Tom Unterrainer reviews “Ramparts of Resistance: Why workers lost their power and how to get it back” by Sheila Cohen
“…But when it is a question of making a precise study of strikes, combinations and other forms in which the proletarians carry out before our eyes their organisation as a class, some are seized with real fear and others display a transcendental disdain.”
Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy
Sheila Cohen begins her study of the rise and fall of “working class power” by invoking Marx’s insistence that socialists should not fear or be disdainful of a full and honest assessment of our class. Cohen takes a long, hard look at three periods of labour struggles from 1968-79, the “Reagan/Thatcher” years and the development of “globalisation” with an ambitious task in mind: to find a way of rebuilding the labour movement.
Anyone who’s an active trade unionist will know that a substantial gulf exists between the issues confronting us and the ability and willingness of our unions to combat them. Take the attacks on public sector pensions. How is it that when faced with such an attack on a significant proportion of organised workers, the union leadership was able to step away from industrial action? And why did the membership “let them get away with it’? Had this happened in 1974, for example, could we have fought and won?
Understanding what has changed and how to reverse the defeats is not just of interest to analysts of labour history — and Cohen is no mere “analyst” — but to anyone engaged in trade union activity.
In the period 1968-1974, trade union organisations concentrated on narrow, industry based demands and declined in the main to take up broader social and political issues relating to work. They were both sectional and economistic
The exceptional features of this period was the sheer number of strike days, “from less than five million in 1968 to … 23.9 million in 1972”, and the existence of rank-and-file movements.
By the start of the 1970s, 95% of all strikes in Britain were unofficial. This level of unofficial action demonstrates the breadth and dynamism of shop-floor organising and the advantages union activists had in the period before our current anti-union laws.
Other factors enabled shop stewards to organise regular action. The piecework pay system for instance (where workers were paid on collective levels of production, sometimes broken down within factories). Or the confidence workers felt in an economy approaching full employment.
Unions in other sectors — most prominently public sector unions like NUPE and NALGO — took notice of the impact made by the shop steward system and vastly increased their numbers. By 1974, NUPE had turned around a situation where 38% of branches had no shop stewards, to one where half of all branches had five or more. With an expanded and strengthened shop steward network, the levels of industrial action increased. As unions took more action, the membership increased — to around 50% of the workforce by the end of the 1970s.
The shop steward system relied on the sheer numbers of active unionists (many of them open socialists in this period) who had close proximity to other union members. The stewards maintained an organic link with the workers they represented when making demands, and used the ideas and networks of national rank-and-file movements.
In examining the growth of militancy and organisation, Cohen draws on valuable experiences from both the US and Britain. She deals with the growth of non-sectional demands, sometimes revolutionary ideas — especially in the USA — and charts the development of new tactics such as the “flying picket”.
By the mid-1970s the ruling class was worried. Cohen quotes Margaret Thatcher: “As the effects of the miners’ industrial action bit deeper, the sense that we were no longer in control of events deepened”. As the TUC called for national action on wage controls, the miners’ strike of 1974 resulted in electricity black-outs and the Heath government fell on its sword, the panic set in.
Many radical and some would-be Marxist commentaries would have us believe that by 1974, the upsurge in militancy had given way to a downturn and defeat for our class. Cohen insists that the picture is not so clear-cut.
Recession set in, in 1974-5. Real wages dropped and unemployment increased as the “Social Contract” between the unions and Labour (which was in office 1974-9) tied union leaderships to government-set freezes. The “corporate” relationship between unions and government — both in the US and Britain — waned as employers, spurred by slump, turned on workers.
But unofficial strikes and occupations continued. During the “lull” where strike days fell to around three million, health workers took action, 500 Asian women continued a sit-in at Imperial Typewriters, men and workers at the Trico engineering plant struck over equal pay claims, and action took place at British Leyland’s Cowley plant. Hardly a picture of complete “downturn”.
Cohen paints a convincing picture that refutes the overly simplified mechanical view linking global economic problems and workers in retreat. Something else was going on.
As the ruling class found new ways to attack workers, the trade union movement was revolutionised by formalisation from the bottom up. Independent workplace structures – the bedrock of wild-cat actions, unofficial walk-outs and occupations in the recent past – were replaced by a growing bureaucratisation. An increase in facility time, more negotiations away from the shop floor (often in luxury hotels) and the active cultivation of “friendly relations” between stewards and the bosses posed a fundamental danger.
As the ‘70s closed, the right-wing press increasingly depicted the trade union movement as some “demonic” bloc, wielding power undemocratically and at will to disrupt the lives of ordinary people. But Cohen contests the view that the Winter of Discontent (1978-9), when mass action by public service workers brought the country to a near standstill, contributed significantly to the Conservative victory in 1979. Issues such as law and order polled far higher than the question of “who rules?”
In 1979, close to 25 million days were lost to industrial action — exceeding the “peak” of 1972. That, together with the miners’ strikes of the early and mid 80s, was the last major battle of that era of British trade unionism. As Thatcherism developed into an uncompromising attack on the labour movement, the full implications of bureaucratisation revealed themselves.
Without a militant shop stewards’ network, no effective rank-and-file action was possible; and defeat followed defeat.
The remainder of Ramparts of Resistance builds on the lessons learnt from the great years of struggle from 1968-1979. The most valuable lesson is that for the labour movement to have any effect, it must rely on struggle from below. With a strong, democratic and militant grass-root based union organisation the labour movement will have a future.
Without these characteristics, the working class will remain without an effective voice. Cohen discusses the issue of working class consciousness, how we might rebuild a rank-and-file and the dangers posed by the latest developments in union organisation. These dangers include the creation of ever more “bureaucrat-militants” — full time organisers — who sometimes substitute for the creation of organic structures.
Ramparts of Resistance should be read for its multitude of concrete, often inspiring, examples of rank-and-file unionism and for the future vision of militant trade unionism it espouses. The project of building the rank-and-file is shown to be a million miles away from a reformist Respect “Workers’ Charter” or blind sectarian leftism. The fight to rearm the labour movement is a fight for all trade unionists.