From International Socialism (1st series), No.31, Winter 1967/68, pp.1-2.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Since coming to office, the Labour Government has been feeling its way in relationship to organised labour. It called the bluff of first the Labour Party Conference, then the TUC, then the Parliamentary Labour Party. Last year, when Wilson addressed the TUC, he spoke over its head to the bankers and to Washington. In doing so with impunity, he demonstrated that the TUC was a paper tiger – it could not, in the final analysis, call out its members on strike to demonstrate its power. Given its weakness, the TUC traded the illusion of real power, a militant mass following, for the illusion of power, a nominal foot in the door of State. It entered the corridors of power, and stayed there, cap in hand, never able to leave the corridor for the committee rooms where real decisions are made.
But if the TUC as a body of permanent officials can be incorporated by the Government as a piece of furniture in the Wilsonian house of ideology, the Government has to tread more warily the closer it comes to real organised workers. Thus, in particular disputes, it has moved with initial circumspection, waiting to see the response to State intervention on the side of the employers. Each time the response was mild (or, in the press, warm), it has gone further, and each new dispute means it can go further much more quickly. The dispute with the railwaymen shows how many corners can now be cut – Gunter issued an order to the National Union of Railwaymen to surrender. Of course, the NUR leaders have cried ‘Wolf!’ so many times before, no-one seriously supposed they would stand and fight. But the surrender by the NUR means that the next dispute will be even more rapidly stopped – and the same goes for disputes by non-railwaymen. Unless groups of workers are prepared to resist, they lose not this battle but the next one as well, they encourage the Government to become more and more ruthless.
But if the Government has been feeling its way, and is now satisfied that it can use the full machinery of the State to support employers without danger, the particularly savage edge to its recent intervention derives from the economic context. The pound has ailed since the summer, and has now toppled into a devaluation that not only makes mockery of the Government’s entire strategy for the past three years, but entails an even more ruthless policy in the coming period. Before devaluation, the margin for manoeuvre by the Government was narrow enough – as The Economist (18 Nov 1967) put it,
‘Britain’s underlying economic situation has been allowed to become so weak that the effects of half a dozen unimportant agitators swaying less than 0.001 per cent of the nation’s labour force for a few weeks can be deemed to cause national disaster.’
The prospect now is very much worse for the mythology of the prices and incomes policy made pious reference to holding prices down; now, everyone agrees, prices must rise while wages stay down – real wages must be forced down so that ‘devaluation will work.’
In the past period, the fragmentary struggle of particular groups of workers has been as crucial as grains of sand in a piece of fine precision machinery. Such battles will be at least as dangerous for the Government in the future, particularly because workers will be much more heavily under attack and much less willing to accept the Freeze of the past. It is in this context that one can understand the shift in Government tactics most recently – unemployment is retained to control the unfortunate and the rebels, a wage freeze will continue to curb those workers too weak to break it, but for those groups of workers which are strong and militant, the Government now requires employers to buy them out: the productivity bargain is rapidly becoming the centre-piece of policy. Of course, in the short term, direct Government force will be used to stiffen the back of any blackleg employers – the Ministry of Labour will help recruit scabs to break strikes, the Home Office will supply the police to protect the scabs and the buses to transport them, the judges will pick off the militants with heavy fines, and the massive machinery of Government propaganda, abetted by the press, will be used to demoralise strikers. If a court of inquiry or Jack Scamp cannot break resistance, if the Prime Minister’s flight to Liverpool for fireside chats with selected dockers fails, then Gunter can be relied upon to discover Moscow gold in the palms of every militant. The account of ENV presented elsewhere in this issue illustrates some of the methods available to break opposition.
But the long-term threat for important groups of workers is now the productivity bargain rather than the direct confrontation implicit in a wages freeze. Here, the trade-union leaders can get themselves off the hook – they no longer have to choose publicly between supporting the State and the employers, and their own members, for within the complexities of productivity bargaining, the issues remain secret, get lost in detail, and, in any case, any sell-out can be said to have won a price, no matter how small. The dockers (with Devlin), railwaymen, busmen, printers, have all been offered the inviting prospect of higher pay without a fight – higher pay for fewer workers, all working harder and contractually committed to obedience whatever happens. Reduced labour costs for the employers are matched by more unemployment, more moving between industries, more older workers displaced by younger, more strain and exhaustion, speed-up. Whereas a wage freeze can unite diverse groups of workers, productivity deals tend to divide, for few workersoutside the industry concerned can understand the exact importance of conditions conceded.
Yet many trade-union leaders are not at all clear on the issue – indeed, Cousins of the Transport and General Workers actually offers productivity bargaining as an alternative to an incomes policy. Of course, backed with the clear power of militant mass support, productivity bargaining can be used, like anything else, to the advantage of workers – the Government recognises the dangers, and, as we go to press, is considering two wage settlements – for Pressed Steel DATA men and for Vauxhall motor men. But without trade-union leaders prepared to submit their bargaining to rank-and-file discipline, the dangers are immense. In the negotiations between the Transport and General and London Transport for 30,000 London busmen, one clause in the proposed agreement states that, in return for a few shillings bonus, busmen must accept standing passengers on their buses at all times, not just in peak periods. Yet, a long standing objective of the union has, supposedly, been to abolish the standing passenger altogether. Quite rightly, the busmen threw out the deal and demanded a straight pay increase. 
It is, of course, to the advantage of the employers if the main strain of industrial conflict is taken out in battles within the unions. Yet faced with the present situation, militants have no alternative but to flight trade-union leaderships which are prepared to sell crucial working conditions for a few shillings. In the Electrical Trades Union, the battle of contracting electricians against the ETU leadership’s willingness to trade working conditions  is one attempt at what has to be done if trade-union members are to influence the bargain. In the worst situation, the bargain includes both a ban on unofficial action (giving the employers a contractual right to sue individual militants in court, as proposed by the building employers currently as part of decasualisation) and a closed shop – so that the employer does not have to sack a rebel; the union can merely expel him from membership. Thus, the union leaders come directly into the role of labour agent for employers.
The failure of trade-union leaders over the past two years to defend their members against a wages freeze sets the scene for current negotiations. It is impossible that those negotiations can be to the advantage of workers without them embodying the genuine pressure of rank-and-file militancy. As the new Left-wing leader of the engineers, Hugh Scanlon, comes face-to-face with the employers to negotiate the new agreement, he does so in the worst possible conditions, created not just by the financial situation, but by the past failures of his fellow trade-union leaders, not least among whom is the NUR leadership. There is almost no room to manoeuvre, and the employers, strongly encouraged by the State, will play it tough.
The sole ‘concession’ is the productivity bargain sale of conditions. Yet, as with the wages freeze, much talk and militant posturing by the union leaderships (where it happens) is no substitute for real power. Real power means a willingness by the union leadership to lead its members in a fight, to strike, to prove that the power they claim is not a paper tiger. There is still no magic mechanism which will hike pay automatically without increased work, unemployment or a worsening of conditions. For workers, the ‘bargain’ can only become a realistic one if it is structured by organised rank-and-file militancy.
1. For more on the London busmen, cf. Taking London for a Ride, 6d from: A Group of Rank and File Busmen, c/o F Trott, 19 Grosvenor Road, Brentford, Middx.
2. cf. Grading and the Contracting Sparks, T. Berwick, Labour Worker pamphlet.
Last updated on 29.12.2007