1968 Government Commission: Shop Stewards Not Trouble-Makers

Introduction Unions Pic

The Conservatives have long demonised the trade unions for the decline of British industry. It’s due to the unions, they argue, that British industry was strike-bound, inefficient and uncompetitive. Since Maggie Thatcher they have been deliberately attempting to destroy their power by creating obstacles to union membership and by increasingly restricting the power of the unions to call strikes.

In the 1960s the government set up the Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employer’s Associations, which became known as the Donovan Commission, after its head. This took the view that some government intervention to force trade union activity into proper legal channels was necessary. However, its 1968 report stated that by and large, union shop stewards were not mischief-makers, and were dealing with genuine grievances.

Ben Hooberman, in his An Introduction to British Trade Unions (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1974) states

The Donovan Commission stated that it was usually inaccurate to describe shop stewards as ‘trouble-makers’, that there was evidence that trouble was thrust upon them and that they attempted to bring some order into a chaotic situation, and that management relied heavily on their efforts. Often shop stewards advise their members against taking unofficial strike action; they are rarely agitators and they attempt to keep their members with the bounds of constitutional action. It is the shop stewards who will prevail upon the union to call a strike or to ratify if it if it has broke out without official sanction by the governing body of the union. (p. 27).

So much for the image of the bolshy shop steward, like Peter Seller’s character in the Ealing Comedy, I’m Alright, Jack.

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