Rough and tumble of the shop floor

British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, Volumes One and Two
September 29, 2000

From 1945 to 1979, trade unions were major elements in Britain's economic, social and political life. Since that date, their significance has sharply declined in almost all respects, though there have been tentative signs of partial revival since 1997. Whatever the future of the unions, it is likely that the 30 years after the war will be regarded as the high-water mark of their importance. These two volumes seek to assess this period, primarily organised around the question of why, after riding so high in the early post-war years, and again in the 1960s and 1970s, the unions were so decisively routed after the accession of Margaret Thatcher.

The organisation of the two volumes is somewhat eccentric. Both contain an editors' overview of the period and a small number of pieces that also cover 1945-79. Each then has a survey of the relevant sub-period, followed by a diverse range of chapters similarly chronologically focused. Some topics are dealt with in both volumes - notably relations between the unions and the Labour Party (by David Howell and Andrew Thorpe respectively), while others, such as relations with the Conservatives, figure only in one.

Thus these volumes do not offer a systematic, comprehensive treatment of key topics in union history across the whole period. Rather, they each contain a series of essays on diverse aspects of the role and development of the unions, mostly from a pro-union perspective. There are no Thatcherite denunciations here, though Andrew Taylor gives a sympathetic account of the Tories' dilemmas in dealing with the unions. He brings out the extent to which the 1978-79 "Winter of Discontent" made a much more openly and virulent anti-union stance possible for the Tories, though even after her subsequent election victory, Mrs Thatcher was calculatedly pragmatic in her attacks.

Many of the essays contain substantial original research and add greatly to our knowledge of postwar trade unionism. For example, Anthony Carew sheds new light on the Trades Union Congress's international role; John McIlroy likewise on the unions and education; while Robert Taylor sharply assesses the role of George Woodcock, the enigmatic general secretary of the TUC for most of the 1960s. McIlroy also details how the Communist Party's role in the unions was largely one of organising and channelling militancy rather than of converting any significant number of workers to communism. Nina Fishman provides in-depth case studies of two major 1950s disputes - in engineering and on London buses.

Mike Savage provides the most conceptually innovative chapter. It cuts across the traditional individualism/collectivism dichotomy in analysing working-class attitudes and persuasively suggests that a peculiar form of (male) "rugged individualism" was often associated with shop-floor militancy. Chris Wrigley and Ken Lunn respectively show that the unions' relationships with women and ethnic minorities, while hardly admirable, were more progressive than many critics have allowed.

One notable and surely odd omission is a lack of engagement with the unions' effects on British economic performance. The editors dismiss such concerns as "fashion". But this is a bizarre attitude for commentators centrally concerned with the politics of unions. The unions' alleged blame for British economic "decline" is surely crucial to their political defeat in the 1970s and 1980s. The omission is all the more surprising when there exists impressive work, especially by Theo Nichols in the British Worker Question (1986), demonstrating how weak the anti-union case is in this regard.

The only authors who engage with this issue at all are Alan MacKinlay and Jo Melling. They provide a sophisticated study of the shop-floor politics of productivity in the engineering industry. They rightly assert that unions were engaged in a continuous struggle over the effort bargain and that the outcome was never arrangements that maximised productivity. But, of course, all employer/employee relations in all countries at all times involve such bargains, and the outcome is never workers giving 100 per cent effort; indeed, it is difficult to know what such a 100 per cent level of effort would look like. So the study of such bargaining within one particular country, while valuable, cannot tell us about the causes of economic "decline".

The editors and most of the authors aim to defend the historical record of postwar trade unionism and to "set the record straight" against the claims of Conservative (and New Labour) ideologues who, often relying on little more than saloon-bar paranoia and tabloid fantasy, have substituted prejudice for well-founded analysis. In this they succeed. The editors also pose the question: Was there an alternative? Could unions have developed differently before 1979 and so escaped their fate thereafter?

They rightly suggest other possible options, though with some ambiguity. In the survey chapter of volume one, written by all three editors, it is suggested that a corporatist deal with governments after 1951 was the best foregone possibility available. Yet their survey in the second volume (this time minus Fishman) disparages a corporatist possibility, and posits a superior option of unions playing a key role in bringing about a general ascent to socialist consciousness. One does not have to be a Leninist to regard this as extremely implausible.

The organisational, cultural and ideological diversity of trade unions, so well brought out elsewhere in these books, makes such a role almost impossible to envisage. Unions undoubtedly lost opportunities in these years, but being key agencies of socialist advance was not one of them.

Jim Tomlinson is professor of economic history, Brunel University.


British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, Volumes One and Two: The Postwar Compromise, 1945-64 and The High Tide of Trade Unionism, 1964-79

Editor - Alan Campbell, Nina Fishman and John McIlroy
ISBN - 0 7546 0017 3 and 0018 1
Publisher - Ashgate
Price - £49.50 each
Pages - 352 and 400

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments