From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 17, 28 April 1941, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Some weeks ago Labor Action published a number of articles on the developing shop steward movement in Britain and pointed out its great importance. This movement is growing and strengthening. We print below an article on the latest developments among the British shop stewards and their meaning ...
One of the major contributions of the British working class to the international labor movement was the creation and development of what has come to be known as the shop steward system and its corollary, the works committees. These class struggle instruments of the workers reached their greatest development in England during the World War – when they served effectively in mobilizing the workers of England against the imperialist intervention schemes of the Tory government – and later during the famous general strike of 1926.
Since that time the shop steward movement has suffered an eclipse, as part of the general decline of British trade union militancy. Nowhere in the world is a working class so held in check by a hidebound, reactionary bureaucracy as is the British worker. But the first year and a half of the war has seen an impurtant revival – if not along the political front, where reformist domination of the labor movement is still all-powerful – then along the economic front. What could be more natural than to find the British workers reasserting themselves by means of their familiar institutions – the shop steward system and the works committees?
What are these institutions? A shop steward is a rank-and-file worker – a trade union member – who is directly elected by the fellow workers in their particular department, unit or shop of the factory. His job is to deal DIRECTLY, from day to day or hour to hour if necessary, with the shop foreman or the management. He brings the complaints, demands and grievances of his shopmates directly to the boss or manager who, in turn, must deal with him because he knows that every man in his shop stands behind the shop steward. As the English put it, the shop steward is the man who holds debates with the foreman! He expressesmost simply, directly and DEMOCRATICALLY the struggle within the industrial plant.
What is the works committee? This committee consists of all the shop stewards in a particular factory or industrial unit, it holds weekly meetings and each steward from the various departments brings his report to this body. It takes up matters affecting the factory as a whole, coordinates grievances in sections of the plant and espresses the higher unity of the indsutrial workers. On all serious matters the works committee (or factory council) deals with the boss in the name of all the factory workers. In addition, there are two further duties of the shop steward. Special stewards – known as trade union card stewards – keep tab on dues, see that union work cards are in order, that no non-union men are sneaked in, etc. Stewards also must take note of various complaints made by the workers during the day’s work which are to be called to the attention of the works committee.
The great fear of the shop steward system that exists in the mind of Britain’s boss is easy to understand. First, let it be noted that this system represents an independent workers’ policing of the factory from the inside. Under this system the contract must be enforced and all new grievances must be acted on instantly. Very unpleasant for Mr. Boss. Secondly, it represents in simple but powerful form an embryonic workers’ control of the factory.
It says, in effect, that Mr. Boss is not lord and master of his plant, that another rival authority exists. Arid Mr. Boss knows well where such steps lead – to revolution and expropriation of the plant! so he mobilizes his whole authority and his closest allies – the trade union bureaucrat and the government – against the shop steward system!
Shop stewardism reached its strongest point during the last war among the Scottish shipyard workers in the Clyde area. There were 50,000 of them and they held real power in their hands. This time the movement was apparently revived by aircraft factory workers in and around the London area. The immediate cause for this revival was the heavy bombings of August and September last year.
The Tory government, with its Labor Party prisoners, demanded that workers remain at their work during air raids! This was shortly modified to request that workers remain at work until roof-spotters should inform them that the bombing situation was becoming dangerous. Ernest Bevin presented this request to the workers, and then the opposition began.
Aircraft factory workers elected their shop stewards (since they knew they could obtain no satisfaction from their business and walking delegates) and presented their own demands to the government. First, they insisted that bomb-proof ARP shelters should be constructed by the government right on the job. Secondly, they demanded working class control of roof-spotting activity; that is, they should have the right to appoint their own spotters. Thirdly, no docking of pay during air-raid alarms. These demands were met by the government in a way that depended upon the strength of the stewards and their backing. In many places all demands were won; in other factories to a limited extent. The government immediately began reprisals against the shop stewards, attempting to nip the system in the bud. Union bureaucrats – having nothing else to do since they had given up their powers during the imperialist war – threatened to expel shop stewards from the unions. This threat was particularly vicious in the Amalgamated Engines Union, controlling munitions workers, but it did not materialize. A reign of transfers and dismissals of stewards swept Britain’s factories. In one Scottish factory military police entered to break up a meeting of a works committee and arrest several stewards. In the month of October, 1940, fifty stewards were dismissed from the factories.
The answer of the workers was to renew their efforts and and another demand – compensation for all workers hurt during an air raid.
And then in October of last year the Clyde shipyard workers came back to life and turned automatically to the shop steward system. A meeting of stewards, representing all the Scottish shipyards, was held. It is natural that they, being the most advanced and militant workers in all England, should formulate the most complete and serious set of demands. To those we have already listed they added the following:
Said the Scottish shop stewards: “We take up the fight where the union bureaucrats leave off!” At present, the major issues before the shop stewards consist in attempting to win higher wages to combat the daily rising living costs and settling issues that directly arise from the war itself (air raids, compensation, transport disruption, etc.).
The industrial conscription powers now possessed by Bevin form a basis for serious strike struggle issues in the immediate future. Bevin now has authority to
The shop steward system and works committees are slowly but steadily expanding. Against them stand the government, the labor bureaucrats and the bosses. The future of the British working class lies in this struggle between the embryonic workers’ power and the organized might of the English capitalist class. Here is the field of the “war within the war.”
Last updated: 14.12.2012