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A Thesis Submitted for the Degree of PhD at the University of Warwick


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The Experience of Three Merseyside Manufacturing Plants Between The Late 1960s And Early 1990s.

Ralph Darlington. PhD Thesis. August 1991.

School of Industrial and Business Studies/Department of Sociology.

University of Warwick.


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'ornw ip4 \ ABAC Enpirical case study analysis of shop steward organisation within three specific manufacturing plants in Merseyside has been conducted with the aim of contributing to an understanding of the dynamics of steward organisation, activity and consciousness within British manufacturing industry more generally. This involves not merely a snap-shot of contemporary developments but an historical overview of the past 20 years that will be of relevance to an understanding of potential future trends. Methods of data collection include extensive interviews - with shop stewards, union members, managers and full-time union officials - analysis of documentary evidence and personal observation. The research is informed by a Marxist analytical framework, namely that there is a contradiction in the nature of workplace trade unionism - between conflict and acconinodation in stewards' relationship to management, between democracy and bureaucracy in stewards' relationship to rank and file members and between independence and dependence in stewards' relationship to full-time union officials.

Because the balance struck between these interrelated and overlapping tendencies varies, depending on the level of workers' confidence, activity and militancy vis-a-vis management, an evaluation is made of the different 'micro-level' factors which affect the balance of bargaining power in each workplace and of the way these are located within the much broader 'macrolevel' social, economic and political context of the changing balance of class forces in society, with a contrast being drawn between the broad upturn in workers' struggles during the 1970s and the downturn of the 1980g. A central concern is a critique of Eric Batstone's 'strong bargaining relations' model of pragmatic shop steward organisation, which, as the case studies illustrate, merely serves to reinforce the limitations and compromises of workplace trade unionism within capitalist society. The distinctive potential role of revolutionary socialist organisatlon and leadership is posed as a vital missing element.


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influence and support of a variety of people. My initial enthusiasm for the project was kindled many years ago when as an active trade unionist I first read Huw Beynon's 'Working For Ford', a penetrating account of shopfloor workers' struggles and of the limitations and potential of factory based shop steward organisation. Richard Hyman has provided extremely insightful Marxist theoretical analysis of workplace trade unionism which I have unashamedly adopted for my own research purposes, albeit 'biting the hand that feeds me' by attempting to develop a critical assessment of his later work. I am extremely grateful to both Hyman and Tony Elger, my PhD cosupervisors, for reading and re-reading drafts of the manuscript over the three years it took to complete, consistently offering helpful coments on the content and forcing me to defend, alter and elaborate my views on the subject. Pat Egan was also of great help, allowing me to stay overnight in his flat in Coventry on numerous occasions and regularly taking the trouble to discuss various themes and arguments with me late into the night.

Of course, I would like to particularly thank all the interviewees from the three factories who shared their experiences and understanding of events with me, helping the thesis to 'come alive'. Needless to say any errors of fact or of interpretation are mine. I owe a general debt to my comrades in the Socialist Workers Party whose political understanding and practical coimtitment kept me going. The thesis is dedicated to assisting the struggles of workers against management everywhere and hopefully it will make some contribution towards the building of a revolutionary socialist party inside the British labour movement. Finally, I owe a very special debt of gratitude to my partner and companion, Carole Donovan, for allowing me to read out loud to her virtually the entire draft and offering her comments, putting up with my enforced isolation crouched over a word processor for so long whilst I actually got the thesis written, and generally providing me with a tremendous amount of emotional and loving support.


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comentators that the powerful shop steward organisation built up in some key sectors of British manufacturing industry during the 1960s and 1970s had been considerably weakened. The hostile economic and political climate of Conservative rule had sapped shopfloor militancy, eroded stewards' power and brought dramatic changes in working practices. Some argued that although shop stewards continued to operate using formal bargaining procedures they had become increasingly marginal to managerial concerns in many companies (Chadwick, 1983). Yet not everybody agreed on the nature or depth of the weakness of shop steward power. A number of contributors, notably Eric Batstone, maintained that whilst it would be mistaken to believe stewards had not experienced some reduction in their power and influence the extent of the decline was often widely exaggerated (1986b).

Both in terms of the formal institutional aspects of workplace trade unionism and in terms of substantive measures of the power of shop stewards what was striking was the stability of workplace industrial relations rather than its transformation during the 1980s. Stewards continued to do much the same job as before, 'nothing much had changed'.

Of course, there were differences in approach and emphasis both between each of these two camps and within them, notably over the most appropriate research method (surveys and/or case studies) and criteria for measuring shop steward strength (organisation and/or

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substantive indices) as well as over the significance of cyclical trends and corporate, sectoral, and regional variations (Terry, 1986a).

Nonetheless, contributors from both perspectives (with some exceptions, including Fairbrother: 198Th, 1988, 1989 and Spencer: 1987, 1989) drew similar practical conclusions about what constituted the most effective model of workplace trade unionism within the rapidly changing climate, ranging from Brown's 'enterprise unionism' (1983) and Batstone's 'sophisticated shop steward organisation' (1986) to Jones and Rose's 'pragmatic trade unionism' (1986). Essentially, they argued shop stewards' reliance on the actions and approach of yesteryear - with its old fashioned principles of collective solidarity, strikes and picket lines - was counter-productive; militant workplace trade unionism as traditionally conceived had become increasingly outmoded. Instead, they heralded the new brand of 'moderate' shop steward who was not restricted in the range of compromises they were prepared to accept in the form of flexible bargaining over changes in employment and work. The impact of a renewed economic recession in the early 1990s merely served to reinforce the apparent potency of such 'new realist' notions.

Unfortunately, many contributors tended to conflate the empirical evidence uncovered with the model of workplace trade unionism they themselves theoretically championed - without drawing out the linkages and disjuncture between the two. Moreover, often the underlying theoretical assumptions and analytical premises that shaped their interpretation were only stated implicitly. Whilst providing a mountain of factual data about what shop stewards actually do - in terms of the conduct of collective bargaining and stewards' functions, activities and attitudes - most offered

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no adequate conceptualisation of the social dynamics of the shop stewards' role or general theory of the underlying factors which determine shop steward behaviour.

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three main complementary objectives. Firstly, to conduct empirical case study analysis of shop steward organisation within three specific manufacturing plants in Merseyside with the aim of contributing to an understanding of the changing state of workplace trade union organisation in British manufacturing industry more generally, offering not merely a snap-shop of contemporary developments but an historical overview of the past 20 years that will be of relevance to understanding potential future trends. Secondly, to deepen a theoretical and empirical understanding of the essential features of the dynamic nature of shop steward organisation, activity and consciousness, exploring the various factors that influence the balance of bargaining power in the workplace and locating these within their broader economic, social and political context. Thirdly, to make the focus of my research a critique of the work of Eric Batstone, a foremost contributor to the analysis of the role of shop stewards in relation to workplace leadership and organisation, whose 'Shop Stewards In Action' (1977) and subsequent studies were widely acclaimed as establishing a new way of looking at shop steward organisation and behaviour which has continued to be highly influential in workplace industrial relations

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dynamics of the stewards' role (1977, 1978). He rejected the traditional structural emphasis in favour of a more interactive and processual approach

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which concentrated on the nature of goals pursued, the patterns of action and interaction which developed and the meaning and values attached to such processes. Moreover, he attempted to make explict a theoretical vantage point of analysis, namely that of right-wing Labourism, an unequivocal reformist workplace trade unionism. It will be my contention that despite useful, although partial, insights his analytical approach and political assumptions contained considerable flaws. In essence, my aim is to put Batstone's notion of 'sophisticated' shop steward organisation to the test of empirical research through the prism of an alternative Marxist analytical framework, whilst evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of alternative militant shop stewards' strategies. Focussing attention on Batstone's model of 'moderate' workplace trade unionism can be justified not merely because of the pivotal contribution his analysis has made to the study of shop stewards, but because it also helps illuminate some of the limits and potential of his more 'radical' critics including Richard Hyman, lIuw Beynon, Michael Terry, Peter Fairbrother and Bruce Spencer. Moreover, it provides an extremely useful basis from which to explore the dilerwnas of workplace trade unionism within a capitalist political economy, the dialectical relationship between shopfloor organisation, activity and consciousness, and the distinctive role an alternative socialist political leadership can (potentially) play within the workplace.

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has been written not simply within the general framework of a revolutionary Marxist approach but also within the overall perspective of the Socialist Workers Party and is devoted to assisting those engaged in the battle to advance the struggles of workers against employers. Such partisan motives

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might be regarded as academically somewhat disreputable. No doubt to consider how shop stewards might build up the strength of workplace union organisation by challenging the structure of managerial control is to display an 'irresponsible bias' which ironically is not noticed in managerially orientated studies (Hyman, 1989c). Notwithstanding such incongruity, my attempt to link theoretical, methodological and policy perspectives will, naturally enough, be open to critical scrutiny from alternative approaches, not only by students of industrial relations but also by management and trade union front-line practitioners 'in the field'.

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considers the dynamics of shop steward organisation by means of a critique of the work of Eric Batstone and an outline of my own analytical framework, background hypothesis and research methodology. Chapters Two, Three and Four present the results of my empirical case study research into shop steward organisations' in three Merseyside manufacturing plants. Chapter Five contains a comparative analysis of recurring themes within the research material and draws some general lessons in light of Batstone's competing approach.

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ACrIvUT AND CONSCI(JSNRSS Chapter One: The Dynamics of Shop Steward Organisation CHAFIER (NE: ThE DYNMffCS OF flP STJJARD ORGANISATION, ACflVIT! AND flfflODuiJnON

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democratic analysis of the dynamics of shop steward organisation to critique; outline an alternative Marxist analytical framework from which to examine stewards' relationship to management, rank and file members and union officials; provide a general background hypothesis about the various factors affecting the balance of bargaining power and its affect on the nature of steward organisation; and indicate the research strategy, technique and methodology underpinning my empirical case study analysis.


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