During the 70’s trade union organisation at grass roots level developed to the point when Shop Stewards Committees backed by their members, faced up to and fought management. Decisions were being made, at times supported by Government, to reduce workforces and drive down workers wages and conditions. While not being able to influence the decision making process, the unions reacted by taking action, such as striking, in an attempt to prevent management getting their way. Sometimes they were successful, other times they were not. Overall this industrial unrest had a detrimental effect on workers, industrial development and the U.K. economy as a whole. In these circumstances Governments felt it necessary to intervene by introducing legislation. They had two options, the first being to control the unions ability to cause, what they saw as disruption of the industrial process. The second option was to introduce industrial democracy into the workplace and so enable the workforce, through its elected trade union representatives, to play a part in the decision making process. Initially they pursued the first option.
The first attempt to control the unions was initiated by a Labour Government in 1969. A White Paper “ In Place of Strife” was produced by Barbara Castle, although supported by Prime Minister Harold Wilson, it was opposed by the Trade Unions and the Labour Cabinet and was subsequently dropped.
The second attempt was by a Conservative Government in 1971. The Industrial Relations Act aimed to weaken the Trade Unions by using the National Industrial Relation Court to grant injunctions and so prevent industrial action being taken. It was opposed by Trade Unions who refused to recognise the court. Five workers who took industrial action were sent to prison for refusing to use the court. The Pentonville Five were later released on the orders of the Official Solicitor following widespread unrest.
After a major dispute with the Miners, Heath the Prime Minister, went to the country hoping to get the support of the electorate in taking on the unions. Labour won the election in 1974 and immediately repealed the Industrial Relations Act.
In 1975 a Committee of Inquiry was set up by the Labour Government with the aim of introducing more democracy into the workplace. This initiative was a response to the European Commission seeking to harmonise worker participation in the management of companies across Europe. The Government saw the offer of industrial democracy as part of a Social Contract being offered to the unions in exchange for low wage increases. The Committee of Inquiry included representatives from the unions, industry and the wider community, it was chaired by Professor Alan Bullock with the terms of reference being:
“Accepting the need for a radical extension of Industrial Democracy in the control of companies by means of representation on Boards of Directors and accepting the essential role of trade union organisations in this process and to consider how such an extension can be achieved”
As a result of their deliberations the Committee of Inquiry produced a majority report recommending that every company that employed 2000 or over should ballot those employees and if 50% plus of them were in favour, then employees elected through the trade union machinery should have representation on Unitary Boards, equal to shareholder representation. Other board members, which would be jointly agreed, would represent the wider community.
A minority report produced by the Inquiry employer representatives recommended that employee representation would include non union representation and have less influence over decision making. A minority report drawn up by the employer representatives was a watered down version, but nevertheless was relatively radical.
The C.B.I. and the T.U.C rejected the proposals and the Bullock Report and its recommendations were shelved as the Social Contract collapsed leading to the renewal of unrestrained free collective bargaining. The so called Winter of Discontent followed and this in turn led to the election of the Thatcher Conservative Government in 1979. Anti-union legislation followed during the Thatcher years and beyond, drastically reducing the Trade Unions ability to function effectively on behalf of working people. Its now recognised that U.K. has the most anti-union legislation in Europe.
The Labour Governments policy not to extend democracy into the workplace was taken at the time when workers, started to take the initiative themselves in not only protecting their jobs but also the industries they worked in. This positive approach, when faced with redundancy, resulted in a number of initiatives, for example:-
- The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in
- The Triumph Meridan Motorcycle Co-operative
- And the Lucas Aerospace Combine Shop Stewards Corporate Plan which I was involved in.
Looking back, if the Bullock Report proposals had been agreed and implemented, the above initiatives could have been supported within a legislative framework and prospered, serving as examples for others to follow. If we had had the authority of a legal framework, as recommended by Bullock I consider, as Combine shop stewards, we would have had a better opportunity to bring about changes within the company. For example, in the areas of product development, investment policy and the future strategy of Lucas Aerospace. We all know the dangers of operating at Board level, as we would have been, within the Capitalist system. Given that, as shop stewards, we negotiated on a day to day basis, giving us sufficient experience and political nous to operate at that level. Like all negotiations, the outcome may have resulted in compromise, but to my mind that would have been a risk worth taking.
That was the past, so what about the present and the future. As stated above the UK has the most anti-union legislation in Europe. So a future Labour Government will need to introduce employment legislation to protect its workers, at least, to the same level as in Europe. Also, given that its being forecast that the future introduction of New Technology could result in a huge loss in employment opportunities, the Bullock Report proposals should be revisited, and possibly revised to take account of present day employment practices, and so enable a collective democratic decision be reached on how such a complex issue should be dealt with. That is just one important example. Generally, workers through their trade union representatives should have the same rights as shareholders in running and controlling their companies. Democracy in the workplace is long overdue and should be introduced when the opportunity next arises.