Rise and Decline of the Shop Stewards Movements as a Mediating Force (Theo Sander)

Remember how we the Left took over in the union and woke the miners up to regaining their old pride as class fighters in the fore of the working class? This is the kind of self-congratulatory myth (if it is not just plain party gossip) peddled by middle-aged trade-union officials like David Douglass having risen in the union hierarchy during the seventies and eighties. In his words, the 1969 strike "swept aside the old union leadership and gave birth to a new, 'left', leadership" (D. Douglass/J. Krieger, A Miner's Life, London 1983, p. 89). In 1972 the miners were reborn because it was "a renaissance of general class militancy muffled and shuffling for 40 years prior" (p. 90), and the prime instrument of their struggle were the miners' panels, a kind of joint shop stewards' committees or "quasi-soviets" (p. 91). But that was not yet all. Parallel to the victory of the miners, "the Left inside the Labour Party started to gain ground". The unmistakable sign for this advance was the programme of nationalizations passed at the National Conference. But even more important was "the really big vote for the nationalizations of one hundred monopolies without compensation and under workers' control". The motion was not actually passed, but "the vote in favour was very significant" (p. 98) .

Happy memories of Britain on the brink of being voted into socialism first phase of communism by Labour Party Conference delegates - pushed by radical shop stewards acting in the image of soviets! This is the kind of sermon Douglass preaches at the open grave of a crippled trade unionism (and its ugly twin sister, the Labour Party), faithfully sticking to the old Roman tradition of saying only nice things about the dead. And as things go, some of the funeral guests, like us, are not nearly as much professionally deformed and deeply moved as the preacher himself. Nor do we have any particular reason at all to let ourselves be carried away like that by memories of a past that never was.

But before we enter into any detail regarding the post-war history of the shop stewards' movement, I would like to say a few words about nationalisation and its effects on the life of miners, because the nationalisation of mines has been the background for class struggles in this industry in the years after the Second World War. No, under nationalisation it wasn't the same as before, in every possible respect it was infinitely worse than anything miners had suffered from private coal owners. The NCB was definitely not the weakest enemy, not the least oppressive, not the one on which the union could direct more pressure and obstruction. On all counts the exact opposite is true, although it is perfectly correct to say that the NUM has permanently acted as if it wasn't.

There was a time (in the nineteen-twenties) when the coalmining industry of Great Britain offered 1.2 million jobs, and even around the time Douglass was born there might still have been some 700,000. What's left of it now? What's going to be left of it in a couple of years? And what do you think is going to be left of the miners' union ten years on or so (I don't care if it lasts ten years longer) with a few thousand miners doing all the work? What has the glorious miners' union done to prevent the shedding of more than a million jobs in this industry alone? What has Dave Douglass' union - with all its supposedly shining examples of trade union leadership like A.J. Cook, Arthur Scargill, Peter Heathfield "and a million more" as he loves to say - done to put a brake on the rapid mechanization and automation of mines? What has the miners' union (or any other union for that matter) done to stop the frantic accumulation of capital in the coalmining industry, with the most frantic developments having clearly occured under nationalisation in the post-war period? Well, this is of course not the business of any union, and it never has been. Instead they are dealing with the more "practical" business of "compensation" for more exploitation (most rapid rises in the post-war period under nationalisation!), for more intensification of work (again most rapid rises in the post-war period under nationalisation!), for more health risks and accidents (although fatal accidents have declined, the so-called over-3-day injuries have shot up in the post-war period under nationalisation!).

To sum up briefly, nationalisation brought more mechanization, more redundancies, more exploitation, more intensification of work, more health risks than the coal industry has ever witnessed before. If Douglass wishes to publicly discuss this I will be only too happy to supply the necessary basic information for him and other union officials. Workers do not need that kind of basic information. They have experienced all this in their daily lives and nobody has to tell them. They will certainly not listen to any union official lecturing them on his dreamed-up stories about the NCB as the "weakest enemy". The promise of security, prosperity and a new life flowing from nationalisation and the welfare state was a lie, a lie propped up by government and union propaganda. This is how a vast majority of miners quickly came to see it. Just listen to what some researchers from the University of Sussex found out about workers-union relations in the 1950s in a Yorkshire mining community they gave the fictitious name of Ashton:

"It is suggested that the present patent contradictions in trade unionism in Ashton are the result of a development set afoot certainly no later than 1939. This development manifests itself ... in the widening split of interests and policy between union officials and rank and file. Its secondary consequences within the industry are serious; there are innumerable 'unofficial' strikes, largely inconsequential, and therefore bound to lead to greater dissatisfaction both with the industry as such and with the union leadership. ... To summarize the attitude of Ashton miners, and that of many others: the union is a prime necessity, and yet it tends more and more to refuse to represent their view of the essence of relations with management. In fact it is common for union leaders to condemn strikes in the same terms as the management."

In a footnote the authors added: "Although only a half-dozen men in Ashton itself are winding-enginemen, the best remembered example of this feature is the 'Winders' Strike of December 1952, when the N.U.M. sought to supply substitute winding men from areas outside Yorkshire to maintain production." (N. Dennis/F. Henriques/C. Slaughter, Coal Is Our Life. An analysis of a Yorkshire mining community, 2nd ed., London 1969, p. 113) Dozens of other studies have come to very similar conclusions about the NUM. You will probably find most of them in a good union library (or are they all on a list of banned books with restricted access for union officials in order not to unduly disturb them in their soft dreams of harmonious union-management relations?). You could also ask some of the million miners and more who have been thrown out of the coal industry since the twenties. Or you could ask the vast majority of union members still remaining in the industry who are no longer wasting their time by going to useless branch meetings.

In the face of such developments - infinitely more brutal attacks on miners under nationalisation and increasing union-management collusion - it comes as no surprise that there was an explosion of unofficial strikes in the post-war period, normally involving small groups fighting for very specific local purposes and mostly staying out only a short time. It also comes as no surprise that nationalisation did not sufficiently motivate miners to put aside or to make less use of such traditional weapons of self-defence as go-slows, output restriction, absenteeism, sabotage etc. Quite the contrary. The history of this unofficial movement, very often directed against the official trade union structure, has not yet been written. Douglass' own book written in collaboration with Joel Krieger (A Miner's Life, London 1983) contains a wealth of interesting information but is not even a beginning of such a history. I must refrain from critizing it here although there would be a lot to say about it. Suffice it to say that by far the strangest bit concerns his visions and hopes (as expressed in 1982) of a left turn in the Labour Party. As if the many left turns or right turns in this party had ever changed its fundamental policy of assault on the working class wherever possible in past decades.

Back to the miners: I can't even try to briefly sketch the history of the unofficial movement as I see it, given the limits of this short comment. So I just have to single out a few problems of greater importance and deal with them as best as I can. One of the more fundamental problems seems to be the meaning of trade union reform in the latter half of the sixties and how this has been a result and a further cause of changed relations between the unofficial leaders (mainly shop stewards) and the workers. Up to 1966 the behaviour of the shop stewards was governed by the daily piece-work negotiations and the negotiations around conditions of work. The frequent disputes associated with that system would have arisen even if there had been no stewards. When piecework was abolished by the NPLA the steward's job changed considerably. The tightening of internal management controls and the introduction of new payment systems, job evaluation structures, productivity agreements and formalised negotiating and disciplinary procedures often reduced significantly the scope for bargaining by individual shop stewards at the workplace. These strategies have basically failed to produce the desired results (as we know for example from the research done by Joel Krieger, published in his book Undermining Capitalism. State Ownership and the Dialectic of Control in the British Coal Industry, London-Sydney 1983), although this was clearly not a matter of resistance from the shop stewards. Negotiations on workplace matters slowly became a far more centralised process, often involving the application to individual issues of an explicit set of 'rationalised' principles. But in the main this did not - as the Donovan Commission anticipated in its study on trade union reform - become the responsibility of full-time officials from outside the company. Rather, the introduction and operation of centralised and formalised bargaining arrangements was the responsibility of a new layer of full-time convenors and shop stewards.

This in itself is interesting enough. The number of such full-time convenors and shop stewards, it would appear, quadrupled in the British industry during the 1970s, now greatly exceeding the number of ordinary trade union officials. While a considerable detachment between workplace organisation and the branch-based decision-making machinery of the unions may have existed in the past, there were extensive changes in the late 1960s and during the 1970s. They were often carried through under the quite misleading slogan of greater union democracy. In some cases workplace leaders were given an official role within union organisations, e.g. becoming represented on many national negotiating bodies. Unions created industrial committees and conferences composed of workplace activists. Rulebooks began to define the rights and obligations of convenors and joint shop stewards' committees. Education and training schemes for shop stewards (typically emphasising the importance of negotiating expertise and orderly procedure) burgeoned. In short, this was all part of a development leading fast to a significant degree of integration between steward hierarchies and official trade union structures. The unofficial movement certainly did not cease to exist. It was, however, from now on increasingly directed not only against management, but also against the bureaucratised shop stewards movement as an integrated part of the trade union structure.

What do I mean by the 'bureaucratisation of the shop stewards movement'? There are a number of aspects worth mentioning. The elimination of piece working, the wage freeze and incomes policy, and the move towards productivity deals, especially if connected with tendencies of tranferring bargaining to a company-wide level, necessarily took away the power of the ordinary shop stewards. At the same time a substantial stratum of (more or less) full-time senior shop stewards emerged, wielding considerable power within their workplace organisations, and performing a key mediating role between employers, union officials and 'first-line' shop stewards. This trend towards the consolidation of a hierarchy within shop stewards organisations was paralleled by a centralisation of control within stewards' organisations. Originally, joint shop stewards' committees tended to fulfill the functions of co-ordination rather than control, to depend on the voluntary agreement of the various sections and their representatives rather than sanctions. Gradually, it became far more common for such committees to exercise a disciplinary role, forcing dissident sections of the membership or of the committees into line. But at the same time, the cadre of full-time or almost full-time stewards within a committee often possessed the authority and the informational and organisational resources to ensure that their own recommendations would be accepted as policy by the stewards' body.

On top of this comes what has been described as the corruption of the shop stewards. There can be no doubt that under the new system the shop steward's job could be very easy, with no supervision by management and no hassles about things like time-keeping. Normally stewards were provided with an office by the employer, and it was entirely up to them if they were sitting in there all day drinking tea or if they worked hard. In particular full-time convenors were extremely privileged by a very convenient practice of payment emerging in the period of the social contract policy - 100 per cent earnings plus bonus plus night premiums plus unlimited time off site. Who could under such circumstances be surprised about British workers standing by and not moving an inch on the many occasions when 'their' convenors or full-time stewards were chased out of the plant by the employer? And who wants to tell us that the integration of shop stewards into a more or less streamlined union machine, irrespective of any left or right tendencies, did not profoundly alter relations between workers and shop stewards?

It is really amazing how Douglass manages to write so enthusiastically about the unofficial movement, i.e. the shop stewards (the Left?), taking over in the union to force it on the course of official strikes in 1972 and 1974, and at the same time to remain dead silent about the transformation of the role of shop stewards at plant level, turning them into a major element of a policy of establishing a new plant consensus (and thuIt is reassuring, no doubt, to see that this policy has failed as well, in spite of all the unswerving dedication of shop stewards and convenors in making it work. The formalisation of procedures and the rise of consultation/participation (linked to the more and more widespread use of the check-off system) has been of overriding importance in this respect. Procedural machinery itself contained a higher element of common interest. If the parties were aware that they must make rules to regulate conditions of work, they were not only committed to machinery for making these rules, but also to machinery for applying and interpreting them. They were also committed to some means of dealing with grievances, whether these were likely to be formulated into collective agreements of a formal kind or not. This was finally bound to increase the area of joint consultation in which management took union officials and shop stewards more into their confidence in order to broaden the basis of understanding between the parties. Expressed in very general terms, procedures were 'both treaties of peace and devices for the avoidance of war' between shop stewards/union officials and managements, as a specialist in industrial relations studies so nicely put it. In the sense that they led to the establishment of substantive agreements, they were instruments of legislation about terms and conditions of employment. In the sense that they handled grievances, they were devices for hearing appeals. And in the sense that they attempted, by consultation, to involve the shop stewards and other union officials into the affairs of management, they were educational, persuasive forces. But while procedural machinery and the participation of shop stewards in procedure and consultation spread like wildfire, workers and managements remained what they always had been and always will be - natural enemies.

So are we really expected to believe that the miners are inseparable from the miners' union, as Douglass tells us? The union which regards nationalisation as something in which coal owners lost out in general and miners gained a better life? The union which has continuously acted as if the NCB were in fact the weakest and least oppressive enemy? The union which knows nothing about surplus value and exploitation and doesn't care about it? The union which has watched helplessly (or disinterestedly - that doesn't make a difference) the slashing of more than a million jobs in the coalmining industry? The union which has integrated the bureaucratised shop stewards movement into a more or less streamlined and absolutely hierarchical union machine? The union which is hell bent on mediation through procedural machinery and consultation, on doing its very best to avoid class war? Not even uninformed readers on the Continent would be ready to buy such ridiculous stuff.

Theo Sander