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Colin Barker

Choose Your Weapons

(February 1970)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.42, February/March 1970, p.38.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Measure for Measure: Reforming the Unions
Stephen Fay
Chatto & Windus/Charles Knight, 10s

‘My scheme is liberal reformist in intent,’ declares the Sunday Times labour correspondent. His plan for ‘union reform’ is designed to ‘fit into and assist the mixed economy’ and is ‘in the best liberal tradition: it is design to avoid chaos’.

Fay presents the outlines of an increasingly orthodox view of post-war industrial relations: the shift to shop-floor bargaining; fragmentation of teh trade union movement qua movement;inter-union squabbles as alternatives to employer-bashing; ossification of official organisation; increasing ‘disorder’ in industry; etc. A liberal, it used to be said, is a Tory with a conscience. Fay’s book reveals how contradictory that contemporary ‘conscience’ is. He wants ‘stronger’ unions, and proposes Government intervention to strengthen them – despite noting that union-knocking can be electorally profitable and despite a chapter on Strikes: Power Abused. He laments the jack of responsiveness by union leaderships to the rank and file, and proposes more control over them by the leadership. Union members are apathetic, a weakness in the unions; yet he cites with horror the following statement by an AEF official: ‘I am paid by my members to serve my members, and my job is to satisfy them, not for them to satisfy me.’ The AEF suffers, in Fay’s view, from too many elections and from the relatively low pay its officials get; yet the NUGMW, the reverse case, has a static low-paid membership that ‘lacks independence, guts even’.

His case is curious. He wants the unions to recover a sense of purpose, and castigates the TUC General Council for its lack of support for strikes by weaker unions. In the name of stronger, more purposeful trade unionism he proposes the legalisation of contracts (after the manner of the Tory plan, Fair Deal At Work) with penalty clauses leading to instant dismissal without protection for unofficial strikers; legally backed shoves towards industrial unionism; higher union dues; more full-time officials; full-time stewards to police contracts UAW-style. In short, he wants a legal framework to force union leaders to control their members better. Contracts should link pay and productivity, thereby forcing unions to concern themselves with the efficiency of enterprises – perhaps like the American UMW, whose concern with mining efficiency seems not unconnected with the Yablonski murders?

Legal changes of the type proposed by Fay, however modified, may well be brought in by Tories or Labour in the next couple of years. The assault by employers and Government, whatever its precise form, will open up possibilities for a real recreation of a purposeful working-class movement. Fay’s book reveals one thing: ‘liberal reformism’ will have no place in that.

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Last updated: 12 February 2020