Book Review: The case for industrial unions

British Trade Unions and the Problem of Change, by Will Paynter. (George Allen & Unwin. 16s.

In the case of trade union development the unions have taken many forms—craft and grade unions, general unions of “unskilled” workers, local and national unions, local federations (Trades Councils), industrial unions, and so on to the international federations of “Trades Union Congresses” and the international trade secretariats of unions in the same trade.

Alongside these practical adaptations to the needs of the workers and to changes in the organisation of industry there has been a continuous flow of ideas propagated by groups of enthusiasts designed to harness the unions to wider aims going far beyond wages and working conditions; from the short-lived Grand National Consolidated Trades Union of the eighteen thirties, to the IWW the One Big Union Movement and Syndicalism.

When they wrote their History of Trade Unionism over fifty years ago, the Webbs hoped and believed that the Unions were moving towards the idea of one union for each industry, both on grounds of greater effectiveness and in pursuit of the Webb’s doctrine of workers’ control. Will Paynter, former member of the Communist Party and General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers and now a member of the Commission on Industrial Relations, set up by the Wilson Government, carries on from the Webbs. He presents an argued case for the Unions to remodel themselves on industrial lines in order to meet the growing concentration of capitalist industry and what he believes to be the permanent tendency of governments to intervene in wage fixing in the form of income policies and possible changes in Trade Union law. He supports his ease with much evidence of the harm resulting from the fragmentation of British trade unions, and from inter-union rivalries.

The Webbs hoped that one Union for each industry would emerge from amalgamations but in fact very little progress has been made since they wrote. The amalgamation have indeed taken place; in 1900 there were 1244 separate trade unions, now reduced to about 500, while T.U.C. affiliations have dropped from 184 with a membership of a million and a quarter to 155 unions with a membership of 9 millions. But the biggest growth has been in the conglomerate unions such as Transport & General Workers, the General and Municipal Workers and others with membership spread over numerous industries, with the result that from the standpoint of industrial unionism the position is as far as ever from what the Webbs expected. The TUC has on many occasions studied the problem but has always shied away from the task of trying to compel its affiliates to remodel themselves, knowing well that it cannot hope to compel the biggest unions to give up members. The TUC has also stressed the practical difficulty of defining what is an industry.

There are of course examples from other countries of what can be done. The Swedish Trade Union Confederation manages with only 37 affiliated National Unions and in Germany, where the trade union movement was rebuilt from scratch after the second world war, the Trade Union Federation has only 16 unions to cover the whole of industry.

Paynter accepts that what he advocates would be possible only if the TUC General Council acquired controlling authority over the Unions, something on the lines of the Swedish model which makes the central body the effective one for negotiating with the employers’ central organisation; at present the British TUC has no such powers.

What Paynter advocates comes up against two major problems. The first is that if trade unions are to be democratically controlled by their members, it is the members who have to be convinced that it is in their interest to adopt a new industry- based structure with effective authority handed over to the TUC, i.e. to a body ever more remote than their own union executives and officials.

The second is that any idea of trade unions pursuing wider social aims is limited by the fact that the great majority of members have, as yet, no revolutionary outlook embracing a complete change in the structure of society.

Paynter warns against what he thinks is another possibility, that the Unions, through close involvement with the employers and the government, may find themselves more or less government controlled, with, as its ultimate end, the corporate state of Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, and Franco’s Spain. (For some reason he does not mention Russia, where the “unions” are also in effect government agencies.)

Which brings us to the interesting question of Paynter’s own outlook. He makes many references to the class-struggle basis of trade unions, and the “socialist” aims of himself and some unions, and he chides “left” trade union leaders who are die-hards in their resistance to change. Yet he confines his proposals to “unionism under capitalist conditions in Britain”, though in the same context he writes of the purpose of trade unions applying “equally in a capitalist or a socialist society”. What he really means when he uses the term “socialism” is nationalisation, or state capitalism as in the nationalised industries. He supports the Labour Party.

He admits that coal nationalisation has made little difference to the miners:

“The relations between management and worker remained the same, the union still had to fight hard to get improvements in wages and conditions and little in the daily lives of the men reflected the change that had taken place.”

He admits too that nationalised industries are “expected to operate as commercial undertakings, generally on strictly business principles characteristic of capitalism”.

He is however candid enough to confess that he was one of the people who understood so little about what was going on as to display “a naive and immature judgement” at the time the mines were nationalised. He writes:

“I remember the morning of January 1st 1947. the first day of operations with nationalised mines — standing on the top of a train of coal at one of the collieries. I served as a union agent, making an enthusiastic speech about ‘the dawn of a new era’, of the significance of the day being one where the ‘workers were moving forward to the control of their own destinies’, and that we were at the beginning of the process where capitalism would be replaced by Socialism.”

The Communist Party now has no time for Paynter but it is interesting to see that at a time when he was one of their trusted leaders he had no more comprehension of what capitalism and Socialism are all about than he has now.


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