Wednesday, 2 January 2008

'A Graphic Description of Trade Union Life'

I came across this passage while reading Glorious Summer: Class Struggle in Britain in 1972, by Ralph Darlington and Dave Lyddon. This was originally quoted by Sidney and Beatrice Webb in their The History of Trade Unionism as "a graphic description of trade union life". Comrades Darlington and Lyddon preface it, noting how "it can hardly be bettered" as a portrait of trade union full-timers:
To the ordinary Trade Unionist the claim of the workman is that of justice. He believes, almost as a matter of principle, that in any dispute the capitalist is in the wrong and the workman is in the right. But when, as a District Delegate [full-time officer], it becomes his business to be perpetually investigating the exact circumstances of the men's quarrels, negotiating with employers and arranging compromises, he begins more and more to recognise that there is something to be urged on the other side.
There is also an unconscious bias at work. Whilst the points at issue no longer affect his own earnings or conditions of employment, any disputes between his members and their employers increase his work and add to his worry. The former vivid sense of the privations and subjection of the artisan's life gradually fades from his mind; and he begins more and more to regard all complaints as perverse and unreasonable. (Darlington and Lyddon 2001, cit. p.26)
This was originally published in 1894. It's as though it could have been written yesterday.


Anonymous said...

Zygmunt Bauman in Between Class and Elite: The Evolution of the British Labour Movement – A Sociological Study (1972) delineates the trade unions investigated by the Webbs as merely representing sectorial interests and juxtaposes these with the class-based trade unions schematized by Brentano ‘On the History and Development of Gilds’ in T Smith (Ed) English Gilds (1870). Gramsci in Selections From Political Writings 1921 – 1926 (1978) asserts that the trade union movement is nothing but a political movement and its leaders nothing but political leaders…

It’s contemporary trade unions narrow scope that has been concomitant to them withering on the vine. Why not broaden their scope? Why not attempt to engage with people? Why are they merely reactive? I know it’s a Trotsky argument but it is still as relevant today as ever: they have a tendency towards bureaucracy. What is the likelihood of a trade union movement that aims for human emancipation within the British Isles as the class-based trade unions / gilds had done previously?

Phil said...

I've long thought the key for getting British trade unions to be more relevant is to involve themselves in campaigning activities that complements workplace representation. The social movement trade unionism pushed by this blog is the ticket.