What is Workers’ Control?

From the Solidarity group: a polemical exchange with Tony Topham of the Institute for Workers’ Control.

In the first issue of Solidarity (West London), we carried a five and a half page article on the failure of the September ’69 occupation at Liverpool’s G.E.C [General Electric] and E.E [English Electric] plants, Netherton, East Lanes and Napiers. Feedback from the men up there indicates they appreciated our of the September events.  In contrast, we recently received a confused and hysterical letter from Tony Topham, on behalf of the Institute for Workers’ Control complaining about our article’s coverage of the Institute’s activities in Liverpool. We print below the complete letter. Our reply follows it.

Dear Editor,

Your unsigned article “GEC Liverpool, The Occupation that Failed” contains a section on “The Role of the Institute for Workers’ Control” which is inaccurate, scurrilous, and gratuitously hostile. I must request space to reply to your attack in detail.

You allege that our “strange sense of priorities” led to question of affiliation fees to the IWC “being considered as the first on the agenda at our Initial meeting with the Action Committee. This is untrue.  Representatives of the IWC attended two meetings of the committee.  On the first occasion, IWC affiliation was not discussed; we offered certain services – the drafting and circulation of an appeal to the labour movement, the preparation of a printed pamphlet on the GEC and the redundancies, research into the question of world markets for GEC products and into the legal issues raised by the proposed occupation of the factories.  We set this work in process and completed it without any exchanges between the Institute and the Action Committee concerning affiliation. At our second meeting with the committee, the question of affiliation was raised, (not as a “first item” or with any sense of priority) because we wished to be placed even more fully and clearly, for the outside world, in a position of servicing the committee.  Those who followed the events and publicity closely will recall that the usual accusations were made in the press, that “outside” bodies were directing the occupation plan. We felt that, had the committee taken out a formal (and in financial terms, merely token). Affiliation, it would have been even better placed to refute these suggestions, and to give us directions on the services required of us.

In the event, we accepted fully the Committee’s wish to defer consideration of the affiliation, and we proceeded with our programme of assistance and research without giving the matter a second thought.  You then make certain allegations about the content of our pamphlet Workers Takeover, which show that you either have not read it, or have read it with closed minds, determined to discover within its pages the appropriate sins according to the gospel of Solidarity, West London revised version.  You say that the term worker’s control’ is never allowed to stand on its own, but always occurs in the phrases “public ownership and workers’ control” or “social ownership and workers’ control” in our pamphlet. Even if we take this “criticism” at its own puerile level of infantile semantics, we do not find it difficult to refute. If readers will refer to our pamphlet, page 3 line 10, page 6 line 28, page 7 line 6, page 10 lines 21+ 25, they will find workers’ control’ used  without reference to public or social, ownership. It is the Solidarity version of workers’ control that is misleading and not that of IWC or the GEC workers. 

For your writer workers’ control is a great abstraction, pie-in-the-sky, to be deferred until the second coming, when “workers themselves run society”.  Our pamphlet, on the contrary, is based on the belief that the GEC occupation plan was the concrete expression of the aspiration towards such a society, and that the practice of workers’ control (the affirmation and imposition of the workers’ will over and against that of the employer) constitutes a valid school and strategy to be applied here and now.  Our pamphlets concluding words are:” The lessons of direct democracy of the school for self-management which will open on the Mersey, must therefore be carefully marked” Oddly enough and despite his inability to understand our thoughts on this question, your own writers’ conclusion (“The seed has been planted: don’t just watch it grow, help it”) is not all that different.  But his confusions on the way don’t help at all. For instance, having accused us of always linking workers’ control with public ownership, he then asks almost in the same breath: “what is the pamphlet referring to when it talks of ‘public’and1social’ ownership as something entirely separate from workers ‘control.

The real doctrinal base of your writers’ hostility however, emerges in his attitude to the trade unions, and our advocacy of a TU programme against the redundancies.  If the article represents Solidarity (West London) approach, we are bound to conclude that your organisation is anti-union. We are rebuked for advancing a programme of demands to be taken up by the unions, instead of by “the workers themselves”.  The approach of the whole pamphlet assumes of course that it is the workers themselves who are acting in Liverpool, and who are involved through their unions in the evolution of strategies and policies.  We specifically call for workers’ control to be carried into the heart of the unions themselves. But Solidarity (W.L.) would have the GEC workers turn their backs on their own organisations and in consequence ensure their isolation, at a time when every effort should be bent to guarantee that in our words “a vast political and trade union solidarity movement arises” (incidentally, even your reporter has to record that the proposals to occupy the factories came from a union bureaucrat”).

Your writer’s next step however, must take first prise for distortion and lack of logic.  Having found us guilty of advocating a militant trade union programme, he concludes, “that the future society according to the IWC would not be run by workers but by self-styled representatives from either the so-called Workers’ Parties (as in Soviet Russia) or the Trade Union bureaucracy.   Your writer at this point reaches a level which can only honestly be described as drivel.  We invite you to give any references either in the GEC pamphlet or elsewhere in IWC’s literature, which substantiate the assertion that our movement advocates management along Russian lines, or through a Trade Union bureaucracy.

It would indeed be meaningless as your writer suggests, to advocate further nationalisation without demanding workers’ control.   Which is precisely why the workers who meet in the working conferences organised by IWC – dockers, miners, steelworkers, public service workers, etc, –  have prepared programmes for the advancement of workers’ control in their industries. But perhaps your writer has been too busy contemplating Judgement Day to notice this upsurge in workers’ control activities.

In a final spasm of ill will and malevolence, your writer accuses IWC of profiteering by charging 2/- for the pamphlet.   He judges of course that your readers have not seen the document, which is a 24 page printed booklet, with a stiff card cover done in two colours.  We have probably incurred a loss on its production in addition to the considerable postage and telephone bill incurred during our numerous activities on behalf of the GEC struggle. For this last sneer, if for no other part of your tirade, we can do no more than demand an apology.

Yours sincerely 

Tony Topham



Dear Tony Topham,

To deal with your first and last points:- The information on affiliation fees to the  IWCTVC was given to us unasked by a member of the Liverpool Action Committee, the day before the scheduled take-over of the three GEC-EE plants,. If you still wish to pursue that argument, we suggest you look towards Liverpool rather than London.   

With, regard to the cost of your publication “GEC-EE The Workers’ Takeover” we felt then (and still do ) that 2/- is an exorbitant price for a small half-quarto leaf- pamphlet, which could have been produced for 6d (say 1/- with labour costs) and might then have reached the people we assume it was originally intended for.  The fact that it was printed with a-two-colour cover (and no doubt could have been bound, in white leather and gold-edged) is beside the point.

As we have neither the time, paper or ink to waste on the kind of professional idiocy practised in your third paragraph, we’ll get down to the real differences between us straight away.  All IWC literature is based on the assumption that ‘workers’ control’ in Britain can best be brought about by strengthening the Trade Union movement.

E.g. “As we have repeatedly argued -all those demands which strengthen trade union powers (our emphasis ) and self-confidence have a control element within them.” (Ken Coates and Tony Topham, Participation and Control, p.8) .  This in turn is based on the assumption that the membership in some way exercise control in ‘their’ unions. When we questioned both these assumptions in our Liverpool article you accused us of being “anti-union” and of wanting the GEC workers to “turn their backs on their own organisations”. 

This accusation evades the point.  No one in their right mind would surrender the rights and benefits that the trade union movement has gained through struggle over the last century.  However, the question we are asking is not generally, whether unions have been a good thing, but quite specifically, whether the majority of them could possibly be the vehicles for an emerging workers’ control movement in this country, as the IWC suggests.  

Of course it all depends on what you mean by ‘workers’ control”, and this is something’ the IWC refuses to come clean on.  As far as Solidarity is concerned a valid workers’ control movement requires that power be effectively held by the mass of people making up that movement; that the rank and file membership be self-organised and self-reliant.  Let’s look at the larger Unions.  None of them fulfills these requirements.

For a start it’s worth reminding ourselves that over 90% of all strikes in this country are ‘unofficial’ (not recognised by the union executive). While the men are often back inside before the executive has met to consider recognition, this still leaves an alarmingly high number of cases where executive councils ignore democratic decisions to strike taken at membership level (emphasising incidentally the lack of control members have over funds which they swell by weekly subscription ) usually because the union top brass has already implicated itself in agreements with management over …the heads, and often without the “”knowledge of  the members involved. 

Even district committees and officers with a fine record of rank and file contact perpetually face this same problem finding, themselves hamstrung time and, again by their own executive councils.  In these cases the IWC usually makes ‘no comment’ for the ‘unofficial’ strike shows the members actually exerting their power over and against both employers and their own union hierarchy, raising the crucial and embarrassing question (for the IWC) of whether the members’ objectives are at all similar, to those of their executive officers. Indeed while the president of the ASF, ‘leftie’ Hugh Scanlon, churns out  The Way Forward for Workers’ Control (IWC pamphlet series, No. 1),  the AEU’s executive council ‘(now amalgamated into the AEF)  is devising ways to prevent; power moving out of its own fists towards the member­ship — “The Executive Council shall have the power to call, and terminate, a strike of members, other than provided for in Rule 14, Clause 15,   when in their opinion it  is in  the best interests of  the members  concerned.”  (Our emphasis.) .

This lack of membership control is the rule rather; than the exception in each of the larger unions – “Of the “128 largest, unions, no less than 86 appoint their major officials permanently. Of those-which do hold elections, it’s almost unheard of for a sitting tenant to be evicted.  Among the two of the largest unions which have elections, there have been since the formation of the unions 134 general secretaries’.  Of these only one – Jenkins Jones of the A.S.E – was ever defeated whi1e in office.

Your pamphlet GEC-EE Workers Takeover; consistently strains to create the impression that the Liverpool men were involved through their unions (our emphasis) in the evolution of strategies and policies”. This is quite misleading as our Liverpool article made very, clear in the section entitled “The Unions”.  The men were involved  “in the evolution of strategies and policies’ by being employees Weinstock intended to axe. Union membership is beside the point here.  Why not talk to the lads at Netherton, as we did, about the usefulness of ‘their’ unions in a mass redundancy situation? May we ‘draw the IWC’s attention to the two-day national conference of GEC-EE shop stewards held twelve weeks after the failed occupation. This ‘unofficial’ shop stewards committee commented that union officers on the N.J.T.J.C had done little more than rubber stamp the managements redundancy proposals.  It seems to be a case of the organisation turning its back on the member­ship rather than, as you suggest, us turning our backs on ‘our’ organisations.

The once sacred area of ‘policy making’ is being attacked all along the line by the shop stewards movement.  Given this situation we suggest that the combine committees, with all their shortcomings (there are still too many stewards that feel themselves answerable to the shop committee rather than the shop floor) might be much more appropriate vehicles for an emerging ‘worker control’ movement in this country than the unions themselves.

The question of just how ‘policy’ would be decided in any future socialist society leads to the final Major reservation we have about the IWC’s operational methods.  All IWC literature (GEC-EE Workers Takeover is no exception) throws terms around such as ‘public ownership’ and ‘social ownership’, usually in formulae like ‘public ownership and workers’ control’ or ‘social ownership under workers’ control’. Yet not one pamphlet indicates just what is meant by ‘public’ or ‘social’ ownership. 

Even the pamphlets produced under IWC patronage by workers in mines, steel and the docks, suggesting programmes for the eventual establishment of ‘workers’ councils’ in industry, hesitate to step out­side the industrial front and begin thinking in terms of how they would like to see politics and society as a whole organised. Ken Coates views this hesitancy in a commendable light claiming that  “it (the IWC) carries a; minimum of pre-conceived ideas and relies on the creative drive of the workers themselves”. 

Yet this stance is evasive, and in being so, dangerous. Evasive, since all IWC assumptions are based on one fundamental ‘preconceived idea’ – that workers’ control will be brought about through the strengthening of the T.U movement; and dangerous to the extent that workers accepting this philosophy will be tempted to hand over the organisation of society and politics to T.U leaders, rather than extending their ideas on collectively controlled Workers’ Councils to embrace politics and society as a whole in a system of collectively controlled People’s Councils (the real meaning of ‘Soviets’ ).

The ‘workers’ control’ movement in Britain today could probably learn a lot from the way the Workers’ Council movement in Russia was broken by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution:

“The forces fighting for the rule of the Workers’ Councils did not produce (not even for themselves) a total scheme, or vision, of the organisational structure of the whole society, derived from their views on the management of production. They left a vacuum in the realm of ideas concerning the social and political structure of the rest of society.” Lenin stepped into this vacuum with the scheme of the political party managing production, society, and the state. This contributed massively to the defeat of the soviet (in the real sense of the word) tendencies in the Russian revolution.

Unless the movement for self-management puts forward its ideas for the organisational structure of the whole society, the political bureaucracy (however well meaning it may be) will go on managing not only production, but also politics and society as a whole.”

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