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International Socialism, Spring 1984


Dave Beecham

How far has rank and file organisation been
weakened and incorporated?


First published in International Socialism Journal 2 : 23, Spring 1984, pp. 99–112.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg / Marven Scott.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


W. Daniel and N. Milward
Workplace Relations in Britain (DE/PSI/SSRC Survey)
Heinemann 1983, pp. 338, £8.50

Over the past five years this journal has returned repeatedly to the central problem facing revolutionaries in Britain today – that of the downturn in workers’ struggle. [1] Let us begin by outlining the essential elements of this understanding of the class struggle in the years after 1975.

  1. It began with the social contract policy of the Labour government elected in 1974, which ushered in a period of collaboration between national union leaderships and the state. The result was an immediate and dramatic limitation on workers’ self-activity.
  2. This was made possible by the powerful influence of the left reformist leaders of the trade union movement on the activities of the layer of worker militants in and around the Communist Party (and also the Labour left) in the mid-1970s.
  3. And it led to cuts in workers’ living standards, cuts which were agreed to at the top by government and union leaderships and which were policed from below by employers and local officials. This widened divisions between the rank and file and the shop stewards.
  4. As a result stewards became more heavily involved in greater collaboration with management in the late 1970s, particularly in the period of productivity bargaining (1977–79) when many of these deals were seen as devices to ‘get round’ wage controls. In private industry in particular this often led to significantly worsening conditions.
  5. It also led to an extremely widespread formalisation of procedures under Labour’s Employment Protection Act. Under the Tories this had been much more partial, and their legislation – the Industrial Relations Act (1971–74) – had been fiercely opposed; indeed workers’ resistance had made it more or less inoperable.
  6. Furthermore the growth of consultation and participation as part of government and management strategy after 1974 which was welcomed by union leaders and was seen by shop stewards as enhancing their prestige, resulted in a clear bureaucratisation at the workplace, with full-time stewards paid by the employer outnumbering full-time officials by two to one.
  7. Less dramatically, but significantly, the specific reforms initiated by the Labour government – health and safety legislation, time off for union activity etc – produced a more privileged class of union representatives.
  8. In newly-nationalised sectors – shipbuilding, aircraft, British Leyland – and to a lesser extent in steel and the mines entirely new structures were evolved, incorporating shop stewards’ representatives in the managerial process. Trade union leaders were appointed to Boards.
  9. >After the Labour government’s offensive on wages from 1975 on and the start of the assault on services, from 1976, the employers began to move on to the offensive. Managements began to make increasing use of the courts. The judiciary began to encroach with judgements against solidarity action.

To summarise the effect on the shop (or office) floor:

An increasingly isolated, bureaucratic and to an extent privileged layer of shop floor leaders was created.

This group emerged just at the time of the first real cuts in living standards and the welfare state since the war.

The result was a drastic shift away from independent self-activity at the workplace into the tokenistic attitudes of the last few years.

The unofficial leadership of the past became part of the official machinery. Sectional strength was transformed into lack of solidarity in the unions. The elementary tradition of not crossing picket lines, of collecting money for strikes, of the steward representing the members and being one of the members – all these were broken down.

If one word describes workers’ organisation it is ‘atrophy’; as the dictionary describes it: ‘a wasting away of the body, or any part of it, through lack of nourishment.’

The 1980 Survey

The 1980 survey of workplace industrial relations, published in book form in September 1983 [2], is the first attempt at a comprehensive official survey of the state of the working class for more than 15 years. Of course it was commissioned and carried out with the express purpose of confirming certain preconceptions, of justifying certain policies. It is inevitably suspect as a source for revolutionaries trying to assess the state of shop floor organisation: above all because the main actors – the workers themselves – are not only missing from the stage, they are not even in the script.

There are undoubtedly useful aspects to the book. It illustrates some of the features of the downturn in the class struggle to which we have referred above. Indeed its conclusions specifically point to the emergence of full-time convenors and to the growth of consultative arrangements as perhaps the two most important ‘new features of industrial relations’. Clearly we must evaluate such a work to see what else emerges.

Unfortunately, we have to be extremely careful about relying on this book as a guide. The problems are as follows:

  1. Because the survey was conducted between April and September 1980 it is well out of date. Not only that: its timing, following the unprecedented national strikes in the engineering and steel industries in the late summer and winter of 1979/80, means that many of the conclusions are simply wrong. For example, the survey finds that ‘secondary picketing’ is more important than ‘ordinary picketing’ and that national bargaining is more important than company or workplace bargaining. Both these findings are completely unreliable because of the influence of two national strikes involving a lot of secondary action. The survey also came only just over a year after the 1979 lorry drivers’ strikes which involved more secondary picketing than any strike before or since.
  2. The survey is almost all based on the ‘size of establishment’. In other words, the characteristics of different industries.’unions, parts of the country etc are simply not taken into account. This purely statistical view of ‘establishments’ makes a lot of the figures unreliable – especially because of the sample of industries covered.
  3. The survey sample is based on the 1977 official census of employment. Not only is this now well out of date but it means that what is being described is the whole economy: from shops and schools to engineering factories and docks (the mines are excluded because the Coal Board was obstructive).

    Now this would be all very well if the survey was analysed by industry categories. But with a few exceptions it isn’t. We therefore have to be careful about the results. For example, about 15% of the workplaces covered are either schools or hospitals. The whole of engineering, steel, cars, shipbuilding etc. is about the same proportion.

    Almost every other survey carried out has looked at the figures industry by industry. This one is very different. So any comparisons with other information are impossible.

    Generalisation is very difficult because of the lumping together of, say, large engineering factories with hospitals, according to size; or alternatively, schools with building sites.
  4. Categories are misleading. Thus the findings on consultation mostly do not distinguish between different types of consultation: for example, canteens or health and safety, or new machinery, or sackings ...

With these important reservations, what does the survey suggest?

The bureaucratisation of the shop floor

The emergence of full-time convenors during the downturn is so clear that the survey’s authors point to it as one of the main conclusions. ‘Where 500 or more manual workers were employed, full-time convenors were very common, and where 1,000 or more manual workers were employed, nearly three-quarters of establishments had full-time convenors ... There appeared to have been substantial growth in the number of full-time convenors in the period following the mid-1970s.’ (p. 279).

Arguing in more detail the authors say:

We have seen that they (full-time convenors) were the norm in establishments with more than 1,000 employees and we found, further, that many had been introduced in recent years. In nearly one quarter of the cases where full-time convenors operated they were first established within the previous five years (i.e. between 1975 and 1980). It appeared, however, that the most rapid period of their recent growth had been the two years from 1975 to 1977. That was especially true for the smaller establishments that had full-time convenors. At establishments with fewer than 500 employees, over one quarter of the convenors owed their origins to that two-year period. We have no direct evidence about why the numbers of full-time convenors should have risen in the years 1975 to 1977, but the timing combined with previous research suggests that it may have been associated with the employment and industrial relations legislation of the mid-1970s. (p. 37).

This rather coy explanation is typical of the authors.

We can say, outright, that this development was ‘associated’ with precisely the period of the largest cut in most workers’ living standards since the 1930s.

Under the Tory government of Edward Heath, wages rose by an average 3.5% a year, with a massive growth of 7.4% in the year of the great 1971/72 struggles.

Under the Labour government that followed, however, real wages declined first by 2% (March 1974/75) in the year of highest inflation, and then in successive years by 4% (March 1975/76) and 5% (March 1976/77).

We can then point to a subsequent development.

Between March 1977 and March 1979 real wages rose again, by 5% (and then 7% in the next year as Labour’s wage controls collapsed). In part wages bounced back because of a rise in the struggle over wages, after a collapse in the struggle in 1976/77. But the growth of productivity bargaining was much more significant.

The period from August 1977 to August 1978 involved the greatest number of productivity deals ever signed in a single year; at least 1,500 agreements were signed according to the official Department of Employment figures. And in reality the total must have been quite a bit higher.

Frequently these deals were portrayed by unions as clever dodges to ‘get round’ pay controls. They involved connivance at factory level between stewards and management to present them in a form palatable to the government and the trade union bureaucracy.

But they were in the main far from the innocuous ‘cosmetic’ deals which the Broad Left officials and stewards were claiming. In his original article on the downturn in Autumn 1979 Cliff lists deals involving reductions in wages (Westland Aircraft), flexibility and mobility and non-replacement (Rolls-Royce), new productivity techniques and machinery (Rockwell Kingspeed), and so on.

A lot of these ‘harmless’ agreements negotiated by full-time convenors and officials with the eager support of the Labour government and management involved punitive conditions for future negotiations. For example, when we looked at the second and third round of productivity agreements in 1978/79 (D. Beecham, IS 2 : 14, 1980) we found that so-called ‘attendance bonus’ agreements – ‘extra money for coming to work’ as the Sun and Mirror described them, subsequently became anti-strike agreements. Any industrial action was punished by the bonus being stopped for a week, a month or even three months.

The framework for the thoroughgoing employers’ offensive of 1978/79 and onwards was laid down precisely during the period of the greatest impact of the social contract. The development of the full-time convenor was not just a symptom, it was an essential component of the changed relationship between management and shop floor organisation. Stewards became more dependent on their management not just in terms of developing wage rises above the government limit (10% in the key year 1977/78) but in organisational terms as well.

And while the large factories had already developed a system of control involving full-time convenors with plush offices and full secretarial facilities, the great burgeoning of work-place union bureaucracy took place just at the time when workers were under the most severe attack on the wages’ front for many years.

It does not take a genius to see that the interests and ideas of workers and their representatives begin to diverge quite sharply under such circumstances. Only more recently have we learned of the detailed systems of corruption which began to emerge in this period – full-time convenors on 100% earnings plus bonus plus night premiums plus unlimited time off site ... But irrespective of this element, the end result of this period was to emasculate key parts of the stewards’ movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, to atrophy shop organisation, to deprive stewards’ organisation of independence from management, to reinforce introverted sectionalism, to break down the spirit of solidarity (even to the extent that pay increases which ‘broke the rules’ would be covered up from union officials let alone stewards in different factories or offices). And, conversely, the result was to strengthen management ideology – the need for profitability, viability, greater rates of exploitation – hand-in-hand with the strengthening of the ‘national interest’ ideology peddled by the Labour government and the union bureaucrats, both right and left.

The full-time convenor is not the only development the survey points to in terms of the growth of workplace bureaucracy. Unfortunately there is no indication of the growth of facility time as such, associated with the successive waves of Tory and Labour legislation during the 1970s and with the ‘professionalisation’ of shop stewards. However, the report does pick up on the extent of facilities available to stewards which give an indication of the amount of time spent away from work, together with an indication of the growth of such facilities under the social contract.

For example, 71% of manual senior stewards (and 74% of white-collar equivalents) have the use of office facilities. More significantly – the main question is rather vague – 20% of manual senior stewards (18% of staff) had their own offices; 29% (35% for staff) had secretarial help provided by the employer; just over 20% of these arrangements were covered by formal agreements with management.

Between 1975 and 1980, the survey indicates, the extent of these facilities grew by a third.

The extent of facility time etc. is of course largest in the largest plants, offices etc., the large engineering works and car factories and large public sector complexes covered by the survey. Among manual workers in places with more than 1,000 workers, 54% of senior stewards had secretarial facilities and 61% their own office. Among staff the proportions were a bit lower at 43% and 41%.

The ‘training’ of stewards was a completely new phenomenon brought in by the social contract. Of course some unions had held courses previously. But these were almost always outside work time as part of the union’s effort to build up a cadre of militants. Under the 1975 Employment Protection Act all this changed. Time off for steward training was expressly provided for. The survey comments that while many aspects of the Labour government’s legislation had only a marginal impact (e.g. maternity rights) the use of time off for stewards was quite widespread.

About a quarter of all establishments with manual unions had used legal provisions for stewards training after 1975. But this rose to 50% in factories with more than 1,000 workers. The ‘take-up’ of time off for stewards training rather than stewards’ duties was consistently higher in places with more than 200 employees.

(The picture in this case is distinctly different for staff reps, with less training and a greater balance between time off for training and time off for representation.)

It is important to make a distinction between time off for stewards representing members (at least some of it) and so-called training. In the years between 1975 and 1980 it became almost universal for stewards in large workplaces to go off on courses agreed by management. Although we are talking in terms generally of a day or two (though sometimes considerably more over a period of time) the effect was to distance the union rep from the members yet again.

Perhaps the training provisions under the law were not too significant in themselves – but this is not the point. They symbolise the process of bureaucratisation and formalisation under the downturn.

Before, a union course was independent of management and the law. To go on such a course was, at least partially to participate in the creation of the network of militants. But the social contract provisions changed this. The approach was much more dependent on the TUC, on management approval and on the government. According to the survey, in nearly every workplace with more than 1,000 people, there had been stewards taking time off for training in the year 1979/80. This represents a colossal change in the role and status of stewards, especially when we see that only a small proportion of this training took place at the workplace (mostly manual workers in the civil service and local government). A total of 93% of training took place in work hours. And while direct management control of content was limited (14%), 86% of management representatives thought the training helped ‘a great deal’ or to ‘a fair extent’.

It would be foolish to think that the process did not compromise the independence of the stewards concerned.

The formalisation of negotiations

The main thrust of the social contract was against the unofficial movement. We have seen how the stewards’ position in medium or large workplaces was considerably altered after 1974 – and in particular how the ‘leadership’ in the workplace was quite fundamentally compromised – ideologically and in terms of organisation.

A fundamental aspect of this process was the formalisation of procedures.

As late as 1968, and despite the wave of productivity deals of the 1960s, the Royal Commission on Trade Unions (the Donovan Commission) found that the industrial relations problem’ was lack of regulation, informality, the independence of workplace organisation from management and union officials. In its recommendations it emphasised that:

Wherever possible, collective agreements should be written and precise ... Pay agreements should provide intelligible and coherent pay structures ... Procedure agreements should be comprehensive in scope ... it is desirable for each company or factory to be covered by a single set of comprehensive agreements applying to all the unions.

One of the Commission’s main recommendations was a register of agreements to rationalise the system and lay the ground for putting unofficial action outside the law.

In the event, history appeared to overtake the Commission. The Tory government elected in 1970 moved rapidly to impose a legal system before any of the reforms and restrictions on rank and file organisation had taken place. The result was a tremendous wave of unofficial resistance to the Industrial Relations Act, culminating in 1972, and the eventual defeat of the Heath government and the repeal of the Act.

But though the Act was repealed, crucial elements in it were preserved. The most important was the legislation on industrial tribunals and dismissal etc. The development of a regulated system had been the principle recommendation of the Donovan Commission and the preservation of the tribunal system, now with union support and union representation, was a key element in it.

The tribunals insisted on clear, written procedures. Initially this had a limited effect because of union boycotts or abstention. This was totally changed with the election of the Labour government. In fact the trade union bureaucracy pressed for other matters to be made subject to tribunals and for the new conciliation service to be centrally involved in regulating procedures.

For the rank and file militants the struggle for independence of the early 1970s totally disappeared. Instead the whole thrust of government, management and official union policies was towards incorporation and regulation.

The workplace survey reveals this with considerable clarity. In fact it shows what we might call the ‘Donovanisation’ of the workplace. For example:

In the great majority of establishments that had a disciplinary and dismissals procedure (83%) managers reported that substantially the same procedure applied to all employees covered (88% gave this answer. Hence 73% of all establishments had a uniform disciplinary procedure ... According to managers, disciplinary procedures were written down in 91% of establishments which had them ... The high proportion of disciplinary procedures that were set out in a written document is very much a recent development in Britain. Evidence from an unpublished Government Social Survey report ... in 1969 was that only 8% of private sector establishments had a formal procedure of this kind. Our equivalent figure for 1980 was over 80%’ (pp. 162–3).

And as we might expect by now the survey goes on to say: ‘the introduction of written disciplinary procedures appears to have been most common in the mid-1970s’ (p. 163).

The vast majority of disciplinary procedures (and an even greater number of pay and conditions’ disputes procedures) were in the form of written documents jointly signed with the unions. The survey makes the interesting point that there was still some resistance (in 1980) by stewards in the private sector with traditional hostility to management: the exceptions to joint disciplinary documents ‘were frequently private sector establishments where only manual trade unions were recognised, indicating that some of the traditional reluctance of some manual unions to become involved in joint disciplinary proceedings still exists’ (p. 167).

But it is the timing of the introduction of these formalised procedures that is most important.

The survey’s identification of the key period as 1975–77 – again – seems to be spot on. Just at the time of the greatest assault on wages, of the collapse of strike activity, of the start of the productivity offensive and of the creation of a wider stewards’ bureaucracy – just then was the key period for the codification of joint procedures. Of those places with written disciplinary procedures (the vast majority jointly agreed, remember) 40% had drawn them up between 1975 and 1980. The figure for disputes procedures was lower at 29%.

But this does not reveal the extent of the change under the social contract, because the public sector unions had mostly agreed joint procedures before 1974.

According to the survey, in fact half the written disputes procedures in the public sector were drawn up before 1970 and three quarters before 1974. For disciplinary procedures the proportions in the public sector were 38% before 1970 and a total 64% before 1974.

Contrast the private sector where union organisation was always much more self-sufficient and independent before the days of the social contract. Just under a third of disputes’ procedures were agreed before 1970 (probably the effect of the 1960s wave of productivity bargaining and a further 31% between 1970 and 1974. But the main period was during 1975–80. With disciplinary procedures the picture is even clearer: 21% before 1970; 33% 1970–74; 44% 1975–80.

What the survey does not show is when the majority of factory or company-wide written joint procedures were agreed, but from other evidence we can say that this would indicate an even clearer picture. It was the stewards who agreed the codification of rules, regulations, working practices etc. during the late 1970s. The industry-wide agreements were concluded rather earlier, and of course had much less impact on rank and file organisation.

Before leaving this question of procedures (about which much more could be written) we ought to note the impact of the Labour government’s legislation on external procedures – and the role of the full-time official in ‘settling’ disputes.

Over two-thirds of procedure agreements provided for outside intervention. And around a third of these involved ACAS. Only 7% specified the union full-time official. Yet when it came to actually settling disputes, in the period 1979–80, the official was used 23% of the time in discipline/dismissal disputes and 30% of the time in disputes over pay and conditions.

Paying union dues via management

The check-off system – deduction by management of union dues before they get into wage packets – was one of the things recommended by the Donovan Commission. In the late 1960s the extent of the system was significant but limited: ‘about one trade union member in five, most of them in the public sector’ according to the Donovan Report (which commissioned its own survey).

The contrast in this latest survey is, as we would expect, very great indeed. ‘We found that the check-off was very widespread among our establishments, and much more widespread than the closed shop’ (p. 74) (which is estimated as covering 27% of all employees, 44% of manual workers).

Three-quarters of workplaces with manual unions operated the check-off according to the survey. The check-off was ‘almost universal’ for manual workers in nationalised industry etc. More than half the firms which were part of a group operated the check-off in the private sector and in terms of companies recognising unions the figures rose to 79% and to 51% for ‘independent establishments’.

This is a very dramatic and important change.

Only a matter of 20 years ago, or less, it was common for shop stewards to collect union dues. Not only did this mean that stewards actually had to see their members regularly, once a week or once a month, but it meant a regular argument with the backsliders. The steward could tell pretty quickly whether there was a mood of hostility to the union and, consequently, it was possible to isolate the minority of potential scabs.

This method of shop or office control has largely disappeared. Even in those places where there is no check-off there are fewer controls, as a larger proportion of members pay by cheque or bankers order.

Of course the check-off also fits in with the alienation of the union from the membership, and its loss of independence, in another way. If your union dues are deducted by management and your senior union representatives are full-timers paid by management, the notion of independent workers’ organisation becomes rather limited.

A rise in participation?

The most widely reported finding of the survey is on the growth of consultative committees involving management and workers’ representatives. The survey reports that in 15% of establishments consultative committees were set up between 1975 and 1980. Given that a total of 37% of workplaces reported consultative committees, this implies that the social contract period involved a doubling of participation exercises by management.

The problem is that this finding needs to be taken with several pinches of salt, despite the fact that it fits very neatly into the theory of the downturn and the employers’ offensive.

The reason is that there is no indication in the survey of the ‘ebb and flow’ of consultative arrangements. A large number of surveys since the second world war have shown a higher proportion of consultative committees in existence, e.g. engineering firms persisting with the Joint Production Committees or works’ committees established during the war. In fact the survey estimate of 37% coverage of consultative committees could easily be an underestimate. Almost every public sector workplace has some sort of committee covering it, yet the survey suggests that there is a 50% coverage in the public sector. As we noted earlier about 15% of the sample of 2,000 establishments are either schools or hospitals: all of these could be said to have consultative committees.

There are numerous other criticisms that can be made – notably the fact that the survey does not distinguish between different types of arrangement.

However when it comes to one aspect of consultation the survey shows one important thing: the union nominated the consultative committee representatives in under half the cases; but when there was a full-time convenor the direct union involvement in all nominations rose from 43% to 69%! In other words, the cosy relationship with management went yet a stage further. Of course, places with full-time convenors are also likely to have 100% union membership or the closed shop, and the check-off. The correlation is not simply between the ‘corrupt’ convenor and the management strategy of incorporation. There is more to it. But the evidence points yet again to the atrophy of independent workplace organisation.

A further point about committees is that the extent of workplace bureaucracy goes beyond general consultation. Again the post- Donovan ‘rationalisation’ of pay structures and the post-1975 Labour legislation are responsible.

Taking the whole survey sample of 2,040 we find 42% workplaces with a consultative committee (this figure includes 5% cases where stewards thought there was a committee and management disagreed!); 49% of workplaces had health and safety joint committees; 10% had a joint job evaluation committee. Now these figures do not indicate the impact of workplace bureaucracy in large establishments. For this we need to look at employees covered: 66% by consultative arrangements (of whom the vast majority are covered by unions); 75% by health and safety committees (of whom the vast majority are also covered by consultative committees) and 22% by joint job evaluation committees (of whom the vast majority also came under consultative and health and safety committees).

To clarify: we are not just talking about one layer of workplace bureaucracy. We are talking in many cases, especially in medium or large workplaces (200 plus employees) of three or four layers, often involving the same people.

Here the survey gives us a real insight. And in a separate table (for once broken down by industry) it shows that these bureaucracies centred on the larger, unionised, plants in the car, truck, electrical engineering, steel, mechanical engineering, food and drink, tobacco and chemical industries. The proportion not covered by these bureaucracies was much higher in shops, banks, services etc.

The conclusion to be drawn here is that the Labour government’s legislation on health and safety committees played exactly the same role as the other legal elements in the social contract in providing a powerful impetus for formalisation and thus the weakening of independent organisation.

The growth in the ideology of participation under the social contract was naturally crucial for its success. The new committees pulled stewards further away from their members and increasingly into a channel for management initiatives or into a frustrating dead end. In the ‘old days’ i.e. – up to the mid-1970s – disputes over health and safety were a key issue in the large plants. In fact the majority of the 1,000 ‘unconstitutional’ disputes that Ford used to record each year in its factories were very short, sharp conflicts over safety issues: often lasting 20 minutes or so. The new committees suffocated these rank and file initiatives to get conditions improved or assert sectional strength. Instead the dispute would be processed through different layers of plant and company, democracy, often for months, till it was either resolved or, more likely, disappeared under a mountain of paperwork. (Ford, as it happens, has always had some kind of joint consultative committee; the effect of the specific health and safety legislation of the Labour government was therefore more clearly marked in this case.)

Of course, there were workplaces where the new legislation allowed workers to raise issues for the first time, just as there were workplaces where the unfair dismissal rules protected the individual from arbitrary management.

But the net effect of these reforms on class struggle was to weaken workers’ organisation and to provide a small army of ‘experts’ with something to do.

Some observations on disputes

The final aspect of the survey that should concern US involves the organisation of the struggle itself. Some of this can be simply summarised. The survey confirms that it is shop stewards who organise picketing. Although management responded to the questionnaire by saying that union officials were responsible in one in Live disputes, the manual stewards in the survey confirmed that it was almost always they who organised it. Despite the growth of the workplace bureaucracy, when it came to the crunch the stewards still took the lead. There was only a very small minority, of cases where picketing was described as organised by the workers themselves.

The figures on secondary picketing are very dubious because of the effect of the engineering and steel strikes in 1979/80. Nevertheless the figures on who organised secondary pickets are not in doubt. ‘Ordinary’ secondary picketing was generally organised by stewards. But so-called ‘external secondary picketing’ – picketing unconnected with a dispute at the factory/establishment and where none of the pickets was an employee – was generally organised by the officials.

There is one other aspect of the survey that deserves attention here: the extent of ‘non-strike industrial action.’ This covers banning overtime, working to rule etc. and it shows that this was the most common form of dispute in 1979/80.

This is not altogether a surprise. When we analysed 1,000 strikes between February 1977 and January 1979 in Cliff’s article The Balance of Class Forces, we noticed that there were 151 token actions (1-day or ½-day) usually against Labour government pay controls, and 157 non-strike disputes. A third of disputes reported in Socialist Worker and the press over that two-year period were token or non-strike actions. When we consider that a large number of disputes go unreported, especially those not involving strikes, the extent of partial action becomes easier to understand.

The largest amount of non-strike action reported was in the vehicle industry and the civil service/local government – not surprising in view of when the survey was done. But there was also a lot of ‘hidden’ action in general manufacturing industry and in engineering. Even given the fact that the survey was conducted after an extraordinary year of strikes, with the most strike-days since 1926, this means that the extent of small-scale and partial stoppages in industry remains much greater than we think.

This has important lessons for our intervention at the workplace. Disputes remain very common despite the downturn, but big strikes are much rarer. As our intervention is almost always from the outside, we have to be much more in tune with what is going on in different workplaces which from the outside seem totally quiescent and passive but from the inside may look quite different. The survey even picks up a significant number of disputes in places with less than 30% union membership, no stewards, or no recognition at all. This should give a little pause for thought for the wiseacres who claim that the working class is finished and that the decline of manufacturing inevitably means a decline in the level of struggle. Some of the most prominent sectors reporting industrial action in 1979/80 were in the service industries.


1. Cf. T. Cliff, The balance of class forces in Britain today, International Socialism 2 : 6, Autumn 1979; D. Beecham, The ruling class offensive, International Socialism 2 : 7, Winter 1980; D. Beecham, Updating the downturn: the class struggle under the Tories, International Socialism 2 : 14, Autumn 1981.

2. W. Daniels & N. Milward, Workplace Industrial Relations in Britain, London 1983. Page references in the text are to this work.

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