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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 179 Contents

Socialist Review, October 1994

Jack Robertson


Chinks in the armour


From Socialist Review, No. 179, October 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Dynamics of Workplace Unionism
Ralph Darlington
Mansell £18.99

In the world of conventional industrial relations, you would need to go a long way to come across a totally convincing account of what really happened to the unions in Britain during the Thatcher years.

At the time most experts in the field tended to bend with the wind to one degree or other, the response to the audacity of the Tories’ attack ranging from grudging admiration to outright promotion of Thatcherite ideology.

At the other end of the spectrum, a few attempted to hold the line by suggesting that, while unions may have been thrown onto the defensive by the government, it was possible through the development of a more ‘sophisticated’ bargaining approach for unions to preserve their organisation. They could also make significant gains through trade offs on issues like shorter hours, equal pay and pensions.

The latter strategy, of course, very much reflected the prevailing view of Labour politicians and trade union leaders, while the former came from SDP types, outright Tories, or others of mischievous intent. But, academic impartiality being what it is, direct political allegiances are always wilfully obscured.

In this book, by contrast, Ralph Darlington has set out not only to make his own commitment to revolutionary politics crystal clear but to identify and try to explain carefully, and in close detail, the fundamental weaknesses in the bureaucratic response.

The materials for the study are the first hand accounts of shop stewards and activists working in three Merseyside factories, taken predominantly from interviews conducted over an extended period in the latter part of the 1980s and early 1990s, and from local union records.

But this is not so much a narrative, as an investigation into the way in which a commendable level of rank and file militancy and independent organisation evident in each workplace at the start of the decade, had been chipped away by degrees by the end.

And that, in the long run, although superficial gains had often been made usually in the form of ‘enhanced’ status for leading stewards or even material rewards for major productivity improvements, ultimately these could in no way compensate for the erosion of elementary traditions that occured in these three workplaces.

For many years the Bemrose printworks had an awesome and not entirely undeserved reputation for union control, on a par with anywhere barring Fleet Street. But after Wapping, and takeover by News International, it suffered much the same fate.

The Bird’s Eye factory was similarly regarded by many as the best organised anywhere in the UK within the giant Unilever combine. And to this day Ford Halewood is remembered for its early history of unpredictable, and often explosive, strike episodes.

But an important shift began to take place. It may have seemed advisable, expedient or even incredibly shrewd to play down for the time being such customs as regular reports back to members, support for sectional stoppages, collections for other workers or refusal to cross picket lines. But faced with any real trial of strength, a solid and energetic rank and file response could no longer be relied upon.

Also, as Ralph Darlington illustrates extremely well, differing approaches to the most effective forms of shopfloor organisation are essentially a political rather than technical matter.

The role of the union leaders has a particular relevance in Merseyside where, for historical reasons which are properly explained, a purely syndicalist current gained some influence during the late 1970s, especially in the car plants.

More generally, the special role and influence of the trade union leaders (so routinely denied out of hand as mere SWP polemic, but transparently obvious to even a trainee personnel manager) is clearly documented.

As the title implies, the interplay or ‘dynamic’ between all of these elements is traced and teased out with patience and tenacity. Any activist, in any workplace, will recognise immediate parallels with their own situation and, despite the occasional highflown terminology, will find the read well worth the effort.

The conclusion is by no means pessimistic for the future of workers’ struggles. On the contrary, the case put is that even recognising the disabling impact of anti-union legislation and constant threat of redundancy, it is nevertheless quite feasible to argue for a form of aggressive rearguard action against management. This in fact is a much more ‘realistic’ strategy than the ‘new realism’ which advocated an identity of interests with the employers, or a form of unilateral disarmament.

Today, Ford Halewood is the only one of the three factories in this study to have survived. But in 1988 the workforce was centrally involved in the wave of unofficial strikes which not only took management and union leaders completely by surprise, but gave the rest of us the first glimpse that there was a chink in the armour of even the most formidable opponent.

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