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Steve Jeffreys

Striking into the 80s

Modern British trade unionism, its limits and potential

(Summer 1979)

From International Socialism 2 : 5, Summer 1979.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Part 1: Introduction

By the end of 1974 the full effects of the world oil and currency crises and the related commodity speculation put the survival of British capital in anything like its 1960s condition into question. It was forced to act. Just two and half years later all the gains in workers’ real wages made between 1970 and 1974 had been wiped out; the social wage (public services and amenities) had been cut by a quarter.

The rapidity and seeming ease with which the ‘advances’ of 1969–74 were rolled back has opened up a major debate amongst trade unionists and socialists. Does it mean that the trade unions are now in the pockets of the employers and the Government? Does it mean that the shop stewards have been bought off by ‘participation’ schemes, full-time status and offices? Or were the trade unions and their shop stewards only representing narrow ‘economistic’ interests in 1969–74 anyway, so nothing has really changed? Was the recent strike wave of public sector workers something that reflects a basic sectional syndicalism, a readiness to take action regardless of the consequences on other workers, whose essence is anti-political, anti-socialist? Is it true that the years since 1974 represent a period of ‘downturn’ as a whole? How can the 1978/9 key private sector strikes of Ford workers, tanker drivers and lorry drivers, as well as the national struggles of provincial journalists and bakers be explained?

Three clear positions have been advanced so far: (1) Hobsbawm has argued that there were no ‘advances’ to be wiped out; that the working-class movement has been essentially sectional and ‘economist’ for many years; and that the real advances came to a halt between 1948 and 1953. [1] (2) Gill has argued that real advances were made and indeed continue to be made; that despite the temporary mistake of the Social Contract the movement is becoming more political, not less, and is still shifting to the left. [2] (3) Hyman has argued that the advances were wiped out by the structural incorporation of the shop stewards into close relationships with national trade union officials and management; this occurred because of the shift of authority from the sectional shop steward (‘participatory democracy’) to the plant-wide stewards’ organisation (‘representative democracy’) which allowed the erosion of the rank and file character of job-based trade unionism. [3] Others have suggested an analysis combining elements of both Hobsbawm’s ‘sectionalist’ and Hyman’s ‘bureaucratisation’ theories. [4]

None of these positions, in my opinion, holds water. In particular, none of them help to explain either how or why acquiescence to wage cuts from mid-1975 to early 1977 should have given way to a major wages’ offensive from mid-1977 until May 1979; nor do they really assist an understanding of the relationship between the wages’ struggle and working-class politics.

To fully understand modern British trade unionism, the roles of the bureaucracy and the shop stewards, and its relationship to the political struggle, requires an examination of its origins and its history. I will argue that trade unionism as we know it today was largely formed into its present shape by the experience of World War Two: widespread workplace organisation connected more or less formally to national structures whose officials were closely linked to the State. The material and ideological spur to the formation of both rank and file and bureaucracy was the War and the ‘national interest’.

Why did co-operation with the boss and his State to ‘win the Second World War’ make such a big difference? Nigel Harris describes the key role of war in laying the basis for the shift to ‘national interest corporatism’. [5] Three ideas are crucial here. Firstly, that the ideal form of corporatism is one where there is ‘voluntary’ agreement between workers and their employers on a common goal. Secondly, that nationalism, and especially war, was a crucial means of winning that ‘voluntary unanimity’ between workers and employers such that the working class would ‘overcome’ its ‘sectional’, class interests. And thirdly, that ‘national interest corporatism’ – the identification with the firm and/or nation’s interests – is achieved at a price: workers’ interests must be seen to be ‘taken into account’.

During World War Two ‘national interest corporatism’ was rooted in the factories with the ‘Battle for Production’ and the institutionalisation of workplace-based trade unionism; and at the, same time it became the principal purpose of the trade union bureaucracy. The period since then has witnessed a growing rank and file struggle against the ‘unanimity’ in the workplaces of the workers and their employers. But the expansion of the capitalist system meant that generally this struggle could be contained without coming into direct conflict with the basic ideas and limits of ‘national interest corporatism’. Thus there might be a fight over an extra £2 a week; and the boss might concede an extra day’s holiday as a compromise settlement. But as long as there were still grounds for give and take neither partner talked about divorce. When the economic crisis of British capital got more acute, the ruling class naturally tried to get more out of the ‘marriage’.

Between 1969 and 1974, they attempted to strengthen the ‘unanimity’ by making it less ‘voluntary’ and more ‘compulsory’: neither In Place of Strife nor the Industrial Relations Act were intended to end management-worker cooperation; the ruling class just wanted to stack it in their favour, to make it more reliable. But they failed. Their attempt created instead a more generalised, combative working class consciousness than at any time since the 1920s. In 1975 and 1976 they succeeded in re-establishing ‘voluntary unanimity’, but only temporarily; when the implications for living standards of that ‘unanimity’ coincided with a slight economic upturn, the continuing powerful presence of sectional and workplace-level class organisation reasserted itself. By mid-1979 the economic losses of 1975–76 had virtually been restored.

Job-based working-class organisation remains the major obstacle to ruling class attempts to secure a permanent and substantial transfer of wealth to itself. Thus the new Tory Government is forced to try again to add an element of compulsion to ‘national interest corporatism’. The Tories intend to erode the fighting capacity of the workplace collective through strengthening the involvement of the wider community, the ‘nation’. This is the purpose of their proposals for secret ballots, a weakening of the closed shop and the restriction of the right to picket. The lessons of the past forty years, however, show that whether or not they succeed in giving ‘national interest corporatism’ the force of law, they will not stop the rank and file struggle within and against it.

The rank and file orientation of the Socialist Workers Party (formerly International Socialists) has been proved correct by the real-life struggles of the post-war years. While the CP and left reformists have argued for ‘voluntary corporatism’ and the ‘progressive’ character of state capitalism, we have opposed all forms of corporatism and challenged all forms of capitalism. While the CP and left reformists have seen the trade union bureaucracy and Parliament as the agency and means by which to influence the State, we have argued that the rank and file and the struggle in the workplace are the agency and means of developing working class consciousness and strength and eventually overthrowing the State.

Yet a review of the whole period of modern British trade unionism doesn’t allow us to be complacent, neither in the correctness of our formulations at various times [6] nor in the inevitability of success. At times our rank and file orientation has been viewed too exclusively as meaning rank and file versus trade union bureaucrat. In particular, the politicisation of the wages’ struggle, which we have occasionally assumed was a fairly simple quantity-into-quality relationship, can now be seen to require a continuous workplace-based political struggle. The fight against ‘national interest corporatism’ has to take place all the time.

The danger of playing down the political struggle in the workplace arises from the basic logic of identification with the firm (and/or nation). If you accept that what is ‘possible’ (in terms of wages, working conditions, jobs) is defined by the limits (or profits) of a single capital operating in a world market, then when the limits close in, so does your definition of what is ‘practical’. Sooner or later if the pressure on ‘your’ firm (or ‘your’ nation) gets to crisis point, then the only ‘practical’ course remaining is complete class collaboration. You end up arguing that if the workers were more ‘flexible’ and the employers more ‘rational’ then the limits could be turned back and ‘your’ firm (or nation) would survive. Thus those who operate within ‘national interest corporatism’ can fight hard for wages and conditions while the system is expanding and the limits allow room for rising expectations, and when the system moves into deep crisis, as in 1940–48 and 1974–77, just as easily become advocates of wage restraint and shop-floor co-operation with management.

The notion that workers can only survive if they align themselves with ‘their’ employer (firm or nation state) against other employers and workers cannot, therefore, be challenged by militancy plus reformism. The argument for ‘free collective bargaining’ plus ‘import controls’, ‘state investment in private industry’ (the National Enterprise Board) and ‘planning agreements’, advanced by the left reformists from Tony Benn to Ken Gill and the Communist Party, disarms workers in periods of economic crisis. Reformism without militancy, whether advocated by Communist Party supporters of Hobsbawm like Dave Purdy and Geoff Roberts [7] or by the orthodox Labour right-wing is worse but more obvious. It positively encourages the ruling class to directly attack working-class organisation. And militancy alone, while it tears the veil from the illusion of ‘unanimity’ and helps lay the basis for clearer sight, is also not enough. Without an alternative it eventually turns the struggle back on itself to operate within the limits of the workplace, firm or nation state.

’National interest corporatism’ can only be undermined by a consistent and rigorous fight for ‘internationalism’ – all workers’ interests – and ‘socialism’ – workers’ power. Yes, revolutionaries must support each and every struggle that disputes the ‘unanimity’ of worker-ruling class co-operation. But there can be no postponing of the fight for a revolutionary socialist alternative to some later stage of the class struggle. The odds may be against us, but what we do (and don’t do) also helps to make the future.

Part Two of the article sketches the enormously destabilising forces at work on the working class during the last forty years. Parts three to seven argue that despite the scale of changes the existence of job-based trade union organisation has meant the survival of the British working class as a class-in-itself [8] and as a threat to the interests of British capital. The period since 1939 is divided into five: 1940–45, 1946–68, 1969–74, 1975–76 and 1977–79. Part eight returns to the questions and arguments posed in this Introduction in the light of the historical survey and analysis and draws some conclusions. [9]

Part 2: The working class under an atomiser

The last forty years have seen British capitalism turned inside out and pulled in two different directions at once. The result, not surprisingly, is that it’s still the same animal but it looks strikingly different.

Until 1939 the State was a minor employer of labour and a mere dabbler in the process of trying to control economic life. The Bank of England and virtually the whole of industry and commerce were in the hands of private capitalists. Within ten years, the coal, electricity, gas, and railway industries as well as the Bank of England had been nationalised: some 20% of the economy was under State ownership. [10] Today the State owns much much more: the British motor industry, steel, shipbuilding, aerospace, to name a few. And the State, rather than the ‘workings of the market’, is the principal means by which the capitalist class attempt to regulate the economy.

This development, from private capitalists directly running the economy to them running it indirectly through the State machine, was a response to the relative decline of British capitalism. Private capitalism failed to restructure and re-organise itself rapidly enough in the post-War period in Britain to retain its dominant international position for very long. From the mid-1950s as the economies of Germany, France, and then Italy and Japan, began to recover from the devastation of defeat and occupation, Britain’s major industries – textiles, engineering, vehicles, shipbuilding – increasingly lost out. The State stepped in, but as the recurring series of balance-of-payments crises showed in the 1950s and 1960s, British capitalism generally continued to look and feel hung-over.

This relative decline took place, however, during the longest-ever period of economic expansion of the world capitalist system. Against the background of this growth British capitalism expanded absolutely, though at a slower rate than the rest of the world. Thus despite the relative decline there were more goods and services available in Britain, virtually year after year, from 1950 until 1975. [11]

The threefold combination of a major advance of State capitalism, a relative economic decline making itself felt especially strongly in certain sectors of the economy, and absolute expansion giving cause for rising expectations had a major impact on both the capitalist and the working class. But the effect on the large, overwhelmingly manual working class and its internal status divisions (skilled to unskilled), was like an atomiser. Almost everything changed: the industries you worked in; the jobs you did; who worked alongside you; where you lived; how you lived; and what you thought about it all.

For about one hundred years before World War Two British capitalism meant a working class based in textiles, mining, steel, shipbuilding, the railways and engineering. All except the last went into sharp decline from the mid-1950s. Sixty out of every thousand workers were in textiles in 1936; by 1976 this number had fallen to twenty-three. Forty-nine out of every thousand were miners in 1936; forty years later the figure was only 15. The chances were that in the 1960s and 1970s workers would not be employed in the same industries as their parents had worked in the 1930s and 1940s. Workers were much more likely to be employed in the education and medical service sector, in insurance, banking, finance and other business services, or in the newer manufacturing industries like electrical engineering and motor vehicles; often in a significantly different workplace environment from the grimy engineering shed of the days before 1939. Table One shows the extent of this shift:

Table One:
Structural change in the labour force since World War Two


of employees
in employment



Mining, quarrying, metal manufacture, shipbuilding,
mechanical engineering, textiles, railways



Electrical engineering, motor vehicles, tractors
and cycles, aircraft manufacture



Business services, distribution



Education, medical and dental, local and
national government services



This structural change inevitably meant a shift away from the heavy slog with your hands and arms that characterised most working class jobs before the War. During the fifty years from 1911 to 1961 the numbers of white collar workers rose by 147%, while the numbers of manual workers rose by just 2%. By 1961 manual workers had declined from 75% to 59% of the total workforce, while white collar workers had improved their position from 19% to 36%. [13] But this process also occurred within the manufacturing sector itself, especially the ‘newer’ industries, and affected both men and women, as Table Two shows:

Table Two:
The rise of white collar workers in manufacturing since World War Two


Administrative, technical and clerical
workers as a percentage of the total
male and female workforces







Metal manufacture:















Chemicals and Allied Industries:





Total: All Manufacturing:





Within the manual working class, however, many of the old divisions based on the great gulf between the skilled (male) aristocrat of labour and the rest also crumbled. Thus not only was there an increasing number of white collar workers (similarly divided into skilled – professional, semi-skilled – technical and unskilled – clerical) above the manual craftsman, but the continued division of labour within the factories and the development of production methods which eliminated the dominance of the craftsman worker, also hammered away at the ‘old’ working class. This was particularly true of the ‘newer’ manufacturing industries. As labour generally became less skilled and less specialised to a particular industry, it became much more possible to move between jobs and industries. The skilled craftsman with his status and five or seven year apprenticeship looked increasingly like a spent force.

One of the most important factors challenging the dominance of the old aristocracy of labour within the working class is the increasing proportion of women workers in the labour force. In the 1920s women made up just 29% of the total labour force, and a third of all working women were employed in personal service. In 1948 they were 32.9% of the total work force; in 1956, 34.4%; in 1966, 36.1%; and in 1976, 40.6%. [14]

Another factor dislodging the archetypal white, skilled, male, manual worker from his dominance has been the immigration of Black and Asian workers since the 1950s. By 1974 there were nearly 1.6m ‘racial minority’ immigrants in Britain, making up nearly 3% of the total population. Today, they make up some 10% of the economically active workforce. 47% of these ‘minority’ workers are employed in manufacturing industries as compared to one third of the general white population. But immigration has not only changed the colour of one in ten workers; it has also given post-war nationalism (anti-German, anti-American, anti-foreigner) among the whole working class a more or less conscious racialist flavour.

Under all these pressures it is not really surprising that the kind of working class consciousness formed and articulated by skilled male manual workers in heavy industry against a background of real mass physical poverty should also undergo major changes. One expression of this has been the declining support for the traditional workers’ party, the Labour Party. Since the peak of 1951 (14m votes and 49% of the poll) Labour’s electoral performance has declined pretty consistently through to 1979, when it recorded a share of the poll of 37.9% (the lowest since 1931). Individual Labour Party membership has gone the same way, from a peak of one million in 1952 down to around 600,000 in the mid-1960s when the figures become meaningless. Probably today there are only around 300,000 actual Labour Party card-holders of whom perhaps about 30,000 are at all active. [15] It has also been the case that the Labour Party itself has been transformed, especially by the three post-war governments. In 1931, for example, the vast majority of Labour supporters had rejected a ‘national Government’. But in 1940 the Labour Party entered one; and by the mid-1970s Labour had become the party which stood for the ‘national interest’. Small wonder, then, that one-third of trade unionists should have voted Tory in 1979 preferring the ‘true blue’ national interest to Labour’s more cautious variety.

Yet despite the frequent pronouncements in the 1950s and early 1960s that ‘class is dead’ and ‘we’re all middle class now’, few today seriously challenge the idea that the working class is still here. The sense of ‘us’ against ‘them’ continues to dominate how people work, live, think and act. Indeed, far from disappearing as more workers wore white instead of blue collars, and as more women and blacks entered the labour force, it appears to have infected them too. Given the force of the atomising process sketched in above, the most surprising thing today is not the undoubted fragmentation, sectionalism and separateness of the varied parts of the working class. What is surprising is the continuity, resilience and relative homogeneity of the working class. To understand this we have to examine what has happened to working class organisation since the outbreak of World War Two.

The trade unions limped into the Second World War as national structures whose membership had risen from 1933 largely as a result of the improved employment situation. At the national level the trade union full-time officials had virtually no political influence of any kind; at the local level the geographical branch or District Committee ruled the roost; workshop organisation was very patchy and where it did exist was still weak; white collar and women workers were overwhelmingly non-union, as were most workers for local and national government. Union members only made up around 30% of the total working population in 1938.

After World War Two, trade union density of around 45% was maintained for twenty years before rising decisively to over 50% in the early 1970s. As Table 3 shows, this development was in sharp contrast to the experience of the United States, the only other major capitalist economy which escaped both fascism and wartime occupation:

Table Three:
Trade Union density in the US and the UK since World War Two





Total trade

% of

Total trade

% of






























If the agricultural sector is excluded from the American statistics, the fall in trade union density there is even more marked: from 33.2% in 1955 to 24.5% in 1976. It was during the Second World War and again from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s that the trends in the two countries diverged. Trade unionism in Britain emerged from World War Two sufficiently widely-based to maintain itself as a dominant feature of manual industrial life; and in the growing crisis of the 1960s and 1970s white collar workers, women workers and immigrant workers all turned to trade union organisation as the only available means of defending their interests. In 1964 only 26% of workers in the TUC were white-collar workers; by 1974 the figure was 36%. In 1966 only 26% of working women were trade unionists; by 1976 this figure was 39%.

The opinions and activities of trade unionists at national and local level are now central to the concerns of the ruling class; the geographical branch or District structure has less and less influence; and workplace-based organisation (with elected workshop or office representatives) is nearly universal and highly institutionalised. It has been the survival and extension of this workplace-based organisation that has enabled the manual working class to retain its sense of common identity and to lock white collar workers into the same reaction.

To understand the dramatic change in the fortunes of trade unionism from its pre-War state to the present day it is necessary to examine briefly the history of the last forty years and in particular two absolutely critical periods, 1940–45 and 1969–74.

Part 3: 1940–45 – The origins of modern trade unionism

The arrival of full employment for the first time ever in the history of British capitalism was quite dramatic. The unemployment rate amongst insured workers fell from 9.3% in 1939 to 0.5%, its all-time low of just 63,000 in July 1944. Similarly, women were drafted into the labour force in massive numbers and nurseries and creches were provided because the British capitalist class was fighting for its survival.

The same motive determined the ruling class approach to the trade unions. Rebuilding the shattered trade unions after the defeat of 1926 and the slump of 1931/3 had been hard. The 1927/28 Mond-Turner talks between a progressive section of employers and the TUC had not survived the slump and the employers’ realisation that unemployment rates over 20% were more effective at disciplining workers than the TUC. In 1935–36, as trade union membership began to recover, half of the rising number of strikes (553 in 1935; 818 in 1936) were made official. [17]

The Second World War permanently altered the relationship between the national officials of the trade unions and the employers. [18] It replaced conflict by co-operation. In March 1940, Sir Walter Citrine, TUC General Secretary revealed how grateful the trade union bureaucracy was at the changed climate. ‘Today,’ he said, ‘the fullest recognition is being given by the Government of the necessity for equality of status of the trade union movement with the employers. We have established, I think for the first time, a recognition from the Government which will be very useful in the post-war period.’ [19]

Two months later Churchill replaced the discredited Chamberlain as Prime Minister. He appointed Ernest Bevin, the TGWU General Secretary, as Minister of Labour in the Wartime Coalition Government. His appointment shifted the balance between the trade unions, the State and the employers in the management of the economy towards an institutionalised recognition of the ‘trade union interest’. Bevin thus resisted pressure from some employers for a wartime wage freeze, instead securing TUC agreement for compulsory arbitration in the event of failure to agree and for making strikes and lockouts illegal. In order to prevent workers pushing up wage rates by leaving their jobs for better-paid ones nearby, Bevin introduced in March 1941 a measure which would have a profound effect on the level of trade union membership: the Essential Work Order (EWO). This Order could be applied for by employers in war-linked industries and when granted would mean that workers could not voluntarily leave their jobs; but neither could they be sacked. The EWO removed the fear of victimisation for union activities for the duration of the war, and trade union membership boomed from 6.3 million in 1939 to 7.8 million in 1945. Collaboration at the top flourished during the Second World War: by 1943 there were 212 standing national Joint Industrial Councils and Committees in existence, usually involving full-time officials and employers.

But the ruling class required more than the support of some thousand full-time officials, whose headquarters were often seriously out of touch with the members. On December 21, 1940, Bevin called for regular discussions between management and workers’ representatives in all industrial establishments. Throughout 1941 negotiations went on as to how these should be formalised. A decisive turning point in the protracted talks was the invasion of Russia by German troops on June 21, 1941. For from that moment on the Communist Party’s significant influence within the trade union movement was thrown behind Bevin’s proposal. Eventually a TUC Conference of engineering trade unions held in January 1942 launched a drive for the Joint Production Committee (JPC), a proposal agreed to by the Engineering Employers’ Federation soon afterwards.

Even more than the Essential Work Orders, the JPCs were to have a considerable long-term effect on the form and content of trade union organisation in Britain. They were rooted within the limits of a particular factory. Usually they were established by agreement (however slow in coming) with the management. The trade union side was elected by ballot of the entire manual workforce. Candidates had to be trade unionists and to have been in the factory for two years. They thus tended to be male and skilled. In most cases they were either the shop stewards or senior stewards. [20] They thus enhanced the prestige and role of the existing shop steward and positively encouraged the election of shop stewards in those factories where they hadn’t previously existed. It was not only the trade union activist who was keen to represent his or her fellow workers; management were also anxious to open a dialogue with workers who would help the ‘battle for production’. [21]

The JPCs were organised as the wartime expression of ‘voluntary unanimity’ between all the workers inside the plant and ‘their employer and ‘their’ country. Table Four illustrates what the JCPs discussed and reveals quite how far ‘worker-management co-operation’ went:

Table Four:
A breakdown of the subjects discussed at two JPC meetings in each
of 63 firms coming under the Ministry of Aircraft Production



% of

Technical questions






Labour supply



Supply of equipment, components etc.



Progress reports



Fuel economy and scrap drives



Specific ‘bottle-necks’



Total: Technical and production















Total: Welfare and Personnel



Production committee machinery






Grand Total



The JCPs were thus a central part of ‘national interest corporatism’ at the level of the individual factory. And they were very widely spread indeed. By June 1944 over 4,500 JPCs had been set up covering 3½ million workers in factories throughout Britain. Many of them were totally ineffective, but in all the major manufacturing centres the JPCs formalised the institution of shop-floor trade unionism over three or four years.

Despite the protests of the TUC, the employers saw them as a peace-time challenge to management’s prerogatives and speedily dismantled the JPC machinery after the end of the War. But they found they could not as easily dismantle the prestige and acceptance of shop-floor trade unionism. Shop stewards’ committees (themselves strengthened during the war by union recruitment and the additional facilities given to JPC trade unionists) took over from the JPCs as the factory-wide form of trade union organisation. Reluctantly in some instances, as at Fords where it took a strike in March 1946 to win recognition of ‘the 75’ shop stewards; more enthusiastically elsewhere, the ruling class came to terms with the permanence of the shop stewards’ committee. In engineering, shipbuilding and the aircraft industry, shop stewards’ organisation had arrived for good. In these industries, and increasingly outside them as well, the centre of trade union life which formerly lay in the geographical branches shifted to the workplace.

The Second World War thus saw the development of shop stewards’ organisation in quite a different way from the birth of the shop stewards’ movement during the First World War. The Clyde Workers Committee had been made up of individual shop stewards who voluntarily decided to attend the Saturday afternoon meetings. Harry McShane describes what they were like:

‘It was a very open meeting all about industrial questions and action in the workshops, and everyone put forth their own point of view. It was a strange looking meeting, too – a couple of hundred engineering shop stewards, all with their bowler hats, blue suits and rolled umbrellas, discussing the next policy to pursue.’ (my emphasis) [23]

Shop stewards turned up if they felt like it; they were not delegated to attend from the workshops. They believed in active workshop committees but these only existed in a minority of factories.

The Shop Stewards’ Movement of the First World War was a self-selecting, loose movement of the vanguard of the class. It was a rank and file movement, it was made up of workers from the factories; but it did not represent the whole class: whole areas were missing (in Glasgow, for example, the shipyards). It was a movement and not an organisation, its influence rose and fell according to the immediacy of the issue it was taking to the workshops. But it was a movement which aimed at generalising sectional and class issues between the workshops. Its limits were not set by the factory walls of Weirs, Cathcart; its purpose was to arouse workers to see further than the workshop. It helped to generalise resentment against the employers (the 1915 ‘Tuppence or Nothing’ strike), against the landlords (the 1915 rent strike plus stoppages) and against the Government (the campaign against dilution in 1915/16, and belatedly against the War in 1918). Effectively, it represented rank and file leaders within the working class who opposed ‘unanimity’ with the employers and who politically opposed ‘national interest corporatism’, the identification with the firm or the nation. The first shop stewards’ movement thereby helped provide revolutionaries in Britain with a strategy for overcoming the divide between the ‘political’ and the ‘syndicalist’ wings of the working class. The answer was to build a leadership movement, rooted in the workshops, so that industrial action and socialist politics would not be separated.

The workshop Joint Production Committees of the Second World War were totally different. What emerged from World War Two was not a ‘movement’ bridging factories with class objectives going beyond the limits of workers’ particular factory walls. Nor was it a ‘movement’ which embraced the vanguard of the working class with (however hazy) an ideology of opposition to the employing, class, its ‘national interest’, and a healthy suspicion of the full-time officials. For most of the post-war years the existence of factory-by-factory groups of elected trade union activists posed absolutely no serious challenge at all to the position of the ruling class.

The Communist party after June 21, 1941, intended differently. It saw the functions of JPCs as ‘not only to increase production but as organs for increasing power and control by the workforce over production in forms separate from the collective bargaining process’. [24] Undoubtedly, as the largest, best-organised group of socialists within the trade unions, its strategy played a significant part in determining the eventual outcome.

Between November 1939 and the entry of Russia into the war, the CP’s approach had been very different. After June 21, 1941, however, the whole earlier strategy of aiming to build a ‘Shop Stewards’ Movement’ was shelved. The ‘Battle for Production’ became the test of a workers’ class consciousness. An early study of strikes and industrial relations during this time points out that the CP threw its full weight behind the JPCs ‘instead of fostering the activity of such “independent” bodies as the pre-war Aircraft Shop Stewards’ Council’. [25]

Although some individual CP members took part in strikes during the war and continued to see their first commitment being to the class struggle, the CP’s national policy was absolutely clear. Its cornerstone was ‘unity – of the people at the level of the nation, of the working class in the labour movement, of the left and other progressive forces on the political terrain’. [26] In practice this meant total backing for the JPCs and fierce opposition to all strikes. In May 1942 Harry Pollit, CP General Secretary, told a national CP Conference:

‘I salute our comrade, a docker from Hull. When the rest of the dockers struck work, he fought against it ... What courage, what sacred spirit of real class consciousness to walk on the ship’s gangway and resume his job.’ [27]

In October when 40,000 Tyneside engineers struck over a change in their method of payment, the CP circulated a bulletin to its members instructing, At every yard meeting our comrades should take part and forcefully put the case for a return to work, announce their own intention of going in and appeal to the workers to follow them’. [28]

Thus the strongest factory-based party of socialists at the time, far from challenging the process of identification with the firm and the nation, were some of its principal advocates. Despite their avowed intentions they assisted in narrowing down the horizons of militants and in fostering nationalism within the working class.

The shop stewards’ organisations that emerged from the Second World War reflected these politics. They were also identical with the views of the full-time officials. But the institutionalisation of shop floor trade unionism also gave it a greater independence from the trade union officials than it had possessed previously. Since then workplace and job-based organisation has been viewed as a kind of inalienable ‘national right’. It is seen as the means by which workers can guarantee that their interests are ‘taken account of. And it has spread and taken hold wherever workers hold trade union cards.

Part 4: 1945–68 – Getting dug in

The ruling class awoke in the 1960s to the chilly realisation that the price of rank and file collaboration in production drives during the Second World War had been the implantation of workplace-based union organisation in their factories. Dealing with 2,800 full-time officials was one thing. But with 200,000 shop stewards organised in plant committees was something different altogether; especially as the trade union bureaucracy had remarkably little control over the rank and file.

For most of the twenty years after 1945, the fact that this organisation reinforced class attitudes within the workplace and that it institutionalised a defence of workers’ interests, was barely perceived. As long as economic expansion took place then ‘voluntary agreement’ between workers and employer could be reached quite speedily. Strikes were very short and small. There was no need for making bridges between factories. A compromise could always be made with ‘your’ boss. There were less than five national strikes in twenty-five years. From 1950 until 1968 there was on average only five strikes each year in which 50,000 days or more were lost. So long as ‘unanimity’ prevailed, trade unionism stagnated: trade union density actually declined up to 1966. It was only during the 1960s as economic expansion slowed down that shop stewards’ organisation became a problem, something the ruling class realised had to be studied and then grappled with.


The years of the Atlee Labour Government continued the close collaboration between the trade union bureaucracy and the State while the pressure of post-war ‘national recovery’ bore just as strongly on the rank and file. Not one single strike was made official. And there were even fewer days lost in strike action, and fewer workers involved in strikes, than in the war years of 1940–45. This was only partly because of the role of the trade union leaders.

The 1947 TUC Congress Report led the retreat into a voluntary wage freeze in Churchillian terms: ‘The Trade Union Movement, like the nation of which it is a part, has never failed to rise to an emergency. The emergency is here.’ [29] Six months later a Special Conference of union executives endorsed by 5,421,000 votes to 2,032,000 a TUC General Council ‘Interim Report on the Economic Situation’ (a balance of payments crisis) which effectively meant a rigid pay freeze. It was not until TUC Congress in September 1950 that support for wage restraint was finally rejected (by a narrow 200,000 majority); by then the TUC support for the National Arbitration Order making strikes illegal had lasted ten years, and real living standards had been held down since the war ended.

The other main reason for the lack of resistance to the significant cut in the workers’ share of the national product which occurred between 1945 and 1950 was political. There was a feeling amongst workers that Labour had kept its side of the 1945 electoral contract; by formally honouring most of its promises. The National Health Service was set up; compulsory universal education was extended; coal, electricity, gas, road transport, and the railways, one fifth of the economy, were all nationalised. Reformism appeared to have worked. The system seemed less arbitrary, more rational and less a plaything of the rich than before the war. Despite the continuing economic hardship, labourism had been a success. [30]


The return of the Tories in 1951 did little at first to alter the complacency of the trade union leaders. The philosophy of Arthur Deakin, who led the Transport and General Workers’ Union, dominated the TUC. He was most vehemently opposed to any form of industrial action which might be effective. In 1954 he told Irish trade unionists, ‘(we must) realise as a Trade Union Movement that we have got a social responsibility to the community at large. I would say that it should not be the policy or within the grasp of any single trade union or group of trade unionists having a privileged position to pursue policies to the disadvantage of the interests of the community.’ [31] But in the mid-1950s, the erosion of Britain’s economically privileged post-war position began, and Deakin died – appropriately enough on May Day 1955.

Within the ruling class the inadequacies of the private market as a means of regulating economic life were rammed home by the balance-of-payments crises of 1957 and 1961 when the Government imposed ‘pay pauses’ in the public sector. The ‘state-control corporatists’ within the Tory Party gradually took over from the ‘market-control corporatists’ [32] as the 1950s ended and the 1960s began. In 1962, Selwyn Lloyd, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, set up the National Economic Development Council (Neddy), a national planning mechanism involving trade union leaders, employers’ representatives and the Government. The State increasingly intervened in industrial life.

The trade union bureaucracy was under pressure to prove it still represented a vital interest that had to be ‘taken into account’. In 1957 and 1962 the AEU sanctioned official action against the Engineering Employers’ Federation; in 1958, the new General Secretary of the TGWU, Frank Cousins (who had emerged fortuitously after Deakin’s chosen successor had died within a year), led the London busmen to defeat. But the main development that occurred from the middle-1950s, as the trade union bureaucracy got more and more entangled with the interventionist State, was for the initiative for wage rises to pass to the rank and file. [33] Increasingly, the shop stewards’ organisations used their workplace muscle to push wage rates up. ‘Wage drift’, the locally-negotiated icing on top of the nationally-negotiated wages cake, rose from 19% of engineering workers’ earnings in 1948 to 26% by 1959. Between 1958 and 1963 there were more, larger, shorter strikes, as Table five shows:

Table 5:
Strikes 1934–68
Annual averages for six year periods*








Number of stoppages







Workers involved per strike







Days lost per strike







*1964–68 = average for a five year period

By the mid-1950s rising expectations and the lesser credibility of the Tory Government as carrier of the ‘national interest’ meant that workers began to fight more over the price of ‘unanimity’ in the workplace.


The election of the Wilson Labour Government was welcomed by more far-sighted sections of the ruling class. They had come to realise that to carry through the reorganisation of British capitalism at all levels now required a Government absolutely committed to State management of the economy and capable of securing trade union support. Working-class ‘apathy’, much decried on the left during the 1950s, had been a response to steadily rising living standards which appeared to deny the need for collective public action. But it had even weakened the appeal for collective sacrifices to be made in the ‘national interest’. While it was privatising workers it was also pushing them into larger and larger working units. This was the case throughout manufacturing industry. For instance 45% of carworkers were in factories of more than 2,000 workers in 1951. Ten years later this figure was 60%. While 1950s capitalism was preaching ‘look after yourself’ more and more shop stewards organisations were taking its words at face value. A new Labour Government, believed sections of the ruling class, might help re-establish control by the trade union leaders over this rank and file, might restore some of the discipline to industrial relations that had been shown to work from 1945-51. Thus under the 1964-70 Labour Government the argument was widely advanced that it was trade union pressure which was primarily responsible for the poor relative performance of British capitalism. [34]

In December 1964 George Brown heralded the ‘Statement of Intent’ between the TUC, Confederation of British Industries and the Government as a new dawn in industrial relations. But although, as Table 5 above shows, the level of struggle was lower between 1964 and 1968 than in the previous six years, the dawn never came. Agreement at the top was not worth the paper it was written on unless it was translated into action in the workplaces. The TUC’s own wage vetting machinery, set up in 1965 to counter Government pressure to give its 3–3½% ‘norm’ the force of law, was a joke. The TUC Incomes Policy Committee met only once a month and was often reduced to endorsing wage claims at the rate of 50 an hour. [35] The Labour Government therefore appointed the Donovan Commission in 1965 to inquire into the unions to see what could be done to bridge the gap.

Then, in May 1966, Harold Wilson turned to direct confrontation, taking on the low paid, weak National Union of Seamen in its first-ever national strike; using the full panoply of TV, red-baiting and so on. One month later, under pressure of a new balance-of-payments crisis, the Labour Government imposed a six months’ total pay freeze. It was followed by statutory powers to delay wage rises for up to 7 months. The pretence of ‘voluntary unanimity’ was abruptly shattered. To challenge that was not merely to challenge ‘your’ employer; it would be to take on a Government which had just viciously defeated the Seamen. The measures were highly effective in holding wages down throughout the 18 months to two years from July 1966.

The TUC was upset but not surprised by the turn to compulsion. In September 1966 the TUC Congress voted narrowly to support the Pay Freeze (by 4,540,000 votes to 4,220,000). Frank Cousins’ resignation from the Government in protest at the Freeze had legitimised a wide verbal protest behind the TGWU block vote. However, without even formal opposition from the TUC to the Freeze the rank and file response was, predictably, to pull in its horns (especially as unemployment in the motor industry rose sharply in the winter of 1966–7). Table Six shows that the fall in the number of strikes, workers involved and days lost in 1966 and 1967 compared to 1961–65 was dramatic. (A comparison with the next Labour Government’s pay freeze shows a remarkably similar effect. [36])

Table Six:
The effect of the 1966/67 pay policy on strikes


Annual average

Percentage fall
1961–65 to



Number of stoppages




Number of workers involved (000s)




Working days lost:


(a) All industries and services (000s)




(b) Metals, engineering, shipbuilding
      and vehicles (000s)




As the difficulties in holding the wages’ dam grew in 1967, a press-inspired ‘I’m Backing Britain’ campaign erupted. Tales of workers turning up early and staying late to work unpaid overtime, of workers declining wage rises and so on, filled the popular press. However, the more serious section of the ruling class was examining the evidence researched and submitted to the Donovan Royal Commission on the trade unions. It wanted a longer-term solution than either a temporary propaganda barrage or the inflexibility of a pay freeze could sustain. At the beginning of the 1960s many employers had hoped that long-term American-style wage contracts with built-in cost-of-living clauses would stabilise the wages struggle. When the 3-year ‘package deal’ in engineering brought 3 million workers to join the existing 2½ million on the schemes in 1965 it looked as if this might be the answer. But the strength of workplace-based organisation either used the national agreement as a stepping-stone or erupted because the national deals were too low. The pay freeze in 1966–67 also played its part, for what kind of agreement could be reached if the employer turned round later and said he couldn’t pay? The Donovan Commission put shop stewards under a microscope. More research was done between 1965 and 1968 into how they work, think and act than ever before. Their results were relatively perceptive: shop stewards were not any more ‘militant’ than other workers [37]; stewards tended to be older and have worked longer for the same firm than most workers [38]; nearly three-quarters were unopposed on taking office; but two-thirds had to go through some form of regular re-election process [39]; there were an estimated 1,750 full-time shop stewards in 1966; and some 60% of personnel officers and works managers thought that senior shop stewards were ‘easier to deal with’ than ordinary shop stewards. [40] The final majority Donovan Report therefore argued that ‘voluntary unanimity’, the co-operation of workers and management, could be strengthened by giving greater responsibility to the senior stewards while at the same time increasing the workforce’s identification with ‘their’ factory. Specifically, Donovan (1) opposed both ‘national’ industry-level and ‘sectional’ factory-level bargaining; instead Donovan wanted ‘middle-level’ bargaining, (‘below the level of the industry, but above the shop floor’), factory-wide or company-wide agreements on wages negotiated by full-time officials and senior stewards; (2) wanted more written ‘formal’ agreements and procedures to slow down the reactions of the workers; and (3) wanted negotiations to be widened to include new methods of work.

Yet even while the ink was drying on this sophisticated rewriting of the ‘marriage contract’ between workers and employers, the deepening crisis of British capitalism was demanding quicker solutions. The economist Andrew Schonfield, for example, penned a dissenting note to Donovan arguing for ‘legally binding agreements’, for legal curbs on ‘restrictive practices’, and for restrictions on the right to strike in certain public services.

But the 1960s also witnessed rising frustration amongst a minority of shop stewards. While Donovan’s researchers had described the ‘average’ shop steward, there also existed the exception. And as the State intervened more and more the ‘exceptions’ began to articulate their opposition more loudly. In the AEU, one of the only two trade unions at the time which allowed the election of all full-time officials, the anger was directed against the extreme right-wing Carron leadership. This had substantially cut itself off from the rank and file in a series of vicious attacks. [41] And it was a union in which the CP was traditionally strong. The CP’s change of strategy from 1961 [42] to building a ‘Broad Left’ electoral machine fitted. A series of left successes in branch ballots of the activists led up to the election of Hugh Scanlon as President of the AEU in 1967. [43]

How far Scanlon’s victory reflected a general change in mood in the class as a whole can be questioned. The election of Jack Jones as TGWU General Secretary a year later didn’t prove anything: he was Frank Cousins’ chosen successor. In 1966, the Shop Stewards’ Defence Committee launched by the militant ENV shop stewards’ committee, had been short-lived; ENV itself was closed down without a fight over the next year. In 1967 the building firm Mytons and the leaders of the building unions put signed advertisements appealing for scabs to work on the strike-hit Barbican site ... and got them. [44] But certainly, Scanlon’s election did strengthen the confidence of the minority of shop stewards and AEU activists who had campaigned for it. They had seen their union leaders capitulate to compulsion and their expectations of rising living standards screwed down: real take-home pay for manual workers only increased by an average of 1% per year from 1964–69 compared with 1.9% from 1959–64.

At the same time, the total number of workers in metal manufacture, shipbuilding, mechanical and electrical engineering, motor vehicles and aircraft manufacture in the mid-1960s was still 7 per cent greater than ten years earlier (and 15 per cent greater than ten years later). There was no real sense that the balance of forces inside the factories had shifted in the employers’ favour. Workers were therefore ready to follow the lead of those who argued that there was still room for ‘reforms’, that the limits of what was ‘practical’ were not drawn as tightly around the working class as the Labour Government and the right-wingers were saying.

This was not merely an abstract argument. Throughout the 1960s a trickle of major productivity deals turned into a flood as the idea that the limits around a particular firm or factory could be pushed back on certain conditions caught on. The rhetoric of the trade union lefts was very much in these terms – ‘for a high wage, high productivity economy’ – and the association of Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones with the Institute for Workers’ Control gave the notion of shop stewards’ involvement in plant-wide negotiations on productivity the spurious cover of ‘industrial democracy’. By 1969 a quarter of all workers in Britain (5 million manual and one million white-collar workers) were covered by wide-ranging, formal, written agreements [45] Yet the principle of management-worker cooperation in this way had not been raised once, the CP, still the strongest working-class party in the trade unions, did not fight it at all. In 1960, Frank Foulkes, then CP President of the ETU, had signed the first such ‘prod deal’, at Fawley. In 1968 one of Hugh Scanlon’s first acts as President of the AEU was to oppose the wishes of the AEU members and shop stewards at Rootes, Linwood (now Chrysler) and accepted Measured Day Work.

Thus Donovan’s desire to get away from the ‘anarchy’ of sectional piece-work bargaining struggles to more ‘rational’ plant-wide deals meshed in with the rise of the left within national trade union circles and its stress on the need for ‘voluntary unanimity’. Two major developments resulted: firstly, greater management control of the work process. Manning levels became subjected to the stop-watch; in the motor industry the old Payment-by-Results piece-work system was eliminated and replaced by Measured Day Work – a regular hourly rate of pay for an amount of work determined by management; job mobility between workers in the same grade and even between different grades became commonplace; resistance to new machinery and working techniques was largely eradicated. And all of this (and more) was assisted by the shop stewards. A Government study of The Reform of Collective Bargaining at Plant and Company Level in 1971 found, ‘In all cases the major responsibility on the union side in the operation of plant agreements fell to shop stewards, whose role in factory industrial relations became enlarged. This particularly applied to senior lay officials, who found it necessary in the interests of consistency in negotiations with management to assume a stronger factory coordinating role than in the past.’ [46]

But in this ‘stronger factory co-ordinating role’ came the second key development of the 1960s: the shop stewards’ committee gradually changed from being a federal committee of independent units to a centralised factory wide leadership. This process did not, however, lead to the disappearance of the sectional shop steward, for as the first Donovan Research Paper pointed out, ‘where – overtime and upgrading apart – stewards found that their opportunities for influencing management were still largely confined to various non-monetary issues, they could still maintain the element of a negotiating opposition and find plenty of things to do ... Here, bargaining largely revolved around such questions as the distribution and pace of work, the provision of clothing, working conditions and the administration and enforcement of discipline.’ [47]

Nor did the centralised stewards’ committee lead to the elimination of wage drift; paradoxically, while the confidence of workers was high, plant-wide bargaining allowed bigger claims to be gone for. The shift to plant bargaining during the 1960s opened up still wider the gap between national wage rates and actual earnings: from 0.8% of basic wage rates in 1958–63 to 1.1% in 1964–68, and to 1.25% in 1969–74. In future, when plant-wide organisation came into conflict with the employer (or the State), it would make more noise than during the days when action only took place on a sectional basis. [48]

By the end of the 1960s, ‘national interest corporatism’ was still alive and kicking: a material identification with the firm/factory was probably stronger than ten years earlier. But workplace-based trade union organisation was in many ways stronger too, and just as intent to make sure its interests were ‘taken into account’. And to do that meant opposing ‘compulsion’ in workplace industrial relations.

Part Five: 1969–74 – Breaking out?

The growing economic problems that forced the Labour Government to devalue the pound in 1967 appeared to both ruling class and Labour Government as a new form of ‘national crisis’. Yet the working class did not seem to be aware of it. In October and December 1967 Harold Wilson intervened personally to try and mediate in the Liverpool docks and a threatened ASLEF strike. Through 1968 the numbers of workers taking strike action rose from around 50,000 a month to around 75,000 a month; in the industries in which shop stewards’ organisation was strongest, metal manufacture, engineering, shipbuilding and vehicles, the numbers of days lost in strikes rose from around 135,000 a month to nearly 200,000 a month. 1969 opened the same way, but from the new higher level. The strikes at GKN Sankeys and Girlings in particular sent shudders through the Labour Government. They proved that unofficial action in one part of an industry like the motor industry with its highly interdependent processes could have a national impact. Donovan increasingly looked like old hat. More immediate action was needed.

The years from 1969 to 1974 were thus a second critical period for modern British trade unionism. They were years in which the ruling class attempted to strengthen the force of ‘national interest corporatism’ by bringing legal ‘compulsion’ into aspects of worker-management relations. Frightened by the industrial strength of a small minority of workers, they launched a general offensive: their aim was twofold – to shift authority within the trade unions away from the rank and file and into the hands of the bureaucracy; and to limit by law the kind of things trade unionists could do, like break their contact of employment, picket another factory or insist on a closed shop.

Yet their attack drew a working class response of a depth and political character unprecedented since the 1920s. For a time the Chinese Wall between economic and political industrial action was placed under siege. Fragmentation and sectionalism co-existed alongside solidarity. Working class consciousness emerged among an active minority of workers with a political radicalism it had not possessed for two generations. Trade union consciousness spread rapidly amongst groups of workers it had never touched before. There was an explosion of strike activity as Table 7 shows: strikes were bigger, they were longer and there were more of them than at any time since the 1920s:

Table 7:
Strikes 1964–78


Annual average





Number of stoppages





Workers involved per strike





Days lost per striker





The transformation from a class-in-itself, reacting to events, to a class-for-itself, positively identifying its own interests and fighting for them, was not, however, completed. The terms of the struggle had largely been confined to resistance to ‘compulsion’; they had not widened to include opposition to ‘voluntary’ corporatism as well. The next Labour Government was able to turn these years of struggle for ‘voluntary unanimity’ quite easily behind its new form of ‘voluntary/compulsion’ in 1975–76. For then, Wilson, Callaghan, Healey and Jenkins had the active backing of the left trade union leaders thrown up in the 1960s and a new ‘national crisis’ that could not be ignored – 20% price inflation and unemployment well over the one million mark from August 1975 on.

The contradictions within the resistance to In Place of Strife and the Industrial Relations Act were manifest at even the highest points of the struggle. For example, in 1968 the London dockers went on strike and marched on Parliament to protest against Heath’s sacking of Enoch Powell from the Tory Shadow Cabinet. Powell had just made his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ and ‘picanniny’ racialist speeches against immigrants. Unchallenged nationalism in the docks had bred on the defeat of the 1967 struggle against Devlinisation and had turned into active racialism. Yet just four years later, in defence of their jobs and ‘trade union rights’ these same dockers defied the force of law, had five of their number jailed, and then came all-out on a solidarity strike which threatened to turn into a national General Strike until the men were freed. But even this ‘high’ point contained within it the nationalism of four years earlier. When Berndadette Devlin MP came down to support the mass demonstration outside Pentonville Jail in July 1972 large numbers of dockers jeered at her – because she was Irish and identified with the struggle against British imperialism and because she was a woman. The vast majority of dockers were taking political strike action not against the ‘national interest’, but against the Tory definition of it.

Another ‘high’ point of solidarity during these years was the narrow majority achieved at the Chrysler, Linwood plant in 1973 among the AUEW and TGWU to refuse to obey instructions from Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon to cross EETPU picket lines. But just three hundred miles further south, in Coventry, Chrysler workers at Stoke and Ryton crossed those same picket lines with resistance to such scabbing confined to a very small minority. Solidarity and a rise in trade union consciousness existed alongside its opposite.

Yet four qualitative developments took place during these years which still mark it out distinctively from most of the preceding half-century: (1) New tactics were used which more directly challenged management authority; (2) Solidarity strikes re-appeared; (3) Political token strikes appeared; (4) Trade union consciousness spread very rapidly from the traditionally militant sectors to the low-paid, the public sector, women and recent immigrants.

The new tactics which were extensively used were factory occupations and the flying picket. Essentially they were a response to the inadequacy of the simple strike weapon when faced with an offensive involving both the State and the boss and (probably) his employers’ organisation as well. [49] But they also mounted a deeper challenge to the employer’s control over ‘his’ factory or ‘his’ business than did the strike on its own. The occupation tactic took off after the summer of 1971, when a mixture of Scottish nationalism and anti-Toryism exploded at the news that shipbuilding on the Clyde was to be axed. The resulting one-day solidarity strikes throughout the west of Scotland and the ‘work-in’ tactic adopted by the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) shop stewards popularised ‘occupations’ throughout Britain.

In both defensive situations, where workers wanted to stop plant closure and the removal of machinery (Plessey, Alexandria, Fisher-Bendix, Kirkby, ITT-Maclaren, Glasgow), and in the Spring of 1972 as an offensive weapon (used by Manchester engineering workers in the struggle for a new national agreement and the 35 hour week [50], the occupation tactic became quite common. There had been a handful of earlier occupations in the history of the trade union movement [51], but nothing to match this widespread challenge. When the Labour Government later piloted its Criminal Trespass Act through Parliament in 1978 it therefore contained measures enabling it to be used against such a future wave of occupations.

Early in 1971 Heath ‘did a seamen’ on the post office workers. He totally defeated them in a direct confrontation in order to lay the basis for acquiescence with wage restraint. The UPW had not picketed POEU depots or British Rail stations and carrier firms carrying parcel traffic; it had been totally isolated by other unions.

The lessons were learnt by the militant Yorkshire miners when the NUM voted for official national action – the first time since 1926 – against Heath’s Phase One incomes policy early in 1972. On the first day of the miners’ strike, January 9th, the Yorkshire men put mass pickets on the NCB offices to bring out the white collar workers and the safety men. This rank and file action was taken in defiance of the National Executive; but it was successful. The initiative passed to the rank and file. In the days that followed ‘flying pickets’ were despatched throughout the country, not merely to the gates of oil-powered power stations but also to ports through which coke and coal supplies might be brought. Pickets often travelled hundreds of miles from Yorkshire; and the practice spread to other coalfields. Where necessary they organised mass picketing at particular locations until by force of numbers, if that was what was needed, the picket line was respected.

These mass pickets led to quite substantial clashes with the police and brought about a distinct sharpening of the relations between police and trade unionists in general. During the summer of 1972 the same tactic – coaches of flying pickets – was used by the building workers to spread their national strike in their very poorly organised industry, one such picketing mission in North Wales eventually leading to the framing of the 18 ‘Shrewsbury’ pickets and jail sentences for Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson. The opposition of State plus employers’ organisation raised the stakes in the most basic fight for money. It was a case of put up or shut up; and if the workers decided on fighting, then the target had to be as large as possible to stand any chance of hitting it effectively.

The solidarity strike had last been exercised in Britain on any scale in the General Strike of 1926. It had been illegal for the twenty years following; but despite the 1946 Trades Dispute Act restoring the theoretical right to strike in support of other workers, it was not actually exercised on any scale again until 1972. [52] Then, on February 10, 10,000 Birmingham engineering workers struck in support of the miners and marched to a mass picket of the Saltley coke depot. This was the crucial event that decided the outcome of the strike. The Tories admitted defeat a few days later. On July 24, 1972, a second solidarity strike inflicted a major defeat on the Tories. This time, in response to the unofficial activities of SOGAT General Secretary; Vincent Flynn, the dockers and rank and file militants on ‘ Fleet Street, the national newspapers failed to appear on the Monday after five dockers were jailed for illegal picketing. This action was the signal for widespread token and all-out action in the rest of Britain. By the Wednesday the numbers out on solidarity strike was spreading so fast that an ‘Official Solicitor’ was invented to appear for the five dockers in Court, purge their contempt, and so allow them to be freed. This successful defiance of the Industrial Relations Act effectively buried it as a weapon against flying pickets.

The ‘altruistic’ strike is, of course, the highest form of class solidarity. But this was only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the level of strike support came a staggering rise in the level of financial support. The circulation of strike appeal sheets and the holding of factory collections became in hundreds of factories a regular feature of shop floor life during these years. [53] In thousands of factories collections were made for the first time. The shift from sectional plant-wide stewards’ organisation in the 1960s showed a positive side here: appeal sheets that might previously have stayed among, say, half a dozen patternmakers or fitters, now circulated much more widely. An identification with other workers’ interests as against the Tory Government became much more common amongst hundreds of thousands of trade unionists.

Among a few tens of thousands of workers this class identification reflected over the years 1969–74 in an acceptance of the need to use their industrial muscle as a political weapon against the Government. An analysis of the following list of political token strikes which took place between February 27, 1969 and May 8, 1974 [54], hows clearly (1) how few workers actually went on entirely unofficial political strike action; and (2) how much political strike action was concentrated amongst engineering and car workers, dockers and building workers, and some print workers. The fact that the trade union bureaucracy in certain unions was prepared to sanction official industrial action as a protest weapon against ‘compulsion’ in industrial relations was clearly very important. Nonetheless, the first two stoppages against In Place of Strife were largely unofficial, and under whoever’s auspices they were called, political strike action did raise the basic class question of power. Ultimately the Heath Tory Government recognised this and called the February 1971 General Election during the second national miners’ strike in two years on the issue of ‘Who runs the country – the unions or Parliament?’.

1969 – 1974



Major Areas


Feb 27 1969



In Place of Strife

May 1 1969



In Place of Strife

Dec 8 1970


National; London,

Industrial Relations Bill

Jan 1 1971



Industrial Relations Bill

Jan 12 1971


Merseyside, Scot-
land, Manchester

Industrial Relations Bill

Sunday 21 Feb 1971


London Demon-
stration + Major

Industrial Relations Bill

March 1 1971


National; AUEW
Official Call

Industrial Relations Bill

March 12 1971


National; AUEW
Official Call

Industrial Relations Bill

June 23 1971



UCS & Unemployment

Aug 18 1971



UCS & Unemployment

Nov 24 1971


S & NW London


July 24/26 1972


National; dockers,
Teesside, Mersey-
side, Manchester

Free the Five vs. NIRC

Sept 1973



Old Age Pensions

Dec 18 1972


London, Oxford

Against NIRC
fine on AUEW

Dec 20 1972


National, engineers
& dockers

Against NIRC
fine on AUEW

May 1 1973



Against Phase 2
& the NIRC

Nov 5, 12, 19
& 23 1973


National; engineer-
ing, motors

Against Con-Mech
fine on AUEW

Dec 1973


Birmingham build-
ing workers

Against trial of 5

Dec 20/21 1973


National; building

Jailing of
Shrewsbury 3

Jan 15 1974


National; building

Jailing of
Shrewsbury 3

May 8 1974


National; official
AUEW call

Against NIRC
seizure of funds

One reason why the Tories lost in 1974 was because of the spread of trade union consciousness, the fourth exceptional feature of these years. Labour’s vote did not increase because it was a class election; it was actually the lowest since 1931. But the Tories failed because they could not get white collar workers and the large non-class conscious section of manual workers to vote against the; the miners and the unions generally.

Between 1969 and 1974 trade union consciousness not only strengthened itself in the three ways already described, but it also spread into four interlocking areas: amongst white collar workers, among women workers and among Black and Asian workers, and in the public sector. This last area holds the key. Of the ‘top twelve’ trade unions in the ten years to 1975, the manual unions grew far less (TGWU +20.4%, AUEW +17.8%, GMWU +12.8%, EETPU +22%, NUM −31.6%, UCATT −30.8%) than the white’ collar unions (ASTMS +346.8%, NALGO +60.8%, NUPE + 116.6%, NUT +7.1%, CPSA +46.5%). [55]

After ASTMS, the white-collar union which recruited in all sectors, the three unions with the biggest growth were NUPE, NALGO and the CPSA [56], all of whom recruited exclusively in local and national government. By 1977, seven of the fourteen trade unions with more than 200,000 members were predominantly public sector unions: NALGO, NUPE, ASTMS, COHSE, NUT, UPW and CPSA. And they had doubled their total membership since 1968. The white collar recruitment which also boomed during these years was primarily a consequence of this unionisation of the public sector. By 1976 around 85% of white collar workers in the public sector belonged to a trade union, compared with around 15% in the private sector.

Equally, another interlocking factor was the significant expansion of the female public sector labour force. In 1976 the NUT was 75% female, COHSE 70%, CPSA 68%, NUPE 65%, USDAW 59%, NALGO 43%. [57] Five out of these six large, high women-density trade unions all recruit exclusively from the public sector. To a certain extent this same link – the public service sector job – It helps to explain why trade union membership rose among Black and Asian workers as well. [58]

But why should public sector trade unionism boom, and private sector trade unionism expand, after 1969? The answer lies in a significant increase in successful wage militancy in the traditionally trade union conscious sectors being followed by workers in other sectors. The impact of the strikes in the engineering and motor industries in 1969 and 1970 was decisive. Indeed, Harold Wilson suggests it was the ‘unreliability’ of the AEU National Committee in 1969 which forced him to retreat from In Place of Strife. [59] ‘Wage drift’ leapt forward in 1969 and 1970 after wage restraint finally died in 1968. [60] This rank and file wages’ offensive was markedly successful. Manual workers’ real take home pay jumped 2.7% in 1969–70 compared with the 1% average for the previous 5 years.

Public sector workers – at first the dustmen and miners – were not slow to catch on. 1969 saw the first London-wide dustmen’s strike (spread unofficially by flying pickets moving from one depot to another) and the first semi-official national miners’ strike (Yorkshire and Scotland) since 1926; both unofficial of course. [61] Government incomes policies had always been applied most stringently in the State sector where the Government could ‘set an example’. Before 1968 eight out of every ten large strikes (involving 50,000 working days lost or more) were in the private sector. From 1969 six out of every ten large strikes were in the public sector. And the number of such large strikes each year shot up more than four times to average 23 a year between 1969 and 1971.

White collar workers too began to respond to the clear evidence that workplace trade union organisation (and even strike action) was a necessary evil. It was ‘necessary’ if you wished to maintain or improve your living and working conditions. Although it remained ‘evil’ if others used their muscle to do likewise. In 1969 London teachers walked out for the first time – on an unofficial half-day strike. [62] In 1973 the CPSA called a national day of action which many members transformed into the first-ever civil service strike. In 1954, Knowles, author of the important early study Strikes: 1911–47, came to the category of civil servants while he was listing the propensity of various groups of workers to take strike action. ‘Civil Employees of the Crown,’ he wrote (p. 101), ‘are not specifically forbidden to strike. Since, however, the Crown is not bound by the ordinary laws of contract, they may, if they strike, be deprived of pensions and privileges which the terms of their employment have secured to them. This state of affairs, quite apart from the force of tradition and what has been called the “social embrace” is enough to make the strike weapon practically unusable.’

But twenty years later, in the space of a few brief years, that ‘unusable’ had become the ‘usable’. The ‘social embrace’ of the manual working class trade unionist proved more seductive than continued wage restraint and stagnant living standards. Thus after 1969 while all workers (manual and white-collar) resorted to strike action much more frequently than they had done before, the rise for non-manual workers was much greater than for manual workers. The increase in working days lost in the periods ’67–’69, ’69–’71 and ’70–’72 being 28%, 55% and 17% for manual workers, but 31%, 162% and 25% for non-manual workers. [63]

This development had an important long-term implication: it reversed the process by which a structural shift in the economy towards white collar jobs and industries tended to spread their lower militancy rates throughout the whole working class. [64] The strike frequency of manual workers was still ten times greater than for white collar workers [65], but the evidence of a major generalisation of trade union consciousness out of its traditional sectors is clear. And what is more, unlike the trade union expansion of 1939–45, the growth in trade union membership from 1969 was clearly associated with trade union militancy.

Even the most sleepy trade union bureaucrat could not fail to recognise that things had changed. In the GMWU the structure was so undemocratic and dominated by its own full-time officials that the pressure for change was held down until it burst: in the Pilkington glass works strike in St Helens in May and June 1970. Unions like the TGWU and NUPE moved more quickly, but the trend was similar. The 22% rise in trade union membership between 1966 and 1976 meant, since the numbers of full-time officials remained around the 3,000 mark, that there had to be more ‘rank and file involvement’. In certain unions like the GMWU and TGWU this process resulted in some decentralisation from the tightly-controlled oligarchies of the 1950s and 1960s. And the widespread existence of workplace-based shop stewards meant that the decentralisation should logically be towards trade or industry-group structures which might involve the shop stewards, or some of them, in running the union.

These changes, coinciding as they did with opposition to a Tory Government trying to force through legal limits on trade union rights, allowed a process of rationalisation to be dressed up under the banner of ‘greater union democracy’ and ‘a shift to the left’. As was to become absolutely clear when the immediate threat of Tory ‘compulsion’ was removed; nothing of that kind was happening. The bureaucracy was as close to the State as it had ever been. Even under the Tories this slipped out from time to time. When, for example, the Government jailed the five dockers on July 21,1972, Vic Feather, General Secretary of the TUC, told the Press: ‘Putting people in prison in cases like this solves nothing. It makes already difficult problems much harder to resolve. The Act must be suspended. The damage that the Industrial Relations Act is doing to industrial relations and to the nation is now clear to everybody.’ And Jack Jones, whose members were in Pentonville, added: ‘The arrests are an example of industrial difficulties being made worse by the operation of the Act’.

They did not believe what the Tories were trying to do was wrong, just the way they were going about it. The rolling unofficial action the jailings sparked off confirmed their worst fears. From July 1972 on, Jack Jones, supported by Hugh Scanlon and David Basnett of the GMWU, set to work to draw up a new ‘voluntary’ formula for securing worker-management co-operation with the Labour Government. The ‘Social Contract’ took shape as an alternative method to that of the Tories for securing the co-operation of the approximately 290,000 shop stewards who existed by 1975. [66]

The limits within the class-for-itself process made themselves felt virtually as soon as the economic (but also political) miners’ strike was ended by the new Labour Government in 1974. They had always been present: the centrality of rising financial expectations; the factory horizons; the fact that Labour remained the only national political alternative; the absence of a rank and file movement which could lock the working class into a continuing challenge to ‘national interest corporatism’. [67] Thus within months the class-wide consciousness of even the most militant groups of workers was dramatically fragmented into exclusively sectional struggles. The actual level of strikes continued to rise as workers tried to use their muscle to get more money. At one time in the Autumn of 1974 there were eight unofficial strike committees meeting in separate rooms in Glasgow’s Trade Union Centre. Efforts to bring them together failed totally. [68] The Labour Government was able to bring in the army to scab on Glasgow’s striking dustcart drivers in the same way they had repeatedly used the troops from 1945–51. [69]

The level of struggle throughout 1974 was very high. But after the May 8 strike it was exclusively for sectional issues – threshold payments, re-opening wage negotiations, or 25–30 per cent claims. So despite the fact that it appeared to be a continuation of the generalised struggle under the Tories, its content was the restoration of sectionalism, of class-in-itself reactions. The workplace horizons [70] which a minority of workers had broken down between 1969 and 1974 had been firmly slotted back into place. Yet even this process contained a major contradiction. The main ruling class strategy from 1969 had been to undermine job-based trade union organisation. Through challenging ‘voluntary unanimity’ within the workplace for their own interests, they encouraged the shop stewards to speak more directly for the workers’ interests. By 1974 job-based trade union organisation had been generalised even more widely throughout the working class. It had successfully defended its right to picket, to strike, and to the closed shop. Rank and file trade unionism had fought and won; although its prize was very double-edged: wages and conditions would after all be decided by ‘voluntary’ agreement according to what the firm or nation could afford – and both were just about to enter a major economic crisis.

Part Six: 1975–76 – The Downturn

1975 and 1976 saw the most real national crisis in Britain since World War Two. Unlike the earlier boom-or-bust balance-of-payments crises this economic crisis had direct impact on millions of workers’ lives. Prices rose in the shops every few weeks. The rate of inflation doubled from single-figures to 20%+. And so did unemployment. From a ‘plateau’ of around 600,000 which lasted from mid-1967 until late 1974 (with a jump to around 800,000 in 1971–72), the jobless total climbed within eighteen months to establish a new ‘plateau’ just under 1,400,000. If school leavers are included the actual total rose by one million.

But this unemployment was not indiscriminate. The manufacturing sector of the British economy was the hardest hit. Between the last quarter of 1974 and the low point in the second quarter of 1976 the seasonally-adjusted index for employment in manufacturing industries fell by nearly 7 per cent. In human terms this meant that in just 18 months an average of 700 workers for every 10,000 in the industries which were more prone to strike action than others lost their jobs.

Within months of pursuing the fragmented struggle for more wages in the Autumn of 1974, shop stewards’ organisations throughout much of manufacturing industry found themselves suddenly facing a sharper attack on their jobs than they had ever experienced. The room for ‘reforms’ (improvements in wages, working conditions) had suddenly vanished. The balance of forces had shifted dramatically in favour of the employers.

The only way factory closures and mass sackings can be fought successfully, however, is by raising class consciousness generally. This had been the experience in 1971 and 1972. But the struggles of 1969 to 1974 had ultimately reinforced the idea that the ‘sensible’, ‘practical’ way to go about things was to sort them out between workers and management within the factory. [71] Unemployment was therefore not seen as a class attack but as a particular problem you had with ‘your’ employer.

This hold of ‘national interest corporatism’ was also considerably strengthened by the fact that the new ‘national crisis’ occurred under a Labour Government which had the unqualified support of the entire trade union bureaucracy. The role of those trade union leaders who, during the previous ten years had most articulately presented the case that the system could still provide ‘reforms’ – Jones, Scanlon, Daly etc. – was particularly important. For ‘left’ trade union leaders either led or were prominently placed in four of the five most strike-prone industries. Despite the fact that the five only employed 6 per cent of the total labour force; they accounted for 47% of the working days lost in 1969–74. by 1975–76 this figure had declined to 22%, in a period of falling strike statistics. [72]

In the earlier crises of the 1960s and 1970s the trade union leaders associated with the Tribune Group – Tom Jackson, Geoffrey Drain, George Smith – and the Institute of Workers’ Control –– Scanlon, Jones, Daly – had opposed both Labour and Tory incomes policies. Indeed, Scanlon had in part been elected because of his known opposition to the 1966–67 pay freeze. Between 1971 and 1974 Scanlon, and, to a much lesser extent, Jones, played key roles in defeating the Tory anti-trade union laws. [73] Shop stewards had used Scanlon’s or Jones’ name time and time again with their members as arguments for taking industrial action against the Tory definition of the ‘national interest’. But for nearly two years from 1973, first under the Tories and then under Labour, these leaders campaigned throughout the trade unions for the idea that a ‘bargain’ had to be struck with Labour. In return for a few small items (principally the repeal of the Industrial Relations Act, the establishment of an official Conciliation Service (ACAS) and the new Health and Safety at Work Act) and many large promises, the trade unions should ‘voluntarily’ practice wage restraint. Then, in the Summer of 1975, the Government determined that the ‘volunteers’ were not practising enough ‘restraint’. It therefore imposed a £6 ceiling and a 12-month limit on wage rises from August 1. And the ‘poachers’ of the last ten years all stood up to be counted in as ‘gamekeepers’. The move from defending ‘voluntary’ co-operation as the best method of conducting industrial relations to ‘voluntarily’ agreeing to wage restraint was not very great.

Thus despite the spread of trade unionism, the greater number of shop stewards and the highly successful wages struggle of the previous six years, resistance to price rises and unemployment crumbled. In the face of the crisis there appeared to be no ‘practical’ alternative. The strike level fell sharply. In metals, engineering, shipbuilding and vehicles by about the same proportion as under Labour’s 1966–67 pay freeze; but in the mines much more decisively. Coming after a three-year period which had seen the first two national miners’ strikes since 1926, the impression of a ‘downturn’ was, however, even greater. This was particularly true for revolutionaries whose total isolation from the working class movement had been broken down during the radicalisation of 1969 to 1974 and who wanted that process to continue. [74]

The effect of the first two phases of the Social Contract incomes policy was very severe. The State-imposed maximum rise of £6 for 1975–76 and £3.50 for 1976–77 meant that employers could easily hold wages down below the rate of price rises and thus cut workers’ living standards and transfer wealth to themselves. Real take-home pay for the average male worker with 2 children fell 6% from September 1974 to September 1975, and a further 2% and another 3% in the two following years. [75]

The impact of the ideological barrage aimed at strengthening ‘national interest corporatism’ was not, however, confined to ‘going along with’ cuts in real wages and jobs. The depth of the crisis and their search for more effective means of securing stable industrial relations in the workplace led sections of the trade union bureaucracy and the ruling class to seek out ways of re-establishing the ‘Joint Production Committee-relationship’ of World War Two. The Bullock Committee of Inquiry into Industrial Democracy with its proposal for equal seats for the unions and shareholders with an ‘independent’ group holding the balance typified this ‘national interest corporatism’ approach. Soon after it reported in January 1977, the rise of the class struggle rapidly rendered it irrelevant as a national model to be followed. But beneath the Water, more was going on.

Through 1975 and 1976 ‘workers’ participation’ was introduced in British Leyland and Chrysler. Several other firms adopted similar schemes. What they all shared in common was the notion that the senior shop stewards from across the company could be brought together to start thinking in company-wide rather than exclusively factory-wide terms. The Communist Party, as would be expected from its war-time support for the JPCs, embraced both ‘workers’ participation’ and ‘industrial democracy’ as methods of undermining private capitalism. And from its position too, as long as the whip of unemployment was firmly in their hands, the ruling class somewhat re-appraised its assessment of Donovan. Maybe the Donovan proposals for using the senior shop stewards, formal procedures and plant-bargaining as the mean to secure ‘worker-management cooperation’ would work after all. Instead of using the dose of unemployment as the chance to cut back on the privileges of the senior shop stewards (as had happened in some plants in both 1966 and 1971), the numbers of facilities of such full-time rank and filers continued to spread. From an estimated 1,500–2,000 full-time shop stewards out of 175,000 stewards in 1966, there are now between 6,000 and 8,000 full-time stewards out of a total of around 350,000. [76] These senior stewards were used more widely by both the trade union bureaucracy to help service the greatly expanded numbers of unionists and by management to help police their plant-wide agreements. Although both these tendencies were present from the early 1960s on, it was only after the victory for ‘voluntary unanimity’ (the defeat of the Tories) and the appearance of a new ‘national crisis’ that they became widespread.

Yet even though resistance to Phase 1 and Phase 2 was small, the level of struggle did not drop to the depths of 1966 and 1967. And despite the advocacy of ‘incorporation’ of the senior stewards as a method of containing shop-floor conflict, job-based trade union organisation was maintained. Indeed, as white collar unions like NALGO began to experiment with ‘shop stewards’ systems’, the total number of stewards continued to rise. Among manual workers stewards’ organisation also continued to be maintained: in Bradford, for example, an area badly affected by the recession in textiles since 1974, the number of stewards attending the quarterly AUEW District stewards’ meetings has remained virtually unchanged; in Birmingham’s giant Leyland Longbridge works, on the other hand, attendance at Joint Shop Stewards’ Committee meetings has gone up and down like a yo-yo, depending on whether stewards believed any action could come from them.

Shop stewards are largely ‘common sense’ thinkers. They reflect and articulate the views of those they represent. They are as likely to reflect average prejudices as other workers. Thus when the general conviction was that there was little you could do, you just had to put up with the Government’s pay policy; then this is what the shop stewards generally felt as well. And this, of course, includes the senior shop stewards. For despite their full-time status inside the factory, and their perks like not having to clock in, going on jaunts to hotels for ‘negotiating’ sessions, and use of an office and telephone, there are two major links connecting them to the other stewards and workers in the factory. Firstly, they are paid the wages of the grade or section of workers they come from. [77] And secondly, like most shop stewards they are subject to regular re-election – both in their own section and as a senior steward. These are two qualitative differences from the situation of trade union full-time officials whose wages are usually significantly above those of their members and where only some 300 out of the 3,000 face any regular re-election (and then usually on a five yearly basis). Thus when the conditions for a new lease of factory struggle exist, the senior stewards are either left aside by other stewards’ organisations who no longer accept their lead, or they are forced to take the lead themselves. And these conditions emerged when sections of workers; began to feel that their interests were not being properly ‘taken into account’ early in 1977.

The Labour Government was able to maintain the full force of the appeal for sacrifices in the ‘national interest’ against the background of the sharpest economic crisis since the 1930s. But even this force began to disintegrate towards the end of the two year period of significant wage cuts. The strength of job-based trade unionism then allowed sections of workers to voice the views that their interests were not the same as national ‘unanimity’, that the collaborationist intentions of the trade union bureaucracy were unable to hold the dam. Indeed, as the Labour Government moved sharply in 1976 to cut public expenditure in accordance with the dictates of the International Monetary Fund, sections of the bureaucracy found themselves forced to mount token protest. The November 17, 1976, demonstration against the cuts organised by NUPE and eight other public sector unions saw widespread strike actions and 80,000 on the march from Hyde Park. The ‘bargain’ secured by the Social Contract looked increasingly like a pig in a poke.

Part Seven: 1977–79 – The dam breaks

The bottom of the recession was reached in the second quarter of 1976. Since then, employment has picked up marginally throughout the economy, including the manufacturing sector. Yet it is still below the level of 1974, and in manufacturing it is well below. The 7,705,000 workers of June 1974 falling to 7,099,000 two years later, only rising to 7,161,000 again in June 1978.

But the impact on workers’ attitudes of the change from a continuing fall in the number of jobs to a situation where your job appeared relatively safe again, was marked. By early 1977 different groups of workers began to lodge claims arising from the time-honoured custom of comparing your wages with those of other workers. At British Leyland, the Communist Party-dominated senior shop stewards were not prepared to join the fight (although under pressure from their members they were ready to make noises like the April 20 Conference call). So they were brushed aside by the new Leyland Toolroom shop stewards’ organisation set up by Roy Fraser. At Heathrow, the Joint Shop Stewards’ Committee was not ready to take up the cudgels, so the AUEW Shop Stewards moved into action and led the whole AUEW membership out on? strike. At Port Talbot the EEPTU craftsmen had had enough; they refused to wait for the rest of the production workers in the steel works to take action and their stewards led them out.

By mid-Summer 1977 the anger at the very real cuts in living standards combined with the lessening sense of capitalist crisis (price inflation averaged only 14 per cent from January 1976 to January 1978), and for the first time ever a TGWU General Secretary, Jack Jones, suffered a major defeat at his union’s Biennial Delegate Conference. The TGWU delegates, largely stewards and senior stewards, called for the restoration of ‘free collective bargaining from August 1.’ The miners’ conference put in a claim for £125 a week for face workers. At the September TUC the efforts of few unions like NALGO to hold the line of complete support for the Government’s Phase Three guideline of 10% stood no chance. But the TUC nonetheless covered its tracks with a resolution stipulating there should continue to be 12 month intervals between wage rises.

The Autumn and Winter of 1977 witnessed the defeat of Phase 3 in the private sector of the economy and a certain degree of ‘bending’ in the State sector. Table 8 tells the tale:

Table 8:
The effect of the Social Contract on Wage Rises, 1974–78


Sept. 1974–
Sept. ’75

Phase One
Sept. 1975–
Sept. ’76

Phase Two
Sept. 1976–
Sept. ’77

Phase Three
Sept. 1977–
Sept. ’78

All industries and Services





Manufacturing industries





The Government’s attempt to hold the line at 10% in the 1977–78 bargaining round was clearly defeated. But it was not defeated by all workers; and it was not defeated in a major stand-up national struggle, the firemen’s rank and file initiated and led strike of November 1977 to January 1978 was the only big set-piece confrontation, and it only involved some 35,000 FBU members, and led to defeat. Although they were promised much more for the following year, the Government kept them to its 10% limit in the public sector and beat them using the troops to provide fire cover and the TUC to refuse solidarity. [78]

The major sectors to break through – often way above the 16 per cent average rise – were the miners and workers in parts of the manufacturing sector. The Government overcame the problem of now to settle the miners’ big wage claim by getting pit-by-pit productivity deals through the NUM Executive (despite their earlier rejection in pit-head national ballot). So the miners got sizeable wage rises without a national confrontation but at the price of more injuries and deaths. In much of the private sector ‘self-financing’ productivity deals were also the signal for major rises. In many instances these new deals contained potentially dangerous clauses,’ like ‘attendance bonuses’ which could be forfeited for the smallest stoppage of work. Yet very few were as wide-reaching as the four-year deal for clerical workers on the Daily Mirror.

In general, negotiations were more aimed at ‘getting round the 10 per cent’ limit than they were at establishing major innovations in work methods, although obviously the introduction of New Technology into the print is a big exception to this. [79] The result was a major extension of plant-wide bargaining. ‘Wage drift’ – the gap between nationally-agreed rates and real earnings – had been predominantly composed of sectionally-negotiated PBR payments in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s with the shift from sectional to bargaining ‘wage drift’ re-emerged whenever national pay policies were broken through but increasingly at the level of the factory or whole company. It was these agreements on direct wage rises, bonuses, shift and overtime premiums which drove the hole through Phase 3.

By 1978 nearly 80 per cent of all manual engineering workers were being paid under two or more agreements – at least one of which would be negotiated by the shop stewards, a figure that had increased 5% in the previous 5 years. Comparable figures for chemical workers were 75% (10% increase) and for Government industrial establishments 62% (18% increase). There was also a marked shift towards factories breaking away from the national collective agreement and negotiating entirely at a company or district level. In the Chemical and Allied industry workers covered only by National agreements declined from 23.6% to 17.3% in these five years; in shipbuilding from 23.0% to 14.5%; and motor vehicles from 10.5% to 8.5%. Corresponding increases in company/district agreements were 16.4% to 33.8% (Chemical), 1.7% to 10.3% (Shipbuilding), and 28.8% to 32.0% (Motors). [80]

The bonus or Payment-by-results (PBR) payment still continues to play a major, though declining, part in making up workers’ pay packets. In April 1978 some 42 per cent of male manual workers received some form of PBR payments in their wages compared with 49 per cent ten years earlier. The average payment for manual workers on PBR was £17 compared to £27 a week for the 10 per cent of white collar workers on PBR. But what is clear is that a part of a worker’s wage packet which used to be bargained about section by section, or job by job, is now being negotiated on a factory or company-wide basis; and that the same thing is happening to a part of the wage packet which used to be negotiated nationally. Far from these years seeing a decline in shop steward-negotiated wage settlements [81], we are still witnessing a process in which when the national wage controls are broken it is the shop stewards and job-based trade unionism which breaches the dam.

In material terms the defeat of Phase 3 was quite significant. 9% of the 10% fall in living standards in the 3 years after September 1974, had already been recovered 18 months later in February 1978. And this restoration of the gains of the years of struggle from 1969 to 1974 was not done without a fight.

The Grunwicks dispute showed in 1977 that the readiness of a minority of workers to fight both the employer and the State had not been eroded by the Social Contract. At the end of the 1960s the Fine Tubes strikers from Exeter had given the working class an endurance record in their recognition dispute. But the Grunwicks Asian women strikers did more than that. Nearly ten years after London dockers had marched for Enoch Powell, and exactly ten years since the Barbican mass picket attracted only a few hundreds, they became the rallying point of thousands of trade unionists across Britain. Cricklewood postmen actually struck in solidarity when they refused to lift the blacking of Grunwicks post; Yorkshire and Welsh miners, Scottish carworkers and thousands of London white collar workers joined the pickets. [82]

The struggle that was joined in June 1977 continued – not as sharply or as politically – from then on. [83] The number of working days lost in metal engineering, shipbuilding and vehicles in both 1977 and 1978 (6.1 million each) exceeded the total for any year since the War except for 1972 (6.6 million) the year of the Manchester engineering occupations. And this was despite the continuing post-war unemployment high.

This higher level of struggle, however, reflected a growing combativity on both sides of the industrial class divide. For as it became clear that the Labour Government would not be able to deliver Phase Three and Phase Four by virtue of its close relationship with the trade union bureaucracy, the attitude of sections of the employing class towards the illusion of ‘voluntary’ corporatism hardened. The resistance of Grunwicks, Sandersons (Skegness) and Garners to lengthy trade union recognition strikes in 1977 and 1978 (and 1979) was the tip of the iceberg. Certainly, the National Association for Freedom actually mobilised for the first time, since the 1920s, a fair section of smaller businessmen behind active strikebreaking. For more significant sections of the ruling class the issue was not so much direct hostility to the trade unions, however, but once again, how to strengthen the limits of ‘national interest corporatism’ in the absence of a self-evident ‘national crisis’. Through much of 1978 up till the autumn a series of disputes took place which were primarily defensive: where management was trying to restrict traditional or established rights and agreements. [84] The sectionalism of the rising struggle made it more difficult to fight these attacks than had been the case in 1969–74. But what was shown by the recognition strikes and a few others, [85] was that where solidarity was campaigned for very strongly, it was forthcoming.

The Labour Government’s proposal of a 5% limit on wage rises from August 1, 1978, was based on a gamble. Phase Three had only been defeated ‘beneath the counter’. If Phase Four was held ‘above the counter’ through the continued co-operation of the trade union bureaucracy, the harder line of the employers, and possibly the defeat of another small and weak section of public sector workers, then Labour would really have shown it was the party of the ‘national interest’: a General Election victory would be guaranteed.

The gamble failed. The unevenness with which living standards rose in 1978 meant that the expectations of those groups of workers who had been held down to 10% in Phase 3 were way above any 5 per cent maximum. And the failure of Callaghan to call an Autumn General Election jeopardised his relationship with the trade union bureaucracy. Several major unions had been very strongly committed by their 1978 Conferences behind major Autumn wage claims. The room for manoeuvre of leaders like David Basnett of the GMWU and Alan Fisher of NUPE was particularly small. And the appearance of a new TGWU General Secretary, Moss Evans, with some pressure on him to pay off debts due from his election and also to win his spurs within the TUC, added to the volatility.

The Ford strike, which went off in late September like a Roman Candle and then fizzled miserably through until mid November, was the pace-setter. The fact that the workers had rejected the worst strings attached to the final offer of 15 per cent in this well-publicised strike meant that this latter figure took on the mystical sense of a ‘fair’ wage offer. The trade union bureaucracy was forced to recognise this fact. It made the Ford strike official. Two small unions where rank and file pressure on the officials can be exerted quite sharply, the Bakers and the Journalists, followed Fords with national official strikes of bakery workers and provincial journalists. Against well-organised employers the militancy and effectiveness of rank and file pickets became more and more crucial. In national strikes workers either had to shut down everything across the country or the employers and scabs would gain confidence and they would take the initiative back.

In December 1978 and January 1979 the oil tanker drivers were ‘bought off after merely flexing their muscles. The lessons were learnt by the lorry drivers’ shop stewards. The Scottish drivers came out officially from January 1, but within a week the strike and the flying pickets were spread throughout the country. The chairman of the Manchester strike committee, Bill Astbury, explained why the flying pickets were so crucial [86]: ‘We want firms which are picketed to put pressure on the Road Haulage Association to settle this dispute. If we relax things now we will be like the firemen and go hack for nothing extra.’ The TGWU moved to take control of the flying pickets by making the strike official; but even that only partly eased the very real problems for the ruling class that the rank and file lorry drivers had presented. By the end of January the Road Haulage Association virtually capitulated.

The strength of rank and file action, initially outside of any control by the trade union bureaucracy, had thus publicly defeated the ruling class in a key private sector of the economy. Not only was their success going to stiffen the determination of the low-paid workers not to get less than a ‘fair’ offer; but is also raised an outcry amongst the ruling class for ‘compulsion’ to be brought back into management-worker relations. How else, they screamed, could rank and file militants be prevented from wrecking the ‘national interest’? The Labour Government instantly put the same question to the trade union bureaucracy. Its reply, the so-called Concordat, was predictable: the rank and file could be controlled ‘voluntarily’. [87]Voluntary unanimity’ could be maintained by the full-time officials ensuring ‘responsible’ picketing, by secret ballots before strike action is taken, and by less aggressive campaigning for the closed shop.

These items became the core of the Tory Party’s election manifesto with one key difference: the Tories would stiffen their effectiveness through legal ‘compulsion’. For the publication of A Better Way [88] in January 1979 and the Concordat in February had not dampened down the determination of workers to ‘catch up’ with those who had broken Phase Three. The low paid revolt continued through February until the end of March [89] when Callaghan was forced to announce a general Election. And the public sector ‘catching-up’ campaign of industrial action continued with the civil servants and teachers taking action right up to the May 3 General Election and beyond. [90]

The choice offered workers in the General Election was between Tory ‘market-controlled corporatism’ (with a bit of ‘compulsion’) and Labour ‘State-controlled corporatism’ (dependent on ‘voluntary unanimity’). There was thus no major inconsistency in the fact that one third of trade unionists voted Tory; nor in the fact that white collar trade unionists refused to call off their actions so that the General Election could take place in a period of ‘industrial Peace’. Class collaboration remained unchallenged as the dominant ideology within the trade unions: from the Communist Party to Benn, Heffer, Williams, the only argument was about the terms of that collaboration. But by the end of the 1970s, just as at the beginning of the decade, the issue that remained the most contentious between the ruling and working classes in Britain was the existence and strength of rank and file, workplace-based trades unionism.

Part Eight: Onward March

Trade unionism in Britain enters the 1980s more widely spread and institutionalised at workplace level than ever before. Yet it is also dominated by “national interest corporatism”. Back in 1938, before World War Two, G.D.H. Cole, the historian and guild socialist, could write of “two rival conceptions of its (the T.U. movement’s) purpose. On the one side are those who regard the industrial organisation of the workers as the instinctive expression of the class struggle which is inherent in the wage relationship between capitalist and labour, and can be transcended only by the suppression on capitalism itself ... any agreement which the workers may make with their employers are but truces, temporary intervals in a war which can end only with the final victory of the working class... The second idea of Trade Unionism is that it exists to protect and advance the interests of a defined group of workers who possess some special skill or other mark of distinction from the general mass of labour ... There is in this type of Trade Unionism no set intention to change the economic system, but only a will to make it work better from the standpoint of the particular group. Nor is there any desire to build up a solid combination of the whole working class; for it is clearly impossible for all of them to exact special privileges. If there is to be exploitation, there must be persons left to exploit.[91] (my emphasis)

Trade unionism since the outbreak of the last World War,: however, has been totally dominated by only the second conception. During only one six-year period, 1969–74, did the active idea of trade unionism as part of a wider class struggle come partially and briefly into view. But that is not to say that it has not been present during the other 34 years as well. In every open dispute between the working and ruling classes, the reality of an on-going class struggle threatens to shake the complacency of sectionalism. And as the capitalist crisis deepens so strikes become more critical. For while a strike is asserting the workers’ interests against capital, the hold of the “national interest” over workers’ organisations and ideas can be; seriously damaged.

Eric Hobsbawm’s thesis that, “the forward march of labour and the labour movement, which Marx predicted, appears to have come to a halt in this country about twenty-five to thirty years ago” [92] is thus entirely wrong. It has only been in the early 1970s that any serious modern challenge to “national interest corporatism” took place –– and that was because the ruling class wished to add an element of “compulsion” to worker-management co-operation. Yet throughout these years the trade unions have also increasingly become a de-stabilising force within the “nation”. This has been because of the expansion of job-based trade unionism and wage militancy. In the 1940s the ruling class could cut workers’ living standards and raise productivity by agreement with a tiny number of trade union leaders; and it got co-operation from the rank and file because of the enormity of the crisis British capital faced. But today there are literally hundreds of negotiating points every year, anyone of which could explode and jeopardise the “national interest”. And the price demanded for co-operation – higher living standards –– cannot be glibly dismissed as “economist”.

Socialists often get the relationship between wages struggles and class consciousness wrong. [93] Workers as a whole see the struggle within capitalism in this way. their first priority is the highest possible price for their labour power with working conditions and organisation coming second and third. It is only in the revolution itself, when new forms of organisation are necessary to achieve the basic economic and social demands that these become absolutely central. In non-revolutionary periods, struggles over economic questions often conceal a higher level of class struggle. An examination of the proportion of strikes and working days lost in Britain over pay issues since 1915, bears this out. The decades of greatest “economism” were 1915–24 and 1965–74 – and these were also the years of the greatest movement towards towards class-for-itself awareness (the First Shop Stewards’ movement, the formation of the CP, the Minority Movement, the General Strike, 1915–26; new tactics, political strikes, generalisation of trade union consciousness, 1969–74). In periods when the “national interest” dominates wage bargaining, struggles over pay become much more political.

Engels had hinted at the potential inherent in workers’ class organisations for taking up political questions. In 1881 he wrote, “the time is also rapidly approaching when the working class will have understood that the struggle for high wages and short hours, is not an end in itself, but a means, a very necessary and effective means, but only one of several means towards a higher end: the abolition of the wages-system altogether”. [94]

Yet it is this object – the abolition of wage labour – that is denied as being necessary by Ken Gill, Tony Benn and the left of the Labour Party. It is because they believe the system should be reformed through State capitalism that Gill can deceive himself that the social Contract was a “temporary setback” and that “the movement is stronger now than at any time in its history”. For Gill, the Social Contract was, “a number of political progressive demands ... proposed as a quid pro quo for wage restraint ... Trade unions mistakenly traded in the wages struggle and naively expected a Labour Cabinet to meet its social commitments”. [95] Gill sees “national interest corporatism” as potentially “progressive” – provided no “mistakes” occur. So he does not need a strategy for breaking with the collaborationist conception of trade unionism.

There is also nothing new in the “discovery” by Richard Hyman and others that senior shop stewards today are “carriers” of the malignant disease of the modern British trade union movement – “national interest corporatism”, a strong identification with the “firm” and/or the “nation”. The myth of the “militant” forties, fifties, or sixties does not stand up to any serious examination. Class collaboration in one guise or another has dominated the ideas and practice of shop stewards since 1940. Only once did it look as if it could be shaken off. But it is still nonsense to speak of the “bureaucratisation of the rank and file”, as if to imply that full-time shop stewards (as opposed to their members) are frequently today as close to the State (and its interests) as the full-time trade union official. The experience of 1977–79 shows quite decisively how the “stratum of shop steward leaders” [96] was either removed, by-passed by other stewards or forced into action – often in sharp opposition to the real wishes of the trade union bureaucracy.

”National interest corporatism” was and still remains the dominant theory and practice of modern British trade unionism. But the class struggle about the terms on which workers’ interest are “taken into account” by capitalism has got significantly sharper as the crisis of British capitalism itself has got more acute. The next Tory Government intends to redraft the terms of “management” worker co-operation” more in the favour of capital. But the fact: that it is a Tory Government, more nakedly representing ruling class interests than “the nation” as a whole [97], means that this attempt endangers the sense of “fair play” on which the “unanimity” of corporatism is based. Under the last Tory Government this challenge offended both the trade union bureaucracy and the rank and file. The bureaucracy was markedly more prepared to sanction official action when the Tories were in power – in 1970–74 51.2% off working days lost were in official strikes, compared with 30.9% in 1965–69 and 28.2% in 1975–78.

The new Tory Government is aware of this. It will therefore attempt to make its proposals for “compulsion” appear more “fair” than before. But the crunch will come when – whether or not widespread resistance can be mobilised to the measures before they become law – the ruling class is once again forced to cut living standards back to the 1970 levels and then hold them down. That will be the real test for the Tory definition of “national interest corporatism”, and it is a test which the experience of the last forty years suggests they will fail. The job-based strength of trade unionism remains such as to continuously reassert that workers’ interests should be “taken into account”. While the lingering weakness of British capitalism means that it cannot yet afford the luxury of surgical operation to totally remove the cancer. [98]

The struggles ahead will be fragmented and sectional, representing the continuing force of “national interest corporatism’. To the extent that generalisation is forced on the working class it will be around the demands for “fairness” and “voluntary” cooperation rather than compulsion. Those on the left who continue to operate exclusively within this framework will, ultimately, be doing neither themselves nor the working class any good.

The task of revolutionaries in the 1980s is to raise this theoretical understanding to the level of practice. Our strategy must be to sharpen working class struggles, and to try and lock them into on-going rank and file organisations which bridge the narrow horizons of the workplace. Ten years ago, the building of a rank and file movement clearly speaking and struggling for workers’ interests against the “national interest” was merely a dream of a handful of revolutionaries. Today it is the property of a few thousand revolutionary trade unionists. As British trade unionism strikes into the 1980s, our task is to make it a political alternative for tens of thousands of workers.


1. Eric Hobsbawm, the leading contemporary CP historian, in The Forward March of Labour Halted?, Marxism Today, September 1978.

2. Ken Gill, General Secretary of TASS; first CP member to sit on General Council of TUC since 1948, in Marxism Today, December 1978.

3. Richard Hyman, former member of the International Socialists, in The Problems of Workplace Trade Unionism: Recent tendencies and some problems for theory, Capital & Class 8, Summer 1979.

4. Notably Tony Cliff, Ten Years On, Socialist Worker, 28.5.79. In this and a number of earlier articles in Socialist Worker, Cliff prefigures the later arguments of Hyman in particular.

5. Nigel Harris, Competition & the Corporate Society, 1973, p. 67.

6. See T. Cliff & C. Barker, Incomes Policy, legislation and shop stewards, 1966, p. 105: ‘When in the future the capitalist system enters into sharper contradictions, and when the speeds of the different escalators on which workers rise vary less and less, then out of the shop stewards’ organisations will rise a new socialist movement, much mightier than ever before. Its roots will begin the class struggle at the point of production, and it will lead the fight against all forms of oppression, economic, national, cultural or political. To defend and extend the shop stewards’ organisations of today is to build the socialist movement of tomorrow; to fight for the socialist movement of tomorrow is to strengthen the shop stewards of today.’ Also, T. Cliff, The Employers’ Offensive: Productivity Deals and How to Fight Them, 1970, p. 202: The shop stewards’ organisation as such is nothing but the expression of workers’ urge’ to control their own destinies.’

7. See Dave Purdy, Pay Policies and Sacred Cows, The Leveller, February 1979: ‘The current tendency to climb aboard the bandwagon of disillusionment with the social contract, and to identify progress with every fresh pay dispute is sadly mistaken. It is leading away from a coherent socialist strategy for Britain.’ And Geoff Roberts, The Strategy of Rank and Filism, Marxism Today, December 1976: ‘... the problem of the left in the AUEW is essentially political and as such demands a political solution. The “more militancy” formula can only result in the isolation of the left and give further sustenance to the right-wing and their allies in the media.’

8. The phrase ‘class-in-itself’ means here that workers realise that they have different interests from the class of their employers, that they live different lives and are bonded together by their jobs, lives and interests as a group. Marx used this description to distinguish a basic kind of class awareness from the kind of political class consciousness where a class stops taking its existence and strength as a permanent unchangeable factor and seeks to extend its control and sets of ideas over the whole of society. In the Poverty of Philosophy, for example, he argued that ‘this mass (the workers) is already a class in opposition to capital, but not yet a class-in-itself.’

9. I would like to thank many comrades and friends for their help in clarifying this argument. The discussions with Billy Williams and Norman McLean (EETPU), Peter Bain (TGWU), Bill Geddes (NUPE), Anne Robertson (ASTMS), Willie Lee, Jack Robertson and Tommy Gorman (AUEW), Anna Potrykus and Ian Wall (NALGO), Carolyn Conway and Mike Healey (CPSA) and Terry Segars (FBU) were particularly useful. Joan Smith, Chris Harman and Peter Binns actually read the draft and helped a great deal. The errors and general argument, however, remain my responsibility.

10. Most of these nationalisations had been recommended by pre-War or Wartime committees dominated by the Tories. They were industries whose profitability on average was about one third that of the rest of private industry before the War. After nationalisation (on highly generous terms) they continued to be run by the same management as before and subsidised profitability in the private sector by providing supplies of basic industrial commodities at cheaper rates than would have otherwise been possible. See A. Glyn & Sutcliffe, British capitalism, workers and the profits squeeze, 1972, Part 1.

11. National income per head at 1913–14 prices did not rise above the 1913 high of £52 until 1934; it then rose 19% to £61 in 1939. This figure was reached again in 1949. By 1959 it had risen by 28% to £78. It continued to rise by about 2.8% a year until 1964; but between 1964 and 1969, the rate of growth fell to an average of 1% a year. By 1969 it was therefore some 19% higher than in 1959. From 1969 until 1974 real take-home pay rose by around 15%. Since then it fell sharply in 1975 and 1976 with a recovery in 1977–79 which has almost restored the level of 1974 (see below Table Five).

12. Unless otherwise stated the statistics are taken from HMSO publications: Historical Abstract of Labour Statistics, 1976 Year Book of Labour-Statistics, Department of Employment Gazette, December 1978 and April 1979. As is well known the Government statistics exclude ‘political’ strikes and workplace class struggle that never hits the street for any length of time.

13. G.S. Bain, Donovan Research Paper 6, 1967, p. 5.

14. In 1976,14.l% of women worked in education services, 10.8% in medical and dental services, 13.6% in distribution, 6.7% in national or local government services, 6.1% in business services, and 14.5% in a whole range of miscellaneous services such as pubs, hotels, launderettes etc. 39% of women workers, were employed in manufacturing in 1948; by 1976 this proportion had been squeezed to 23%, principally since 1966. In manufacturing in 1976 only one woman in five works part-time.

15. C. Harman, Why Labour Lost, 1979.

16. U.S. statistics courtesy of Barbara Winslow and U.S. Department of Commerce, 1978 Statistical Abstract of the U.S., p. 429.

17. K. Knowles, Strikes 1911–47, 1954, p. 33. Another estimate for the year 1936 suggests only one third of strikes were made official.

18. Since 1940 not even 10 per cent of strikes in any one month have ever been made official. The ‘official’ average for the 15 years, 1962–76, is 4.5% of strikes involving 39% of the workers.

19. Cited in PEP, British Trade Unionism, 1955, p. 137.

20. N. Barou, British Trade Unions, 1947, p. 63 writes: ‘... in actual fact the workers’ delegates to these (JPC) committees are very frequently, though not ‘necessarily, shop stewards: they work best when the two practically coincide.’ Verbal evidence from J. Jefferys, a wartime AEU shop steward and JPC delegate in Coventry, confirms this.

21. Arthur Exell, a wartime engineering worker at Morris Radiators, Oxford, describes how a walk-out by women workers in protest against the terrible conditions in the radiator shop led management to approach the JPC. The trade unionists on the JPC replied they would have to have 100% trade union membership within the factory before they would be concerned about women not turning up to work (History Workshop, 12, 1978).

22. Barou, op. cit., p. 174.

23. H. McShane & J. Smith, No Mean Fighter, 1978, p. 89.

24. G. Roberts, Our finest hour?, Comment, 28.4.79.

25. Knowles, op. cit., p. 56.

26. Roberts, op. cit. Geoff Roberts must also be credited with the observation that CP policy after 1941 was the closest the CP has come to successfully advancing a ‘broad democratic alliance’ (CP History Group meeting, 12.5.79)

27. Cited by W. Hunter, Marxists during the Second World War, Labour Review, December 1959.

28. ibid.

29. Cited in G. Dorfman, Wage Politics in Britain, 1974, p. 60.

30. Individual Labour Party membership climbed from 487,000 in 1945 to 1,014,00 in 1952.

31. Cited, V. Allen, Trade Union Leadership, p. 116.

32. I have adapted Nigel Harris’ terminology, op. cit., in which he uses the terms ‘pluralist corporatist’ and ‘estatiste corporatist’ to describe the two sides of corporatist thought within the Tory Party.

33. Dorfman, op. cit., p. 133, figure 7.1.

34. Cockburn, op. cit., p. 166: ‘until the boom-bubble burst it was not widely or credibly suggested that the villains of the peace were the trade unions.’

35. Dorfman, op. cit., p. 138.

36. The effect of the 1975–76 pay policy on strikes [1*]:


Annual average

Percentage fall
1969/74 to



Number of stoppages




Number of workers involved (000s)




Working days lost:


a) All industries and services (000s)




b) Metals, engineering, shipbuilding and vehicles (000s)




37. Donovan Commission Report, June 1968, p. 29: ‘... the shop-floor decisions which generally precede unofficial strikes are often taken against the advice of shop stewards. Thus shop stewards are rarely agitators pushing workers towards unconstitutional action. In some instances they may be the mere mouthpieces of their workgroup. But quite commonly they are supporters of order exercising a restraining influence on their members in conditions which promote disorder.’

38. Donovan Research Paper 10, Shop Stewards and Workshop Relations, 1968 p. 12.

39. ibid., p. 16.

40. ibid., pp. 17–18.

41. Carron’s description of AEU shop stewards as ‘werewolves’ is well known. In 1961 and 1962 the AEU Executive worked hand-in-glove with the employers in two devastating attacks on shop stewards’ organisation in London, in the closure of Rootes Pressings in West London and in 1962 at Fords, Dagenham. At Fords a return-to-work recommendation by the officials ended a strike by 5,000 assembly plant workers against the victimisation of a shop steward in October 1962; it was followed by the further victimisation of 38 militants, including the Body Plant and PTA convenors, 5 NUVB (vehicle builders), 3 TWGU and 4 AEU shop stewards. At the Willesden ENV factory, which set the pace for wages in the North London AEU district, Carron helped the management to gain a reduction in piecework rates, waiting time payments, and tea breaks, many sackings and withdrawal of the shop stewards’ right to negotiate. Within four months several leading shop stewards had been sacked and within a year the workforce at ENVs was decimated.

42. Following the exposure of CP ballot-rigging in the ETU in 1961 and the defeat of Gaitskell on Clause 4 at the 1960 Labour Party Conference, the Communist Party executed a shift in its trade union strategy from organising predominantly as the CP, to seeking out Labour Party members and non-affiliated lefts to form an electoral Broad Left pact. Thus in 1962 the CP wound up its rank and file publication The Metalworker (produced by the ‘Engineering and Allied Trades’ Shop Stewards’ National Council’ since 1946) in order to clear the way for its Broad Left electoral turn. From 1965 it used the non-CP front Engineering Voice as its election-organiser. See M. Armstrong, The History and Organisation of the Broad Left in the AUEW, M.A. Thesis, Warwick University 1978.

43. Hugh Scanlon, a member of the CP until 1956 who still publicly described himself as a ‘Marxist’, had publicly challenged the dominance of Carron and the right-wingers who had dominated the Executive since Jack Tanner, that AEU President, and later, F. Hallett, the General Secretary, had defected to anti-communism in 1951 and 1959 respectively. Along with Ken Brett and Bob Wright, Scanlon had built an election machine in the Manchester area which became the basis of the national Broad Left. It was based on branch activists, including shop stewards who could deliver a good ‘turn-out’ at the branch on voting nights. But it was exclusively an electoral machine and organised primarily by existing full-time officials. It was not based on the factory struggle, although its existence assisted the solidarity pickets around Roberts-Arundel in Stockport in 1967. Rather than trying to organise ongoing rank and file links between factories it saw its task as winning workers to the idea that things would get better if ‘Hughie’ got elected.

44. Scabbing was still a continuing sore in the 1960s, as was the non-recognition of picket lines. During the six weeks dispute at the Southall Woolfs rubber works in December 1965 and January 1966, the management recruited some 50 scabs (including some Pakistani workers) to break the 700 predominantly Indian workers’ strike. At the GKN-Injection Moulders lock-out in June and July 1968, the same tactics were employed. White collar workers were also a major source of scabbing.

45. T. Cliff, The Employers’ Offensive: Productivity deals and how to fight them, 1970, p. 10.

46. HMSO, Manpower Paper 5, 1971, p. 70.

47. W. McCarthy, The role of the shop stewards in British industrial relations, Donovan Research Paper 1, 1967, p. 16.

48. At the Rootes/Chrysler, Linwood car factory, the first-ever mass meetings of members of all the manual unions together took place in 1970 over wages and the Industrial Relations Bill. This was some two years after Measured Day Work had been implemented throughout the factory.

49. In 1972, for example, the Engineering Employers’ Federation paid out £10 per week for each worker striking against one of its member firms for the national engineering unions’ claim.

50. With the refusal of Scanlon to direct or encourage a national struggle for the 1971 claim, Manchester and large parts of the North-West (the stronghold of the Broad Left) took district-wide action. Between March and May 1972 this action commonly took the form of factory occupations. By April 18, 27 factories were under occupation. (See G. Chadwick, The Manchester Engineering Sit-ins, 1972, Trade Union Register, 1973.) The plant-by-plant settlement strategy adopted by Scanlon eventually proved disastrous. Scanlon dropped the 35 hours demand and the final agreement added only 6-– per cent to the industry’s wage bill over a 20 month period: it was the worst agreement accepted by any major section of workers in 1972. The defeat laid the basis for the new advance of the right wing within the AUEW.

51. On January 11, 1926 the AEU members at the London printing machinery firm, Hoe & Co., followed up a two months overtime ban and go-slow in pursuit of a wage rise by a ‘stay-in-strike’ against the introduction of non-unionists which began on the day-shift and was followed by the night-shift. It lasted over two months. (J. Jefferys, The Story of the Engineers, 1946, p. 231) In the same year railway workshop engineers at LMS Newton Heath and LNE Hull used the stay-in strike. Among miners the ‘stay-down’ strike also spread asa form of action against company trade unionism in the early 1930s. After the Second World War the miners at Waleswood Colliery held a stay-down strike in protest at the threatened closure of their pit by the Coal Board in 1948 (Knowles, op. cit., pp. 10–11).

52. In 1962 there had been some stoppages by engineering workers in support of the nurses’ wage claim held up by the Selwyn Lloyd pay pause for public sector workers.

53. I can recall a period of 8 weeks at Chrysler, Linwood in 1971 when the AUEW Works Committee and the JRC (Joint Stewards’ Committee) organised for 6 separate factory-wide collections between them. Naturally enough those at the end of the queue didn’t do so well as those at the head.

54. S. Jefferys, The Challenge of the Rank and File, ISJ (Series 1), March 1975.

55. R. Taylor, The Fifth Estate 1978, pp. 10, 31, 137.

56. Assisted no doubt by the Treasury decision in 1966 to allow trade union dues to be paid by the check-off system. Previously this dues payment method had been confined to the miners in the public sector since 1948, and had only spread in the private sector from the early 1960s.

57. R. Taylor, op. cit., p. 13.

58. But the 1977 PEP Report, by D. Smith, Racial Disadvantage in Britain, bears out the evidence of a long series of Asian strikes – from Injection Moulders, 1968, to Imperial Typewriters, 1974, that Black and Asian workers in both private and public sector jobs are more ready to join trade unions than white workers. In 1974 61% of Asian and West Indian men were trade unionists compared to 47% of white men. The trade union was partly seen as something ‘local’ to join that might give protection; partly as something you did in Britain because that’s what you had done in the West Indies or India.

59. H. Wilson, The Labour Government, 1964–70, 1971, p. 823.

60. The % change in hourly wage earnings (negotiated locally) as compared to hourly wage rates (negotiated nationally) rose from 1967 −0.3%, to 1968 +0.3%, to 1969 +2.5%, to 1970 +3.6%.

61. Fords, another major national company much in the public eye, was also hit by an unofficial semi-national strike in 1969.

62. In HMSO Strikes in Britain, 197$, p. 38, a breakdown is given of the occupations of the unions whose members were not involved in any strikes at all between 1966 and 1969, but were involved in 1970–73. They conclude: ‘The most outstanding point is the increased activity of white-collar and professional trade unions.’

63. Department of Employment, Strikes in Britain, Manpower Paper 15, p. 31 Table C.

64. Identified as a trend by G.S. Bain, Trade Union Growth and recognition, Donovan Research Paper, 6, 1967 resulting in declining trade union density in eight out of fourteen expanding industries between 1949 and 1960 (p. 16). Also see: Strikes in Britain, p. 31.

65. One calculation is that if white collar workers struck as frequently as manual workers there would be two-thirds more strikes in the country as a whole. Strikes in Britain, p. 31.

66. See R. Taylor, op. cit., p. 126. One quarter were now white-collar shop stewards.

67. The Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions was the organising centre of rank and file opposition to ‘compulsion’ between 1969 and 1971. Its activities – Conferences and calls for strike action – were very important in creating a climate of resistance which helped justify the left trade union leaders’ refusal to collaborate outright with the Industrial Relations Act. But the LCDTU was not, nor did it attempt to become a rank and file movement. It was a rank and file pressure group with significant influence (usually carried by individual CP members) within perhaps a hundred shop stewards’ committees and a dozen trade union executives. It held no open regular meetings in any town or city; where meetings were held (primarily in Glasgow called by the West of Scotland Shop Stewards’ Liaison Committee) they were done so on a once-off basis to rubber stamp particular calls for action previously decided by the CP. It never once concerned itself with the need to build up a rank and file movement independent of the ‘left’ leaders who were already clearly trapped in the spider’s web of the ‘national interest’. In general it was seen as a national extension of the Broad Left in the AUEW see M. Armstrong, op. cit.).

68. In 1912 a similar situation had existed in Manchester. But on that occasion the 20-odd different strike committees came together and agreed that none would settle until all the others were offered satisfactory settlements.

69. See Solidarity pamphlet 19, The Labour Government versus the Dockers, 1945–51, 1965.

70. Frequently commented upon by industrial relations ‘experts’. For example, the C.I.R. Report No. 85 on Industrial Relations in multi-plant undertakings, 1974, p. 24: ‘It is true that many stewards hold other office in their union and this gives them a somewhat wider perspective, but plant issues are generally looked at in isolation from matters which affect a number of plants. This means that union organisation is often much less effective once it is faced by matters which reach beyond the plant.’

71. The January 1972 Statement by the AUEW Executive Council to shop stewards argued, ‘We must regard the (Industrial Relations) Act as a piece of short-term legislation which will prove to be yet one more irritant in the relationship between unions and employers ... Employers are unlikely to invite chaos into their factories by invoking those parts of the Act which are particularly objectionable to trade unionists.’ etc.

72. Strikes, 1969–79:


No. of stoppages

Aggregate number of
working days lost (000s)

All industries
and services


All industries
and services



















































Jan–March 1979




*Mining and quarrying

73. Then Scanlon advised: ‘some important points to remember: 1. Non-cooperation at all levels. 2. ... Make sure that it is impossible to identify the leaders of a strike ... 4. Do not sign legally binding agreements ... 6. Best advice – know about the Act, but ignore it and continue to operate Trade Union activities as before.’ The AUEW called 3 official national strikes against the Act; local District Committees supported several more. The TGWU was much more reticent. It merely supported the TUC Day of Action called on May 1, 1973.

74. The International Socialists numbered its trade union membership in tens before 1969. By 1974, for the first time since World War Two, revolutionary ideas had been taken up widely within a minority of the working class, and more than two-thirds of IS’s 3,000 members were trade unionists – about half manual workers. This period of widening possibilities for revolutionaries had been clearly foreseen by Tony Cliff in International Socialism 36 (Series 1), April/May 1969, On Perspectives, where he concluded: ‘In summing up one can say that the third stage the British working class has entered is a ‘negation of the negation’ – synthesising elements of the first stage (the 20s and 30s) – class identification – and of the second stage (1945–65) – self-confidence. The synthesis is higher than the individual elements joined in it and pregnant of greater revolutionary possibilities.’ Readjustment of a much larger revolutionary group to a situation where the class-in-itself reasserted itself inevitably proved (and continued to prove until the end of the 1970s) difficult, but not impossible.

75. Labour Research Department, Fact Service, 2.12.78 and unpublished statistics for 1970–74.

76. Estimates vary greatly. Donovan in 1966 estimated 1 per cent of 175,000 shop stewards were full-time; since then the TUC and CIR have estimated variously 1975 – 290,000 and 1972 – 350,000 workplace representatives. (Taylor, op. cit., p. 126). Today the numbers have certainly increased still further and the proportion of full-time stewards has probably risen to 2 per cent.

77. At Chrysler Linwood, the Chairman of the JRC (Joint Shop Stewards) actually received less in 1978 as a full-time shop steward because he worked permanent days while his fellow workers rotated day-shift/night-shift.

78. See S. Jefferys, Fire from Below, 1978 SWP pamphlet, for an account of the rank and file nature of this strike.

79. The suspension of Times Newspapers from November 30 was clearly part of a long-term attempt to transform industrial relations on Fleet St., where full-time rank and file shop stewards (chapel officials) probably have more power and influence than in any other industry.

80. HMSO, New Earnings Survey, 1978.

81. As, for example, T. Cliff argues, Ten years on, SW, 26.5.79, “Wage drift, the difference between national wage rates and the “going rate” on the shop floor, ten years ago was one of the most important expressions of the power of individual shop stewards. That has now practically disappeared from industry.” (my emphasis).

82. From the engineering belt of North-West London, however, the response was dreadful.

83. For a detailed account of the struggle against Phase 3 and Phase 4 in 1977 and 1978 see S. Jefferys, The Wages Struggle, Fighting against the stream, Socialist Review 9, February 1979.

84. For example, the Chrysler paint-shop dispute in August, the Haringey dustmen’s strike in September, the Renolds engineering strike in Coventry in September and October, the suspension of The Times in November 30, 1978.

85. The South London Fairweather’s strike in the building industry in May and June 1978 saw flying pickets used to pull out other Fairweather sites – some non-union – and collected £4,000 from 152 donations during the 8½ weeks they were out on strike. £2,400 of this total came from 33 site collections.

86. Financial Times, 16.1.79.

87. See the Anti-Concordat, Rank and File pamphlet 1979 for a detailed account of the TUC-Labour Pact and the politics behind it.

88. A Better Way, January 1979, was written by John Grant, a Labour Minister of Employment, and signed by 12 leading trade union general secretaries. It called for an incomes policy and the establishment of a new Prices and Incomes Board. The TUC mailing was used to distribute it (unofficially) to Trades Councils throughout the country.

89. For a full account of the low paid struggle see S. Jefferys, The Low Paid Revolt, SWP Industrial Discussion Bulletin, April/May 1979.

90. The teachers’ action was only called off after the Tories won the General Election.

91. G.D.H. Cole, British Trade Unionism Today, 1938, p. 534.

92. Hobsbawm, op. cit., p. 279.

93. See, for example, T. Cliff & C. Barker, op. cit., in 1966: “The urge for workers’ control is becoming more stridently expressed in strikes as the decline in the proportion of strikes over purely wages issues shows ...”

94. F. Engels, Trade Unions, Part 2, The Labour Standard, June 4, 1881.

95. Gill, op. cit., p. 396.

96. Hyman, op. cit.

97. As witnessed in its 25 per cent pay awards to the “top people” in June 1979, its decision to cut significantly the stock of publicly-owned housing, and its immediate relaxation of the remaining loose price controls.

98. The Tories will clearly follow the path trod in the Concordat as closely as possible. Its proposals to provide funds for secret ballots will not produce much excitement: those to make some forms of picketing and the closed shop “unfair” legal practices may well do. But even these may be tied in more with existing criminal law as laid down in a series of decisions in 1978 and 1979 which have already made “distant” solidarity action illegal.

Note by ETOL

1*. In the print version the average number of strikes for the years 1969–74 is erroneously given as “12,923”.

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Last updated: 10 October 2020