Britain’s trade unions enjoyed a unique moment of popularity in the 1940s. After helping to achieve maximum productivity during the war, unions enjoyed their status as a new ‘estate of the realm’, with a secure place in British political life under a pro-union Labour government. Prior to 1951, trade unions registered only one major blot on their copybook: a series of unofficial strikes organised by dockworkers. Objections to these walkouts included accusations of Soviet influence, but largely centred on one key question: who could legitimately wield the power of the trade union movement? Was it union officials, their ‘chairborne leaders’ in the words of The Economist? Or was it ordinary dockworkers and their militant unofficial representatives?
This question remains key to understanding workplace activism, industrial politics, and power in working life. The diffuse power of a trade union is unevenly shared between ‘chairborne’ elected full-time union officials, unpaid elected lay representatives (convenors and shop stewards), and ordinary members; it is a division that has played out in struggle after struggle, big and small, serious and frivolous, in Britain’s post-industrial history.
During the 1950s and 1960s, most observers agreed that union leaders were losing power to organised workplace activists. In 1968, a government report on industrial relations claimed as many as 95 per cent of all strikes were unofficial, that is, they were initiated without the knowledge or approval of union officials. This was particularly true in the motor industry. At the Austin Motor Company factory in Longbridge, Birmingham, in the face of anti-union bosses, activists organised their factories on a department-by-department basis, picking and winning hyper-localised disputes that were often limited to single workshops. Most strikes at Longbridge involved fewer than 200 people. This pattern of organising was highly de-centralised, with decisions on actions taken by small ‘shop meetings’ led by shop stewards. Groups of workers would discuss grievances over lunch or tea breaks, then decide to suddenly go home for the afternoon in protest. Even the factory convenor, Dick Etheridge, might only learn about a dispute after the workers had left.
This sort of organising put the power to shape working conditions directly into the hands of small workgroups, cultivating a collective culture where a sense of control and autonomy was key. This autonomy played a crucial role in another car factory, in the famous 1968 Dagenham sewing machinists’ strike. At meetings led by shop stewards Rose Boland and Lil O’Callaghan, women workers at Dagenham discussed objections to their unequal grading and independently organised strike action, lessening their dependence on the wider, male-dominated trade union movement.
Radical autonomy and de-centralisation empowered workers to help shape their working conditions, but it could also be limiting. Most localised, unofficial strikes only concerned life in the workshop. The work of coordinating strategic decisions relating to bigger issues, such as the imposition of new pay or disciplinary structures, was more difficocult without clearly defined practices for factory-wide decision-making.
Outside the motor industry, other kinds of workplace organising took root. At St. Thomas’ Hospital in South London, the local branch of the Confederation of Health Service Employees (COHSE) had a much more hierarchical union culture. In the post-war period, relatively weak public sector service unions depended on national leaders to negotiate improvements in working conditions. Within the workplace, men usually dominated elected branch positions. Spared the ‘double shift’ of housework on top of paid work, men often had more time for activism and were actively encouraged into leadership positions.
As a result, even though most members were women in the early 1970s, COHSE branch meetings at St. Thomas’ were usually attended by the same dozen men. Arguments were rare, contested votes even rarer, and the branch mainly concentrated on performing case work for individual members. Rather paternalistically, the branch’s female members would report problems to the male branch secretary, who would decide whether their issues required further action. Rather than the chaotic, de-centralised organisation and workgroup based decision-making found at Longbridge, this COHSE branch had a top-down structure and practised a form of clientelism.
Neither way of organising was static. At Longbridge, a shift in wage structure in the early 1970s made workshop bargaining less feasible. More pressure was put on union activists to coordinate factory-wide responses whenever management proposed changes. In some factories this was achieved by mass meetings where all members were invited to vote by show of hands on proposed union agreements. This generated the rather spectacular phenomenon of thousands of workers gathering in stadiums or local parks to conduct massive collective votes. At Longbride, the preference was for an overall tally of votes held in smaller ‘area’ meetings across the factory. That way a longer, more interactive discussion could be held and the issues deliberated more thoroughly.
The introduction of ‘shop stewards’ in the NHS after 1971 created a new layer of activists at St Thomas’. Hospital staff began to elect departmental representatives, including several women. This encouraged attendance at branch meetings and a more collective approach to grievances. Rather like their motor industry equivalents in the 1960s, new shop stewards began to canvas grievances from small meetings and through personal contacts, then raise them autonomously of the branch hierarchy. By 1973, the branch was considerably more active, organising its first strike and replacing its branch secretary with a woman, albeit temporarily (D. Baulck resigned citing lack of time for union duties).
The differing examples of Longbridge and St.Thomas’ illustrate a key problem for present day trade unionists. The manner in which members are invited to participate and the ways in which decisions are taken to initiate and terminate an action affects the distribution of power within the union. Where power is concentrated into the hands of a formal, full-time bureaucracy, workplace activism can be marginalised. Relationships between lay officials and ordinary members dictate the extent to which the latter are able to influence workplace struggles. Activists today ought to consider whether the social practices of their unions, either at the branch or national level, encourage or inhibit their involvement in industrial disputes, and whether they foster or discourage a sense of empowerment in collective actions.
How members organise their unions and make their decisions matters. Union organisations manage relationships between workplace actors, and by doing so construct their own systems of social power. That power is diffuse. It can pool up around individuals, or dissipate if the connections between groups and individuals are undefined. These relationships can change as a result of individual and collective acts of will. Decentralised organisation can empower members to take a direct part in collective bargaining, while hierarchical decision-making relegates that work to someone external who is often detached from the day-to-day realities of work conditions. The ways unions and union members decide to organise and take action can ultimately determine who is included, and who is marginalised, within workplaces and organisations.
Jack Saunders is a historian and research fellow at the University of Warwick. His research examines work and workplace culture in post-war Britain. He has previously written on labour militancy in the British motor industry and is now studying attitudes towards work in the British National Health Service from 1948 onwards. He is on Twitter as @jack_saundrs.