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International Socialism, Autumn 1984


Dave Lyddon

Demythologising the downturn


First published in International Socialism 2 : 25, Autumn 1984, pp. 91–107.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


A couple of years ago in this journal, Alex Callinicos neatly summed up the SWP analysis of the downturn in terms of a threefold crisis in the labour movement – of organisation, leadership, and ideology. Dave Beecham returned to the theme of the downturn when reviewing the survey Workplace Industrial Relations in Britain in IS 2 : 23. In looking at developments in the workplace in the period 1975–80, he concentrated almost exclusively on one aspect of the labour movement crisis – that of organisation. While the survey he was reviewing dictated that to some extent, Beecham went a lot further.

He made what I consider to be two serious errors. First, he telescoped changed in shop steward organisation into a much shorter period than was the case, creating, in the process, an organisational and ideological myth about the pre-Social Contract shop stewards movement. Secondly, he has elevated these changes into a major explanatory factor for the downturn. The end result is to understate the role of politics in the labour movement; to ignore the material basis of strong workplace organisation; and to suggest that organisational factors alone can determine the health of the shop stewards movement.

In his own words:

‘... the growth of consultation and participation as part of government and management strategy after 1974 which ... 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 ... 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 ... An increasingly isolated, bureaucratic and to an extent privileged layer of shop stewards 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 development of the full-time convener was not just a symptom, it was an essential component of the changed relationship between the shop floor organisation.’

‘The great burgeoning of workplace union bureaucracy took place just at the time when workers were under the most severe attack on the wages’ front for many years.’

My reply is in three main parts. First of all I tackle some of the specific points Dave Beecham raises. Next I attempt to present a possible alternative explanation of the 1975–77 period he considers so crucial. And lastly I raise more general issues about the nature of shop steward organisation.

Dave Beecham’s explanation of the downturn

(i) Full-time conveners

Behind the contention of the relative novelty of full-time conveners is probably Cliff’s assumption that in the late 1960s there were only about 500 of them, whereas by the late 1970s the figure had risen dramatically to 6,000 or even 10,000. [1]

The earlier figure is a substantial underestimate and telescopes the growth of numbers into a much shorter time period, giving the illusion of a very different stewards movement in the late 1960s compared to a few years later. In fact, at the end of the 1950s it was estimated there were already about 500 full-time or virtually full-time conveners or their equivalents (NUM lodge chairmen, Local Departmental Committee secretaries on the railways etc), and that there might be as many as 2,000 workplace representatives spending at least half their time at work on union business. (And these figures did not include numbers of full-time NUM branch secretaries paid by the Coal Board). [2]

In 1966 a survey of over 1,000 shop stewards, carried out for the Donovan Commission found that 1% of the stewards in the AEU, TGWU, NUGMW, and ETU were full-time, and 5% of LDC reps in the NUR were also. On the basis of these figures subsequent writers have estimated that in 1966 there were a little over 1,000 full-time shop stewards in manufacturing, with an overall total across all industry of about 1,750 full-time lay negotiators paid by the management. [3]

There are two estimates for the number of full-time stewards in manufacturing industry. The 1976 steward survey suggested about 5,000 full-time stewards covering manual workers in about 3,000 manufacturing establishments. On the basis of this, plus a smaller survey in 1973, Clegg suggested a possible overall total in the late 1970s of some 10,000 full-time stewards, or their equivalents, in all workplaces. [4] A survey of managers in 1978 estimated approximately 3,500 manual full-time stewards in 1,800 manufacturing establishments, and 300 non-manual full-time in 160. [5] As managers were less likely than stewards to admit the existence of full-time stewards, the two sets of figures were thought to be consistent.

How fast had the numbers been increasing? Management responses in 1978 suggested that half of both the manual and non-manual full-time stewards had come into being since the start of 1972. Before this, they were mainly concentrated in vehicles, mechanical engineering, and steel, and to a lesser extent, printing and chemicals. Comparing the 1976 stewards survey with the 1978 managers survey, the latter showed higher estimates for full-timers in workplaces over 1,000, especially for those over 2,000, suggesting that the growth of the system in manufacturing probably continued up until 1978 at least. [6] However, the data which Beecham was reviewing has been estimated to give only about 2,000 full-timers in manufacturing in 1980, compared to 3,500 in 1978. [7] (Both being management responses).

Beecham makes great play of the fact that the survey found that of those full-time stewards around in 1980, nearly one-quarter had been introduced in the previous 5 years. But if there were substantially less in manufacturing in 1980 than a couple of years earlier, then the proportion introduced in the years 1975–78 would be much smaller than a quarter. But even if it was as high as a quarter, in no way does it justify his claim of ‘the emergence of the full-time convener during the downturn’. It is clear that the full-time convener system in general predates the downturn. Where it did extend during the downturn it was often in less well organised sectors with little tradition of ‘independent self-activity’.

(ii) Shop steward training

‘The training of shop stewards was a completely new phenomenon brought in by the Social Contract. Of course some unions had held courses previously. But there were almost always outside work time as part of the union’s efforts to build up a cadre of militants. Under the 1975 Employment Protection Act all this changed. Time off for stewards training was expressly provided for.’

Thus runs Beecham’s account. I doubt if many unions had as the objective of their training courses the creation of ‘a cadre of militants’. They wanted to create a cadre, but not of militants. Irrespective of this idealised picture, his account of the development of steward training is quite simply wrong.

Already in 1973–74, before the Social Contract, almost one half of the total training, measured in student-days, provided by the TUC and individual unions, was in the form of day-release – voluntarily agreed with employers, usually with pay, and with no legal backing. [8] The legal right to time off with pay for training came in as part of the 1975 Act, but the relevant provision, section 57, did not actually have the force of law until April 1978. But whatever the actual legal requirements were, the fact remains that throughout the 1970s the numbers attending TUC shop steward courses went up from a total of 6,705 in 1970–71 to a total of 21,850 in 1980–81 – a steady increase of about 20% each year. But this cannot be used as part of the explanation of the downturn – the largest numbers participated after the ‘crucial’ 1975–77 period, and one of the ‘key’ years – 1975–76 – turns out to be one of the only two years in this period where there was no increase in the total numbers attending. [9]

Regarding numbers attending training courses, Beecham reports that between 1975 and 1980 ‘it became almost universal for stewards in large workplaces to go off on courses agreed by management’, and that ‘in nearly every workplace with more than 1,000 people, there had been stewards taking time off for training in the year 1979–80.’ He adds his own interpretation, ‘This represents a colossal change in the role and status of stewards ...’ In 1979–80 the survey shows that 33% of stewards in those workplaces over 2,000 had been on courses, yet in 1970, ten years earlier, no less than 38% of stewards in workplaces over 1,000 had attended courses in working hours. [10] While the courses in the late 1970s were longer, Beecham’s comment is completely exaggerated.

He also claims that before the Social Contract, courses were ‘independent of management’. He means this both in an organisational, and an ideological, sense. Yet there is substantial evidence of extensive employer involvement in steward training in the late 1960s. A survey of 432 federated engineering establishments in 1969 found that where in-plant training had taken place (in 170 or 40%), that management had run 60% of these courses on their own. [11] A CIR survey of employers in 1970, covering 1.4m employees across industry, found that for those courses taking place in working hours, the employers had provided 34% of man-days training for manual shop stewards, and 57% for non-manual. [12]

These figures also leave out the substantial amount of joint union-management involvement in courses. The ETU positively embraced this, and in the late 1960s was running joint management-steward courses at its colleges, employing ICI work study experts as tutors. [13]

While employer approval of syllabuses for day-release training in the 1960s was common, the 1978 ACAS Code of Practice allowed time off for courses approved by the TUC or individual unions. And the TUC noted, ‘There is no question ... of an employer having the right to question the relevance of the course or to vet the programme.’ [14]

Organisationally therefore, courses are now in general more independent of management. Ideologically, however, courses have never been independent of employers. Writing of the period before the Social Contract, Tony Lane has pointed out: ‘Managements were hardly likely to pay stewards to attend courses if they were going to be taught how to beat the system.’ [15] The aim of steward training, whoever does it, has always been to ‘professionalise’ industrial relations, not to create a ‘network of militants’.

Beecham’s final point on steward training was ‘It would be foolish to think that the process did not compromise the independence of the stewards concerned’. But if it compromised their independence after 1975, it must also have done so before as well.

(iii) Procedures

Dealing with the formalisation of dispute and discipline procedures in the wake of the Donovan Report and unfair dismissal legislation, Dave Beecham emphasises ‘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.’

Here he ignores his own cautionary remarks about the use of the survey data. Looking at disputes procedures first, we can calculate that only 53% of private sector firms that recognised unions had a jointly signed dispute procedure by 1980. [16] When the case of engineering is looked at, we can account for some of the increase. The withdrawal of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions from the national procedure agreement in 1971 and the signing of a new shorter agreement in 1976, is bound to have increased the number of formalised domestic procedures in that industry. However, overall there is nothing like the sea-change he suggests, nor any particular reason to see the years 1975–77 as especially significant in this context. One further point needs making. And that is that disputes procedures are rarely followed to the letter. Their existence can be circumvented when the workers are strong, and their absence does not stop management from imposing their will when they are strong.

On disciplinary procedures, there is no doubt that they are in the main the creation of the 1970s following the legalisation on unfair dismissal starting in 1971. But the survey data jumble together union and non-union establishments. No less than 33% of the weighted sample of establishments do not recognise unions; in the private sector the figure is higher. A large number of private sector non-union firms introduced written discipline procedures in the 1970s. By taking these out, I estimate that still only 58% of private sector establishments recognising unions, had a jointly signed written discipline procedure. [17] Here we have no indication of which types of firms introduced such agreements at which times. While, therefore, Beecham is absolutely correct to emphasize the formalisation that has undoubtedly occurred on discipline, his argument, as it stands, does not support any special link with the period 1975–77.

(iv) Consultation

Central to his overall analysis of the Social Contract is the ideology of participation. However, when reviewing the survey data he implicitly equates the growth of consultative committees with participation. This survey does not support this contention. For example, only one third of those managers in 1980 who reported a joint consultative committee having been established since 1977, mentioned such a committee when asked about changes to increase employee involvement in the same period. [18]

Beecham tells us:

‘... the union nominated the consultative committee representatives in under half the cases; but when there was a full-time convener 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 ... the evidence points yet again to the atrophy of independent workplace organisation.’

On the contrary, I interpret this as stewards committees deciding their representatives on consultative committees to stop management going for direct elections from the shop floor in an attempt to bypass the steward structure.

It is impossible from the survey to gain any insight into the extent to which the British Leyland participation scheme was reproduced elsewhere. But there is an assumption in much of the ‘downturn’ argument’ that such schemes did proliferate. And, further, too much of what is presumed to have happened in BL is generalised from the experience of Derek Robinson and the Longbridge factory. Not all plants were in the scheme, some withdrew, and most plants were not represented on the top national level body where the major decisions were made. The result of these assumptions has led to the organisational factors of networks of committees being seen as more important than the ideological issues. Yet the acceptance of the ‘viability’ argument, whether or not stewards were involved in participation, was the really crucial issue. One of the BL workforces outside the scheme, the Canley plant, felt strong enough to strike in defence of the convenor of another plant when Derek Robinson was sacked, but couldn’t fight the closure of most of their factory the next year.

Another factory which retained strong steward organisation was also found wanting when faced with the ‘viability’ argument. Under threats to close the plant if productivity did not improve, the stewards complied, though it did not make any difference as most of the plant was closed soon after.

‘As part of a ‘viability plan’ plant management persuaded stewards in several important areas to accept considerable cuts in manning levels. A matter of a few weeks previously foremen in these areas had been complaining that stewards held the whip hand and that efficient operation was impossible. Yet now they reported that acceptable manning standards had been achieved ...’ [19]

The role of the Communist Party in demobilising the struggle was important, in that their stewards gave a ‘left’ veneer to the viability argument. Thus the pamphlet that Robinson got sacked for co-authoring was based around Alternative Economic Strategy-type demands for the future of Leyland – expansion of the company, ‘an extensive sales campaign’, import controls – and had little to say on what the workers could actually do to organise against closures. [20]

Alternate explanations for the downturn

(i) The role of unemployment

In his article, Dave Beecham effectively ignores the role of unemployment when looking at the downturn in workers’ struggle. In a previous article he has written of the rapid rise in unemployment in 1976–77. [21] But the rapid rise occurred earlier and its connection with the drop in struggle is important. From a low point of just under 500,000 at the end of 1973, unemployment rose by about 200,000 in 1974, and then another 500,000 in 1975. The next two years saw an erratic rise of another 200,000. But the key year was 1975.

The impact of the crisis on the car industry will illustrate the point. Car production was booming in 1972 and most of 1973, until the oil crisis. Total UK car production fell by just over one third from 1,921,000 units in 1972, to 1,268,000 in 1975. It then levelled off for three years (before starting another slump in 1979). As a result employment in the industry also fell, with a 10% drop in two years from the all-time peak in mid-1973. On top of this from February to June 1975, over 10% of the overall workforce in the industry was on short-time. [22]

Figures for Chrysler and Vauxhall show that 1974 was already witnessing a lower level of struggle. In Chrysler the 2,746,361 man hours lost in 1973 fell to 991,649 in 1974; in Vauxhall the figures are still more extreme – from 2,868,076 in 1973 to a mere 34,985 in 1974. [23]

The drop in 1974 is confirmed by the numbers directly on strike in the industry as a whole, not counting those laid off as a result: the 196,600 strikers in 1973 shrunk to 94,400 in 1974. Even though the 1973 figure was exceptionally high, the fact remains that the average numbers of those directly on strike in the three years 1971–73 was about twice as high as in the next three years 1974–76. [24]

The drop in car industry strike activity was associated with the economic crisis in the industry, and occurred before the imposition of the Social Contract incomes policies and legislation, and workers participation. The nature of any subsequent changes in steward organisation in the industry cannot therefore be used as part of the explanation of the general downturn in class struggle.

(ii) The role of Income Policy

When we look closely at the overall situation as revealed by strike statistics for 1975 and 1976 it is clear that the decline in these two years was almost exclusively concentrated on pay issues.






Pay strikes


All other

Pay strikes


All others









































[Source: DOE Gazette]

The number of strikes and the days lost on issues other than pay remained remarkably constant in the years 1970–77. The main fluctuation occurred on pay. The drop occurred as a result of the introduction of the £6 policy at the beginning of August 1975.


JAN–JUL 1975
(7 MTHS)


AUG–DEC 1975
(5 MTHS)




Workers involved



Days lost



[Source: DE Gazette]

The incomes policy year 1975–6 marks the real low point as shown below:











Workers involved




Days lost




[Source: DE Gazette]

It was therefore the introduction of incomes policy in the summer of 1975 at the time of the highest inflation for nearly sixty years, and rising unemployment, that led to the fall in strike activity. Jones and Scanlon had won the ideological argument. As Jones put it at the 1975 TUC:

‘In recent months there has been a fantastic level of wage claims, which would have meant 30, 40, 50 or 60 per cent in some firms. Arising out of fear for the future, yes, but they did affect prices and they have affected jobs ... the union I lead myself personally have never supported the idea that trade unionism is a licence for any group to look after themselves and to hell with the rest ... Not a free for all but a fair for all – that is our policy ... we cannot afford the luxury of destroying the Labour Government and handing power over to Mrs Thatcher ....’ [25]

Irrespective of the special circumstances of 1975, when has the trade union leadership ever led resistance to the introduction of incomes policy? Under Labour in 1966–7, incomes policy had already led to a drop in strike activity. In the 12-month period of freeze and severe restraint there were 1,800 stoppages, with only 641 of these on pay issues, and only 1.7m days lost overall. In the key ‘metals, engineering, shipbuilding and vehicles’ sector, days lost in 1966 fell to half the 1965 total – 871,000 compared to 1,763,000. [26] The Tories’ freeze and Phases 2 and 3 were introduced in a period of falling unemployment, but were only seriously challenged by the miners in 1974. Even after their massive victory, Phase 3 remained on the statute book under Labour until July, most settlements sticking to it.

It will be objected that the earlier Labour and Tory policies had not stopped real wages from rising, whereas they fell under the Social Contract. But why should there be an implicit assumption that you cannot explain the fall in real wages without inferring a massive erosion of steward organisation? There are several less dramatic factors which help to explain the acceptance of wage cuts. First of all, although standards were cut, money wages were not, and that is important psychologically. Secondly, the historically high rate of inflation, peaking at 26.9%, meant that in 1974–5 it was very different to keep abreast of it when formulating wage claims. Thirdly, the £6 policy in 1975–6 meant, for those who got it in full, very different percentages; and for many workers it may well have been the largest cash increase they had ever had. Fourthly, some workers had had experience of actual money wage cuts – e.g. miners transferring to NPLA faces after 1966 in several coalfields did, as did some groups of British Leyland workers when they gave up piecework. [27] Fifthly, some piecework industries, such as the docks and the car industry, had a history of wildly fluctuating wage packets [28]; these industries had only recently abandoned the system, and there were other piecework industries where this might still be the case. Finally, an industry like the car industry, where the working of overtime and short-time, often in rapid succession, made the 40 hour day shift rate seem academic much of the time – the philosophy here was very much – ‘make hay while the sun shines’, and when it doesn’t, hard luck.

(iii) How deep was the fall in strike activity in 1975–76?

The idea of a massive erosion of steward organisation is bolstered by exaggerating the extent of the downturn in 1975 and 1976. Dave Beecham talks of ‘the collapse of strike activity’. In an earlier article, Alex Callinicos was more specific – ‘In the wake of the Social Contract, industrial militancy collapsed – the number of working days lost due to strikes in 1976 was the lowest since the 1950s.’ [29] But this is not true. His conclusion was based on a table of strike figures with averages for the years before 1970, and this obscured the real picture. In fact 1976 saw more strike days lost than 7 of the years of the 1960s – 1960–61 and 1963–67. If you exclude just three strikes, the one-day national engineering stoppages of February and March 1962 and May 1968, there were more days lost in 1976 than any year in the period 1960–68. On the other recorded indicators of numbers of strikes and numbers of workers involved, 1976 is only low in comparison to the period 1969–74. [30]

Statistically, therefore, the drop has been exaggerated. But, of course, there was a serious downturn in workers’ struggle in its character – less offensive, and more defensive; less victories and more defeats; not the absence of solidarity action, but the absence of successful solidarity action. And yet it is important to realise that industrial action at the workplace, whether defensive or combative, carried on right through the 1970s – much of it not recorded, and almost invisible to outside observers. Shop organisation did not collapse in the way suggested; industrial action retained its post-war characteristic of being short and involving only a small number of workers.

Figures from a survey of manufacturing industry for the years 1976 and 1977 gives an indication of the total amount of industrial action in those two years. Government statistics record 2,836 strikes in those two years in manufacturing. But that was found to include only 62% of those strikes that met the Department of Employment’s definition ie it must involve at least 10 workers or last at least a day, unless 100 striker days are lost. Most of the ‘eligible’ strikes not recorded lasted 3 days or less; the inclusion of all eligible strikes would increase the total to 4,570. But there is still the issue of strikes that are too small to meet the official minimum, and other non-strike action. Estimates from the survey suggest that all strikes, however small, totalled 10,700 in those 2 years, and there were 15,800 other incidents (nearly half being overtime bans). [31]

The attempt to portray the mid-1970s as a collapse of activity is tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There was a downturn in the character of workers’ struggle, but that struggle continued. There were fewer big strikes, but that did not mean that shop-floor organisation was ‘fundamentally compromised’. It meant that its limitations had been exposed. By creating a myth about the nature of that organisation in ‘the good old days’ of the late 1960s and early 1970s, we blind ourselves to the limitations of shop steward organisation in that period of ‘upturn’.

(iv) The Upturn reconsidered

While there was a generally high level of struggle in the years 1969–74, and while each year in this period saw political strikes, industrially it was not at all uniform. 1969 and 1970 were years of very widespread strike activity, and represent the only years when government statistics show more than 3,000 strikes a year. But in comparison with 1970, 1971 had an almost unprecedented drop of 43% in the number of strikes. The 2,510 strikes over pay in 1970 were more than the total number of strikes in either 1971 or 1972. More days were lost in 1971 than 1970, but two strikes alone, the postal workers and Fords, accounted for 8 million of the 13.5 million days lost. The postal workers were defeated ignominiously, and the Ford strike was a notorious sell-out in the eyes of militants.

1972 was the year of Saltley Gates and Pentonville, builders’ flying pickets and engineering sit-ins. But before it had finished, a wage freeze had been imposed, and incomes policy stuck without any serious challenge until the miners.

Dave Beecham’s account gives the distinct impression that the early 1970s saw a halt in the employers’ offensive on the industrial front. He claims the Tories imposed a legal system ‘before any of the reforms and restrictions on rank and file organisation had taken place’. And that, with the Tory defeat in 1974, ‘for the rank and file militants the struggle for independence of the early 1970s totally disappeared’. Yet while the two miners’ strikes and the dockers’ defeat of the Industrial Relations Act were a massive shot in the arm for workers, there was no let-up in management reform strategies. And, far from struggling for ‘independence’, many of the workers involved in the strikes against the Industrial Relations Bill and Act were often agreeing to, or being forced to accept, major changes at work.

For example, at Cowley in January 1971, literally the day after the factories had been closed for a large demonstration against the Industrial Relations Bill, foremen were telling workers on the Marina that they would be put on the new measured day work system the next day. Within a month both plants were on it. AUEW members who had been out against the Billin Coventry found themselves in a losing struggle with the employers as their one-day strikes against the ending of the Coventry Toolroom Agreement were met with retaliatory lock-outs. At Austins, after long opposition to measured day work, an agreement was hurriedly reached in order to beat the deadline of the Tory statutory wage freeze of November 1972. [32]

By rightly concentrating on the victories of the upturn period as an example of workers’ potential to fight the system, we have become victims of our own propaganda. The successes of the period have blinded us to the weaknesses of the movement during that period.

Organisation, politics and shop floor power

(i) Shop steward power and mutuality

Much of the general argument about the shift in the character of steward organisation in the mid-1970s hinges around the ending of piecework in key industries. The connection of shop steward power with piecework has, however, only ever been partly true. It could never account for the presence of strong organisation in workplace without piecework, especially those tied in to national negotiations. It could never explain, for example, the growth of shop steward organisation at the new Ford Halewood plant in the 1960s. [33] Of course, it could be argued that such developments were merely imitative of existing organisation in piecework factories. But even if they were stimulated by that, and they were undoubtedly were, section stewards were not responsible for increasing the earnings of their members, so their strength must have been based on something else – some factor their situation had in common with piecework. That factor is ‘mutuality’.

Broadly speaking, the pressure of near-full employment on employers in post war Britain until the economic crisis of the mid-1970s, forced many of them to recognise stewards, and then to concede to them, in practice, substantial areas of mutuality. The ability to negotiate on manning levels, work standards, mobility of labour, the allocation of overtime, and so on, made the steward a key figure.

This mutuality may have never been formally conceded, as at Fords or it may have been partly conceded, as it was in several of the British Leyland plant agreements on manning levels and work standards in the early 1970s (these lasting until the formal ending of mutuality at the beginning of the 1980s). By and large, the mutuality existing on the shop floor in these factories was the product of the employer’s need for production, and the workers’ confidence of their own job security. This situation could not continue indefinitely.

After the 1971 national parity strike sell-out, the Halewood stewards organised meetings which voted to stay out, until they were eventually pressured back by national officials. In the next two months, up to the attempted sacking of John Dillon, the Halewood management played everything according to the book, and there were disciplinary measures, including suspensions, against shop stewards on eleven occasions. [34] By 1976 Ford were ready for another attack. The Halewood assembly plant manager recalled: ‘Prior to 1976 we had a patchwork quilt of written and unwritten informal agreements about labour practices. The stewards had established all kinds of custom-and-practice arrangements on productivity that meant that some parts of the line were starved of work.’ A new management team forced all the supervisors to work from the company’s Blue Book. As one steward remarked: ‘In the old days, the stewards were really running the show in their areas. Now Ford’ve put everything onto a plant level. It’s been a question of shop stewards’ power.’ [35]

There were plenty of disputes at Fords. Before the national ten-week strike in the autumn of 1978, the management logged up over 1,000 unconstitutional stoppages in 1977–8. While stoppages at Halewood were declining, from 312 in 1976 to 75 in 1979, even the lower level was higher than the situation at Dagenham 20 years earlier. There, in the assembly plant, there were 69 stoppages and 114 overtime bans from April 1959 till the end of 1962. [36]

What happened at the British Leyland plants? At one plant, employing over 6,000, comparing two four-year periods, one on piecework, and the other on measured day work – there were 59 strikes in the piecework period and 55 under MDW. Wages strikes had declined from 39% to 13% of the total, while strikes over manning and working conditions now accounted for 47% instead of 22%. In the assembly shop of a much smaller factory, in consecutive 3-year periods under piecework and MDW, there were 32 stoppages and 21 other sanctions under piecework, compared to 30 stoppages and 19 other sanctions under MDW. In both periods the majority of strikes lasted less than a shift. [37]

At a third plant in 1976 there were 18 stoppages, 3 unofficial meetings, 6 overtime bans, and 1 go-slow. In this plant ‘There appeared to be a tendency for procedural machinery to be ignored when important issues were at stake ... In these cases the unions concerned tended to reach an agreement by means of collective action.’ And ‘internal mobility of labour was almost totally in the hands of the unions in each shop and in spite of clauses both in the contract of employment and in the High Day Rate Agreement, transfers were in practice based upon custom and practice.’ [38]

While mutuality could be removed from daywork agreements, technically piecework in engineering has kept it. But it did not follow that strong factory organisation need emerge. In fact, piecework was often seen as the main factor dividing workers, leading to strong or weak section organisation, along with weak overall factory organisation. Strong organisation depended on the stewards’ ability to shape the situation.

(ii) Shop steward organisation

One issue raised by Dave Beecham is the question of payment of stewards. He alleges ‘detailed systems of corruption’, but to what extent does payment ‘fundamentally compromise’ the steward or convener? Conveners don’t act in a certain way just because they are paid by the employer. It is the function of the convener, whether full-time or not, that is important.

While management want to use the full-time convener as ‘an important regulatory mechanism in industrial relations’ [39], we would counter this by proposing a non-full time collective leadership, arguing that this would make the conveners less isolated from their membership and more accountable. But this in itself does not alter the accomodatory side of trade unionism. After all, a series of surveys, including one in 1972 at the height of the upturn have shown that the vast majority of managers find stewards helpful, and not obstructive. [40] And would not a collective leadership be under the same sort of pressure as those facing senior stewards in the motor industry in the mid-1960s:

‘The senior stewards ... are forced to assume something of the role of buffer between the employer and the operatives. Differences in the attitude of individual stewards may have some effect ... But, in general, the stewards’ organisation is under pressures that compel it towards certain responsible patterns of institutional behaviour – ‘responsible’ at least in the sense that its leaders are obliged to balance a variety of group interests against the particular sectional claims with which they are confronted, and to bear in mind the long-term desirability of maintaining good negotiating relations with managements.’ [41]

Another important factor is the check-off. No one could deny the rapid extension of this, or its impact on the shop floor. But to what extent is Beecham justified in his statement ‘if your union dues are deducted by management and your senior union representative are full-timers paid by management, the notion of independent workers’ organisation becomes rather limited.’?

After all, the NUM has had the check-off for all but one of its areas since 1949 [42], and they have a long history of lodge officials paid by the Coal Board to be full-time on union business. To that extent, NUM branch organisation is not independent of the employer. What is important is not the organisational links but the ideological links. The same organisational links were present during the pit closures of the 1960s, the big strikes of the early 1970s, and the overtime ban and massive strike of 1984. The same NUM organisation reacted very differently in each case.

(iii) Shop stewards and politics

What Cliff and Barker wrote in 1966 about steward organisations being ‘politically apathetic’ [43] still holds today. The experience of In Place of Strife, the Industrial Relations Act, Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, Saltley Gates, and Pentonville, did not mean a sea-change in the politics of the shop stewards movement.

As Alex Callinicos has written:

‘the shop stewards’ politics were, at best, militant reformism. The acute economic crisis of the 1970s meant that this would no longer do ... Workers’ interests now clashed with many of the notions they had hitherto accepted – for example, that their own prosperity depended on the existence of profits: in the absence of a coherent and credible alternative, they usually went along with the prevailing ideology.’ [44]

To suggest, as Dave Beecham does, that the pre-Social Contract stewards movemet was ‘independent’ of employers is to foster illusions about its ability to seriously challenge the system. Shop steward organisations are not purely organs of struggle against the employer, they are also organs of accommodation with the employer, and cannot be a substitute for revolutionary organisation which is truly independent of the employing class and its ideas.

* * *


1. T. Cliff, Where do we go from here?, Socialist Review, No. 1, April 1978, p. 12, and T. Cliff, Ten Years On, Socialist Worker, No. 631, 26 May 1979 both give the figures 500 and 6,000. Elsewhere Cliff has also quoted Clegg (see note 4) for the figure 10,000 in Prologue to an Upturn, Socialist Review, No. 55, June 1983, p. 17.

2. H.A. Clegg, A.J. Killick & R. Adams, Trade Union Officers, 1961, p. 180. For NUM full-time branch secretaries see pp. 22, 93, 99.

3. W.E.J. McCarthy & S.R. Parker, Shop Stewards and Workshop Relations, Donovan Research Paper 10, 1968, p. 17, para. 61. The estimate for manufacturing industry comes from W. Brown, R. Ebsworth & M. Terry, Factors Shaping Shop Steward Organisation in Britain, British Journal of Industrial Relations, July 1978, p. 144. The estimate for all industry comes from I. Boraston, H. Clegg & W. Rimmer, Workplace and Union, 1975, p. 193.

4. Brown, Ebsworth & Terry, op. cit., pp. 143–144. H.A. Clegg, The Changing System of Industrial Relations in Great Britain, 1979, pp. 52–53.

5. W. Brown (ed.), The Changing Contours of British Industrial Relations, 1981, pp. 63-65.

6. Ibid., pp. 65–67.

7. M. Terry, Shop Stewards through Expansion and Recession, Industrial Relations Journal, p. 55.

8. TUC Annual Report 1975, p. 189. The TUC provided 80% of total union day-release training at that time. Day-release training started in the motor industry after employers and unions had agreed the principle in April 1961. By 1966 some 2,000 stewards had been on courses. In April 1963 the TUC and the British Employers Confederation made a joint statement supporting paid release for training, and TUC day release courses started in 1964–5. See A. Marsh, Industrial Relations in Engineering, 1965, pp. 322–329, and Donovan Commission, Minutes of Evidence 23, Motor Industry Employers, 1966, p. 840, para. 43.

9. Figures from TUC Annual Reports. These figures do not include ‘safety rep’ courses. These started in 1975 Safety reps were not legally based until the Regulations of Safety Representatives and Safety Committees became operative in October 1978, which led to a dramatic but brief expansion in safety rep courses.

10. W.W. Daniel & N. Millward, Workplace Industrial Relations in Britain, 1983, p. 36. Commission on Industrial Relations (CIR), Report No. ЗЗА, Industrial Relations Training Statistical Supplement, 1973, p. 37, Table 18.

11. A.I. Marsh, E.O. Evans & P. Garcia, Workplace Industrial Relations in Engineering, 1971, p. 41.

12. CIR Report No. 33, Industrial Relations Training, 1972, p. 16.

13. T. Topham, Productivity Bargaining, Trade Union Register 1969, p. 88.

14. TUC Annual Report 1977, p. 130.

15. T. Lane, The Union Makes Us Strong, 1974, p209.

16. Calculated from tables in Daniel & Millward, op. cit., pp. 164, 166.

17. Ibid. For percentage of non-union establishments see p. 18.

18. Ibid., p. 155.

19. P.K. Edwards & H. Scullion, The Social Organisation of lndustrial Conflict, 1982, p. 187. From its description, the plant appears to be Castle Bromwich.

20. Leyland Combine Trade Union Committee, British Leyland – The Edwardes Plan and Your Job, n.d. (1979), pp. 11–13.

21. D. Beecham, The Ruling Class Offensive, IS 2 : 7, 1980, p. 14.

22. Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, The Motor Industry of Great Britain (annual editions) for car production. DE Gazette for employment figures. Motor industry employment fell from 510,000 in June 1973 to 455,000 in June 1975. In March 1975 there were 48,900 on short time.

23. Fourteenth Report from the Expenditure Committee, The Motor Vehicle Industry, Volume 1, 1975, p. 204 for Chrysler, and p. 321 for Vauxhall. These figures include associated internal lay-offs in the respective combines.

24. DE Gazette. Usually figures for workers involved in strikes include those laid off in the same plant as a result of the strike. Because of the large numbers laid off by strikes in the motor industry, using such figures obscures the real trends; hence my use of numbers of only those directly on strike.

25. TUC Annual Report 1975, pp. 460–461

26. R. Hyman, Strikes, 1977, p. 188 and DE Gazette.

27. For the coal industry see Report of (Wilberforce) Court of Inquiry, Cmnd 4903, 1972, p. 6, para. 22; and R.G. Searle-Barnes, Pay and Productivity Bargaining 1969, p. 141. For the car industry see eg, D. Lyddon, Measured Day Work, Piecework and British Leyland, IS 51, 1972, pp. 7–8.

28. H.A. Turner, G. Clack & G. Roberts, Labour Relations in the Motor Industry, 1967, pp. 162–163. M. Mellish, The Docks after Devlin, 1972, pp. 27, 28, 31.

29. A. Callinicos, The Rank and File Movement Today, IS 2 : 17, 1982, p. 26.

30. DE Gazette. Callinicos’s mistake arises from using a table which includes averages for the periods 1955–64 and 1965–69: Callinicos, op. cit., p. 9.

31. Brown (ed.), op. cit., pp. 97–100.

32. Lyddon, op. cit., p. 7. Carworker, No. 5, Jan 1972. Carworker, No. 11, Jan.–Feb. 1973.

33. See H. Beynon, Working for Ford, 1973.

34. Hyman, op. cit., pp. 11–16.

35. T. Forester, The New Model Halewood, New Society, 14 April 1980, pp. 334–335.

36. Ford News, 1 Dec 1978, cited in H. Friedman & S. Meredeen, The Dynamics of lndustrial Conflict, 1980, p. 277; Forester, ibid.; Report of (Jack) Court of Inquiry, Cmnd 1999, 1963, pp. 10–11.

37. Edwards & Scullion, op. cit., pp. 236, 232. The stoppages for the larger plant, Castle Bromwich, exclude those lasting less than an hour. The smaller plant seems from the evidence to be one at Bordesley Green, Birmingham.

38. A. Marsh, M. Hackmann, D. Miller, Workplace Industrial Relations in the Engineering Industry in the UK and the Federal Republic of Germany, 1981, pp. 41, 36, 133. Having worked there, I can easily identify the plant as the Cowley Body Plant, formerly Pressed Steel.

39. CIR Report No. 20, Joseph Lucas Ltd, 1971, p. 40, para. 175.

40. Parker, Workplace Industrial Relations 1973, 1975, p. 96. Table 128 gives a comparison of the 1966, 1972 and 1973 Government Social Surveys. The percentage of senior managers finding stewards ‘unreasonable’ was: 1966 – 2%; 1972 – 1%; 1973 – 1%.

41. Turner, Clack & Roberts, op. cit., p. 222

42. A.I. Marsh & J.W. Staples, Check-off Agreements in Britain, p. 47, In Donovan Research Paper 8, 1968.

43. T. Cliff & C. Barker, Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards, 1966, p. 105.

44. Callinicos, op. cit., pp. 27–28.

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