

Other recommendations are also intended to serve the same purpose. More unions should be urged to merge, or come to agreements among themselves, to reduce the power of multi-union committees of shop stewards. Full-time union officials ought to try to get control of the unofficial stewards’ committees.


Only in one respect does a majority of the Commission recommend a change of any weight. Up to now, any “combination” of workers – not only recognised union, but also unofficial stewards’ committees, “breakaway” unions, etc. – has been immune from various sorts of legal penalty.

Now, it is proposed that only unions which are registered with the authorities should have this “privilege.” In other words, it will now be possible, if the Commission’s ideas are put into practice, for anyone who thinks he has been hurt by a strike to sue those involved, if the strike was not called by a registered union

This will lay shop stewards open to the risk of prosecution. In nearly every strike in the country, there will be the risk of civil or criminal proceedings being taken.

The aim of this Report is to find a way of getting rid of the class struggle, as it is seen on the shop floor, or at least bringing it under control. But we can be sure that the proposals they have made will not work, and that they will not satisfy big business.

As capitalism gets into bigger and bigger crises in the years ahead, business will demand much more government add legal control over unofficial strikes. It may be soon, it may take several years. But the result will be a sharpening of the class struggle. There are bigger battles ahead than we have had for a generation.

These battles will create the possibility of mass working-class action to overthrow capitalism and build a socialist society. Socialists and militants should be organising now in readiness for those battles.

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Last updated: 22 October 2020