meeting on ‘new methods of organising’

[click here to see the recommended reading for the meeting]

On Monday evening UNISON activist Anton Moctonian gave a talk at our ‘uncaptive minds’ discussion forum about new public sector union organising methods in the 1970s, with particular focus on the growth and decentralisation of NUPE and the development of its shop steward organisation.

NUPE, which organised hundreds of thousands of low-paid local government employees, is now well-known for the strikes which meant “rubbish piling up in the streets” and “unburied dead”, playing an important role the collapse of Jim Callaghan’s 1976-79 Labour government. The union experienced rapid growth in the period under discussion in our forums, with 265,000 members in 1968; 433,000 in 1973; and 712,000 by 1979.

Anton, who is working on a major study of the union, explained in detail the history of NUPE, which for nearly three decades (1934-1962) was organised in a rigid, bureaucratic manner under the leadership of general secretary Bryn Roberts, who had studied at the Communist Party-backed Central Labour College: Roberts himself was selected by union officials rather than elected. During this period there were no shop stewards: central instead were branch secretaries, who earned 12.5% commission on the dues of members they signed up, meaning impressive membership figures but very limited participation by most workers.

Indeed, expenditure on union bureaucracy dwarfed strike pay: while ‘disputes benefit’ rose from £0 in 1936 to £94 in 1950, in the same period officials’ pay rose from £23,559 to £107,034. Anton remarked that NUPE’s “5 year plans” and focus on planning and centralisation were directly inspired by Stalin’s Soviet Union. Before the close of this period some 95% of strikes were unofficial, Roberts arguing that any loosening of control by the bureaucracy would cause “industrial troubles”, giving the Tory government license to attack the union.

However, the sociologists who argued that the days of strike action were over and that Luton car workers had become too bourgeois to fight management were soon to get a rude awakening: the decade that followed would see the highest peaks of strike action of the 20th century.

From 1965 onwards, however, the union laid greater stress on the “sponsored democracy” of shop steward organisation. A significant part of the leadership’s intention was to create a one-way “transmission belt” between the union tops and the membership and thus better control the rank-and-file. Furthermore, shop stewards were necessary for the union leadership was the then existent rise in productivity bargaining – as advocated by the state, which allowed shop stewards time off – necessarily demanding a greater degree of local control.

Nevertheless, Anton argued, in reality the relationship was more complicated, and the shop stewards did far more than play the role of corporatist negotiators. The shop stewards often promoted mobilisation and militant strikes, such as the successful 1969 Hackney dustmen’s strike, which spread across London, and the 1970 ‘dirty jobs’ strike. In fact what was happening was that decentralisation – in part the result of collective bargaining – was loosening up the union and facilitating lay mobilisation. The traditional left view of the relationship of bureaucracy to the shop stewards, Anton argued, does not grasp the contradictory dynamics of the situation.

The discussion following Anton’s in-depth talk largely focussed on the role of shop stewards today and the changed face of the working class. A UCU activist asked whether we could make the generalisation that the 1960s British unions decentralised, whereas another participant raised the question of whether the shop steward was still relevant in today’s unions given the decline of industries like engineering. Anton replied that although the shop steward originated in engineering in the 1950s, even by the 1970s they were common among white-collar workers too. Another thread in the discussion was what followed this great upsurge in class struggle, namely Thatcher’s attacks on the ‘base’ of the working class: one comrade argued that when she came to power in 1979 she did not promise to bring in anti-union laws, but rather embarked on a programme of outsourcing and taking away the jobs where there was most militancy (as evidenced, of course, by the closure of the mines as well as wide layers of manufacturing and docks), while another participant pointed out that in fact these industries were already on the decline before 1979. The chair of the meeting said that this displayed how class struggle is a motive force driving changes in the economy.

Anton concluded by talking about the situation facing us today, including the potential explosions in class struggle in India and China, as well as the financial crisis, all of which could spark renewal in our organising methods. He argued that just as thirty-five years ago “management struggled to manage”, we must once again challenge their God-given “right to manage”.