Socialist Worker

Never go to meet the bosses on your own

Colin Barker asks how we can make leadership accountable

Issue No. 1862

THERE'S AN old song, to the tune of the Red Flag: 'The working class can kiss my ass/I've got the foreman's job at last...' Cynical it may be, but it expresses a truth. Time and again, workers' representatives get sucked into the bosses' system.

Where I used to work, the personnel director was the former union chair. Through the union he got 'noticed' by management and promoted. Last time we went on strike he came round to say our picket line was 'trespassing'. Workers naturally get suspicious of union reps who spend a lot of time with management.

A firefighter commented that, once Andy Gilchrist went on his own to see John Prescott in Downing Street, he was bound to sell his members short. Managements generally prefer small, private meetings. Mass democracy is not their ideal, after all. This creates problems for militant shop stewards.

Mather and Platts engineering factory was anything but a hotbed of radicalism in the 1960s. Every fortnight after work, as was usual in those days, seven shop stewards met with seven managers in a 'works committee'. The stewards got two hours overtime pay for attending the meeting.

Workers used to make remarks about shop stewards 'enjoying the management's fat cigars'. It was half-true - every meeting, the personnel manager would pass round a big box of Benson & Hedges fags (in those days, nearly everyone smoked).

A new convenor got sick of the cynical remarks. He hunted round the shops till he found a box of 100 tipped Woodbines - the worst and cheapest fags he could get. He took them to the next works committee, and insisted that management smoke them: 'It's all we can afford on the lousy wages you pay us.' It didn't achieve much, but it made the shop floor laugh!

Socialist militants know there's one golden rule - never talk to management by yourself. Always go with others. Even that doesn't stop union reps being influenced. On one famous occasion in the 1960s, the National Union of Railwaymen were threatening a strike. Harold Wilson, then prime minister, invited the entire executive into 10 Downing Street for talks - with sandwiches and beers.

They cancelled the strike when he played his final card. As one of the union executive reported, 'We couldn't go against him when we'd met his wife!' Mind, even then lessons got learned. The next group of trade unionists called to Downing Street began negotiations by saying, 'Keep your wife out.'

Polish workers offer the most brilliant lesson in how to negotiate and not fall out of touch with your members. In August 1980 they occupied hundreds of workplaces in a huge general strike movement.

They forced the government to come and negotiate in the occupied Lenin shipyard at Gdansk.

The negotiations were held in a smallish room, off a big hall. In the hall were delegates from all the occupied workplaces in the region. They could see through the windows, and - just as important - could be seen, and heard, from the negotiating room.

The negotiations were conducted in front of microphones and broadcast to the main hall - and out into the shipyard on a tannoy system, and to a huge crowd waiting at the shipyard gates. The government representatives hated it. One of them told blatant lies. He claimed party members had no privileges, and was met with choruses of laughter.

Then he declared that phone communications with Gdansk had been cut off because of a hurricane in Warsaw that demolished the telephone exchange. Hundreds of workers in the main hall could be heard shouting, 'Liar!'

When the strikers' spokespeople told the government about the real conditions of workers' lives, waves of applause could be heard. Every phase of the talks was followed carefully by the audience.

After days of talks, the government had to sign an agreement, in public, with the workers' leaders, and show the ceremony on TV. The inter-factory strike chairman, Lech Walesa, was carried shoulder-high through the shipyard to the waiting crowd at the gate. Walesa asked the key question, 'Did we do OK?'

It was workers' democracy at its finest - open, accountable, and immensely effective. We can't always reach those heights - to match the Polish workers at that moment takes several million workers occupying their workplaces together.

But, at a lower level, socialists should always fight for the principle of accountability, open negotiations with bosses, and reference back to the rank and file.


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What Socialists Say
Sat 26 Jul 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1862
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