What ever happened to workers’ control?
“We are not going to strike…We are taking over the yards because we refuse to accept that faceless men can make these decisions. We are not strikers. We are responsible people and we will conduct ourselves with dignity and discipline” – Jimmy Reid, chair of the joint co-coordinating committee for UCS, June 1971.
Prior to the UCS work-in, in 1968, a small group of academics and activists had formed the Institute for Workers Control. It had support from the TGWU from Jack Jones and from the AEU under Hugh Scanlon.
There was little doubt that the reports and articles of the IWC influenced the thinking of many active trade unionists at this time. Internationally we had the practical example of the Mondragon cooperatives in the Basque country and more generally the introduction in to the political sphere through the European Commission’s Draft Fifth Company Law Directive which sought to harmonise worker participation in management of companies across Europe. A Committee of Enquiry into Industrial Democracy was set up by the Labour government of Harold Wilson in December 1975. Its terms of reference started with the words:
“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 to consider how such an extension can best be achieved …”
This became known as the Bullock report. Its publication in minority and majority forms followed the alignments of the committee members. But the difficulty really came from within the left itself in Britain which, like the Scottish Presbyterian churches, has the capacity to fractionate into sects relating to each of their understanding of the purity of their ideas related to their view of some ancient catechism.
In 1990 as a member of the European Parliament’s Social Affairs committee I was reporting on behalf of Labour’s members of the European Parliament to the TUC’s General Council on the progress of the Draft Fifth Company Law Directive in Parliament. Chairing the meeting was Ken Gill (need I say anymore). I was accused of revisionism by taking the movement ‘back to Bullock’. This I must remind readers was at the climax of ten years of the Thatcher Prime Ministership. The top of the Labour Party under Kinnock was equally opposed but for reasons of sucking up to the rich and powerful.
Spool forward to 1997 and a meeting held by British Ambassador Stephen Wall for members of the CBI in Brussels to inform them of the policies of the New Labour. His first words after his welcome were “well its business as usual” and then he went on to explain that the new government would continue to block “works councils”.
I have always believed that the road to socialism is not be found by shouting your desired ends but by reassuring citizens that your means of achieving those ends is viable and does no harm to their well being. That is truly a task for The Jimmy Reid Foundation and fulfilling it would explain to some critics the reasons that there has not been a mass shift to the left is part due to our failure to reassure as well as proselytize.