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Alex Callinicos

Alan Fisher, NUPE and the New Reformism

(March 1977)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 96, March 1977, pp. 9–13.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The ferment among public sector workers hit by the cuts has thrust Alan Fisher and NUPE into the centre of the stage. In May NUPE’s biennial conference meets with its agenda loaded down with motions attacking the Social Contract and calling for greater union democracy These issues will also be raised by two Right to Work Candidates standing in the NUPE Executive elections taking place over the next month or so. Alex Callinicos analyses the politics and the record of Fisher and union he leads.

ALAN FISHER of the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) is the current darling of the reformist left. NUPE is seen to be in the forefront of the battle against the cuts, providing the backbone of the November 17 demonstration last year and launching a new series of local protests this spring.

NUPE has grown rapidly as a result of this policy. In the eighteen months from January 1975 to June-1976, NUPE gained 112,980 new members. This was an increase of 22 per cent and took the union to a total of 620,806 members. NUPE is now the fifth largest union affiliated to the TUC.

Alongside this, Fisher has increased his personal standing. The CP and the Broad Left, who five years ago adulated Jack Jones; today regard Fisher as the rising star. At the 17 November rally the Tribunite Norman Atkinson, Treasurer of the Labour Party, was loudly heckled. Fisher was heard in rapt silence and cheered to the echo. The emergence of Fisher and NUPE is a major development in the trade union movement. In this article we will try to show how and why this took place and how it affects our tactics in the fight against the Social Contract and the cuts.

How NUPE was built.

NUPE BEGAN life as the London County Council Employees’ Protection Society in 1888. For nearly fifty years it struggled on mostly in London and by 1934 had a grand total of 13,000 members. In 1934 Bryn Roberts was appointed General Secretary. This was a turning point for the Union. Roberts was to dominate the Union until his retirement in 1962 and preside over its transformation into a major force. Roberts had ambitious plans. He told the 1936 Conference:

My mind is set towards the 100,000 membership mark for this Union. My mind is set towards raising the wages and conditions of public employees from the low and capitalistic levels upon which they are now based. My mind is set towards creating our own NUPE group of Members of Parliament in order to be on an equal footing with the other Unions within the service. [1]

The problems were enormous. The potential membership was scattered across the country with 9,000 different authorities employing over 1 million workers, often only a tiny handful in remote rural areas. There was also tough competition from the big general unions, the TGWU and the NUGMW (now GMWU), who were powerfully entrenched among manual workers in the big urban centres.

Roberts thrust the union into an all-out recruitment campaign, beginning with the underpaid County Council roadmen. NUPE drew up and campaigned for a Roadmen’s Charter. Its demands were to be implemented not as a result of strike action but through an extension of the Whitly scheme. This system of National Joint Councils (NJC’s) of employers and unions in the public sector had been proposed in 1918 but never fully implemented. NUPE called for an NJC for all local government services. As Robert’s biographer puts it:

The demand for machinery for the national determination of wages and other conditions of service became the pivot around which the whole of NUPE’S programme turned. [2]

Roberts’ campaigning strategy payed off. The Roadmen won an NJC in 1941 and by 1947 their wages were 100 per cent above 1938 levels. NUPE grew rapidly: by 1939 it claimed 50,000 members, by 1945 the goal set by Roberts had been reached – NUPE had just over 105,000 members. The massive expansion of the welfare state after the war gave further opportunities for union growth and by 1955 NUPE, with 200,000 members, was in the big league as the ninth largest union in the TUC. [3]

The mushroom growth of NUPE had been achieved throughout by campaigns of pressure and publicity and not by strike action. It was concentrated throughout on winning central negotiations through NJC’s. NUPE had taken its modern form.

NUPE has important differences from other Unions organising in the public sector. Firstly, it is above all a manual workers’ union, particularly in local government and the hospitals. This sets it apart from white-collar unions like NALGO, NUT, CPS A etc. which are also recruited exclusively from the public sector. NUPE is far closer to the mainstream of the British labour movement in that it does not have to fight against professionalism, a hierarchical jobs ladder etc.. On the other hand, unlike the TGWU and the GMWU, NUPE membership is concentrated solely in the public sector. Thus what happens there is not one issue among many but a matter of life and death for NUPE. The combination of these factors mean that NUPE is forced to play the key role in anti-cuts activity.

Power in NUPE

NUPE IS a very undemocratic union. The authors of a study of the union’s structure specially commissioned by NUPE put it very tactfully:

To the outsider, one of the most striking characteristics of NUPE is the key role played in the organisation by its full time officials. [4]

Once again, this has a great deal to do with the way the union was built. Roberts ruled NUPE supreme. In 1937 he persuaded the conference to move from yearly to two-yearly conferences. The number of full time officials grew rapidly, from 5 in 1934 to 25 in 1936 to 45 in 1954. [5] These officials were accountable solely to Roberts, who decided their pay and appointment individually. Whenever the rank and file stepped out of line they were stamped on hard. In 1951 Roberts, not usually a ‘cold war warrior’, expelled the three Communist leaders of a 10-day unofficial strike in Edinburgh Corporation.

The structure which Roberts built outlived him. Both the biennial Conference, the ‘supreme government of the Union’, and the lay Executive Council (EC) which meets quarterly, theoretically to run NUPE between conferences, are under the General Secretary’s thumb.

The General Secretary stands at the head of a hierarchy of full-time officials, 105 of them in 1975, who run the union at Division and Area level. None of these officials are elected; all, including the General Secretary, are appointed by the EC. The full-timers tend to be appointed from outside the membership and vacant posts are not advertised in the union journal Public Employee. The salaries of these officials are secret but they probably run between £3,000 and £5,000; Fisher’s salary is estimated at between £8,000 and £10,000. On top of that there are various perks like free cars and cheap mortgages.

The post of General Secretary is inherited rather than decided by vote. Roberts retired in 1962 and was replaced by Sydney Hill, whom he had made national officer in 1946 and who acted as General Secretary during Roberts long illness from 1961. One of Hill’s first acts was to appoint Alan Fisher as Assistant General Secretary. Fisher had been Hill’s blue-eyed boy since he became a clerical assistant for the Union in 1938. When Hill retired in 1968 Fisher succeeded him as General Secretary. He had been a full-time employee (except for a war time break) since the age of 17 and had spent 30 years inside the union’s full-time apparatus.

When elections do take place, as in the case of the EC, they are far from democratic. Each branch votes as a ‘block’. Under this system, those attending the branch meeting cast their votes. These votes are then counted by the branch secretary and the winning candidate receives a vote equal to the total strength of the whole branch.

Added to this is. the lack of rank-and-file involvement at the branch level. A recent survey of the union revealed that 67 per cent of branches were attended by 5 per cent or less of their members and 13 per cent rarely or never met. [6] Branches receive a commission of 12½ per cent of membership subscriptions; this can add up to quite a big branch, so there is an inbuilt pressure towards secretaries wanting a large and unwieldy branch.

However, the low level of rank-and-file involvement does not arise only from the undemocratic structure. The centralised bargaining structure and the emphasis on protest campaigns rather than strike action meant that in the 1950’s and 1960’s NUPE did not develop the strong shop-steward organisations which grew up in other areas. The officials settled most things, and the union was very remote from the average member.

Moreover, the areas in which NUPE recruits are ones of high labour turnover, particularly among women workers, many of whom are classified as part-time: ‘no fewer than 81 per cent in local government and 50 per cent in the National Health Service are classified as part time (women workers – AC) ... labour turnover is, of course, reflected in membership turnover. For example, for the last quarter of 1973 one large branch had to recruit 9 per cent new members in order to register a 1.5 per cent net increase in branch membership.’ [7] Even a much more democratic union than NUPE would have difficulty in involving the rank-and-file in these conditions.

Enter the Rank and File: 1969–74

THE EMERGENCE of government-imposed incomes policies in the 1960’s began to transform NUPE. Incomes policies have hit public sector workers hardest because it is far easier for the government to enforce guidelines for their own employees and because the majority of these workers lack traditions of strong organisation. NUPE members were hit hard by the freeze imposed by the 1964–70 Labour government and in 1967 the NUPE Conference, after giving Wilson a standing ovation, almost unanimously passed a resolution condemning the wage freeze.

In 1969 the rank-and-file turned words into deeds when the London dustmen smashed through the freeze with a militant unofficial strike. Fisher was as surprised as anyone, but he learnt the lesson quickly. In 1970, with a Tory government in office, the dustmen were in action again, this time officially, and the final settlement met many of their demands.

By December 1972 it was the turn of the hospital ancillary workers. The leadership of the four unions involved – NUPE, TGWU, GMWU, and COHSE – submitted a claim clearly hoping to settle within the limit laid down by the Tory incomes policy.

The rank and file thought differently. On October 2 Bristol and Gloucester Hospitals came out on unofficial strike for £8. On December 13, the day the agreement expired, 180,000 ancillary workers took part in demonstrations across the country. Fisher was forced to ballot the membership. Out of 446 branches, 45 did not vote. 352 voted for militant action and of these 207 voted for total strike.

The NUPE leadership opted for selective strikes from March 1st. It was left to the rank and file to try to spread and co-ordinate the strikes against the open sabotage of the officials. The response was magnificent, despite the press propaganda about the danger to patients. By March 14 299 hospitals were on strike. A group of workers without previous traditions had demonstrated fantastic initiative and militancy.

Unfortunately, the strength built up during the strike was not used to win it. Fisher concentrated on a policy of ‘saving our strength’ (for what?) and trying to persuade the Tory government that hospital workers were ‘a special case’. He was aided by the other TUC leaders who sabotaged attempts to organise solidarity action. On April 13 Fisher settled for the original offer plus a small concession on equal pay.

The 1973 claim saw an even greater success for the tactics of divide and rule. Fisher skilfully played off hospital workers and local government workers by separating their claims and stressing the dangers of isolation from the movement as a whole. The offers, well within ‘Phase Three’, were accepted without a fight.

As an alternative route out of the low pay trap Fisher pushed bonus schemes. These offered more pay in return for higher productivity and reduced manning levels and thus seemed a way of increasing pay without a stand-up fight over incomes policy.

Here, however, Fisher’s plans were set back by the new mood in the rank-and-file. The May 1973 conference showed a marked swing to the left and Fisher had the experience, unusual for a NUPE General Secretary, of being overruled by Conference. ‘Composite 14’ was passed, rejecting bonus schemes and explicitly stated that ‘existing schemes should be honoured only as long as they suit the members’. [8]

Fisher is not the sort of man to let a little thing like a Conference decision stand in his way, and continued to push bonus schemes. Under pressure from the DHSS he wrote, on 30 October, to all members of NUPE’s organising staff:

I want you to take an initiative yourself, where this is possible, to see if more ancillary staff can be brought on to lead-in payments (to bonus schemes – AC) at an early date. [9]

The whole of this revealing correspondence was published in full in Hospital Worker, the excellent rank-and-file newspaper which was born out of the 1973 strike. There were a number of local fights against bonus schemes. Nevertheless, Fisher persisted and in 1975 was able to force bonus schemes through the conference.

In the meantime, Fisher had moved to the right. In the summer of 1974 the hospital nurses began strike action against appalling wages and conditions. This time, with a Labour Government in office, Fisher publicly attacked COHSE for calling strike action and bent every effort to avoid embarrassing the Labour Government.

Containing the Rank and File: the 1975 Reorganistion

THIS WAVE of action had, however, changed NUPE irrevocably. One indication was the growth of shop stewards’ organisation. These were only officially recognised in local government in 1969 and in the NHS in 1971, but the strikes and battles over bonus schemes led to their rapid growth:

In 1970, 39 per cent of branches had no Union stewards at all and 21 per cent had five or more. By 1974 only 11 per cent of branches reported having no Union Stewards and the proportion with five or more had grown to almost half (48 per cent). [10]

Three sociologists from Warwick University were called in to inquire into the structure of the Union and recommended changes. Their ideas were largely implemented by a special conference in January 1975. Their report concentrated on the problem of integrating the new rank and file into the union’s structure and, not surprisingly, came down against the election of full-time officials.

Stewards were now to be automatically on the branch committees and the major conclusion was that there should continue to be separate organisational structures for the main groups, council and hospital workers. This re-inforced existing practice with separate Branch, District and Area organisations for each group. The only official bodies on which stewards from the different sections can meet are: at one of the union’s 10 Divisional Councils or at National Conference. The officials, and Fisher in particular, are thus free to play off one group against another.

Women in NUPE

THERE ARE more women in NUPE than in any other British trade union. In 1968 they made up about half the total membership, by 1975 the 382,638 women members made up about two-thirds of the membership. Of the 301,000 new members signed up between 1968 and 1975, more than three-quarters were women. [11] Fisher gave an ‘explanation’ for this at the 1975 Conference:

‘Some people say it is because of the attractive officers we have got! ... My lack of a haircut ... is what is really doing it. (Laughter)’ [l2]

NUPE’s record bears out Fisher’s sense of humour – it is a mixture of tokenistic gestures and effective male dominance. The union strikes all the fashionable poses, supporting the Working Women’s Charter, opposing the James White Bill, etc. Under the re-organisation 5 EC seats are reserved for women. But it is only very recently that two or three women full-timers have been appointed and there are few women branch secretaries and shop stewards. Those that there are tend to be treated as second-class citizens.

Fisher and the Social Contract

IN 1974 Fisher was co-author with Bernard Dix of a book entitled Low Pay and How to End It. [13] This book outlines a strategy for ending low pay by means of a statutory minimum wage which is right in line with the NUPE tradition of national wage fixing and campaigning. But the book sets this goal in terms of a wider economic strategy of price controls, the extension of planning and public ownership and the establishment of a National Enterprise Board – a strategy very similar to Labour’s 1973 Manifesto. The book goes on to argue that this can only be achieved by an alliance between a Labour government and the trade unions. The conclusion is resolute:

‘If the Labour Movement is to be serious in its intent to eliminate low pay it must act as a surgeon rather than a first aid attendant.’ [14]

Faced since 1974 with a Labour Government resolutely set on playing the role of first aid attendant the authors of this pamphlet have walked a tightrope. The nurses in 1974 suffered the first attack in the interests of maintaining the Labour Government and at the May 1975 conference Fisher succeeded in having a motion opposing the Social Contract thrown out. His line of attack was that the existing Social Contract had big faults but ‘we do not need to throw it out of the window. [15] The strategy he advocated was to try to improve the terms of the bargain.

The next round of pay restraint showed the same fighting words and craven deeds. NUPE opposed the £6-limit agreed between the government and the TUC in July 1975 and after the February 1976 White Paper on public spending the EC issued a statement full of dark warnings. This was published as Time to Change Course. After the standard calls for an ‘alternative economic strategy’ the document became positively threatening:

The government must be made to understand that if there is no overall change in the direction of its economic policy an increasing number of trade unionists will question the desirability of continuing involvement in a wages policy that is manifestly weighted against the solution of Britain’s overall economic problems. If government policies create a situation where living standards continue to fall, and where the only way in which trade unions can exert a positive influence is through the collective bargaining process, unions will of necessity have to seek to protect their members’ interests by seeking wage increases at a level above what is acceptable to the Government. [16]

Despite all these fine words, NUPE settled within the £6 limit.

The EC balloted the membership on phase 2 of the incomes policy before the June 1976 Special TUC in the following terms: The Executive Council recognise that the agreement on pay guidelines reached by the TUC General Council and the Government has the support of the majority of TUC affiliated unions and we therefore instruct the Union’s delegation to the special TUC to support that aspect of the General Council’s report. [17]

The result of this loaded question in a branch ballot conducted on the iniquitous block voting system were, out of branches representing 60 per cent of the membership, 73.4 per cent in favour and 26.6 per cent against.

At the September 1976 TUC Conference NUPE organised a mass lobby against the cuts and sponsored a resolution attacking the totally unacceptable’ level of unemployment, but when the seamen voted to take industrial action against the pay policy Fisher lined up with the rest of the TUC General Council to bludgeon them back into line. In February 1977 Fisher was one of those union leaders urging a ‘wait and see’ policy with regard to yet another round of wage restraint, although the agenda for the NUPE Conference in May is packed with resolutions attacking the incomes policy.

NUPE and the fight against the cuts

DESPITE THIS sordid record on wages, NUPE has built its reputation for militancy in another field – the fight against the cuts. However, even this campaign remains firmly at the level of public protests – demonstrations, lobbies, rallies – rather than effective strike action. According to Public Employee:

’On industrial action the EC have told branches that extensive or prolonged all-out strikes could be counter productive by reducing wage costs and thus giving employers the savings in expenditure they are seeking.’ [18]

The alternative is presented as the ‘guerilla tactics’ of selective local stoppages which proved so disastrous during the 1973 ancillaries’ strike.

Where battles have developed – for example the Highland cleaners, the Canterbury dustmen, and East London Hospitals – the NUPE leadership has done little or nothing to publicise or support these strikes.

Once again the main focus has been on a campaign for an ‘alternative economic policy’ and on building up support for a left Labour government necessary to implement this strategy. The NUPE leadership has put a great deal of effort into boosting the union’s affiliated membership to the Labour Party from 150,000 to 400,000 and 500,000 and branches have been circularised on the importance of affiliating to the Constituency Labour Parties. Fisher claimed victory when at the September 1976 Labour Party Conference an anti-cuts resolution was passed overwhelmingly. The Labour government has gone cheerfully on cutting his members to pieces.

Even at the level of ideas, Fisher does not object to the argument underlying the propaganda in favour of the cuts that workers need to be shifted from the public sector to manufacturing industry. He simply claims that with the ‘alternative economic strategy’ there could be more jobs in manufacturing and more and better social services. The subordination of people’s needs to the demands of profit go unchallenged.

The New Reformism

FISHER CAN be said to be one of the leaders of a new reformist current on the British left. The politician most closely identified with it is Tony Benn, its most prominent theoretician is Stuart-Holland and it has influential backers on the new intellectual right wing of the Communist Party (David Purdy, Geoff Roberts, Jon Bloomfield, etc.).

This group differs from the old Broad Left in union like the AUEW in a number of ways. In the first place, the social bases of the two groups are different. The strongholds of the Broad Left have been industrial unions like the AUEW and the NUM. The focus of the hew reformism is among the mass of public sector workers created by the expansion of the welfare state during the boom and now hit by the cuts. Moreover, the two groups’ origins are different. Hugh Scanlon, Jack Jones, Lawrence Daly emerged from the shopfloor as rank-and-file leaders. As we have seen Fisher has spent all his life on N U PE’s payroll. And where the Communist Party was a formative influence even on those Broad Left leaders who later abandoned it, the new reformists owe the CP nothing, although the two groups collaborate closely within the bureaucracy.

Of course, the Broad Left is in disarray as a result of their heroes’ support for wage restraint and the revival of the right wing in the AUEW. The importance of the new reformists for those, like the Communist Party, who base their strategy of shifting the Labour Party left and alliances with left officials is therefore central.

Within NUPE the CP and its allies do not operate as a separate Broad Left grouping fighting for its policies even to the extent that it does within the AUEW. It is completeiy integrated into Fisher’s apparatus. It is estimated that 25 per cent of the full-timers are CP members. Irene Swann, former chairman of the CP Executive Committee, sits on the NUPE Executive as one of the women’s members and chairs the Economic Committee, the kitchen cabinet that runs the union’s policy on wages and the cuts. However, because Fisher does not owe his position and his power to the CP in the way that Bob Wright will if he wins the AUEW presidential election, the muscle the CP can bring to bear within the NUPE bureaucracy is limited.

The rhetoric of the new reformists differs from that of the old Broad Left. For example, a cornerstone of the latter’s programme was opposition to all incomes policies under capitalism. Yet for Fisher and NUPE, their opposition is not to wage restraint as such, but to its implementation in the absence of an ‘alternative economic strategy’. The strategy itself represents a shift. Whereas the old Broad Left stressed .the need to extend nationalisation, their successors concentrate on import controls and state control of investment. Colin Sparks discusses the new reformists’ overall strategy for socialism elsewhere in this issue. It is simply worth noting here the sea change that is taking place within the reformist left in Britain today.

The prominence of Fisher and NUPE today arises from a number of factors. As we have seen, NUPE’s traditions fit it more for a prominent role in the campaign against the cuts than is true of other public sector unions in a situation where the effect of the cuts is to push even traditionally more right-wing unions like NALGO into rhetorical opposition to the government.

But the anti-cuts campaign has also involved a shift within NUPE. Fisher now adopts a much more stridently militant stance than was true a few years ago. The result is to alienate some sections of his traditional supporters – for example, he was shouted down recently at a Newham’s dustmen’s meeting.

In part, this represents a struggle for survival on NUPE’s part. The union has grown very fast in recent years. This growth has taken place particularly among previously unorganised women part-timers. The cuts campaign has been used to recruit: ‘FIGHT THE CUTS – JOIN NUPE’ said stickers on November 17. In order not simply to continue growing, but also to keep membership at its present level, Fisher needs to keep up the momentum of the anti-cuts campaign. Otherwise demoralisation particularly among new members will cut membership drastically as the cuts wipe out their jobs.

Unfortunately, as we have seen, NUPE’s strategy for fighting the cuts does not go beyond pressure politics aimed at forcing the Labour government to the left. Fisher refuses to contemplate concerted strike action against the cuts. His reason for this – the comparative economic weakness of public sector workers – is revealing. An appeal to other sections of workers with greater economic muscle – engineers, miners, electricians, etc. – would mean a policy of all-out opposition to the Social Contract. It would also mean challenging the TUC General Council and its support for the present government’s policies. It would mean taking the fight to Jack Jones’, and Hugh Scanlon’s and Joe Gormley’s, and Frank Chapple’s members. It would mean building a class-wide national rank-and-file movement against the Social Contract.

Of course, Fisher would do nothing of the kind. Apart from the political implications, once you accept the principle of appealing to union members over their leaders’ heads, the same principle can be applied to your own union, and Fisher is not that fond of trade union democracy.

The initiative for the national rank-and-file movement will have to come from revolutionary socialists, not reformists, old or new. However, success in building this movement will require a very positive response to even the very partial initiatives against the cuts made by Fisher and his like. They have already set in motion a movement that brought 80,000 workers onto the streets on November 17. It is up to us to take that movement further than Fisher would like it to go. We will be aided by the tremendous upsurge of rank-and-file militancy against the cuts in recent months. In doing so, there will be much scope for collaboration with Fisher on certain issues, none for reliance on him.


1. W.W. Craik, Bryn Roberts and the National Union of Public Employees, p. 49.

2. Ibid., p. 61.

3. Ibid., pp. 51–210.

4. B. Cryer, A. Fairclough, T. Manson, Organisation and Change in NUPE (1974), p. 16.

5. Craik, op.cit., pp. 70, 210.

6. Cryer et al., op. cit., pp. 22, 29.

7. Ibid., p. 21.

8. Quoted in Hospital Worker, July 1973.

9. Quoted in Hospital Worker, December 1973, which contains the full correspondence, including the DHSS circular.

10. Cryer et al., op. cit., p. 12.

11. Public Employee, No. 5/1976. This is the official union journal.

12. NUPE, Report of the 49th National Conference ..., pp. 90–l.

13. A. Fisher and B. Dix, Low Pay and How to End it (1974). Bernard Dix is the Assistant General Secretary (Research) of NUPE and is credited by many as the brains behind Fisher.

14. Ibid., p. 114.

15. NUPE, Report of the 49th National Conference ..., pp. 229–30.

16. NUPE, Time to Change Course: An Economic Review, p. 15.

17. Quoted in Public Employee, No. 6/76.

18. Public Employee, No. 7/1976.

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