Desperate Responses

Richard Hyman

  • Industry, Unions and Government: Twenty-One Years of NEDC by Keith Middlemas
    Macmillan, 240 pp, £17.50, January 1984, ISBN 0 333 35121 5
  • Strikes in Post-War Britain: A Study of Stoppages of Work Due to Industrial Disputes, 1946-73 by J.W. Durcan, W.E.J. McCarthy and G.P. Redman
    Allen and Unwin, 448 pp, £20.00, November 1983, ISBN 0 04 331093 1
  • Picketing: Industrial Disputes, Tactics and the Law by Peggy Kahn, Norman Lewis, Rowland Livock and Paul Wiles
    Routledge, 223 pp, £5.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 7100 9534 1

The incredible frequency of these strikes proves best of all the extent to which the social war has broken out all over England. No week passes, scarcely a day, indeed, in which there is not a strike in some direction, now against a reduction, then against a refusal to raise the rate of wages ... sometimes against new machinery, or for a hundred other reasons. These strikes, at first skirmishes, sometimes result in weighty struggles ... They are the military school of the working-men in which they prepare themselves for the great struggle ... And as schools of war, the Unions are unexcelled. In them is developed the peculiar courage of the English.

Some strange allusions yet some familiar resonances in the conclusions of the young Friedrich Engels after his first eventful contact with the labour movement in Lancashire at the height of the second Chartist upsurge. His diagnosis of a close nexus between trade unions, strikes, economic disruption and political disaffection was not merely the wishful enthusiasm of Marx’s future collaborator: the same connections have long been made by enemies of trade-unionism, and the charge of subversion of the social order has formed a central theme of Thatcherite Conservatism. Within the mainstream labour organisations, meanwhile, militancy has long ceased to represent a cause for celebration: on the contrary, strikes more commonly engender apologetic embarrassment.

The argument that unions are constructive rather than disruptive – inconceivable when Engels wrote, and absurd to the exponents of the new right – has by now a considerable ancestry. Until the 1970s, for roughly a century this more sanguine interpretation was widely endorsed. Strikes were regarded as regrettable but inevitable expressions of divergent interests and at the same time as incidents which, through appropriate institutional arrangements, could be limited in their incidence and effects. Within this institutional containment, trade unions had a vital role to perform. ‘The executive committees of all the chief unions are to a very large extent hostile to strikes, and exercise a restraining influence,’ reported the Board of Trade in 1889. ‘Of recent years the control of the central executives over strike movements has been gradually becoming more rigorous, and strikes entered into without their consent are not recognised.’ A few years later, the Royal Commission on Labour concluded in similar vein: ‘peaceable relations are, upon the whole, the result of strong and firmly established trade-unionism ... Powerful trades unions on the one side and powerful associations of employers on the other have been the means of bringing together in conference the representatives of both classes enabling each to appreciate the position of the other.’

For most of the 20th century, public policy has been founded upon such sentiments. Collective representation and collective bargaining, while by no means preventing strikes, were nevertheless regarded as the best means of neutralising the explosive or radical potential of workers’ discontents which Engels had emphasised. The parties to collective negotiation, concerned to sustain their mutual relationship, became committed to a search for the peaceful resolution of disputes and to the observance of agreements reached. It seemed self-evident – certainly it constituted a fundamental principle of the old Ministry of Labour for the fifty years of its existence – that a system of industrial relations predicated on the relative autonomy of employer and worker-representatives was more likely to secure assent and compliance than one in which the role of the state was more overt and more directive.

This principle of ‘voluntarism’, so fundamental (at least until recent times) to modern British industrial relations, was matched in academic analysis by the thesis of the ‘institutionalisation of conflict’. Left to their own devices, so the argument ran, the parties to any conflict relationship could scarcely avoid ‘rules of the game’, either in the form of tacit understandings or of explicit procedures. In defining the area of their mutual antagonism, they would implicitly identify a realm of mutual agreement, and in this way impose a broader and more harmonious perspective upon their disputes. Thus ‘mature’ collective bargaining was interpreted as a source of stability and integration, rendering industrial conflict increasingly marginal and antiseptic.

Though the relative acceptability of each has varied, the subversive and integrative visions of trade-unionism have repeatedly competed for primacy in public debate. Underlying this competition have been three rival images of the working class held by employers, politicians and the formulators of popular opinion. The first may perhaps be termed the ‘high Tory’ conception of the ‘dangerous classes’ as volatile, irrational, potentially hostile. Strikes here represent latter-day peasants’ revolts, always liable to get out of hand. On this view, effective containment of the lower orders could well require intermediaries able to ‘speak their own language’. Leaderless, workers appeared a rabble prone to erupt into anarchy: organised, they could more readily be kept in line, even if the price was the negotiation of modest material concessions. This was clearly the interpretation which inspired the 1894 Royal Commissioners under the noble Duke of Devonshire; and it has obtained the endorsement of most modern Conservative governments.

An alternative model to the revolting peasant is the noble savage – another aspect of high Toryism. On this view, the typical worker knows his place, touches his forelock, cheerfully performs a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay – unless and until led astray by trade-union agitators. Disrupting the natural harmony between masters and men, unions deserve suppression (as under the Combination Acts) or at least severe discouragement. Many of the present Government’s pronouncements accord with this perspective: hence the touching faith that ‘giving the unions back to their members’ is a recipe for restoring peace in industry.

More pessimistic than the ‘salt of the earth’ stereotype of the British worker is the idea that both employees and their collective organisations are irrevocably imbued with original sin. Workers themselves are predominantly idle, insubordinate, unreliable: but union officials are no better, either pandering to the demands of their members or else driven by their own malign interests. According to this, the Daily Telegraph vision of industrial relations, order is possible only if forcibly imposed.

In the past two decades, public policy in Britain has shifted from the first perspective towards the latter two. Three phases of this transition may be identified. The first represents the continuity between the Devonshire Commission of the 1890s and the Donovan Commission of the 1960s, both of which looked to official trade-unionism to curb industrial disorder. In the 1960s, the ‘peasants’ revolt’ assumed new and unsettling forms: shop-floor militancy and unofficial strikes were widely viewed as sources of unwonted anarchy in industrial relations. The conclusion of the Donovan Report in 1968 was that official trade-union structures must be strengthened, so as to integrate and discipline the activities of shop stewards. The second phase – from the late 1960s through the following decade – saw trade-union leaders co-operating in national economic planning, wage restraint, productivity bargaining, institutional reforms. But a worsening economic environment, and the attempts of governments of both parties to sustain profitability at the expense of wages, provoked major national disputes which union leaders were obliged to orchestrate. In these circumstances, state policy oscillated between attempts to co-opt and attempts to coerce the unions. The third phase was marked by heightened economic crisis, rising unemployment, cuts in state welfare, rationalisation in private industry, cash limits in public employment. The scope for collaborative industrial relations was drastically reduced, and confrontation became a familiar feature of the trade-union scene. Each stage in this evolution is reflected in the three works under review.

‘The time has come to establish new and more effective machinery for the co-ordination of plans and forecasts for the main sectors of our economy. There is a need to study centrally the plans and prospects of our main industries, to correlate them with each other and with the Government’s plans for the public sector, and to see how in aggregate they contribute to, and fit in with, the prospects for the economy as a whole ... I am anxious to secure that both sides of industry, on whose co-operation the fulfilment of our objectives must significantly depend, should participate fully with the Government in all stages of the process.’ The initiative of Selwyn Lloyd, Chancellor in the Macmillan Government now most usually remembered for the rise of television satire, survived the vicissitudes of British politics to come of age in 1983. Throughout its eventful life the National Economic Development Council (NEDC) has stood as the most notable of the tripartite institutions – ‘quangos’ to their critics – which have symbolised the search for policy consensus for most of the post-war period.

The creation of NEDC reflected three overlapping motives. The first was a general concern at the low growth rate of the British economy, attributed to the fiscal policies of postwar governments with their cycles of ‘stop-go’ measures. ‘Planning’ was viewed as an alternative which would allow more sophisticated strategies of intervention to sustain a climate favourable to investment. Secondly, the occasion of the bid for EEC membership encouraged attention to European institutions of economic management; the French Commisariat du Plan attracted widespread admiration, though the NEDC was denied its powers. Thirdly, the initiative was designed to seduce the unions – with their traditional commitment to the notion of a planned economy – into collaborating with government priorities and, in particular, the incomes policy launched simultaneously under the direction of a National Incomes Commission.

These efforts proved largely futile. The NEDC was bereft of powers: British-style planning was to be purely indicative. The Government’s Common Market aspirations were rebuffed by de Gaulle. And the TUC, while agreeing after agonised debate to accept its allotted seats on NEDC, reaffirmed its hostility to wage restraint. Yet if the original aspirations were stillborn, the institution nevertheless survived, providing a continuing forum for tripartite meetings even when relations between unions, government and employers (or any combination of these) have been most frigid. And if, under Thatcher, there were powerful arguments within the TUC that participation had lost all point, still the commitment to membership was regularly reaffirmed. Only the Government’s gratuitous denial of the rights of union membership at GCHQ has provoked the eventual rupture.

In what is effectively an official history of NEDC, Keith Middlemas is anxious to assert its virtues: a vehicle for the pursuit of consensus, the Council ‘has stood for steady, reasoned adjustment to national and international long-term trends, as against the oscillating, hasty patterns and reversals of government policy’. A Tory himself, he rejects the nursery economics of Thatcherism: ‘NEDC’s work stands as lasting disproof of the wilder pretensions of liberal economic theory.’

A realistic assessment; and not vitiated by the curious introspection of Middlemas’s treatment. His book concentrates on the high politics of tripartism: its narrative is primarily the view from Millbank Tower, with occasional excursions to Tothill Street and even to the distant fastness of Congress House. But the world outside rarely intrudes: ‘industry’ appears largely as an abstraction, with remarkably little sense of developments on the shop floor, of debates and conflicts in individual sectors and unions, even of the broader framework of government policy. Middlemas’s account – like the NEDC itself? – is strangely deracinated.

Strikes in Post-War Britain is primarily a compendium of statistical analysis: 155 tables interspersed with text. If, as seems possible, it becomes a standard work of reference for industrial-relations specialists, this will be principally for the detailed year-by-year tabulations of the main indicators of officially-recorded strikes – according to size, duration, cause, region, industry, occupation and even seasonal incidence. Half the book comprises a sequential examination of general trends in industrial stoppages during the 28 years of the study. A brief assessment of econometric models of disputes is followed by case-studies of three particularly strike-prone industries: mining, docks and motor vehicles. A discussion of the role of the state, focusing on arbitration, incomes policy and labour legislation, precedes the authors’ general conclusions.

The lay reader will need to labour hard to derive meaning from this massive study. Its statistical detail is overwhelming. The preoccupation with a historical record concluding a decade ago is perplexingly antiquarian, given the radical changes which have occurred since 1973 – why is a project presumably not intended primarily as an exercise in historiography so oddly dated? Moreover, the authors seem determined to eschew any form of generalisation which might appear speculative. Explanations of strike patterns proceed serially through each relevant factor, with a mere three pages of the conclusion lamely attempting to consider their interaction. Durcan, McCarthy and Redman are enthused mainly by the task of testing the thesis of the Donovan Commission of 1965-8 (of which McCarthy was Research Director): that strikes were largely a reflection of fragmented negotiating procedures, and in particular of autonomous piecework bargaining on the shop floor. They conclude that this interpretation was largely valid, though insufficient weight was given to the policies of employers and governments. The book’s overwhelming concern, however, is the traditional preoccupation with collective-bargaining institutions shared by almost all industrial-relations academics. The general patterns of union-employer-state relations, to which Middlemas devotes his study, barely intrude; the NEDC is mentioned only once, in passing.

Perhaps the most accessible aspect of the book for the general reader is the periodisation of the account. The years up to 1952 are termed the ‘post-war peace’. The pressures and restrictions which had created flashpoints during the war were gradually eased, there was a strong mood of joint worker-employer commitment to reconstruction, and this sense of harmony was buttressed by official union endorsement of restraint in order to assist the Labour Government. The period 1953-9 is characterised as the ‘return of the strike’. The number of stoppages increased, particularly in coal-mining; and the first industry-wide disputes since the 1930s were provoked by more abrasive government policies and by the price rises initiated by the Korean War. Also significant was a growing rank-and-file assertiveness: a factor seen by the authors as dominant during the years 1960-8, which they accordingly label the ‘shop-floor revolt’. Finally, they characterise 1969-73 as the ‘formal challenge’. The small, short, ‘unofficial’ stoppage was typical of the period on which Donovan reported: thereafter large-scale and at times protracted conflicts became more common, particularly in the public sector, often involving occupational groups with little or no previous record of militancy. Most of these confrontations reflected government incomes policies which bore disproportionately on public employees.

Although this presentation has the merit of making the complex trends of the period under review more comprehensible, it is misleading to suggest that the turning-points were so clear-cut. The ‘post-war peace’ was gradually eroded, partly by pressure from below, partly by force of external circumstances. The ‘shop-floor revolt’ developed slowly and unevenly, and continued into the 1970s. Rather than distinct phases, it is more accurate to speak of overlapping and at times contradictory tendencies.

In the decade since 1973, the fluctuations have become sharper and more rapid. Again simplifying, three stages may be identified. The ‘social contract’ dominated the years 1974-6, particularly after the TUC gave its agreement to pay restraint in 1975, and the number of strikes fell sharply. After two years, support for restraint was undermined by declining real wages, and 1977-9 saw a revival of struggle. Finally, the early 1980s represent a period of coercive pacification: mass unemployment, hostile legislation and a virtually unprecedented ideological offensive have sapped the will and ability to strike – despite widespread provocation. By 1983, the number of disputes was the lowest since 1941.

This most recent phase is the context of the study by Peggy Kahn and her colleagues, part of a project funded by the SSRC to monitor the effects of the picketing provisions of the 1980 Employment Act. A programme of observation and interview was undertaken in South Yorkshire in 1981 and 1982. The authors insist, reasonably enough, that picketing law cannot be properly assessed without a broader understanding of the role of law and the state in industrial relations: a single piece of legislation ‘is clearly far less significant an influence on industrial relations than is the use of administrative/bureaucratic measures applied across the public sector in particular, or the use of non-“legal” monetarist mechanisms across British industry in general.’

The refusal to provide a narrow legalistic account of their topic makes it more difficult for Kahn et al to focus their book. Their commitment to a ‘political economy’ of labour law is reflected in a less than satisfactory initial survey of state and economy in post-war Britain, and of the development of Conservative policy from Butskellism to the new radical right. The arguments are well-worn, the tone is often strident. The treatment is too short to be more than superficial, yet too long for the purpose of establishing the simple point that deep-seated political and economic transformations lay behind the 1980 Act.

The proposition that picketing is a tactic which can serve a variety of purposes, and which can prove more or less appropriate according to circumstances, is more effectively developed. It may be used to prevent non-strikers from working; to stop the delivery of supplies or the removal of products; as a symbolic or morale-boosting gesture. The nature of the work, the structure of ownership and employment, the nature of technology, the pattern of union representation, all influence both the necessity and the efficacy of picketing during a strike. The varying impact of such factors is explored in detail in the central chapters of the book, which survey disputes in the nationalised industries, public services and the private sector. This account provides valuable insight into the conduct (in South Yorkshire) both of prominent national conflicts and of obscure local stoppages.

The meaning of the law, the authors insist, emerges only in its detailed application. Discussions of picketing have always emphasised the importance of ‘police discretion’; such notions as obstruction, intimidation or breach of the peace are so dependent on subjective judgment that a wide gamut of responses is possible. Picketing reveals more clearly than before how this discretion is used as a tacit negotiating resource; given their primary concern to minimise ‘trouble’, the police typically attempt to avoid appearing heavy-handed if in return the pickets exercise self-restraint. ‘In this way the police present themselves as reasonable people willing to compromise: compliance is achieved at the psychological level by binding the pickets into a co-operative enterprise with the police.’ Such a comment must appear bizarre to those whose awareness of industrial disputes derives principally from dramatic media presentations of confrontations between massed police and angry strikers. But such flashpoints are exceptional. ‘In the two years of our research the normal picket line was located on a minor industrial road, and consisted of a few people, usually huddled in a makeshift shelter round a brazier to avoid the rain and cold or even snow,’ the authors explain. ‘Our visits were nearly always greeted warmly since they broke the boredom.’

Shortly before the 1979 election, Keith Joseph wrote a pamphlet entitled ‘Solving the union problem is the key to Britain’s recovery’. ‘Public opinion’, it is clear, in large measure agrees. Yet in different ways, all three books present a very different lesson, which has to do with the limits of trade-union power, the extent to which strikes – so often denounced on the right or celebrated on the left as expressions of militancy and assertiveness – reflect weakness rather than strength. Union weakness at national level is a clear theme of Middlemas’s study. While TUC participation in the NEDC may have enhanced its status and bolstered the illusion of power, tripartism failed to shift government economic priorities closer to those of the TUC. He stresses the ‘almost complete failure’, even in periods of Labour government, to modify the overriding aim of conciliating capital and restraining labour. If any general conclusion emerges from the work of Durcan and his colleagues it is that strikes primarily constitute reactions to external forces rather than autonomous expressions of collective power. Phases of heightened strike activity have usually reflected government rather than union initiatives: notably, wage controls, which have ‘had a deleterious effect on the pursuit of industrial peace’. Kahn et al, documenting stoppages which more often than not resulted in defeat and demoralisation, provide further evidence that strikes today are commonly a desperate response to intolerable provocation. Workers’ attempts to exert organised collective control over their employment conditions are always pursued against the odds, and recession and hostile legislation have inevitably shifted the balance further against them.

The NGA dispute with the Stockport Messenger newspaper group, like the Grunwick struggle under the last Labour Government, was widely perceived as a manifestation of unfettered trade-union power. Yet on both occasions, small ‘maverick’ employers easily triumphed – despite the mass demonstrations of thousands of trade-unionists and the more discreet pressure of union negotiators. In the context of contemporary industrial relations, dramatic acts of mobilisation usually signal the failure of customary bargaining tactics: they have become a symbol not of power but of impotence. Engels would have grieved.