Darlington-2001-Industrial_Relations_Journal_82052233.pdf - Industrial Relations Journal 32:1 ISSN 0019-8692 Union militancy and leftwing leadership on

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Unformatted text preview: Industrial Relations Journal 32:1 ISSN 0019-8692 Union militancy and leftwing leadership on London Underground Ralph Darlington The article provides evidence from case study research into trade union organisation and activity on the London Underground during the 1990s. It explores the extent to which leftwing political leadership influenced the collectivisation and mobilisation of workers in an adversarial direction, and whether or not this militant trade unionism was selfdefeating compared with a more moderate approach. Leadership is central to the fundamental problem of how individual workers are transformed into collective actors, willing and able to create and sustain collective organisation, and to engage in collective action against their employers. Evidence of the important role of ‘leader’ shop stewards was provided in the pioneering studies of Batstone et al. (1977; 1978). Other workplace studies over the last 25 years have also shown the importance of formal and informal shop-floor leaders and activists in influencing their members and shaping workers’ interests (Beynon, 1973; Nichols and Armstrong, 1976; Pollert, 1981; Terry and Edwards, 1988; Fosh and Cohen, 1990; Scott, 1994). In an important attempt to draw some theoretical generalisations from these highly insightful descriptions of social processes at the workplace, Kelly (1997; 1998) has drawn on the work of several writers within the social movements and collective action tradition, in particular Tilly (1978), Fantasia (1988), McAdam (1988) and Gamson (1992; 1995). He underlines the crucial role that shop-floor leaders and activists play in the process of collectivisation. First, they help to construct a sense of grievance amongst workers, attributing blame onto employers and/or the state rather than to uncontrollable economic forces or events. Second, they promote a sense of group or social identity, which encourages workers to become aware of their common interests in opposition to those of the employers. Third, they urge workers to engage in collective action, a process of persuasion that is assumed to be essential because of the costs of such action and the inexperience of many people with its different forms and consequences. Fourth, they legitimate such collective action in the face of employers’ counter-mobilising arguments that it is illegitimate. ❒ Ralph Darlington is Senior Lecturer in Comparative Industrial Relations in the School of Management, University of Salford. Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2001, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and 350 Main St., Malden, MA 02148, USA. 2 Industrial Relations Journal Nonetheless, as Kelly has acknowledged, although the role of leadership has attracted some attention within the field of industrial relations, there has been a tendency (with some exceptions, see Darlington, 1993; 1994; 1998; Gall, 1999; Fishman, 1995; Jeffreys, 1988; Kelly, 1998; Darlington and Lyddon, 2000; Mcllroy and Campbell, 1999; Mcllroy et al., 1999; Terry and Edwards, 1988) to underestimate the significance of left-wing leadership in trade union activity and mobilisation. The term ‘left-wing’ can be defined broadly to include those union activists who have a fixed affiliation to a far-left political party or are left-wing members of the Labour Party, as well as those independent non-party industrial militants who share class/socialist politics. Their specific role in the process of worker collectivisation and activity is usually completely ignored. Equally, there is little literature on the influence of organised left-wing factions (based on the Communist Party or other more extreme left and Trotskyist organisations) within the unions’ policy making bodies (again with some exceptions, see Seifert, 1984; Undy et al., 1981; 1996; Carter, 1997). Yet trade unions are often the site of intense ideological struggles between different groups of activists about the definition of members’ interests and the most appropriate means for their pursuit. Moreover, such ideological struggles are also to be found within the collective bargaining arena, related to differing strategies of how to react to and confront employers. For example, is an employer’s demand for more flexible working practices something that should be accepted, negotiated over, or rejected out of hand with the threat of action if necessary? Recent workplace studies by Darlington (1993; 1994; 1998) have revealed the significance of shop stewards’ political affiliations, and the influence and leadership that groups of left-wing activists can exert on workplace activity. These studies show that left-wing union representatives with an overtly ideological and solidaristic (rather than instrumental and individualistic) commitment to trade unionism, can play a crucial role in translating shop-floor discontent into a sense of injustice, which then enables them to mobilise workers for collective action against management. Whilst the political sympathies of left-wing union activists can vary, the common thread binding them together is a commitment to building the strength of workplace union organisation through an adversarial approach to managerial prerogative. Invariably this involves them in challenging alternative, usually more pragmatic and moderate, strategies advocated by other activists, as well as encouraging their members who might not share all their political/adversarial ideas to be prepared to engage in militant collective activity. In other words, it would appear that the politics of union leadership is an important ingredient, amongst other factors, to an understanding of the dynamics of workplace industrial relations and trade unionism. However, the model of militant trade unionism, advocated by left-wing political activists, has been castigated as being destructive and self-defeating (Bassett, 1986; Taylor, 1994). Many commentators (Ackers and Payne, 1998; TUC, 1998; Unions 21, 1999) have recently argued that union survival and recovery in the twenty-first century will depend on the willingness of unions and their members to behave ‘moderately’ and to engage in a ‘social partnership’ between workers and employers. This emphasis on the mutual identity between trade unions and managers, aimed at improving corporate competitiveness in the private sector or service quality in the public sector, has been spelt out by the TUC in its ‘New Unionism’ project: ‘At the workplace social partnership means employers and trade unions working together to achieve common goals such as fairness and competition; it is a recognition that, although they have different constituencies, and at times different interests, they can serve these best by making common cause wherever possible’ (TUC, 1997). It means abandoning an adversarial approach and accepting the need for co-operation in changing workplace culture in a more consensual direction. As Prime Minister Tony Blair argued recently: ‘Employment security and worthwhile jobs can only be delivered if trade union members are employed by successful organisations. The rhetoric of struggle, strikes and strife therefore has little resonance in today’s world of work’ (Guardian, 24 May 1999). Recent ‘social partnership’ agreements between Tesco and USDAW, Blue Circle and the AEEU and Panasonic and the GMB, have underlined Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2001. Union militancy on London Underground 3 the trend that is taking place (TUC, 1998; Labour Research, June 1998) However, not all unions have embraced ‘social partnership’ agreements, for example the NUM, FBU, and RMT are unions that retain adversarial traditions. In a further contribution to the debate Kelly (1996) has attempted to categorise unions as being either ‘militant’ or ‘moderate’, on the basis of five dimensions: goals, methods, membership resources, institutional resources, and ideology. In brief, ‘militant’ unions are defined as being willing to take industrial action, having an ideology of conflicting interests and relying strongly on the mobilisation of members. ‘Moderate’ unions are defined as taking industrial action infrequently or not at all, having an ideology of partnership and strongly relying on employers. Of course, it should be acknowledged that militancy and moderation are best understood as two ends of a continuum, and that unions are not completely free agents in so far as their stance and behaviour result from an interaction with the economic, political and industrial relations environment in which they find themselves. For example, the level of unemployment, employers’ (and state) behaviour, the nature of product and labour markets, and other factors will all create a more or less favourable environment for militancy or moderation. Unions may be militant on some dimensions, for example with very ambitious bargaining demands (for example, on pay), but moderate on others (for example, on restructuring). They may not always feel it necessary to organise industrial action, for example because their strategic bargaining position makes this unnecessary, and they may sometimes advocate a strategic retreat, for example because a large section of their members is unwilling to fight. The overall balance of relations between capital and labour in Britain can also have a profound impact on the general conditions in which militancy in any industry/workplace might thrive at the expense of moderation and vice versa. As Mcllroy (2000) has argued, the decline in working class militancy generally in Britain, particularly since the defeat of the 1984–5 miners’ strike, still constrains the response of trade unionists at all levels, as well as what left-wing activists can strategically seek to achieve. Nonetheless, if objective environmental factors provide, or undermine, potential power resources within the bargaining arena, the subjective factor is also important in terms of the forms to which, and whether, they are mobilised. Thus, whilst the collectivisation and mobilisation of the workforce into militant action can emerge spontaneously, it is also often constructed by leaders or activists who can provide important strategic and tactical guidance and direction. In other words, despite some qualifications, the broad distinction between ‘militancy’ and ‘moderation’ is a useful analytical tool for contrasting the different approaches and behaviour adopted by unions. And such labels can be applied not only to unions as a whole, but also to intra-union bodies such as regional or shop stewards’ committees, although a further distinction can also be made here between union militancy—with reference to the organisation as an entity, and labour militancy—with reference to workplace-based behaviour and activity (Gall, 2000). Significantly, the militancy/moderation axis can also be useful as a means by which to more fully appreciate the importance of left-wing leadership within trade unions, particularly in the light of the fact that those national unions that retain an adversarial tradition cited above, all have leaders at different levels of the organisation from a left-wing political persuasion. Kelly (1996; 1998) summarises some of the arguments used by those who advocate moderation. Within a highly intensified competitive world, unions have to moderate their demands and offer concessions to the employers or face the risk of job loss or de-recognition. Strikes are said to be ineffective insofar as they either fail to achieve their objectives or achieve them at such heavy financial cost to the strikers that they constitute Pyrrhic victories. It is also claimed there are various payoffs to moderate unionism, including job security, training, health and safety. By contrast, the arguments in favour of militancy include the view that the growing hostility of employers to any form of unionism and collective bargaining makes social partnership impossible to achieve; that compared with militancy gains from moderation are meagre, whether measured by membership increases or union strength and influence; and 4 Industrial Relations Journal Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2001. that moderation can seriously weaken trade unions and leave them vulnerable to employers’ attacks because they erode the willingness and capacity of members to resist and to challenge employer demands. With such considerations in mind we can now turn to some case study research into trade union organisation within the London Underground, with the aim of further exploring the relationship between left-wing political leadership and trade union/labour militancy in one particular industry, namely the London Underground. Case study: the London Underground Despite the record low levels of industrial action generally in Britain during the 1980s and 1990s, trade unionism in the public sector has been much more resilient than in private industry, measured both by stability and density of membership, as well as by figures on industrial action (Millward et al., 1992; Cully et al., 1999). And within the public sector three of the main locations of union militancy—the Royal Mail, Fire Service and London Underground—appear to have been characterised by important common features, such as the influence of a monopoly service, buoyant markets and increased traffic volumes, the lack of compulsory redundancies, the homogeneity of large manual workforces with high union memberships, the immediate impact that strike action could potentially have, and the lack of any serious defeats for workers taking strike action, all of which have contributed to creating a favourable situation for workers to engage in militant activity to resist managerial restructuring compared with the more quiescent labour response generally (Beale, 1999; Fitzgerald and Stirling, 1999; Gall, 1995; Report, 2000). In addition, within important local areas of the Royal Mail and Fire Service, the influence of left-wing activists to such militancy has also been evident (Darlington, 1993; 1998). However, whilst some of these public-sector industries have been the subject of attention by industrial relations researchers the London Underground remains virtually unexplored territory (Urquhart, 1992). This is remarkable considering the centrality of the service to Britain’s capital city, the evident importance of the Underground lines and depots as major workplaces in their own right, and the fact that the industry experienced a relatively very high level of strike action throughout the 1990s [see Table 1]. The series of 24 and 48-hour strikes by the National Union of Rail MariTable 1: Strike ballots and action on London Underground 1991–1999 Strike ballots Reason Trade Union Action June 1991 March 1992 April 1992 Oct 1993 Oct 1994 June 1995 July–Aug 1995 Aug–Nov 1995 June 1996 June 1996 July 1996 Sept 1997 Nov 1997 March 1998 April 1998 May 1998 Jan 1999 Overtime Flexibility Company Plan Discipline Pay Pay (2 ballots) Pay (2 ballots) Pay (4 ballots) Pay Pay Pay Conditions Conditions Guards Guards PPP PPP ASLEF/RMT RMT RMT RMT RMT RMT ASLEF RMT ASLEF RMT RMT RMT RMT RMT RMT RMT RMT 1 night — — 1 day 1 day 3 days — — 7 days 4 days — — — 2 days — 3 days 2 days Data provided by London Underground Limited, Trade Unions’ Ballots: 1991–1999, 1999. Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2001. Union militancy on London Underground 5 time and Transport Workers (RMT) during 1998 and early 1999 in opposition to Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott’s plans to part-privatise the London Underground through a Public Private Partnership (DofE, 1998), highlighted in graphic relief the adversarial nature of industrial relations on the Underground in recent years.1 Of particular importance in understanding the nature of industrial relations on the London Underground is the influential role of its two main trade unions, notably the RMT and the Association of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF). Significantly, during the mid-late 1990s, there was the rise of a number of left-wing political activists to influential union positions within the RMT on the London Underground, many of these associated with the far left Socialist Labour Party (SLP) headed by the miners’ union leader Arthur Scargill. They included Pat Sikorski, secretary of the RMT London Underground District Council, and Bob Crow, RMT Assistant General Secretary with responsibility for the Underground. It seems likely, although hitherto has never been examined, that the influence of this left-wing political leadership has been reflected in the belligerent attitude adopted by the union and its members towards Underground management, and in the almost annual bouts of industrial action. At the very least, it appears to have contributed to the militant resolutions in protest at Tony Blair’s alleged pro-business policies endorsed by delegates at recent annual union conferences, with a motion at the 1999 conference to end financial support for the Labour Party unless its policies on privatisation were reversed only narrowly defeated. And in 2000, London RMT members, following a recommendation by their left-wing leaders, voted by 91 per cent in favour of Ken Livingstone’s independent bid for London Mayor against New Labour’s candidate on a platform of opposition to privatisation of the Tube. Certainly, in many respects, the RMT on London Underground, with its left-wing leadership, seems to typify the image of socalled old-fashioned militant trade unionism which many commentators assumed had long ago been abandoned. ‘It is back to the bad old days, the bad old ways of the 1970s’ (Financial Times, 16 June 1998) as John Redwood, Shadow Trade and Industry spokesperson at the time, commented in 1998. By contrast, although there is an informal left-wing grouping based on the national railway network within ASLEF there has been a fairly conservative Labour tradition on the London Underground, albeit with an occasional militant industrial edge. Significantly, train drivers’ anger at the union leadership’s agreement to productivity changes with the privatised railway companies and its initial equivocal stance towards semi-privatisation of London Underground, appears to have been a major factor in the recent election of SLP member Dave ‘Micky’ Rix to the key post of General Secretary. But Rix’s position is an isolated one and the left does not have any real base on the Underground, although there was, like the RMT, strong support for Ken Livingstone. Certainly, whilst prepared to threaten and occasionally engage in strike action, the ASLEF leadership has traditionally taken a much less confrontational stance than the RMT, and refused on a number of occasions during the 1990s to support industrial action mounted by the RMT in defence of wages and conditions. It also initially voiced strong criticism of the RMT’s campaign of industrial action against the Public Private Partnership (Locomotive Journal, January 1998). The type of ‘social partnership’ advocated by the TUC has not been actively taken up by ASLEF. But compared with the RMT, the union has often adopted a rather more collaborative posture on the London Underground. Such differences have been compounded by the history of difficult and sometimes very acrimonious relationships between the two unions (Bagwell, 1982; Pendelton, 1993). This article presents the findings of case study research into trade union organisation and activity on the London Underground with the aim of exploring two main research questions. First, to what extent have left-wing activists inside the RMT contributed to shaping the militant union response to management, encouraging the 1 This article was accepted for publication before the 24 hour strike by ASLEF (and supported by many RMT members despite a court injunction forbidding action by their union) in February 2001 against perceived threats to safety posed by the planned Public Private Partnership. 6 Industrial Relations Journal Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2001. collectivisation and mobilisation of workers...
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