Posts Tagged ‘‘I’m Alright’

1968 Government Commission: Shop Stewards Not Trouble-Makers

May 21, 2016

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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Anti-Union Propaganda and the Myth of the Strike-Prone Seventies

March 8, 2016

The Tories in their attacks on the trade unions make much of the supposed damage caused by strikes to public services and Britain’s status in the world. They hark back particularly to the 1970s as the era when the unions were totally out of control, wrecking British industry, already struggling from Socialist mismanagement by the Labour party, with irresponsible strikes and picketing. This, they claim, was a decade of social and economic chaos, when Britain was only saved from collapse by the timely election of Margaret Thatcher and her tough policy on the unions.

Eric Hopkins provides an interesting rebuttal of this received wisdom in his Rise and Fall of the English Working classes. He writes on page 131:

Other aspects of union activity which undoubtedly attracted criticism included the speed with which some union officials called men out on strike, often on the basis of a show of hands at a mass meeting (the ‘wildcat’ strike); then there was the practice of overmanning, and the persistence of inter-union demarcation disputes. Occasionally there was violence on the picket lines, when blacklegs or scabs were attacked. Middle-class prejudice against unionism was strengthened by films such as I’m Alright, Jack (featuring Peter Sellers as a self-important shop steward), and The Angry Silence, portraying the treatment meted out to a blackleg. A popular TV comedy, The Rag Trade, amusing and harmless in itself, featured Miriam Karlin as a militant shop steward in a small clothing workshop whose strident blast on the whistle and cry of ‘Everybody out!’ would bring work to an abrupt end, to the dismay of the bumbling and inefficient proprietor, played by Peter Jones. In fact, the majority of strikes were conducted properly enough, and were based on perfectly legitimate grievances; the real problem was the increase in unofficial strikes which did not follow the conventional procedures. Although the belief grew up at the time that England was particularly strike-prone, there is actually no reason to supposed that workers here went on strike more readily than workers elsewhere in Europe. Further, three-quarters of all strikes lasted less than three days for most of the 1960s. In the late 1960s this proportion was reduced but still remained at about half in the 1970s. Earlier, on the coal industry was more strike-prone than other industries – 70 per cent of all strikes between 1952 and 1957 were in the coal industry. Later on, the metal industry and the motor industry became the commonest industries for strikes. Yet even then, in the period 1971-3 there were no strikes at all in 95 per cent of manufacturing plants.

There were serious issues with union power in the 1970s, particularly with the three-day week and the National Union of Mineworkers’ battle with Ted Heath. It seems from this that Britain’s reputation as the ‘Sick Man of Europe’ particularly beset by strikes has been very much exaggerated.