Industrial Democracy – the Lost Chance

Trade Union Diary by Connor Lynch[1]

Trade Union Law

As we go to press the T&GWU has changed its position on the Tory trade union laws and appears to no longer want to scrap them entirely. These laws are a mixture of common sense and vindictiveness, and it is right to keep the sensible ones.

The Tories were able to bring the trade unions within the law because industrial anarchy had become the norm in the late 1970s. I use the term anarchy advisedly. Trade union power, which was considerable, was being wielded to no purpose – such as industrial democracy or rationalising pay bargaining. Had it been positively used, legislation would still have been needed, but legislation of a very different kind, a kind largely determined by the trade unions themselves.

All of that is now very much water under the bridge. We have a framework of union law. No party, and now it seems no TUC, is going to try to alter that fact. More attention can therefore be given to altering union legislation to eliminate the vindictive laws and restore some rights for workers; e.g., . let employment rights laws apply after three months employment (the old system) instead of 2 years; or extend picketing rights to cover secondary action by employers.

Once a framework of union law can be seen to be helpful to trade unions (as well as sometimes annoying them), then perhaps unions will begin to think positively about the law and start to propose changes of its own. Changes that will help the advancement of both industrial and political democracy.

A Happy Retirement

The bare-faced cheek of the bosses of the newly privatised companies seems to know no bounds. The country has watched open-mouthed as these men flaunt their massive pay rises – which they so obviously never earned.

Now they want to have their cake and eat it. As state employees they had entitlement to pensions pegged to their then more modest (though still large) salaries. Now that they are privatised they are insisting on retaining the old civil service pension system, though now of course related to their new and vastly inflated salaries.

I have the feeling that this is one case where we will see genuine Tory sympathy for pensioners.

Union Ballots

The validity of the recent election for General Secretary of the about-to-be amalgamated print union (Graphical, Paper and Media Union) is being challenged by the Electoral Reform Society.

According to law ballots for union leaders must be postal ballots. The unions (the NGA and SOGA T) held workplace ballots. They got around the law because the election concerned a union not yet in being, whereas the law technically covers unions of one year’s standing.

The turnout was impressive – 76% NGA and 66% SOGAT – far higher than could have been achieved by postal ballot. The postal ballot has its place – especially in unions such as Equity or the Seamen – but a more flexible approach is necessary to achieve the greatest possible turnout. When it comes to formulating Labour’s union legislation, the requirement that ballots should be by post should be removed, though the principle of the written secret ballot should be retained.

The Electoral Reform Society is going well beyond its brief in making this fuss. The ERS is an agitationary body with objectives of its own. It is therefore, in my opinion, not at all qualified to be the overseer in union elections. Perhaps the ERS performed a useful stop-gap function until now. But I believe it has outlived its usefulness.

Industrial Democracy

A recent letter in this magazine complained about harking back to the past. Why do we go on so much about the lost opportunities for industrial democracy in the 1970s?

Firstly, what was proposed at that time has been all but written out of history. Accurate history is vital for understanding the present. History is what makes us what we are. And if we don’t understand what we are, we have little chance of developing a coherent plan of action for the future.

Can anyone doubt that our movement hasn’t a clue these days about what it was, what it is, and where it is going? For the most part it does little more than react to the latest Tory jibe or the latest Sun editorial.

Secondly, we believe that the core of the policy we supported in the 1970s is even more applicable in the 1990s. This core is that the working class has developed well beyond the point of being merely an exploited mass in need of protection against wicked employers. After 200 years of trade union organisation, 70 years of political democracy, and over 40 years of general education, the welfare state and the NHS, the working class is a very heterogeneous and complex body indeed.

It is only at work that the working class allows itself to be subservient. In practice, of course, employees daily take vital decisions – often of necessity behind the backs or against the wishes of employers. But the work culture is still subservient. ‘Management’s right to manage’ was promoted by Hugh Scanlon, Arthur Scargill, Frank Chapple and others in the 1970s. That is not ‘merely’ history. Scargill and Co. won that battle. Their position is the general trade union position today. Trade unionism still props up the subservient work culture.

There is still the belief that if a 19th century confrontational trade. union policy is abandoned, working class organisation will collapse and we will all be ground down. Well, the victory of the free collective bargainers didn’t help a lot these last 12 years. We suggest it caused what has happened these last 12 years.

The trade union position has in practice (and often in theory) been that the employer is there to screw you and the union is there to screw him. This is the essence of the Thatcherite ethos. It is the very antithesis of a socialist ethos. And I suggest that the time may be more than a little overdue for our movement to be promoting a socialist ethos as against a capitalist ethos.

The socialist ethos is that of public service. Goods and services are produced primarily for public consumption and enjoyment – not primarily to provide the capitalist with profit or the worker with wages. Such a public service spirit breaks out all the time in the working class. I have had the pleasure of mentioning it in this column in relation to railway workers. Most of us get pleasure when a consumer is happy with the product or the service we provide.

But there is a limit to the development of the public service ethos. And that limit is precisely in the capitalist relations of production. Trade union attitudes only perpetuate capitalist relations of production. These relations can be replaced by the working class assuming that it can have real power at work: through industrial democracy.

We are not, as has been suggested, wedded to a particular form of industrial democracy. We will support all kinds of proposals and occasionally make a few of our own. The important thing now is to win the battle for industrial democracy in the unions against the class struggle fetishists – then, whenever an opportunity arises to develop a specific agitation, we will be in a position to take it.

The point about the Bullock Report is not that we are re-proposing it. It was not proposed. It was offered on a plate. The unions had no nerve for this sort of thing. And a golden opportunity was lost. We are trying to develop a type of trade unionism which will grasp such opportunities whenever they arise. Hence the history lessons.


This article appeared in September 1991, in Issue 25 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at

[1] Using the pen-name Dave Chappel