Fabian Pamphlet on Workers’ Control in Yugoslavia: Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

The Role of the Trade Unions

It is usually assumed that in a capitalist economy the Trade Union movement fulfills a different and essentially more democratic role than the unions in a country such as Yugoslavia. It is said that by remaining independent of management and government the unions provide the essential element in any democracy, that of opposition. This has always been one of the stumbling blocks which any advocate of workers’ control must encounter. An understanding of the role of our own trade union movement is a necessary first step towards working out a programme for democratising industry which does not fall foul of this traditional objection. This understanding may be furthered by an appreciation of the position of trade unions in other countries where social systems are different. In Britain it may well be that the trade unions become more and more committed to the status quo in industry, so their opposition function is weakened. The respect for national collective agreements, the support of the leadership for the current productivity drive, the discouragement of unofficial strike action, the rejection of co-ordinated industrial action to break the pay pause, and finally the decision to join the NEDC suggest that the unions are moving towards the position of partners in a managerial society.

The simple distinction between free trade unionism in a capitalist society, and trade unions in a communist state which become organs for the implementation of state policy, becomes increasingly blurred. We should think instead of a spectrum of relative degrees of independence from the state, ranging from the Russian trade unions at one extreme, through Yugoslav, Scandinavian and Dutch, to the British and American movements at the other, with perhaps the Communist Unions of France and Italy as the least committed to the state. The recognition of this trend does not imply advocacy of a general strike mentality over the pay pause, for example, but we need a more honest recognition of what is taking place. We should admit first that it is inevitable that the trade unions will move in the direction of close co-operation with government, and towards a ‘national interest’ point of view. As this trend continues, the worker is faced with the growing prospect of an alliance between government, employers and unions. In this situation union leaders no longer express the independent sectional and industrial aspirations of their members. Partly because of this, the role of the voluntary rank and file element in trade union government appears to be diminishing and its functions are being superseded by paid officials. The unions are becoming agencies run for their members and not by them.

With the weakening of the elements of opposition and participation there is a need to seek alternative means by which employees can express themselves in the government of industry. This need arises not only from a consideration of industrial democracy, but also of industrial efficiency. Appeals for increased industrial production, such as British Productivity Year, evoke slight response because they are based on an assumption of team spirit and equal partnership which is excluded by the very nature of social relationships in a private enterprise economy. Yugoslav experience strongly suggests that increased productivity is one of the results of their form of industrial democracy. However if democratisation in industry is advocated solely on grounds of higher productivity, it will be received with suspicion. The question would not be how much power and control can we give to democratic forms of management, but rather how small a concession will be necessary in the interests of productivity. Such a path would reproduce the history of progressive disillusion which has befallen Joint Consultation. Thus the idealist exponent of workers’ control may claim to solve must fully the economic problem of incentive.

In Britain, advocates of workers’ control have traditionally thought in terms of Trade Union management of industry. Efforts in this direction have always ended in a blind alley, since the objection that this involves a dual loyalty for the union is a valid one. As we have seen, the Yugoslav system does not involve Trade Unions in the direct management of the Enterprise. It suggests not only a new role for the Unions, but also the practical constitutional forms for the management of the firm by its employees.

The role of the unions in such a system is that of a mass social institution representing the wider national interests of the workers and tackling problems such as the overall levels of incomes and income structure, labour productivity etc. As we have suggested, there is already a tendency for British unions to assume such a role, and the doubts which we have raised about the desirability of this trend would be dispelled if the unions were operating within the framework of an industrial democracy. If workers had legally guaranteed rights of management then the need for the union to be an instrument of opposition is weakened. However, unions could still continue to protect the interests of their members by taking up grievances on behalf of groups and individuals who are in dispute with the elected management bodies. They should certainly seek to influence the decisions and activities of management bodies, but should not be tied to them in an institutional sense.

Workers Democracy in Britain

In considering the relevance of the Yugoslav model to British conditions, two objections may arise. The First concerns the compatibility of Industrial democracy and the private ownership of industry. Does it not challenge the very origins of power which are possessed by the managers of private enterprise firms? Is it not desirable for the Labour movement to give much closer attention to the possibility of introducing experimental forms of workers’ control within existing nationalised industry. This would demonstrate the practicability of the method and point a way to the fully democratic society at which the socialist movement aims.

The second objection is more difficult to counter. Yugoslavia is a one party state. is it likely that in a multi-party state, industrial democracy could be introduced with any guarantee of its permanence? Would not the anti-socialist forces exert such pressure that the system was undermined whilst it was being introduced, and abolished at the first opportunity presented by the return of a Conservative government? It is probably true in Yugoslavia that the permission of opposition views and organisations could generate counter-revolutionary forces which would seriously retard the evolution of the system. The government and the Party clearly fear this. Thus after flirting with Djilas’ heresies, which included the advocacy of a second – though socialist – party, the leadership decided against taking the risk. This is the point at which Yugoslav experience ceases to be helpful to us.

We should not therefore assume that the introduction of industrial democracy in the British context is impracticable. There are signs that unease concerning status at work has penetrated through to the political arena. Liberal party references to ‘syndicalism’ and the long-awaited Conservative Industrial Charter are manifestations of this. These schemes relate to the improvement of the position of workers within the present hierarchical framework, and do not tackle the root of the problem. We would expect that the early demonstration of the viability of a system of democratic control within the nationalised industries would generate enthusiasm for the idea and lead to demands for its extension. The British political system certainly restricts the speed of change, but a change which has become truly popular is difficult to reverse (e.g. The National Health Service). We believe that the Labour Party could, by taking the first steps towards democracy within nationalised industry, transform what has been an electoral embarrassment and a millstone into its biggest asset.

See Part 3 for my own conclusions.

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: