the politics of workplace trade unionism: recent tendencies and some problems for theory

Richard Hyman asks whether leadership and bureaucracy are synonymous, and looks at the meaning of rank-and-filism and structural limitations on union democracy. Although dating from 1979 this Capital and Class piece offers insights on themes raised in recent The Commune discussions on the nature of trade unionism.

The aim of this paper(1) is above all to stimulate discussion: firstly about the nature and significance of the changes which have occurred in British trade unionism (particularly at shop-floor level) since the 1960s; secondly about the implications of these changes for the analyses of union democracy and union leadership which are popular on the left.(2) Much of the argument is tentative or exploratory; constructive criticism will be very welcome.

It has long been common to discuss internal political relations within unions in terms of a dichotomy between ‘bureaucracy’ and ‘rank and file’. Often closely associated has been a strategy which emphasises workplace struggle and shop steward militancy as an objective (even if unintended) agency of advance towards socialism.(3) Not infrequently, such a perspective has involved a somewhat idealised and romanticised conception of shopfloor organisation and action; and the controversy surrounding this position has not always been marked by a high degree of theoretical coherence. On the one hand, the notion of ‘trade union bureaucracy’ has normally represented a descriptive category or derogatory slogan rather than an analytical concept adequately embedded in a serious theory of trade unionism.(4) In effect, the term can be employed to present trade union officialdom as scapegoats for contradictions inherent in trade unionism as such. But conversely, critics of this position have at times treated the limitations inherent in trade unionism under capitalism as an alibi for the actions and inactions of trade union leadership (or at least a favoured group within this leadership):(5)

For the traditional critique of ‘bureaucracy’ does reflect a genuine and important problem within trade unionism. To put a complex argument extremely briefly:(6) those continuously engaged in a representative capacity perform a crucial mediating role in sustaining tendencies towards an accommodative and subaltern relationship with external agencies (employers and state) in opposition to which trade unions were originally formed. No doubt some form of accommodation with external forces is inevitable (at least outside a revolutionary situation). But those within unions who primarily conduct external relations do not merely react to irresistible pressures; they help shape and channel the nature and extent to which trade union goals and methods adapt to external agencies which seek to minimise the disruptive impact of workers’ collective resistance to capital.

Three important influences on this process may be noted. Those in official positions in trade unions possess a direct responsibility for their organisations’ security and survival, a role encouraging a cautious approach to policy. In particular, this is likely to induce resistance to objectives or forms of actions which unduly antagonise employers or the state and thus risk violent confrontation. Because of their ongoing relationship with external parties, officials normally become committed to preserving a stable bargaining relationship and to the ‘rules of the game’ which this presupposes.

And finally, the rationale of the officials’ positions is typically a competence to perform specialist functions. To sustain a belief in the significance of their own role, there is a natural tendency to define trade union purposes in a manner which emphasises officials’ own expertise and activities: stressing ‘professional’ competence in collective bargaining rather than militant mass action.(7) These three powerful (though not necessarily irresistible) tendencies help explain why union officials, though often politically and socially more advanced or progressive than many of their members, frequently perform a conservative role in periods of membership activism and struggle.

If the notion of ‘union bureaucracy’ is an unsatisfactory specification of what is nevertheless a real set of problems within trade unionism, the term ‘rank and file’ also lacks obvious theoretical foundation: indeed it represents no more than a military metaphor.(8) The main implication is the lack of differentiation of interests and of hierarchical control within the main body of union membership. Just as, in military usage, privates and corporals might be classed together, so the notion of trade union rank and file has normally included ‘lay’ officers and representatives.(9) Discussion in the 1960s often treated shop stewards, in particular, as an essential component of the rank and file, sharing the same employer as the ordinary membership, participating in the same experiences and aspirations and subject to their control.

From this fairly unsophisticated perspective, discussion on the left has often stressed three aspects of shop steward organisation and action. First, that unionism within the workplace-as at national level-was predominantly economistic in orientation; yet because of its direct engagement at the point of production, it was necessarily involved in struggles against managerial control of the labour process. This concern with issues of job control could be viewed as a basis for more ambitious movements towards workers’ control of production. Second, the very intimacy of the links between shop stewards and the small groups of workers they represented could accentuate the problem of trade union sectionalism; isolated militancy over parochial issues made workplace union power highly vulnerable to a concerted counter-attack by the employers. This problem of fragmentation was however mitigated by the development of joint shop stewards committees(10) and-usually against the opposition of national officials combine and other multi-plant bodies. Third, the proximity of shop steward organisation to the shop floor inhibited bureaucratic tendencies and corporatist developments. Indeed, the existence of autonomous workplace unionism represented a key defence against the incorporation of the national organisations; for if the official leadership were to compromise too far (by collaborating, for example, in government wage controls) they
would be faced by a rank-and-file revolt spearheaded by the stewards’ movement.

It is interesting that a somewhat parallel conclusion was drawn by conventional writers on ‘industrial relations, particularly in their role as government advisers. Thus the central proposition of the Donovan Report of 1968 was the existence of ‘two systems’ of British industrial relations.

Whereas conditions of employment were ostensibly determined at industry-wide level in negotiations between national officials of unions and employers’ associations, it was bargaining within the workplace (at least in key sectors of manufacturing industry) which was in practice more significant.

Such bargaining was typically piecemeal and sectional, remote from the control of full-time union officials or senior management, and commonly resulted in unwritten understandings and ‘custom and practice’ rules. To this divorce between official institutions and actual practice were attributed several consequences. Small-scale, unofficial negotiation was matched by a similar pattern of strikes. Upward pressure on earnings (particularly where payment by results applied) could not readily be contained by managerial resistance or governmental policies. And employer control over the labour process was substantially eroded. For many commentators, the combination of these features was considered a major barrier to the profitability and competitiveness of British capital.

Some sections of the ruling class proposed a solution primarily in terms of direct legal repression. Others advocated greater reliance on gradualist institutional transformation. Thus the major recommendation of the Donovan Commission was the formalisation and centralisation of collective bargaining at plant or company level. In this process employers should assume the main initiative, reconstructing payment systems and bargaining machinery and elaborating their internal procedures of management information and control. Unions for their part should appoint far more full-time officials in order to intervene actively in workplace negotiations and supervise the work of their shop stewards. The priority, Donovan insisted, was for employers and trade unions together ‘to recognise, define and control the part played by shop stewards in our collective bargaining system’ (1968, p. 120).

In the subsequent decade, the relations between unions, employers and the state have of course exhibited several major upheavals. Today it is possible to argue that the Donovan strategy has proved far more effective than is generally appreciated. At the same time, developments have not precisely matched the scenarios drawn by both advocates and opponents of ‘reform’ during the 1960s. Moreover, the ‘offensive’ of employers and the state, though clearly significant, has not alone been the decisive influence. No less important have been the emergent tendencies within workplace unionism itself, which have interacted with the strategies of employers, governments, and full-time officials.

A central feature of the past ten years has been the consolidation of a hierarchy within shop steward organisation. The tightening of internal management controls and the introduction of new payment systems, job evaluation structures, ‘productivity’ agreements and formalised negotiating and disciplinary procedures have often reduced significantly the scope for bargaining by individual stewards at section level.

Workplace negotiation has become a far more centralised process, often involving the application to individual issues of an explicit set of ‘rationalised’ principles. But in the main this has not-as Donovan anticipated-become the responsibility of full-time officials from outside the company; in a period of rising union membership, the rate of new appointments has been limited. Rather, the introduction and operation of centralised bargaining arrangements has been the responsibility of a new layer of full-time convenors and shop stewards. The number of such representatives, it would appear, has quadrupled during the past decade, and considerably exceeds the number of ordinary union officials. And no longer can it be suggested, as Donovan argued (p. 107), that ‘it is the exception, rather than the rule, for a chief shop steward to have a room put at his disposal as an office’; facilities provided by employers for senior stewards have expanded as substantially as their numbers.(11)

This trend has been paralleled by a centralisation of control within stewards’ organisations. In the past, joint shop stewards’ committees have tended to fulfil the functions of co-ordination rather than control, to depend upon the voluntary agreement of the various sections and their representatives rather than upon the exercise of sanctions. Today it is far more common for such committees to exercise a disciplinary role, forcing dissident sections of the membership into line. But at the same time, the small cadre of full-time or almost full-time stewards within a committee often possess the authority and the informational and organisational resources to ensure that their own recommendations will be accepted as policy by the stewards’ body.(12)

These developments have in turn coincided with a significant degree of integration between steward hierarchies and official trade union structures.

In the past there existed a considerable detachment (though exaggerated by some commentators) between workplace organisation and the branch-based decision-making machinery of most unions. Union rulebooks were slow to recognise the negotiating functions of shop stewards, and few even mentioned the position of convenors. Often those elected as lay representatives at different levels in trade union government were branch administrators rather than shop-floor bargainers. But in the past decade there have been extensive changes, often carried through under the slogan of greater union democracy. In some cases, workplace leaders have been given an official role within union constitutions; they have become represented on many national negotiating bodies; some unions have created industrial committees and conferences composed of workplace activists. Rulebooks have begun to define the rights and obligations of convenors and joint shop stewards’ committees. Education and training schemes for shop stewards (typically emphasising the importance of negotiating expertise and orderly procedures rather than membership mobilisation) have burgeoned.

Against this background it is not fanciful to speak of the bureaucratisation of the rank and file. The developments of the last ten years, in those unions and industries where workplace organisation has long been strongest and most autonomous, have made possible a considerable degree of articulation between union policy and national and shop-floor level. A key mediating role is now performed by a stratum of shop steward leaders who have become integrated into the external union hierarchies and have at the same time acquired the power, status and influence to contain and control disaffected sections and sectional stewards. This fact is crucial in explaining the effect of the TUC/government wage curbs since 1975. The very limited opposition and resistance on the shop floor during the first two (or even three) years of pay controls cannot be explained simply in terms of the level of unemployment, or political commitment to a Labour government, but owe much to the new ability of national union leaders to win the backing of major convenors, and of these in turn to deliver the acquiescence of their own workplace organisations. The internal politics of trade unionism today involves a complex system of linkages between the relatively inactive membership on the shop or office floor and the top leadership in the TUC Economic Committee. The ability of national leaders to contain, control and manipulate the ordinary membership depends to an important extent on their success in establishing loyalties, understandings or trade-offs with groups at different levels in this elaborate hierarchy who are able to deploy a variety of forms of influence and sanctions.

These developments have more general implications for a theoretical understanding of trade unionism in contemporary British capitalism. In the past, the existence of ‘two systems’ of industrial relations contained important limitations to the influence of national leadership and the corporatist tendencies of trade union organisation, in those areas of industry where relatively autonomous workplace struggle provided a power base largely independent of both management and full-time officialdom.

As the duality always inherent in shop steward organisation(13) has become accentuated, so its potentiality as an agency of control over the membership has emerged more clearly. There is every reason to assume that this process will continue. The very rapid concentration and centralisation of British capital since the early 1950s entails persistent pressures for greater centralisation within British union organisation. Recent labour legislation, and union/employer moves to broaden the scope for collective bargaining, have generated a powerful impetus for the ‘professionalisation’ of workplace representation. Any serious moves towards ‘participation’ machinery (whether by legislation or through incorporationist strategies by major companies) are likely to extend such developments still further.

At this point, two qualifications are called for. The first is that the force of any generalisation concerning British trade unionism is limited by the immense variety of traditions, institutions and contexts. The trends so far discussed have been widespread and important, but far from universal.

In particular, it must be noted that shop steward organisation deriving substantial autonomy from an active and extensive process of workplace bargaining has traditionally been confined to a relatively small proportion of British trade unionists. Its strongest roots were in sections of engineering, and a few other manufacturing industries, characterised by fragmented piecework systems and a general lack of sophisticated managerial controls (often because of ‘soft’ product market conditions in the 1940s and 1950s).(14) Multi-unionism was often an additional factor inhibiting effective control by outside union officials.(15)

A considerable contrast existed in much of the public sector; within most ‘white-collar’ occupations, and even among a wide range of private sector manual workers. For most trade unionists it is reasonable to argue that national agreements determined fairly closely the actual earnings and conditions of employment, that shop steward organisation was relatively weak or even non-existent, and that full-time officials played an important role in whatever plant negotiations occurred.(16) In many such contexts, the main trend of the past ten years has involved a certain decentralisation of collective bargainingand union organisation. Paradoxically, sophisticated employers have recognised a need for the existence of workplace union representation. Recent years have seen major strategies of capitalist rationalisation and intensification of the labour process (encouraged by a variety of state agencies), typically involving the introduction of new production and manning standards and the tightening of the nexus between pay and performance.

The successful introduction of such schemes, with the minimum of worker resistance, was seen as dependent on their negotiation with representatives familiar with workplace conditions and able to exert authority over the labour force. If shop stewards did not exist, they had to be invented. In some cases, employers themselves took the initiative in providing recognition, facilities and ‘training’ for workplace representatives.

In others, shop steward organisation was ‘sponsored’ by national union leaderships: at times anxious to collaborate with such managerial strategies, at times motivated by a genuine interest in greater membership involvement in union affairs, at times alarmed by the militant revolts against national negotiators which were a feature of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Introduced largely from above, steward machinery in such circumstances is normally far more closely integrated into the official structures of trade unionism and collective bargaining than where its origins lie in independent initiative from below. Nevertheless, the implications are potentially contradictory: such organisation, once established, may develop an unanticipated degree of autonomy, perhaps providing an effective basis for resistance to the policies of management or union leadership.(17)

This leads to the second qualification which must be specified.

Arguably, the previous discussion of centralisation in shop steward organisation was unduly negative in tone. The traditional fragmentation of workplace struggles has always been a major source of weakness, and has become increasingly debilitating as capital itself has directed a co-ordinated attack on workers’ conditions. The detachment of powerful shop stewards’ organisations from national trade union politics was a reflection of the dominance of economism in the 1950s and early 1960s. Even in terms of workplace action, this could create a fatal vulnerability;(18) in a period of rapidly developing direct state intervention in industrial relations, with the close involvement of national union leaderships, continued detachment is impossible. Moreover, it would be unrealistic to deny the need for both leadership and discipline within shop-floor union organisations. Effective strategies to advance workers’ collective interests at every level cannot be expected to emerge spontaneously; arbitrary acts of opposition by isolated individuals or groups may dissipate the strength of factory unionism or prove dangerously divisive.(19) Such considerations have been influential in encouraging the emergent tendencies towards centralised control within shop steward bodies themselves.

Who says organisation says, firstly discipline, secondly routinisation.

This virtual truism is less dramatic than Michels’ dictum yet at the same time perhaps more fateful. Analogous tendencies are apparent within trade union organisation at national and workplace levels. The resources of discipline and control which are a precondition of effective collective struggle contain the potential to be turned back against trade union members in the interests of capital: channelling and containing workers’ resistance to the exploitation of their labour power, facilitating and reinforcing managerial control over the labour process. If the notion of corporatism-currently much in vogue-possesses a coherent meaning (and its usage is often somewhat vacuous), it is to indicate the dominance of this repressive potential over the explicit purposes of unions as agencies of collective struggle through which workers collectively pursue their own distinctive interests by mobilisation and struggle. No trade union movement can become wholly an agency of repressive discipline, for this would destroy its pretensions to independence and thus its claims to workers’ loyalty to the instructions and recommendations which it issues. Conversely, no trade union movement can be wholly autonomous, for this would render its activities and indeed its very existence intolerable to capital.

There is a radical dualism within trade union practice; and the balance between autonomy and incorporation (and hence in unions’ role as an agency of power for workers or power over them) can vary within wide margins.

This fact gives vital significance to the trends discussed in the preceding pages. Traditionally, shop-floor organisation has been viewed primarily in terms of opposition and resistance to capital; and insofar as this view, even if oversimplified, reflected the dominant tendency within shop steward activity, the incorporation of trade unions as national organisations faced imposing obstacles. But if the balance between autonomy and containment within workplace organisations themselves has shifted-if their disciplinary powers are increasingly applied according to the logic of accommodation with the power of capital rather than workers’ independent class interests then it has become far easier for British trade unionism as a whole to move substantially towards the corporatist pole.

If this is a genuine danger (and the trends in trade unionism within most of western capitalism offer few grounds for complacency), then a precondition of effective resistance is a correct identification of its nature.

A central theme of this paper has been that the dichotomous conception of power in trade unions misrepresents the problem and thus obstructs analysis and ultimately confuses strategy. Between ‘trade union bureaucracy’ and ‘rank and file’ there exist many forms and processes of mediation. One may, for example, identify a stratum of ‘rank-and-file leadership’: the shop steward hierarchy, the respected and influential activists at branch and district level. Participating far more regularly and extensively than most members in the unions’ representative machinery, such activists organise and articulate the experiences and aspirations of the membership; but the influence which this gives them can on critical occasions be used to contain, control and manipulate members’ reactions. Or the term ‘semibureaucracy’ might seem appropriate to designate the stratum of ‘lay’ officialdom on whom full-time union functionaries are considerably dependent but who in turn may be dependent on the official leadership.

(For the full-time officials they perform a range of administrative tasks, act as channels of information, and may mobilise electoral support; they in turn may seek the backing of full-timers in sustaining their reputation with the membership and sponsoring their advancement within the union structure.) These two categories are themselves involved in relationships of interdependence; indeed they may largely overlap and in some unions virtually merge. The interconnections between national union leadership and the twelve million members in the workplace are thus manifold, complex and often contradictory.

A second inadequacy of the dichotomous conception of trade union politics is that the problem is not simply (although certainly it is partially) one of hierarchical control. The trends discussed in this paper cannot be properly comprehended (as some of the left appear to suppose) merely in terms of a layer of workplace leadership ‘going over to the bureaucracy’.

For there is an important sense in which the problem of ‘bureaucracy’ denotes not so much a distinct stratum of personnel as a relationship which permeates the whole practice of trade unionism.(20) ‘Bureaucracy’ is in large measure a question of the differential distribution of expertise and activism: of the dependence of the mass of union membership on the initiative and strategic experience of a relatively small cadre of leadership both ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’.(21) Such dependence may be deliberately fostered by an officialdom which strives to maintain a monopoly of information, experience, and negotiating opportunities, and to minimise and control the collective contacts among the membership. But what the authors of The Miners’ Next Step termed the ‘bad side of leadership'(22) still constitutes a problem even in the case of a cadre of militant lay activists sensitive to the need to encourage the autonomy and initiative of the membership. Hence the predicament of the stewards whose relationships are explored by Benyon: ‘torn between the forces of representation and bureaucratization’.(23)

The implication is not that union democracy is a utopian ideal, but that its attainment will always be partial and always against the odds. Given the necessity of some form of leadership within the unions, the style and character of that leadership can exert a critical influence on its responsiveness to general membership aspirations; or more crucially, its willingness and ability to stimulate the collective awareness, activism and control of the mass of workers, to combat their dependence on its own superior commitment and expertise. And given that the centralisation of workplace organisation is both inevitable and desirable-an argument which this paper has not intended to dispute-the issue of democratic centralism (to misapply the term) has become a vital question for shop-floor union leadership.

Posed at this level of organisation, it is clear that the democratisation of trade union practice-or the defence of existing democratic processes and traditions-is a question of the relationship not merely between full-time officialdom and ‘lay’ activists, but between both these categories and the general membership. The types of strategy long associated with ‘unofficial’ struggles must now be’ re-interpreted and re-applied within shop steward organisation. And here the irony is of course that influential local activists traditionally most committed to the struggle for democracy within the national union organisation may well recognise a vested interest in resisting pressures for greater democracy within the lower-level organisations which they dominate.

Ultimately, though, the problem of vested interests is probably the least substantial-if only because the most obviously visible-obstacle to strategies for ‘democratic centralism’ in contemporary unionism. A more insidious problem is what is conventionally termed the ‘apathy’ of the majority of union members. If the mass of trade unionists-except perhaps on occasion of a major dispute or wage negotiation-have little or no interest in participating in the mechanisms of discussion and decisionmaking,they can scarcely be in a position to control the policies and activities of those who exercise leadership. At best, the latter can be indirectly accountable to the membership through lower-level activists who may themselves be unrepresentative, or whose ability to oppose the leadership may be reduced by their members’ passivity. It is of course a commonplace that most trade unionists take a far more active interest in workplace unionism than in the branch, district or national levels. It is also important to resist the tendency to treat membership ‘apathy’ as a scapegoat for mechanisms of union debate and decision-making almost calculated to deter any but the most dedicated, and for more basic structural sources of detachment between ordinary workers and the institutional mediations and articulations of their collective interests. But even if the term ‘apathy’ does not explain so much as mystify, the problem it denotes is a real one which even at the level of shop steward organisation is important in its implications.

The issues of apathy as against commitment, of union democracy as against the repressive imposition of centralised discipline, cannot be dissociated from conceptions of the nature and purposes of trade unionism as such. If the whole rationale of unionism is conceived as nothing more than negotiating with employers over wages and conditions-the pursuit of relatively marginal adjustments to the form of the capital/wage-labour relation-then the implications for unions’ internal political life can be readily specified. Collective bargaining will assume a focal status within trade union practice; those who actually undertake negotiations will acquire an important basis for power within the organisation; a decisive influence on policy will be the maintenance of amicable bargaining relationships, which in turn entails the maintenance of ‘orderly industrial relations’ and the containment of ‘undisciplined’ resistance by workers to capitalist priorities. Conversely, a trade unionism defined in these terms offers no persuasive motive for active membership involvement in its internal government; most workers will quite legitimately feel that they have better things to do than to devote time and energy to meetings, controversies and decisions which will have only a minor effect on their own circumstances.

The goal of union democracy acquires significance only within a more radical conception of the objectives (at least potential) of unionism: as a basis for collective struggle against as well as within capitalism, as an agency which ultimately can be effective only as a means of collective mobilisation of the working class. It is scarcely necessary to add that, among British trade unionists, such a conception is at best an extremely subsidiary element within a tradition and an ideology powerfully dominated by the centrality of collective bargaining. Even militant and oppositional movements within unions are typically directed towards more ambitious aims and more aggressive methods within collective bargaining, rather than seeking to transcend the limits of collective bargaining itself. Accordingly, their strategies have rarely involved serious concern with developing sustained mass involvement.(24)

Trade union consciousness interrelates intimately with powerful external influences-both material and ideological-on the character of union action. The politics of trade unionism constitute a complex totality highly resistant to major strategies of radicalisation and democratisation which, to be effective, must go hand in hand. But it is important not to end this paper (and to initiate any discussion which may ensue on a fatalistic note. ‘The trade union,’ wrote Gramsci (1977, p. 265), ‘is not a predetermined phenomenon. It becomes a determinate institution, i.e. it takes on a definite historical form to the extent that the strength and will of the workers who are its members impress a policy and propose an aim that define it: The determinations to which British unions today are subject imply the closure of many of the options to which some romantic conceptions of the possibilities of trade unionism aspire.

Nevertheless, the politics of trade unions today contain sufficient internal contradictions to make their scientific analysis and theorisation-involving the reformulation of many of the categories and assumptions traditional on the British left-an urgent and important task of theory and practice.

1 The paper originates from a contribution to a BSA Industrial Sociology conference in Birmingham in the spring of 1978; a brief synopsis was produced under the title ‘Double Agents? Some Problems of Workplace Trade Unionism’. This developed into a paper ‘British Trade Unionism in the 1970s: the Bureaucratisation of the Rank and File?’, discussed at the Bradford CSE Conference in July 1978; a version is to-appear in the new Canadian Marxist journal Studies in Political Economy. In the present version the introductory and concluding parts have changes, but the ‘narrative’ in between is largely unaltered.
2 Possibly this needs locating autobiographically. In the period before leaving the International Socialists (which was then in the process of its identity change) I was becoming increasingly aware of inadequacies -accentuated by the developments discussed in this paper-in the analysis of trade unionism current within the organisation. Since then I have felt less restricted in thinking through my heterodoxy. Although I have sharpened by criticisms, it should be clear from what follows that I do not share the simple rejection of ‘rank-and-filism’ articulated within the Communist Party.
3 As an example one may cite Cliff and Barker 1966. While noting the weaknesses of shop steward organisation in terms of fragmentation and economism, they concluded (p. 106): ‘To defend and extend the shop stewards’ organisations of today is to build the socialist movement of tomorrow; to fight for the socialist movement of tomorrow is to strengthen the shop stewards of today.’
4 The Red International of Labour Unions, which in the 1920s turned the three words ‘trade union bureaucracy’ into an incantatory epithet, was presumably not guided by sociological theories of bureaucracy. Certainly it would be difficult to construe the influence of union leaders over the membership primarily in terms of Weber’s conception of ‘legal-rational authority’. It is ironical to read in Beatrice Webb’s Diaries of the period repeated complaints that British union leaders were extremely inadequate bureaucrats.
5 For an example see Roberts 1976. After correctly criticising those who attempt to subsume the problem of trade unionism within that of bureaucracy, he goes on to perpetuate precisely the reverse error. Thus Roberts argues (p. 378): ‘What defines trade union leaders as a group is not… that they have special interests of their own distinct from those of the working class, but their function which is in turn structurally determined…. What is problematical for revolutionaries is not the role of trade union leaders but the nature of trade unionism itself.’ What Roberts ignores is the fact that both can constitute important and interconnected problems. By virtue of their distinctive functions, union officials do possess special interests (though whether, to what extent, and in what circumstances these are opposed to those of ordinary members is a separate issue). One may also note that Roberts’ view of the ‘determination’ of the nature of trade unionism and its limits would seem to be somewhat mechanical.
6 I have tried to treat some of the issues in more detail in my Industrial Relations: a Marxist Introduction (Hyman 1975, Ch. 3).
7 These three points may be said to underlie Mills’ famous characterisation of the union leader as a ‘manager of discontent’ (1948, pp. 8-9).
For a more recent discussion of the contradictory pressures on the union official see Lane 1974.
8 Ranks and files were the horizontal and vertical lines of infantry drawn up for battle; as early as the sixteenth century the portmanteau term ‘rank and file’ was used to denote the common soldiery. The OED notes its application outside the military context in Mill’s Considerations on Representative Government (1865). The term was used with reference to trade union members at least by the 1890s.
9 The Webbs commented in the second edition of their History (1920, p. 577) that the ‘annually elected branch officials and shop stewards may be regarded as the non-commissioned officers of the Movement’.
10 Lane comments (1974, p. 204) that ‘joint shop stewards’ committees emerged as a means of regulating the otherwise “free market” of sectional groupings’. However, as Benyon (1973) insists, unification normally occurred in any meaningful sense only within the confines of the workplace; what resulted, he argues, was a form of ‘factory consciousness’.
11 In general, a notable feature of the literature on shop stewards in Britain is the absence of serious discussion of the development of shop steward hierarchies and the ensuing problems of control. For some useful details of recent developments see Brown and Terry 1978.
12 For a painstaking documentation and analysis of such processes though interpreted within a highly idealistic problematic-see Batstone et al. 1977.
13 A much quoted comment is the conclusion of the Donovan Commission’s own research, that ‘for the most part the steward is viewed by others, and views himself, as an accepted, reasonable and even moderating influence; more of a lubricant than an irritant’ (McCarthy and Parker 1968, p. 56). A major study of the car industry suggested that the stewards’ organisation ‘has assumed, in relation to managements on the one hand and the rank-and-file of operatives on the other, many of the characteristics that the official unions once displayed under the earlier developments of national or industry-wide collective bargaining’ (Turner et al. 1967, p. 222).
14 Friedman’s differentiation (1977) between centre and periphery is of obvious relevance here.
15 In this context, the series of major trade union amalgamations in the 1960s and 1970s may be seen as a further tendency encouraging the integration of workplace within national union organisation.
16 An indication of this variety of practices and relationships can be obtained from Boraston et al. 1975.
17 Such a tendency may perhaps be discerned in the development of the ‘union stewards’ established by the National Union of Public Employees in response to the introduction of bonus schemes in local government and the health service. In a very different context, Nichols and Benyon (1977, Part III) discuss ICI’s strategy of sponsoring shop steward organisation in a ‘greenfield’ site, and indicate some of the latent contradictions resulting from the creation of a (partially) independent collective structure.
18 For example when Ford management, with the collaboration of national union leaderships, smashed the powerful Dagenham shop stewards’ organisation in the early 1960s. As Benyon (1973) indicates,this was a lesson which the stewards at Halewood subsequently took to heart.
19 The realities of such considerations, and the contradictory pressures which result, are sensitively discussed in Benyon 1973; see for example p. 140. The debates among Italian revolutionaries in 1919-20 remain surprisingly relevant; see Gramsci 1977.
20 This formulation of the problem was indicated by Bob Fryer in the discussion at the Bradford CSE Conference.
21 The notion of rank-and-file leaders as part of a ‘cadre’ which includes the full-time officialdom has been explored by Mick Carpenter in an unpublished paper.
22 See Unofficial Reform Committee 1912, pp. 13-15. The anti-leadership theories current in the unofficial movements in many British unions in this decade are ofted cited as a reason for their ultimately limited success. Perhaps more crucially, the tendency to consider ‘leadership in highly abstracted terms inhibited sensitive analysis of the requirements of militant union organisation in respect of centralised co-ordination, planning and decision, and the possible strategies for their attainment while avoiding hierarchical domination and manipulation.
23 Benyon’s argument (1973, p. 206) deserves quoting at greater length: ‘The tension between the need for trade union organization and mass participation in that organization is a vital and irresolvable one. A gap exists between the shop stewards and the rest. A gap created by the very fact of sustained activism and enforced by its organization. Ultimately there is no way out of this. The complexity of modern society coupled with the physical and mental strains of factory work make some form of “full-time” activism essential. Even at the shop floor level. In coping with this the shop steward finds himself torn between the forces of representation and bureaucratization. Between the need to represent the immediate wishes of the members and to provide a long-term strategy that will protect the interests of those members.’ There is a certain fatalism about this passage which belies Benyon’s previous insistence (p. 202) that ‘apathy, like commitment, doesn’t fall from the skies’. While the gap between activists and others will never be fully or definitively bridged, there can at least be strategies
to reduce it-strategies which, to an important extent, will need to transcend the boundaries of the individual workplace.
24 An important absence from this paper is a discussion of the role of Communist Party activists, who have long held positions of leadership within many workplace organisations. While I lack systematic and widely based information, it is clear that CP-dominated shop steward hierarchies rarely differ substantially from their non-CP counterparts in respect of the tendencies I discuss. Some CP trade union activists seek to justify this with a fatalistic assertion of the inherent limits of trade union action: treating ‘Communist politics’ as a sphere of practice totally dissociated from the narrow routine of ‘trade union work’. Thus CP convenors are economistic or manipulative because, this side of the revolution, they can do no other: a thesis for which Lenin is sometimes cited in support!


Batstone, E.V., Boraston, I.G. & Frenkel, S., 1977, Shop Stewards in Action, Blackwell, Oxford.
Benyon, H., 1973, Working for Ford, Penguin, Harmondsworth.
Boraston, I.G., Clegg, H.A. & Rimmer, M., 1975, Workplace and Union, Blackwell, Oxford.
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