A future which works

Michael Ignatieff

  • Trade Unions in British Politics edited by Ben Pimlott
    Longman, 302 pp, £6.50, September 1982, ISBN 0 582 49184 3
  • Trade Unions: The Logic of Collective Action by Colin Crouch
    Fontana, 251 pp, £2.50, August 1982, ISBN 0 00 635873 X
  • Work and Politics: The Division of Labour in Industry by Charles Sabel
    Cambridge, 304 pp, £17.50, September 1982, ISBN 0 521 23002 0
  • Strikes and the Government, 1893-1981 by Eric Wigham
    Macmillan, 248 pp, £20.00, February 1982, ISBN 0 333 32302 5
  • Governments and Trade Unions: The British Experience, 1964-1979 by Dennis Barnes
    Heinemann Educational, 242 pp, £6.50, February 1982, ISBN 0 435 83046 5
  • The Assembly Line by Robert Linhart, translated by Margaret Crosland
    Calder, 160 pp, £3.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 7145 3742 X

It is not easy to make sense of the trade unions. ‘Suicidal’, ‘mindless’ and ‘atavistic’ are, to be sure, epithets of wilful incomprehension, but even those disposed to understand sometimes find it hard to comprehend union behaviour, workers’ interests and the uncertain fit between the two. The first obvious case which baffles even sympathetic onlookers arises when unions strike in apparent disregard of the apocalyptic economic facts in their industry. During the ASLEF strike, even those loyal to the traditions of craft unionism found it difficult to see why the union should have seen fit to push the industry to the brink of collapse. It may be rational, even in a time of recession, to take on a plump multinational subsidiary like Ford’s, but it seems insane to grapple over the rusting hulk of some near-bankrupt nationalised industry. A rational explanation of union behaviour in these cases would have to demonstrate how unions manage to construe the facts of life in their industry in such a way that they can convince themselves and their members that they are defending, not destroying, their own occupation. The second case, which equally baffles outsiders, occurs when even unionised workers are seen to put up with low pay, appalling conditions or both without collective complaint. The cotton workers who have been stoically giving their lungs and their lives to the defence of an industry itself dying on its feet from mismanagement and foreign competition are the most pathetic example. If the first case – ‘suicidal militancy’ – is the bête noire of Conservatives, the second is the eternal puzzlement of Marxists. Neither side produces explanations of these cases which credit workers with the capacity to think for themselves. Conservatives like to emphasise the political and personal ambitions of the leadership – the Ray Bucktons of this world – thus failing to explain why the rank and file seem so regularly to find sound reasons of self-interest to support their leaders’ supposedly selfish causes. The catch-phrases in the Marxist explanation of why workers put up with the unbearable – the ‘divide and rule’ tactics of the employers, the ‘co-optation’ of the unions, the weight of ‘dominant ideology’ – likewise assume a passive rank and file, incapable of either speaking or knowing their own minds. It is almost an embarrassment, and certainly a puzzle, that these same numbed and divided workers can, with surprising suddenness, become militants in their own cause. Then, of course, Marxist sociology has to explain that they were secret bearers of revolutionary consciousness all along.

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