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The Problem of Intimacy (2007) relations between Labour governments and the trade unions

The Problem of Intimacy (2007) relations between Labour governments and the trade unions

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Published by Unions TwentyOne
The Problem of Intimacy--relations between Labour governments and the trade unions: 1945-51, 1964-70

Paper for Unions 21 seminar, 23 January 2007, by Nina Fishman.
The Problem of Intimacy--relations between Labour governments and the trade unions: 1945-51, 1964-70

Paper for Unions 21 seminar, 23 January 2007, by Nina Fishman.

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Published by: Unions TwentyOne on Aug 24, 2010
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Paper for Unions 21 seminar, 23 January 2007, by Nina Fishman.(fishman@wmin.ac.uk) 
The Problem of Intimacy--relations betweenLabour governments and the trade unions: 1945-51, 1964-70.
I have the temerity to speak to you about this important subject this evening for three reasons. Firstly, as a labour historian of threescore years I know somethingabout it. It is well known that historians, unlike other academic disciplines, have atendency to become more skilled and proficient as they get older. We are able notonly to accumulate more knowledge about our subject, but also have the preciousadvantage of greater reflection time. We are constantly sifting the known details and t juxtaposing them with the new details we are acquiring from archives. Secondly, it isan especially propitious time for Labour MPs and members of the trade unionmovement to reflect. After ten years of successful Labour government, 2007 is likelyto see a change in the leadership of the Labour Party. It is a good time to pause andask ourselves some fundamental questions about the problems of intimacy. At the endof my talk, I intend to take off my historian's hat and doff my citizen's Phrygian bonnet. I want to leave you with a clear outline of how I think the intimaterelationship between unions and Labour governments can be successfully managedfor both partners.The third reason I decided to go public about a subject I have been privatelythinking about for a decade or so is more immediately pressing. A new version hasrecently emerged of relations between Labour governments and unions in the 1960sand 1970s, which I consider to be profoundly flawed. It has gained currency amongstmany unions’ officials, activists, and some Labour MPs, and bids fair to become thenew conventional wisdom. It can be briefly summarised: the high point of Britishunion power was in the period 1968-74. Not only was union membership at itsheight, unions were able to win consistently against employers through reliance ontheir own strength. Union power ensured the withdrawal of the Wilson government'strade union legislation in 1969 and the victories of the NUM in national strikes in1972 and 1974. The prospect of the second NUM strike had compelled the Heathgovernment to call a general election in February 1974 as a result of which Labour was returned and the Tory Industrial Relations Act repealed. These victories were allachieved because of the solidarity and strength of British unions. The conclusiondrawn by current union activists is that unions can regain their former strength if theLabour government will only repeal legislation restricting 'trade union freedom', andreturn to the
 status quo ante
of 1968, with regard to unions' and their members'immunity from civil prosecution for engaging in any kind of 'trade dispute'.Those of you in the audience who are labour historians yourselves, particularlythose familiar with
The Miners' Next Step
and Noah Ablett, will recognise theresemblance between this view and syndicalism, the strategy which argued thatunions could inflict total defeat on employers by eschewing any form of politicalactivity and concentrating instead on massing workers' forces and fighting a total war against capital. However, it is not my intention to examine the deep cultural andhistorical reasons for the enduring appeal of syndicalism to British union activiststonight. My concern is to provide a contrasting view, which sees the period 1968-7411
 
as when British unions made a most tragic mistake regarding their relations with theLabour government in particular and the state in general. The reasons union leadersmade this certainly fateful and possibly fatal mistake are complex, and I propose toexamine most of them this evening. At their core lies the consistent, wilful refusal torecognise that without the continuing active support of the state, neither national nor shopfloor collective bargaining could have proceeded. The assertion that Britishindustrial relations were absolutely 'free' and 'voluntary' was always an ideologicalsleight-of-hand, only sustainable by wilful mis-remembering the pattern of industrialconflict and the state's response, a pattern which was unmistakeably clear from thelate 19
th
century until 1979. Mrs. Thatcher broke the mould which Gladstone andDisraeli had laid down, which Attlee and Bevin had further refined, and which Wilsonand Castle had tried to modernise. The Iron Lady was able to withdraw her government's support for collective bargaining precisely because union leaders clungto the illusion that the British state played
no
part in the British system of industrialrelations.We will commence our Cook's history tour with a
 Rough Guide
to industrialconflict in Britain from the late 19
th
century. From the 1870s, economic and socialchange occurred slowly in Britain compared to Germany, Russia, Italy or NorthAmerica. We therefore need to start then in order to examine the important contour lines, canyons and valleys. By the 1870s, Britain was an overwhelmingly urban,industrialised society. She was however, neither a republic nor a constitutionalmonarchy underpinned by universal suffrage. Unlike the Wilhelmine Reich, the USAand the Third French Republic, manhood suffrage was severely restricted. Therationale was the British political establishment's view that democracy was a privilegeto be accorded only to those who were capable of exercising it responsibly andmaturely. It was, of course, the responsibility of property-owning which was the principal criterion by which British men's fitness to vote was decided (unlike aliteracy qualification in Italy for example). Nevertheless, the developments on the continent and the success of the youngAmerican republic in overcoming Civil War impressed the political establishment.They were also mindful that when ably led,
 property-less
coalminers and cottonoperatives had exhibited strong collective discipline and courage in self-organisation.Through sustained political agitation and tactical skirmishes, they had persuadedsuccessive Liberal and Conservative governments to enact legislation limitingworking hours in factories. In coalmining, probably the fastest growing sector of theeconomy at this time, Gladstone and the future Lord Aberdare piloted a bill throughthe House of Commons which accorded miners the right to elect a checkweighmanfrom amongst their number for whom the owners would have to provide weighingapparatus to check that each miner’s tubs had been accurately weighed and whom theowners were also legally obliged to pay a weekly wage out of deductions made fromthe other men's wages. In 1884, when Gladstone significantly enlarged the electorateentitled to vote in parliamentary elections, it was not surprising that the two workingmen's MPs elected were from constituencies dominated by coalminers--nor that oneof them, Thomas Burt, elected for Morpeth in Northumberland, had been acheckweighman. The increasing density of mining trade unions and their success inwinning statutory concessions from Parliament were based on checkweighmen, (theEight Hour working day won after a national strike in 1892; the minimum wage wonafter a national strike in 1912).22
 
The role of the state in industrial relations increased significantly as a result of thetotal war economy which evolved in 1914-18. In the political sphere, total war compelled a hitherto reluctant political establishment to concede universal manhoodsuffrage and votes for women, (the higher qualification age for women, twenty nine,was because women outnumbered men under the age of twenty nine in 1918 andincreasing the electorate by vast numbers of potential hot-headed, revolutionaryfeminists was frightening to most politicians). In the economic sphere, the pattern of the state's intervention developed along pre-1914 lines. Accepting unions aslegitimate representatives of working people, the Liberal and coalition wartimegovernments sought to maximise labour productivity and production of war 
materiel 
,coal, and food by promoting co-operation between unions and employers.In the engineering sector, where before 1914 industrial conflict had beenintensifying without yielding the same advances as miners' unions had won, thegovernment's intervention was critical in establishing the legitimacy of shop stewardsto negotiate
 fair 
prices for piece-work. Before 1914 stewards, where they existed,were typically appointed by the geographic branches of their respective craftengineering unions, and usually acted merely as collectors of subscriptions and putative enforcers of a union shop. During the war, with the government'sencouragement, new practices evolved, whereby stewards were elected by operativesin each of the large number of workshops in a large engineering factory. Moreover,the various shop stewards began to meet together in a works committee whichnegotiated with engineering employers about factory-wide issues. Many engineeringunion officials found these new lay officials threatening to their unions' institutionalstructure, which was based on geographical branches. Others, however, welcomed thenew power accumulated at the workplace as a portent of industrial democracy--acounterpart of the new universal manhood suffrage.In coalmining, the literally infinite demand for coal enabled mining unions toextract an equally significant concession from the government--the payment of minersaccording to
national 
mininum rates. For the first time, coalminers received equal payfor equal work. This concession was made despite the fact that the government wascompelled to take coal into temporary public ownership in order to ensure its effectiveoperation. It is usually forgotten that the experience of the Great War also providedsignificant impetus to professional and white collar trade unionism. Unions in theseareas had begun to emerge as part of the ferment of democratic ideas, including NewUnionism of course, in the last years of the 19
th
century. They had madecomparatively little impact until the experience of total war empowered activecitizens to view themselves as having rights and responsibilities in all parts of civilsociety, including the workplace.Participating in the war had placed all belligerent states and societies under greatstrain. In 1916, there was a general collapse of morale and willingness to fight in theFrench infantry. Although Marshal Foch was able to restore a formal equilibrium, hetook great care not to place his men in serious combat situations under pressure of which they might lose military discipline again. The various institutions of theRussian state were unable to cope with the stress. The spectacular collapse of theTsarist state in February 1917 was not unexpected, and initially welcomed by theAllies as a portent of Russia's new beginning. There were great expectations that the33

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