Workers' control: looking for a movement

Anarchy magazine on the contemporary movement for workers' control.

Submitted by Steven. on May 17, 2016

The split between life and work is probably the greatest contemporary social problem. You cannot expect men to take a responsible attitude and to display initiative in daily life when their whole working experience deprives them of the chance of initiative and responsibility. The personality cannot be successfully divided into watertight compartments, and even the attempt to do so is dangerous: if a man is taught to rely upon a paternal authority within the factory, he will be ready to rely upon one outside. If he is rendered irresponsible at work by lack of opportunity for responsibility, he will be irresponsible when away from work too. The contemporary social trend toward a centralised, paternalistic, authoritarian society only reflects conditions which already exist within the factory. And it is chiefly by reversing the trend within the factory that the larger trend outside can be reversed. — GORDON RATTRAY TAYLOR: "Are Workers Human?"

Nearly everyone agrees with Rattray Taylor's view in theory: the differences emerge when we talk of the steps needed in practice. On one side there are those who talk of profit-sharing, co-partnership (not the co-operative kind), and 'participation' which may mean anything from co-opting ex-trade union officials to the boards of nationalised industries, to a suggestion box for ideas on improving the works lavatories. In the middle there are those equally vague slogans for making public ownership of industries more attractive, which come from Labour politicians or Marxist ideologists, when they realise that nationalisation either on the Soviet or the western pattern is hardly likely to harness the aspirations of those whose socialism means something more than state-controlled capitalism. Finally there are those who denounce as reformist illusion everything short of a revolutionary general strike, and regard the "day-to-day industrial struggle" purely in terms of its tactical value in preparation for a day which seemed imminent fifty years ago, distant thirty years ago, and infinitely remote today.

All these approaches have their counterpart in social thought. At one end there are what the Americans call "cow sociologists" — working on the theory that contented cows produce more milk, and that workers must be similarly tranquillized. In the middle there are those sociological and psychological thinkers who see the authoritarian structure of industry and the "subhuman condition of intellectual irresponsibility" to which the organisation of work in contemporary society is said to reduce the worker, as enemies of individual and social health. Finally there are those who, like Sorel (who welcomed syndicalist militancy in France not for the sake of the ends it sought, but because he thought that a revolutionary "myth" kept the workers from decadence), see industrial militancy as a healthy symptom in society, without regard to its aims. Thus in the recent television series Challenge to Prosperity, Dr. Tom Lupton of Birmingham College of Technology declared that the so-called restrictive practices were probably socially desirable since the perpetual battle of wits with authority fosters working-class cohesion and sense of community, and Mr. John Mack of Glasgow University remarked in January that the unofficial shop steward organisations were creating small centres of resistance to large-scale control both in industry and in the trade unions themselves, and went on, "They are sometimes mischievous, They are often a nuisance. They are also and mainly centres of social health".

Anarchists are interested in the idea of workers' control, not as a revolutionary myth nor as an indicator of the "health" of society, but as a manifestation of the struggle for personal and social autonomy which is the aim of every school of anarchist thought. But agitation for workers' control, as Peter Sedgwick remarks in a recent article,1 "can be rather like boxing with a statue of blancmange: the opponent yields so readily to the blow that one's fist may be trapped inside the mess of gooey assent." Nothing, he notes, is left from the torrential demand of the second decade of this century (chronicled in Branko Pribicevic's study The Shop Stewards' Movement and Workers' Control 1910-1922) except for

"some bottled samples of the dead flow, analysed painstakingly and labelled with care, the Guild Socialist library, the Independent Labour Party pamphlet, the article in FREEDOM. We have the brave resolution and the detailed blue-print; but the movement where is it?"

Where indeed is the movement? The first attempt, since the collapse of Guild Socialism in the twenties, to institute such a movement, was the formation at the end of 1948of the London League for Workers' Control. A new attempt is being made today following the Rank and File Industrial Conference sponsored by delegates from five small left-wing groups including the London Anarchist Group and the Syndicalist Workers' Federation, which was held on January 29th. The Conference was largely procedural. It voted itself into existence as the National Rank and File Movement, it voted in a long list of functions for its Liaison Committee and elected the committee members, and it voted its approval of an initial statement declaring, among other things that

"Workers must come together and lay the basis of an organisation which will fight to defend their present interests and, in doing so, organise to enable working people to run industry' themselves."

Whether or not this new movement is to have more than a nominal existence depends upon the Success with which it is able to link short. term and long-term aims. No justification need be made for rank-and. file movements in industry as such. The remoteness and bureaucratisation of the trade union structure is a matter of common observation. The "built-in" obstacles to reforming them from below emerge from such studies as Goldstein's The Government of British Trade Unions. The futility of setting up rival "militant" unions is shown by the history of the dockers' "blue" union. The failure of the unions to meet the challenge of the Government's carefully manoeuvred wages policy was illustrated in Richard Clements' Glory Without Power. The success within its own terms, of unofficial rank-and-file action is demonstrated in John Hughes' study "The Rise of the Militants" in Trade Union Affairs, where, discussing the Yorkshire coalfield strikes, he concludes that:

"The machinery of conciliation and arbitration had not safeguarded the earnings of the lower-paid men; the NUM is already moving to restore the official strike to its armoury. It is not entirely irrelevant, therefore that in the 1950's local and unofficial strike action wrested improved earnings that the machinery of conciliation and arbitration was unlikely to have conceded without such pressure."

The long-term aim, workers' control, was scarcely discussed at all at the Rank-and-File conference, except by a few speakers who remarked that the increasing responsibilities and technical "know-how" of the new kind of worker in advanced industries made the whole idea more. and not less feasible. The "movement" in fact does not yet exist, and if the vague aspiration is to be clothed with something more than lip- service, we have to re-examine the history of the idea and its applications, not as a museum of bottled samples, but in order to fill out the slogan with meaning and direction.
The point of view of most of our contributors can be summed up in Ken Alexander's declaration in his essay "Power at the Base" in the symposium Out of Apathy:

"it is from workers' desire to change the character of their lives — working and leisure — that the motive pawer for social change must come. The Guild Socialist policy of 'encroaching control' indicates how industrial action, economic power exercised by workers, can be used to set in motion basic changes in industrial organisation and indeed in society. A few simple aims — for example, control over hire and fire, over the 'manning of the machines' and over the working of overtime — pressed in the mast hopeful industries with the aim of establishing bridgeheads from which workers' control could be extended, could make a beginning. The factors determining whether such demands could be pressed successfully are market, industrial organisation and, more important, the extent to which the nature of their work compels the workers to exercise same control."

This kind of conclusion is reached by Geoffrey Ostergaard in his authoritative historical survey, since, like James Lynch, he recommends a wider exploration of the collective contract, and by Reg Wright in his account, from the inside, of the gang system. But even Allan Flanders, who is an eminent and not very radical thinker on industrial relations has observed that

"Whatever the virtues of the collective contract it is not an idea that is likely to rally a new crusade among those far whom industrial democracy is an ideal, vague perhaps but reaching beyond strong unions and collective bargaining. One can hear them asking: has a mountain laboured to bring forth this mouse and one with grey hairs at that?"

But the "pure" syndicalist approach has its pitfalls too, as Philip Holgate's study of syndicalist mass movements in three countries shows. (Hugh Clegg remarks that the revolutionary syndicalists were so concerned to preserve the virginal purity of their independence that they advocated no agreements with employers' and that if this advice had been accepted the unions would have remained impotent.) The attractiveness of the approach of "encroaching control" is that it could combine effective day to day means with radical ends.

  • 1P. Sedgwick: Workers' Control (International Socialism 3, Winter 1960-61).