1960s >> 1968 >> no-766-june-1968

Book Review: White Collar Unionism

Union Character and Social Class by R. M. Blackburn, (Batsford. 55s.)

In Britain those who work for wages and salaries—employees, to use a neutral term —are popularly divided into “middle class” and “working class”, roughly those who work in offices and those who work in factories. Clerks tend to look down on factory workers, while they themselves are regarded as unproductive pen-pushers. Socialists say that all employees have a common interest as members of the same economic class, which we call the working class. So when we use the term “working class” we mean much more than the popular usage.Trade unionism, and strikes, are things associated with the “working class”. But many in “middle class” jobs, because of their economic position as wage-earners, are under pressure to get together to discuss wages and working conditions with their employers. Only they see it as degrading to be in a Trade Union. How is this conflict between economic pressure and “middle class” values resolved? For resolved it is, as the rise in white-collar unionism over the past twenty or so years shows. Recently we’ve seen official strikes by teachers, airline pilots, post office and bank clerks.

In this book, Blackburn argues that in assessing to what degree trade unionism has spread amongst a group of workers, you must take into account not only how many are in unions, but also the character of those unions. Basically, how militant are they? To test this suggestion he examines economic organisation amongst bank clerks, traditionally regarded as the aristocracy of clerical workers. Bank clerks are in rival bodies: the National Union of Bank Employees (which is affiliated to the TUC, but not to the Labour Party) and various internal staff associations such as the Midland Bank Staff Association. Eight out of every ten are in one or other of these organisations (three in NUBE, five in the staff associations).

But can these staff associations be called “unions”? It is true that they were set up to keep NUBE’s predecessor (which had the respectable title of Bank Officers’ Guild) out of the banks. Originally membership of these associations was compulsory and free (so they were financed by the employers). To call such outfits unions would indeed be wrong but, over time, both the union and the associations changed their character. The BOG joined the TUC in 1940 and became in 1946, on amalgamation, the National Union of Bank Employees. Wartime compulsory arbitration forced the staff associations to reform in order to qualify as genuine employee organisations: membership became voluntary and dues had to be paid.

This was a small step towards independence. In 1950 they got a sanction they could use against the bank employers: the right to take a dispute to outside arbitration. This they have done once or twice. However, the banks still prefer the less militant staff associations to NUBE. Only three recognise the union (Barclays, National and Williams Deacons) and the last two have no staff association. At the end of last year NUBE struck against the clearing banks for recognition. The only previous strikes had been in 1963, one against a Pakistan bank in London, and the other against the Trustee Savings Banks in the Provinces.

Thus the general trend towards white-collar unionism has gone on in banking as elsewhere. But it has taken the form not only of the growth of the declared union, NUBE, but also of the growing activity and independence of the internal staff associations. Blackburn’s book, though not meant for the layman, is an interesting study of trade unionism. It shows how the economic position of workers under capitalism forces them to set up bargaining organisations, and how these need not necessarily be associated with support for left-wing ideas. Indeed a recent NUBE General Secretary was a Tory and it is significant that it is the white-collar unions that have been least taken in by Labour’s appeal, on the grounds of loyalty, for wage restraint.

Adam Buick