The following passage is taken from a pamphlet entitled “Pit life in Co’ Durham: Rank and File Movements and Workers Control.” (A History Workshop Pamphlet).
Written in 1972 by Dave Douglass (who at the age of 17 had described himself as a syndicalist a Wobbly, IWW supporter - a Tyneside industrial unionist), as one of his contributions to the miners struggle of that year. It expresses both the intelligent as well as some almost unnoticeable, ideological tendencies of rank 'n file Trade Unionism, albeit tempered by loads of ifs and buts.
The leadership and the rank and file
The miners unions were the first trade unions in the country to develop a section of full time officials. When the Durham Miners Association was founded in 1869, the county was divided into three districts and an agent appointed to each of them. Their weekly wage was to be £1-5s-6d. Their number increased as the union prospered. It was the same in other coalfields.
But at the same time as relying on full time representatives, more than other working men at the time, miners also distrusted them deeply. Their very distance at area office was a sufficient cause for mistrust, and their actions plagued the miner with annoyance. In all the disputes within the DMA there is a recurring pattern, a basic fear of being misrepresented which can be seen in the type of motion put forward at the DMA calling for mandates, card votes, records of who voted, which way etc., and also in the general suspicion of the conciliation machinery which the DMA worked so hard to set up.
The full-time officials soon developed a particular character. Almost invariably they were drawn from the ranks of the moderate, self-educated, temperate miners. Once elected, they thought their role was to inflict upon the members their own moderation and lead rather than serve. As early as 1870 they ruled that ‘any colliery which struck in an unconstitutional manner should be denied union aid’. The members found that they were being policed by the men to whom they were paying wages. The officials became more and more preoccupied with arbitration and conciliation as the cure for all ills, and more and more impatient of local action which ran up against it. The leadership rejoiced in the formality of the conciliation machinery; they exalted the authority of the Joint Committee even when it was used against its own members, preferring any course of action, ‘even simple submission’, in preference to a strike.
From this point on the struggle in the coalfield became three sided. There were the men, the owners and firmly between them the full time agents, who negotiated on their behalf but came to totally unsatisfactory agreements and then spent the bulk of their time trying to ram them down the threats of the men. To make matters more complicated and more infuriating to the lodge with a strong grievance - there was a joint Committee of the DMA and the coal owners, a high court which sat in judgment on them, and whose rules were supposed to be binding.
The lodges hated the idea of leaving negotiations in the hands of full time officials. The constant appeals to abandon the joint boards with the coalowners, the suspicion of the Sliding Scale, the mistrust of the proceedings in the DMA executive itself, as well as disputes between the individual lodges and the miners agents, were all based on a deep-felt resentment of delegated responsibility, whatever form it took.
The miners traditional mistrust of ‘delegated representation’ is a carry on from his traditionalself-reliance and independence at work. He dislikes the idea of anybody deciding what he should do, apart from his ‘marras’ and himself. It is at best something which has to be put up with. His wages and toil to get them are a big thing to trust in another man’s hands. He prefers the open direct representation of ‘we are all leaders’. Even in the case of a working miner who is a branch official, yes - they can see he is a worker, but that would be no call to get excited, they still would only trust him if he was seen to be acting on their behalf and the results were coming in. When the lodge secretary goes to see the gaffer a deputation of marras will often go with him to see that he really does represent them. At branch level the union committee is of course elected by the rank and file, subject to dismissal, and up for re-election every two years, but even these men have to be watched. The branch committee man, if he is a good one, even the agitator, can be got at many ways by a gaffer: he may be offered a pleasanter place, away from the centres of trouble, if he will only show himself to be ‘reasonable'.
The attitude of the rank and file towards the lodge committee has always been - if the branch officers are not negotiating the right terms kick them out, or build an unofficial committee to take their place. It is the rank and file themselves who take the initiative in all events. On many occasions strikes start in a wildcat way long before a branch meeting can even be held. Men walk out of the pit on strike as soon as there is something they won’t put up with. A group of marras, or a shift, will go to see the manager on their own, and often have refused to take an official of the branch with them. If the branch official is brought in it is sometimes only as a formality. They prefer to speak for themselves. Rarely, if ever (and never in my own experience) do the workers carry out the rule of working under protest while the union official carries out negotiations on their behalf; they would have to be there themselves (there is also, of course, the simple fact that he has no bullet up the spout, or power in his elbow, until the men come out on strike). If all this is true of the branch officer, a working miner, how much more true is it of the area official, a man who has removed himself into another sphere. If the branch officer can be regarded as distant, even after a year in office, the area official inhabits another world. The worker can trust the man who works next to him, even if he is wary of giving him too much power. But the man who removes himself from the pit to an office becomes an alien. You can see this time and again when the area official comes down and tries to give a ‘lead’. The men. may listen to what he has to say but what they are thinking is “we_ are the union, not you”. The gulf becomes much greater when the men take action on their own. In the words of George Harvey, “the religion of the area official is compromise.” These people detest the branch strike. In the first place this is because they cannot themselves control the activity, and secondly because it undermines the machinery of conciliation which they are paid to keep well oiled.
By and large, miners leaders have been renowned for their respectability and almost all of them have ended up as moderates, even those who were firebrands in their youth. In the Webbs’ History of Trade Unionism there is a passage in which a worker, talking about trade union officials, beautifully describes the genuine mistrust which the workers harbour towards such people:
As branch secretary, working at his trade, our friend, though superior in energy and ability to the rank and file of his members, remained in close touch with their feelings and desires. His promotion to a salaried office brings him wider knowledge and larger ideas. To the ordinary trade unionist the claim of the workman is that of justice. He believes, almost as a matter of principle, that in any dispute the capitalist is in the wrong and the workman in the right. But when, as District Delegate, it becomes his business to be perpetually investigating the exact circumstances of the men’s quarrels, negotiating with the employers, and arranging compromises he begins more and more to recognise that there is something to be urged on the other side. There is also unconscious bias at work. Whilst the points at issue no longer effect his own earnings or conditions of employment, any disputes between his and their employers increase his work and add to his worry. The former vivid sense of the privations and subjection of the artisans life gradually fades from his mind; and he begins more and more to regard all complaints as perverse and unreasonable.
With this intellectual change may come a more invidious transformation. Nowadays the salaried officer of a great union is courted and flattered by the middle class. He is asked to dine with them, and will admire their well-appointed houses, their fine carpets, the ease and luxury of their lives. Possibly, his wife too begins to be dissatisfied. She will point out how so and so, who served his apprenticeship in the same shop, is now well off, and steadily making a fortune; and she reminds her husband that, had he worked half as hard for himself as he has for others, he might also now be rich, and living in comfort without fear of the morrow. He himself sees the truth of this. He knows many men who, with less ability and energy than himself, have, by steady pursuit of their own ends, become foremen, managers, or even small employers, whilst he is receiving only £2 or £4 per week without any chance of increase. And so the remarks of his wife and her relations, the workings of his own mind, the increase of years, a growing desire to be settled in life and to see the future clear before him and his children, and perhaps also a little envy of his middle class friends, all begin insidiously, silently, unknown even to himself, to work a change in his views of life. He goes to live in a little villa in a lower middle class suburb. The move leads to him dropping his workmen friends; and his wife changes her acquaintances. With the habits of his new neighbours he insensibly adopts more and more of their ideas. Gradually he finds himself at issue with his members, who no longer agree with his proposals with the old alacrity. All this comes about by degrees, neither party understanding the cause. He attributes the breach to a clique of malcontents, or perhaps to the views held by the younger generation. They think him proud and ‘stuck up’, over- cautious, and even apathetic in trade affairs. His manner to members, and particularly to the unemployed who call for donation, undergoes a change. He begins to look down upon them all as ‘common workmen’; at the unemployed he scorns as men who have made a failure of their lives; and his scorn is probably undisguised. This arouses hatred. As he walks to the office in his tall hat and good overcoat, with a smart umbrella, curses not loud but deep are muttered against him by members loitering in search of work, and as these get jobs in other towns they spread stories of his arrogance and haughtiness. So gradually he loses the sympathy and support of those upon whom his position depends. At last the climax comes. A great strike threatens to involve the Society in desperate war. Unconsciously biased by distaste for the hard and unthankful work which a strike entails, he finds himself in small sympathy with the men’s demands, and eventually arranges a compromise on terms distasteful to a large section of his members. The gathering storm cloud now breaks. At his next appearance before a general meeting cries of treachery’ and ‘bribery’ are raised. Alas ! it is not bribery. Not his morality but his intellect is corrupted. Secure in the consciousness of freedom from outward taint, he faces the meeting boldly, throws the accusation back in their faces, and for the moment carries his point. But his position now becomes rapidly unbearable. On all sides he finds suspicion deepening into hatred. The members, it is true, re-elect him to his post; but they elect at the same time an executive committee pledged to oppose him in every way. All this time he still fails to understand what has gone wrong, and probably attributes it to the intrigues of jealous opponents eager for his place. Harassed on all sides, distrusted and thwarted by his executive committee, at length he loses heart. He looks out for some opening of escape, and finally accepting a small appointment, lays down his Secretaryship with heartfelt relief and disappears forever from the trade union world.”
When “Miner Conflicts – Major Contradictions” was produced during the 1984 strike, the author sent a copy to Dave Douglass with a photocopy of the above text saying that “this was produced by someone you once knew”. However, on reflection, it represents the best, most radical, but still in many ways ideological, expression of the reform of trade unionism, of the NUM in particular, that was doing the rounds during the 1972 strike. It was part of the atmosphere amongst the most radical workers in this epoch which is why we put it here, even though it refers mainly to previous history. The fact that it contains some excellent insights doesn't deflect from the fact that it partly remains within the ideological constraints of Trade Unionism. The Webbs, despite publishing such insights as the above, were disgustingly elitist Fabians (part of the Labour Party) who much admired Stalin. Insights can often spawn a monstrous repression – it always depends on how they're used and what process follows the expression of such insights – whether they become part of a hierarchical role, boosting ones' image and career or whether they go on to subvert the world and the person's position within it.
For the moment we shall mention just what is ideological in Dave Douglass's text. We choose him partly because he is a fairly well-known representative of this trade unionist tendency – often on the telly . Whilst this tendency had considerable success in contributing to weakening British capital in the early 70s, it had a considerably debilitating effect on workers' struggles in Britain after the Winter of Discontent ('78-79). Ideas and methods of struggle are never eternally applicable and what is relatively true and subversive in one epoch can become evasive lies in another. We shall see later, during the '84 to '85 strike and after, how the advances and retreats of the struggle expressed itself in the swings from radical initiatives to, as the struggle retreated, into the more dogmatic, and overtly deceitful, aspects of trade unionism which became dominant. For the moment, we shall point out the lightly expressed ideological aspects of this text criticising them at a fairly abstract level without going into precise detail about how these aspects manifested themselves concretely.
DD criticises the old-style bureaucrats who “thought their role was to...lead rather than serve”. As we know, there are and have been plenty of leaders, not to say tyrants, who justify themselves in terms of “serving the people”. Neither a master nor servant be. It is not a question of proletarians “acting on...behalf” of those they represent but of cutting the need for representation. For low level branch officials like DD that can mean, and did mean later on, representing, during a struggle, the more radical miners, but also, when such a struggle was being defeated, representing the majority who remained passive before this defeat. If you really want to advance the class struggle, you speak and act for yourself and your enlightened proletarian self-interest, which is usually not saying what the majority are saying. A struggle against this world implies going beyond roles, whether that of 'leader' or 'servant'. Whilst workers have the illusion that “we are the union – not you” , they deliberately ignore the fact that unions assume a social function which escapes the control of each unionised worker and the ensemble of unionised workers, a social function necessitated by the unions role in commodity production and consumption. But this illusion is strongest amongst those who have a role in the union, who need it - other workers often succumb to it but also often see through it. As we've said, though, the assertion of the desire to represent other workers in DD's text is muted, expressed in a fairly tentative way because he adds things like, “He prefers the open direct representation of ‘we are all leaders’. Even in the case of a working miner who is a branch official, yes - they can see he is a worker, but that would be no call to get excited” and “the branch officer can be regarded as distant, even after a year in office... the worker can trust the man who works next to him, even if he is wary of giving him too much power”. But we shall look later at why it is necessary to be vigilant about how even the slightest germ of ideology can infect and contribute to killing off a whole movement. This is not to be purist or perfectionist: all movements begin with the ideological baggage of this world, but if they are not to be weighed down by this baggage, such movements have to throw it off.