2016 04 – Trade Unions & Industrial Democracy

Industrial Democracy and Social Partnership

Speech of Mark Langhammer (ATL) to the Seminar Series of the seminar “Communicating and Implementing Industrial Democracy and Social Partnership run by the PESGB (Philosophy of Education Society, GB) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in London on the 29th January 2016

Today’s seminar, on industrial democracy, would be an important topic for the trade union movement at any time. It is more important that we reflect on the challenges facing ‘Partnership working’ in the midst of the current economic crisis – a crisis of financialised capitalism.  With our productive economy in crisis, the generation of “laissez faire” in freefall, the State as an economic player could be back in fashion.


I learnt about industrial democracy, in principle and in practice, whilst attending Methodist College, a prestigious grammar school in south Belfast. Our “A” level politics teacher was Methodist lay preacher, David Bleakley[A], who was best known as a stalwart of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. He was elected to the old, Unionist run Stormont Parliament – winning the East Belfast seat in 1958 at the 3rd attempt. He stayed in Stormont until 1965. When the bubble went up in 1969, it became impossible for Labour people to get elected, although Bleakley still got around 40% of the vote in the 1970 Westminster elections and was appointed as Minister for Community Relations in the Faulkner government in 1971 – the last gasp of Stormont before direct rule in 1972.

In class, David took us “off piste” – off curriculum – in a way that couldn’t happen today. Industrial democracy and the Commission of Lord Bullock was one issue that animated him. And it animated us, too, because it was all around us. We learnt all about Bullock, the view of the trades unions, the influence of the CPGB, the Plowden Inquiry, the views of Jack Jones, Hugh Scanlon, Chapple, Scargill… We knew all about Ken Coates, the opportunism of Neil Kinnock, all of it. It was our introduction to an orientation within British trade unionism – a blocking or negative instinct – to collaborative economic partnership. Historically, as I will argue today, this instinct has not delivered for our movement.


As well as through David Bleakley,  I learnt about British industrial culture in work. Methodist College lay between the Malone Road (Belfast’s posh area) and the working class Lisburn Road, with its loyalist strongholds in the “Village” and Sandy Row areas. In those days, it was possible to get a job by just walking around and calling into the myriad of engineering businesses in those areas.  I walked out of school in my blazer at the end of the 1977 lower sixth school term and walked straight into work in the Ulster Tin Box factory. They made biscuit tins for Jacobs and oil drums for Duckhams. It was an old fashioned production line factory.

Within five minutes of starting work, I joined the union, the T&GWU from memory. It wasn’t a choice, you were told! And, within that same plant, you had the two broad traditions within trade unionism. You had the “fuck the bosses” tradition – adversarial by instinct – that tradition that had, effectively, seen off Bullock.  But you also had, less often, from time to time, a collaborative instinct, which kicked in when the bosses were under time pressure (and over a barrel) to complete an order.

At the Ulster Tin Box Factory, within half an hour, the shop steward handed me a Red Top paper and said “Take a shite break!” The factory shop steward, then, was a very powerful figure. I said “I don’t need a shite.”  He looked me in the eyes and said “Are you fuckin stupid, kid, you’re on a shite break!!”  It wasn’t a question. “And don’t come back for at least 15 minutes” My going to the toilet meant boxes backed up and production had to halt. The production line got a break which, handy enough, could be pinned on a callow, naïve, 17 year old who didn’t know the score.

Another way to mess up things was to “stop” the machine. Again, the shop steward would demand “Stop your machine, kid”  The drill then was to slide your box into the machine and then,  just when you kick-started the machine, to skew the box leftwards – which had the effect of temporarily wrecking the machine.  With demarcation agreements rigidly in place, the machine engineer had to be called.  Again, 15 minutes respite, whilst the production line came to a halt. Out came the cigarettes, or the mail-order books which many of the women in the factory ran as side-lines.

Whenever the bosses were late with an order, or against time pressures or late delivery penalties, the union would negotiate either overtime or a “job and finish”. Another side came out then. The workers didn’t take shite breaks then, the time was theirs to lose – they were in control of the productive process, calling the shots, and they became co-operative, ingenious even, to get the order finished. You saw a step change in productivity.


The only recent example of co-determination in English industrial relations was probably the Social Partnership in Education. Some you here will know – or have heard of – the late Eamonn O’Kane (he passed away at 58 in 2004).  As many here will know, Eamonn O’Kane was both President and General Secretary of our sister union the NASUWT. In Northern Ireland, he was also known as an activist within the civil rights movement, involved with the Peoples Democracy in the late 60s, the Newtownabbey Labour party in North Belfast  and, subsequently, with the British and Irish Communist Organisation – a political tendency and publishing house, with which I have had a long association.

I was campaigning for Eamon (as a Labour Representation candidate) in the1989 European election when he secured a national role in the NASUWT. Effectively, he dropped out of the race and I was stuck as the replacement, sacrificial, candidate. For those that knew him, Eamonn was a political writer and thinker of some depth and flexibility.   Eamonn was also central to the negotiation, with New Labour’s David Miliband, of the 2003 “National Agreement” in  England and Wales[B].  This established a rare form of social partnership in Education which was, for close to 10 years, unambiguously successful for all parties in Britain – unions, government, teachers and schools. Eamonn’s grasp of the political and trade union context was vital in establishing and embedding the Social Partnership (neither was Miliband wedded to old Labour and trade union mores) .

At the time, the education partnership was the only substantively “corporate” arrangement in the British industrial relations landscape – outside of the industrial relations practices of some foreign owned firms.  This Social Partnership, a fragile outbreak within our movement, was stamped out by Gove early in the Tories first term. Gove, of course, knew well what he was doing.  Social Partnership, of course, is not just anathema to Tories, it can be a dirty word in our movement, too – and I’ll come back to this in a second.


ATL  participated consciously in the education social partnership. Under Mary Bousted, the instinct towards involvement in the work process – a European instinct –  is part of our union’s philosophy, our “DNA” if you wish. “Done with”, not “done to” is an ATL watchword.

ATL have long thought that the decline in trade union membership is not related to having more benign employment and union laws in place.  Of course, the Trade Union bill will see further diminution, and won’t help.  However, the New Labour era from 1997-2010 saw moderately benign legislation in individual employment law, but union membership continued to decline in Great Britain. It may have picked up a little since the Crash, but the point holds – that public policy is not the key factor in union decline or resurrection.[C]

The modern economy has changed – with some highly trumpeted, high autonomy, high skilled jobs – or “MacJobs”, but with many more low-discretion, low-value added, service and care sector “McJobs”.  The labour market has polarized to a great degree, with fewer “middling” jobs – the ‘blue collar’ skilled trades, technical or white collar associate professional jobs which were the very backbone of craft trade unionism.  This trend is evident in Northern Ireland too, where relatively skilled full-time (and largely male) manufacturing jobs are fast disappearing to be replaced with part-time, often low-skilled (and largely female) service and care sector jobs. The imperative for trade unions is that we adapt to these changed circumstances.

Within the teaching profession, we know that the terms of the debate are at least as much about the quality of work, involvement in the work, and the quality of life, as about pay.  Long hours, high workload, ridiculous levels of accountability, scrutiny and measurement. Ceaseless examination, testing, reporting and recording – a high incidence of stress, and poor management cultures – these are top of any casework league tables that ATL deal with.

Now, we are seeing wider moves towards standardisation and de-professionalization not just of teaching but of other professions including law, opticians, pharmacists and medical profession is seeing a ‘Taylorism’ in previously rewarding, high-discretion jobs.  We find that traditional trade union adversarial posturing, and the rhetoric of “struggle” and strife simply doesn’t connect with the modernity of our members lives in today’s world.  Our members are however, resentful about widening inequality – that middle and low earners are bearing a disproportionate tax burden, with rich corporates and super wealthy individuals ducking their tax responsibilities, with the tax gap estimated by some as close to £123 billion![D]

Our members usually care more about “getting on” than “getting even” and have little appetite for fighting ideological battles.  Our members want a union that is aspirational (a fraught word, I know) and modern, not stuck in the mud. Notwithstanding this desire to “get on”, there is a general understanding that the relationship between individual and employer often remains an unequal one. And, whilst the public perception of trade unions is not overwhelmingly positive, there remains a strong, innate instinct to seek collective solutions to problems in the workplace.


Union membership, however,  has gone up in societies, such as Belgium, Denmark and Sweden– societies in which unions are implicated directly in running important social welfare systems. Union membership remains highly valued in Germany where unions are a part of the intricate “co-determination” system of industrial and economic planning.  And Union membership has stabilized in Ireland where a social pact, through successive National Agreements,  has entrenched the role of unions in national life since the late 1980s.

Taking responsibility for running things – this has to be our direction of travel!


The founder of British Socialism as a mass ideology was Robert Blatchford. He began with the ideal of restoring an English way of life that was being destroyed (Merrie England).  But he soon came to see that the standard of life of the English workers, poor though it was in many respects, would become much worse if the fruits of Empire were lost. He therefore became an Imperialist and a strong supporter of the dominance of the Royal Navy in the world. I think the slogan, “My country right or wrong” was attributed to Blatchford.

Blatchford understood the dangers of England moving away from production, being unable to feed itself, for a start, and (on a “There is no Alternative” basis) set in place a course followed by the socialist and Labour movements since – which has relied on England’s role in the world, rather than self-sufficiency, as the best strategy to follow.

That strategy, I believe, has had fundamental and lasting impacts on the “stony ground” that we all feel today in trying to promote an industrial strategy, a productive economy and industrial democracy. It is within that context that I would like to look at some lost opportunities for the trade unions over the past 70 years.



In Britain, there have been significant opportunities in the post war period for the union movement to take a strategic role at the heart of running the state and the economy.  After the 2nd World War, Ernest Bevin offered the TUC a central role in administering the National Insurance system[E].  I learned this from John Monks, formerly General Secretary to the TUC and then the ETUC. The minutes and records of this are in the TUC Library archive.[F] Incredibly, the TUC found itself to be too busy with other things – too busy, in effect, to take responsibility for running the country!  Had it taken up Bevin’s offer, the TUC would have put practical trade unionism at the heart the British social and economic life – central to peoples’ lives –  and “locked in” the Unions to an influential position for generations.

When, by the late 60s, the post war welfare and full-employment consensus was running out of steam, Barbara Castle sought to harness the enormous ‘negative’  or ‘blocking’ power of the trade union movement to positive effect. She wanted Unions to contribute to running the economy, but Castle’s “In Place of Strife” failed[G].

Edward Heath also failed, in proposing a tripartite, partnership style corporatism in the early 70s.  And in the late 70’s the Bullock Report on Industrial Democracy (which I learnt about under David Bleakley)  sought to put trade unions in an indispensable position in every Board Room in the country, private or public[H].

In the late 70s, we rejected all of these possibilities – rejected Bevin, Castle, Heath, and Bullock.  In doing so, we opened the door to the neo-liberal Thatcher experiment which has only just run out of steam itself.  In the late 70s, we thought we could go on as a simple, negative, blocking force.  We couldn’t!  The failure of our union movement to take responsibility for the economic logjam of the 70s forced the electorate to clip our wings. And our movement has become  peripheral in the interim.

Nor has the UK’s membership of the Common Market (EEC, now EU) helped the union movement. Britain’s orientation in Europe after Heath has been disruptive, focussed on what Churchill called the “unconscious tradition” of balancing powers. In particular, after the fall of Communism in 1988-90, Britain’s key role was to subvert the deepening of Europe, (the desired path of Kohl’s Germany and Mitterrand’s France) in favour of a loose, shallow, liberal free trade zone. Who, today, can say Delors “Social Europe” won out? It didn’t. To the current day, Britain’s role in Europe has successfully disabled movement towards the Fiscal Compact necessary to defend the Euro currency. The issue, however, is not that we should “beat ourselves up” about  past failures – but that we learn from them to take advantage of the current flux.



In finishing, perhaps the understanding that I can bring today is that the Irish trade union tradition is different. In Ireland, we are coming up to the various centenary celebrations – the Battle of the Somme, a key centenary for the Protestant community in particular. There is also the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising.   In a real sense, trade union orientation in Ireland, derives from the Easter Rising in a fundamental way.

Irish trade unionism, through Connolly’s Citizen Army, played a role in the setting up of the state – and it rightly feels proprietorial about it.  Irish trade unionism sees no contradiction in ensuring that the institutions of the Irish state work well. For instance, that the orientation of S.I.P.T.U. (the old Irish T&GWU) still consciously derives from its sense of itself as the trade union ‘wing’ of the national movement.

Charles Haughey is a discredited figure these days in Ireland – widely seen as a venal and corrupt figure. However, under Haughey, Albert Reynolds and Ray McSharry and Fianna Fail, the programmes for National reconstruction from the late 1980s onwards was a conscious and thoughtful partnership. Through Haughey, a generation of Irish civil servants went back and forth to Europe, particularly to see how the German system worked.  The Irish Social Partnership derived from that (so, too, did the initial Northern Irish peace funding processes) Ireland’s orientation, briefly, departed from the shadow of the UK and plotted an independent course.  Ireland became a partner in Europe, notably to Kohl and Mitterrand.

And, through all the years of Social Partnership – when National Partnership Agreements required a vote at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) –  it was the British head-quartered unions who voted against, almost without fail. Part of our “British” problem is that inflexible, leftist, ideology plays a part in holding us back from practical ‘workaday’ solutions which put working people in the driving seat.

Equally, however, our view of the British State is different.

The British state pre-dates the trade union movement.  Indeed, it pre-dates British democracy.  In Britain, we – as unions – feel that the state is somehow “not our business” – it is about something else – about a wider role in the world – once an empire, latterly an unwise global adventurism – through financial speculation and foreign intervention.  Either way, our trade union movement has not felt that our role was to second guess the State – and not to “run things”.


The relevance of today is that we don’t often discuss such things. But the time is now.  In every crisis, there’s an opportunity. The economic crisis wrought by the failure of “casino capitalism” gives us an opportunity.  Despite the return of Cameron and Osborne, they don’t have the answers. Get the City back up and running, running the same scams, with inequality widening exponentially. It’s the same old tunes, and it won’t work. It may not seem so, but things are fluid now, in flux.  We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to make trade unionism relevant to the new world that we build.  But we can only do so, if we understand the past, and can orientate clearly within a changed – utterly changed – environment.

Looking forward, for current solutions we could do worse than to look North, to Scotland. The Mather Report, “Working Better Together” in 2014 provides a template that will – given fair wind – move Scottish industrial relations away from the British adversarial tradition and towards to co-determination and social partnership of Scandinavia. Unlike Northern Ireland, Scotland doesn’t yet have control over employment law – but it will. And it’s answers are very encouraging.

We can, perhaps, pick that up in discussion later.

Thank you.


NOTES / References

[A]              See more at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Bleakley

[B]        The 2003 National Agreement on “Raising Standards, Tackling Workload” introduced a new industrial relations framework for education in England and Wales. Ref DfES0172/2003 http://publications.teachernet.gov.uk/default.aspx?PageFunction=productdetails&PageMode=publications&ProductId=DfES+0172+2003

[C]              This argument was first set out by David Coats: Raising Lazarus, the future for organized labour: Fabian Society Pamphlet 618, 2005 ISBN 0 7163 0618 2

[D]              See Richard Murphy in Director of Tax Research LLP www.taxresearch.org.uk

[E]        Details of the Minutes of the meetings where Bevin’s offer was discussed are available from the TUC archive held at Imperial College London.

[F]              http://www.unionhistory.info/about.php

[G]        In Place of Strife: a Policy for Industrial Relations was the title of a government White Paper which appeared in January 1969. It was largely the work of Barbara Castle, the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity (although it was her husband Ted Castle that thought up the catchy title), which sought to establish a new legislative framework for trades unions and employers.

[H]        The Bullock Report (1975): A Language for Life – Report of the Committee of Enquiry appointed by the Secretary of State for Education and Science under the Chairmanship of Sir Alan Bullock FBA.  London HMSO 1975 ISBN 0 11 270326 7   Ironically, one of the members of Bullock’s Commission, Sir George Bain, has had a highly influential role in Northern Ireland Education since, within Queen University and as author of the 2007 Bain Report on sustainable schools.