[Book] In the Cause of Labour - A History of British Trade Unionism

“Ignorance is Strength”

The 1992 TUC Congress represented an historic low point for trade unionism. The right wing had clearly achieved a crushing dominance in the trade unions. The merging of the AEU and EETPU, to produce the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU), created an immense and powerful right-wing block within the British trade union movement. The merger was in effect an EETPU take-over, resulting in the dismantling of the democratic structures of the engineering union, and the consolidation of the Neanderthal right wing. Despite resistance from a number of unions, the EETPU had been allowed back into the TUC fold via the AEEU merger. Their past attempts to pull together a rival right-wing TUC, composed of the EETPU, the AEU, the UDM and other such “employer-friendly” bodies had come to nothing. Nevertheless, the new AEEU acted as a right-wing Trojan horse within the organised labour movement, and a focal point for business unionism. The leaders of the AEEU, the extreme right of the TUC, simply expressed openly and crudely what the others thought and talked about in private. They were all very much wedded to “New Realism” and the capitalist system. So degenerate had they become, that CBI boss Howard Davies was allowed to address the TUC Congress, while strikers, such as those of Burnstall’s in Smethwick, were left to stand outside.

This right-wing tendency in the trade unions was further reinforced by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the crisis within the Communist Parties internationally. The bourgeois apologists and their shadows within the labour movement portrayed the collapse of the Berlin Wall as a “victory” of capitalism and the “defeat” of socialism. In fact, the demise of Stalinism was a defeat, not for socialism, but for a bureaucratic totalitarian regime that was a mere caricature of socialism. This caused a layer of ex-lefts and former CP members to make common cause with the right wing to further their own ambitions and careers as Labour “advisers”. The ex-Stalinist Charlie Wheelan, Gordon Brown’s former spin-doctor, typified this new creature. They simply jumped ship and moved over to a pro-capitalist, pro-market position, with the ease of a man moving from standard class to first class on a train. This precipitated an even further shift to the right in the TUC, which in turn, was mirrored by a similar shift in the Labour Party. This itself is sufficient proof that the trade unions are the key to the developments within the Labour Party, for better or worse. This was no accident, but reflected the complicated objective processes unfolding deep within society.

Under pressure from the ruling class and the capitalist media, John Smith, the new party leader, sought to weaken the Labour Party’s links with the trade unions. A number of union leaders, fearing political marginalisation, resisted this attack. It was one thing to support Labour’s right wing, but this was going too far! At the 1992 Labour Party conference, John Edmunds and Bill Morris led the battle to preserve the union link, and the original One Member One Vote proposal (OMOV) was voted down by a clear majority. But was not the end of the matter. As a concession to the trade union leaders (who in turn were under pressure from the ranks), John Smith had promised the TUC conference that the key priorities for a forthcoming Labour government would be full employment and the introduction of a minimum wage. This was the price for the union leaders’ acceptance of the new rule changes, which, in the end, they dutifully swallowed. A compromise version of OMOV, sponsored by NUPE and the RMT, was narrowly passed after intense pressure on delegates, and the MSF delegation breaking its union mandate.

The 1993 TUC Congress witnessed the retirement of the lacklustre Norman Willis as general secretary and the emergence of the arch “moderniser” John Monks. Monks had risen through the TUC machine and he now emerged as the well-groomed Congress House bureaucrat, a mirror image of the new dominant Bourgeois Tendency in the Labour Party. In tandem with Smith, he now worked to “modernise” the TUC by, among other things, distancing the trade unions from the Labour Party and inviting Tories and CBI leaders to address TUC Congresses. This sorry spectacle represented the pinnacle of “New Realism”, at a time when the workers were desperately looking for an alternative to Toryism and class collaboration.

At this time, the 1.4 million-strong Unison was created, following a merger between public sector unions NALGO, NUPE and COHSE. As only NUPE and COHSE were affiliated to the Labour Party, and the “white collar” NAGLO had strongly resisted any link with Labour, the leadership pushed through a proposal to establish a political fund with two sections. In doing so, rather than facing up to the political arguments, the opportunity was lost to set up a single Political Fund. Only one of these sections is affiliated to the Labour Party, the Labour Link or Affiliated Political Fund (APF) as it is known. The other fund, the General Political Fund, pays for campaigning work but cannot be used for Party political purposes. Members then have to choose into which fund they pay their political levy. Currently around 570,000 members out of 1.3 million pay into the APF.

Within the union, the APF has its own structures and conferences. Only Unison members who are also individual members of the Labour Party can hold positions within the APF, or be candidates for key regional and national bodies. As a result of the low participation, the body was subsequently captured and controlled by the union’s right wing. Instead of fighting for union policy within the Labour Party, it used the APF to promote right-wing Labour policies within the union. They have been able to hold on to this position up until the present time, but this has reached its limits as subsequent events have shown. The union is changing, and the wind of change has now begun to blow within the ranks of the APF.


Throughout the 1980s, the tops of the unions were becoming increasingly divorced from the stressful life in the factories and workplaces. On the shop floor conditions were becoming increasingly difficult after a decade of ruthless attacks and the introduction of “lean” production techniques. Keith Cardwell, convenor at GEC/Alsthom’s plant in Preston, explained some of the difficulties.

“I was elected works convenor in 1985. I can honestly say that ever since then I have been fighting a rear-guard action against job losses and the threat of closure. In the meantime we have to deal with the introduction of new technology – just-in-time principles, quality concepts and the various spin-offs – and these created many problems for us, including a certain amount of de-skilling. Only too often these days I’m seen to be – and I sometimes feel – that I am just a go-between the management and the shop floor, perhaps even a management mouthpiece. I’m fighting every inch of the way.”[1]

How different from the life at the top of Britain’s trade unions! Something like a scissors effect was taking place: the worse things became for workers, the more remote and out of touch the leadership became.

The prolonged employers’ offensive, in effect a “counter-revolution” on the shop floor, had largely destroyed the elements of workers’ control that had existed in the workplace: trade union control over the track speed, control over hiring and firing, length of breaks, and so on. With the enthusiastic backing of Thatcher, the bosses had reasserted their “divine right” to rule. The new regime within the work places was creating all kinds of problems associated with Human Resource Management (HRM), or “stress management”, to give it its correct name. A whole battery of changes was introduced, which greatly increased the pace and intensity of labour, resulting in increased relative and absolute surplus value, to use the words of Marx. By these means, extra profits were squeezed out of the muscles and nervous systems of the workers, leading to all kinds of health problems and a dramatic increase in nervous breakdowns, accidents and death in the workplace, to which the advocates of “New Realism” remained supremely indifferent.

The buzzword in the world of work was now flexibility of labour. In the new “enterprise economy”, which the strategists of capital boasted about, deregulation, privatisation, casualisation, part-time working, fixed-term contracts, zero-hours contracts were introduced in a whole series of industries and services. Full time jobs were subjected to “down-sizing”, as skilled workers were replaced by semi-skilled, and semi-skilled by unskilled. Jobs were created without security, pension rights, sick pay or holiday pay. Hand in hand with these changes went the demise of national agreements and de-recognition of trade unions in a host of industries. In 1981, 4.5 million people were in part-time employment; by 1993 the number had risen to 5.8 million. Unlike those in full-time jobs, these part-timers had no legal protection at work and few rights.

The battle cry of this employers’ offensive was “Global Competition, Flexibility, and Deregulation!” Capital relentlessly drove down standards by pitting worker against worker in the dog-eat-dog competition of the market economy. “Deregulation may leave the consumer or the workforce helpless, but it is part of a growing global consensus”, states Joe Rogaly in The Financial Times. “So is the notion of ‘flexible labour markets’, for which read ‘crushing the workforce beneath the heel’.”

The new workplace methods of production were accompanied by greater intensity of work. Fordism was alleged to have given way to post-Fordism, with production geared to specialised needs. However, “management by stress” and “lean production” techniques were nothing new. In reality they were simply modern variants of old fashioned Taylorism. No longer was each worker assigned a single task to perform repetitively in the mass production process, but people were trained to perform several skills and become “multi-skilled”. This opened the door to new forms of exploitation, more intense than before.

Under lean production, the system resembles an anorexic: it is never satisfied with itself, no matter how lean it gets. It continually strives to push the levels of tolerance to the maximum. The principle is based upon the squeezing of all resources. The nerves and sinews of the workers are stretched to the limit. Absolute efficiency is the benchmark, which means the elimination of all “waste”: idle time, extra materials, inspection, repairs, extra space, and extra tools. Let us cite one example. In the traditional car plant workers work 45 seconds each minute. In the typical lean production car plant, workers are engaged in productive activity for around 57 seconds a minute. Assuming a ten-second-a-minute differential applied to a car plant of 2,000 workers, this rate of exploitation results in 2,667 extra work-hours being performed during the course of an eight-hour shift. 13,335 extra work-hours are added over a five-day week. This is equivalent to employing an extra 333 workers to work a 40-hour week. Or, put another way, equivalent to each worker performing more than an extra day’s labour every 5-day week.

Whereas in Fordism there are high levels of stocks, in lean production they are kept deliberately low. The introduction of “just-in-time” production and outsourcing was aimed at driving down costs. Here the concept of teamwork is employed to achieve greater control over workers. Each worker is dependent on every other in this chain of continual production. If someone is sick, the burden falls on his or her co-workers. In this way, tremendous pressure is created not to take time off and to submit to the established pace of work. It is do-it-yourself Taylorism, where each worker squeezes every other worker in the production process. In this system, “time and motion” work teams themselves undertake studies.

Where the assembly plant is dependent upon a host of subcontractors and suppliers, any breakdown along the chain of production or distribution would have disastrous effects, bringing things to an abrupt stop. Paradoxically, the “just-in-time” method puts greater potential power in the hands of the working class. Despite this, the bosses combined to use these new methods to break up and weaken the power of the traditionally stronger and more organised sectors of the working class. In the car industry, for example, the capitalists hived off one sector after another, splitting up the workforce into separate companies in an attempt to undermine their bargaining strength. The Ford Motor Company outsourced thousands of its jobs and established the parts company, Visteon, while General Motors created Delphi, leading to the break-up of national joint negotiations. New industrial parks were built in Halewood and elsewhere in order to provide modules (assembled components) on a just-in-time basis for Ford, using agency labour at lower wage costs.


As the situation in the car industry showed, workers had their backs against the wall. In September 1991 union leaders at the Rover car plant were presented with a package entitled Rover Tomorrow – New Deal, which supposedly offered a job for life in return for total flexibility of labour. Previously, Rover workers had rejected similar deals. However, after being recommended by the unions, the new deal was now narrowly accepted by a wafer-thin majority of 168 votes (11,961 to 11,793) in April 1992. This brought in lean production and the most radical changes ever introduced into the company. “The company continually improve its performance and competitive position through the elimination of waste, increased levels of efficiency and reduced levels of manpower – working smarter rather than harder”, stated Clause two of the agreement.

“Partnership for us is about co-operation,” stated Bill Morris, the then general secretary of the TGWU. But co-operation eventually meant acquiescence, as management introduced changes, including the increase in line speed, with little resistance from the unions.

“Ten years ago many of its plants were riven with bitter unofficial disruption. Now many of them are showplaces for enterprise unionism”, stated Robert Taylor, industrial correspondent of The Financial Times. “It is no exaggeration to talk of a new cooperative spirit between management, trade unions and workers in many areas of British manufacturing industry which were once a byword for industrial conflict.”[2]

This picture of bliss, however, was far removed from the realities on the shop floor. Take the Rover’s Cowley plant in Oxford for example. In the mid-80s, Rover was producing seven cars per worker per year. By 1992, this had increased to 18 cars per worker per year. And by 1996, this was to grow to 39 cars.

“Yes, the new machinery is important but we are becoming its slave. At the very time workers should be treated with understanding, management is depersonalised. Production is all. We are merely an adjunct to the machine”, said a production worker at Cowley.[3]

Such sentiments were prophetically described by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto of over 150 years ago, where we read the following: “He (the worker) becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him… Not only are they slave of the bourgeois class, and the bourgeois state; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine” This is precisely the situation we are experiencing in the first decade of the 21st century.

Eventually, Rover was purchased by British Aerospace in 1988 and then sold to BMW in 1994. The new owners forced through further changes in terms and conditions of the workforce, this time in the face of stiff resistance. Despite all the sacrifices, despite all the changes to working practices, these were still not enough for the owners of BMW. Within a few years, BMW bosses threatened to close the entire Longbridge plant and sack thousands of workers. This threat to thousands of jobs, despite years of belt-tightening, speed-ups and increased productivity, brought 100,000 onto the streets of Birmingham in the biggest demonstration in the city since the early 1970s. Later the firm, with the support of the unions, was taken over by the private Phoenix consortium. Instead of demanding nationalisation under workers’ control, which would provide a real way forward, the union leaders looked for “practical” solutions. However, private ownership has solved nothing, despite all the chopping and changing. Today, MG Rover is struggling against falling sales and is planning to sub-contract production of a new small car to a manufacturer in Maharashtra, India, in order to cut costs. Although there has been a complete failure to invest sufficiently to modernise the plants, Rover’s fundamental problems are not rooted in Britain, but in worldwide overproduction (overcapacity) in the car industry, reflecting the anarchy of capitalism. The carworkers in Britain and elsewhere are now being asked to pay for this anarchy.

Workers in the service industries were increasingly subjected to the same regime as manufacturing. In February 1993, British Home Stores made a third of its full-time workforce redundant, replacing them with employees on flexible hours contracts. Zero hour contracts were introduced at the Burton retail group in January 1993. They were also introduced at the Storehouse group and Kingfisher Company. Such contracts required an employee to be constantly on standby without any guarantee of work. The contract only comes into force when the worker is actually working and there are no minimum or maximum hours. As a consequence, inequality in wages became greater in Britain than almost anywhere else in the developed world. It was greater than at any time since records began over 100 years ago. “Did you know”, asked The Economist, “the bottom tenth of manual workers earned only 64 percent of average income in 1991, compared with 68 percent in 1886?”[4] In 1993, the UK had 3.9 million children living in poverty, more than any other of the 12 EU member states. According to research from the National Children’s Home charity, 1.5 million families in Britain could not even provide the diet of the Poor Law workhouses! Families on Income Support received an allowance of only £4.15 for a child’s weekly diet, which was 30 per cent lower than a 1876 workhouse diet. Meanwhile, between 1977 and 1992 the salaries of most senior directors of the Financial Times’ top 100 companies increased by 133 per cent compared with an average increase in earnings of only 48 per cent.

In the same year, the Timex Corporation’s circuit board production plant in Dundee dismissed its entire workforce of 320 workers when they refused to accept a pay freeze, lay-offs, and cuts. The bosses hired a new scab replacement workforce and, as expected, were faced with mass picketing of the plant. The pliant AEEU officials, alleging the need to stay within the anti-union laws, opposed this tactic and shamefully repudiated the actions of the sacked shop stewards. Eventually, Timex closed the plant down. The closure illustrated the callous way in which corporations are able to uproot and relocate their businesses in different areas and countries, leaving behind a trail of human desolation and misery. “Nowhere else in Europe are decent men and women being sacked for taking legitimate and legal industrial action”, said Jimmy Airlie, the AEEU’s executive officer for Scotland.[5] Of course, once again the AEEU’s partnership deals had turned out to be rotten. It also showed the feeble response of the right-wing unions to the bullyboy tactics of the employers. A decade later, Dyson, the bag-less vacuum-cleaner manufacturer, would show its “patriotism” by taking their “entrepreneurial” skills to low-wage, low-cost Malaysia.

Fruits of “New Realism”

These sustained attacks were preparing a backlash. Geoffrey Armstrong, Director-General of the Institute of Personnel Management, warned his annual conference in October 1993 to avoid excessively squeezing its workforce:

“While encouraging flexibility in matching the needs of organisations with those of their employees and prospective employees, we must stand out against abuse”, he said. “The creation of a permanently casualised industrial peasantry, with little protection and no stake in the future, cannot be in the interests of organisations or society. Maybe the ‘steady job’ has gone, but to ensure trust is maintained with their workers, employers need to make sure they give them ‘security where they can’, ‘treat them consistently in a principled manner’, and equip them ‘with the generic skills and employability’ which will enable them to find alternatives if we can no longer employ them.”[6]

This summed up the views of the “good” capitalists who wanted to treat their working class “peasantry” with a degree of compassion. Exploit them, but don’t push them over the edge. If you have to get rid of them, then do it nicely! The problem is that it is not a question of this or that employer, but the capitalist system as a whole. Through competition the capitalists are forced to introduce the latest techniques. It is not a question of personal choice, but under the whip of capitalist anarchy it is the survival of the fittest. In their search for maximum profits, they are continually seeking ways of reducing costs of production. All things being equal, this means reducing wage costs.

By 1993, while the weak-kneed trade union leaders were preaching “class harmony”, manufacturing jobs, where union membership was at its highest density, were being ruthlessly axed. As a result, AEEU membership fell below the 700,000 mark. The same was true of the TGWU. As a whole, trade union membership fell over the following decade and was to shrink to around seven million. This decline also reflected the bitter fruits of “New Realism” and to decades of right-wing mis-leadership. The only other comparable period when such a fall was recorded was between 1920 and 1933, following the defeat of the General Strike and the world slump. At that time, trade union membership contracted by almost half, from eight million to 4.5 million.

With this decline in membership, trade unions leaders were forced to seek a way out of this dilemma through new union mergers. In such cases, not all mergers were driven by the interests of the membership, but reflected the needs of the bureaucracy to preserve its apparatus and resources. However, other mergers marked a step forward, resulting in new formations such as the rail union, RMT, the civil service union, PCS, and the local government and health union, Unison, the latter being the third largest union in Europe. These had the progressive features of concentrating power into fewer trade unions, making the tasks of transforming the union movement easier, and in the long run laying the basis for industrial unions.

While the closure of manufacturing industries weakened the unions, the “new economy” produced new employment and created a potential for union organisation in other areas: for instance the infamous call centres, where workers enclosed in cubicles, continually answer phone enquiries, day and night. These were to provide work for more people than the coal, steel and shipbuilding industries combined. Their rise was a barometer of Britain’s industrial decline. High paid skilled jobs in industry have been replaced by low paid unskilled employment in the service sector. The workers in these call centres are treated so abysmally that they have been described as the modern equivalent of Blake’s “dark Satanic Mills”. According to a report by CBE, a training consultant company, the monotonous nature of the job, coupled with workers’ lack of control over their work, produced severe stress levels. Six per cent of call centre workers suffered from “serious psychiatric problems” – double the rate for the general working population. “You cannot turn human beings into machines”, said Jim Bennett of CBE, “making their function little more than a production line of repetitive operations and still expect them to perform all the human and inter-personal skills required in customer service roles.” This explained the massive 20 per cent turnover in staff in these centres, which has served to make union organisation more difficult, but far from impossible.

Today, with the slowdown in the world economy, many call centres have been closed or dramatically downsized, with jobs being transferred to third world countries such as India, where wage costs are 10 per cent of the west. “With Indian call centre workers on about £1,200 a year – less than a tenth of the near £12,000 starting salary of an equivalent worker in Britain – it is not hard to work out that firms can save themselves a lot of cash”, states The Guardian.[7] According to Mitial Research, about a third of Britain’s larger call centres will close by 2005 loosing 90,000 jobs in the process. These attacks on these workers have, in turn, led to strike action in defence of jobs and greater unionisation of these workers.

The British service sector has grown enormously over the past two decades. This reflects the organic decline and decay of British capitalism. The former “workshop of the world”, British capitalism has increasingly taken on the characteristics of a rentier economy, relying more and more on services, banking and insurance. Finance capital has become the dominant force, which is a major factor in Britain’s industrial decline. With its failure to invest and modernise industry, the bourgeoisie has allowed much of manufacturing to go to the wall. Marx explained that there are periods in the history of capitalism when the capitalists forget that real wealth is material wealth in manufacturing production. He explained the source of profit lies in the production of surplus value through industrial production. Once realised through sales, the surplus value is shared out between different sections of the ruling class in the form of rent, interest and profit. The capitalists in the service sector, who play a parasitic role, take a slice of this surplus value according to the average rate of profit. While manufacturing relies upon services to market its commodities, the mainstay of any modern economy must rest upon its industrial base. Those who maintained that the British economy had no need of manufacturing to survive but could simply rely upon service industries, show how parasitic and short-sighted the British capitalists have become. This was, in particular, a great favourite of the Thatcherites and their economic witch doctors, who did so much to wreck British industry and reducing the numbers employed by manufacturing to around three million. They have become the modern Luddities.

The decline of British capitalism has gone hand in hand with attacks on the working class. The modern killer in the workplace is stress or over-work. The capitalist system is based upon it and is directly linked to the production of relative and absolute surplus value. The picture of over-work depicted in the 1936 Chaplin film, Modern Times, can be replicated across industry, white-collar and blue-collar alike. As a result of the employers’ offensive, the acute levels of stress have become a key issue. Every year, 150,000 workers take at least one month off for illness caused by job stress. Whilst days lost through strike action fell to record levels, the number of days lost in workplace sickness has doubled since 1995. The Health and Safety Commission reported that 40 million working days were lost due to work-related illness in 2002. This picture of burned-out Britain is a product of the past two decades of attacks on working people and the increased rate of exploitation. Britain has opted out of the 48 hour European directive, as the working class is literally being worked to death.

Now new rules have been introduced which reflect the cold-heartedness of British capitalism. The aim of big business is to prevent compensation claims by workers for such stress-related illnesses.

“Lady Justice Hale said it should not be the responsibility of an employer to make exhaustive investigations into the mental health of employees,” reported The Independent.[8] “Instead, the onus was on the stressed worker to decide whether to leave the job or carry on working and accept the risk of a mental breakdown.”

These are laws written by capitalists in the interests of capitalists and reek of the Victorian morality of the Poor Law Commissioners. Without doubt Lady Justice Hale and her like are not afflicted with such brutal working conditions.

In the face of this capitalist onslaught, the right-wing trade union leaders were totally impotent. The Department of Employment under John Major cynically explained what was required of the unions: “If trade unions wish to stem the tide of decreasing recognition by employers, they will need to demonstrate their worth to them… In particular unions should adopt approaches which show unequivocally that they share management’s desire to raise competitiveness and adapt to change.”[9] In other words, the unions should prostrate themselves in front of big business, and show themselves as a willing tool of the employers. Rather than rejecting this slavish complicity, the TUC replied with the statement:

“Modern trade unions recognise that companies must be competitive in global markets if they are to be successful and provide secure employment for their employees… Unions are willing to bargain in good faith to introduce changes in working practices and production methods.”[10]

The union leaders were eager to please the employers in return for the promise of a quiet life. The AEEU leadership, embracing business unionism even more firmly, epitomised this abject capitulation to the ruling class. They participated in “beauty contests” with other unions over union recognition deals – where the employers picked the union most suited to their needs! The ever-pliant AEEU leaders then signed a number of so-called sweetheart agreements allowing single union status. The bosses were obviously very keen to permit only one union to operate in its plants so long as it was operating on the company’s terms and kept out more troublesome unions. “Properly implemented multiskilling programmes offer employers a more flexible workforce devoid of most demarcations”, noted the AEEU working party’s pamphlet on Multiskilling and Flexibility. Even the right-wing American unions have not dared openly to go this far!

In the United States, the AFL/CIO decides which union will operate in a particular plant, not the employers. However, in Britain the employers selected the “best” and most “co-operative” union for their purposes.

“We have signed a number of single union agreements with inward investors such as Nissan, Toyota and Sony and we find their approach to Human Resource Management (HRM) gives us no reason for complaint,” stated Bill Jordan, the then president of the AEEU. “Team-working, flexibility and multiskilling have been central to the competitive edge that these companies have established but they have never sought to exploit their workforces by using these techniques.”

He continued:

“Whether we like it or not, these practices amount to a modern industrial development that is here to stay. It must be our job to ensure that they are introduced in a way that is of maximum benefit to our membership. A refusal to acknowledge HRM would give the opponents of social partnership an opportunity to cast the trade union movement as negative and as being stuck in the past. Frankly, in my view, there would be some justification to this charge. Our adoption of an oppositionalist line would also deny us the opportunity to differentiate between good and bad management. At present AEEU support for HRM in its form at Toyota, Nissan and Sony allows us to be critical of those companies that try to use these techniques as a cloak for attacks on their workforces. In reality, companies will introduce these techniques regardless of our opposition. Let us not leave our shop stewards with the unenviable task of trying to respond to change with no guidance or practical support from their union or from the wider trade union movement.”

In making such a statement, Jordan was asking the membership to prostrate itself before the bosses. The whole rationale for introducing HRM was to “exploit their workforce”, to maximise their profits. Why else would they be introducing new production techniques? Certainly not because they had the workers’ happiness at heart! Bill Jordan regarded HRM as “here to stay”, just like the capitalist system, and was going to be introduced “regardless of our opposition”. In order not to offend his close friends in charge of Toyota, Nissan and Sony, the leader of one of the biggest unions in Britain was willing to offer up his members, like lambs to the slaughter, as he had no alternative to offer. The bosses were in charge and the workers had to accept their lot in life. It was as simple as that.

Throughout these years, Britain was fast becoming the bridgehead for lean production in Europe. In Nissan, the AEEU had given management complete control within its plants. It was a model to be imitated elsewhere. By 1994 the TUC had adopted a favourable view of Human Resources Management. The TGWU, a nominally left union, had followed suit by 1996. This capitulation to big business by the right wing – and even some on the “left” – within the trade unions was however preparing a massive backlash. The working class were being squeezed to the limit in response to the demands for greater “flexibility” and profits. The levels of stress and resentment that built up on the shop floor were reaching explosive levels. Yet, the union bureaucracy used their dominant position to hold the workers in check and muzzle this discontent. Not only were they acting as policemen within their own ranks, but they undermined any attempts of workers to offer resistance. “Class collaboration was the only way forward!” they exclaimed. The threat of the Tory anti-union laws was used in no small part to spread despondency and impotence throughout the movement. However, this growing bitterness could not be dammed up indefinitely, and was soon to lead to profound changes in the trade unions. The compulsory election of trade union executives and officials introduced by Margaret Thatcher to keep out the militants was about to backfire in the most unexpected and dramatic way.


[1] Quoted in Taylor, op. cit, p.100

[2] Ibid, p.121

[3] Socialist Appeal, May 1993

[4] The Economist, 11 September 1994

[5] Taylor, op.cit, p.52

[6] Ibid, p.9

[7] The Guardian, 12 February 2003

[8] The Independent, February 6, 2002

[9] Taylor, op cit, pp.110-111

[10] Ibid, p.113