Monday, 27 January 2020

Fragments - Alan Woodward (1999)

Written By: Alan Woodward
Date: January 1999
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 5: Lent 1999  

“The Embryo of Future Socialist Society”

The statement by the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci that workers’ organisation contains the essence of socialism could be the theme of Fragments, a publication by the History Project of Haringey Trades Union Council. An original objective of preparing a history of the labour movement within the borough was found to be almost impossible owing to the reckless destruction of written records. Plan B, an oral history by some participants, was adopted and the tape-recorded contributions make both interesting reading and a valuable, if rare, look at what went on in unionised workplaces. 

The book has 120 pages of text, 8 of photos, a map, index and plenty of other graphic material. It is written in a simple, direct and non-academic style, with a forward by Jeremy Corbin, MP, - “Well done for analysing the past and facing the future”. Ian Birchall has written an introductory chapter explaining the political framework. At £3 it is an excellent source for those interested in the conflict between those interested in the conflict between the workplace membership and the controlling leadership of unions, and the role of socialists in trying to transform the industrial struggle.

Many accounts of trade union history are routine descriptions of Conferences, office holders and bank balances. A few, like the history of the Fire Brigades Union, contain workers’ own contributions, but generally the story of the past is part of the power of the present. The autonomy of the official labour movement as a mediating agency between workers and bosses is dependent on organisational and political control. Those who posses this formal control keep it partly with the aid of the myth of a past of unchallenged reformism.

The contributions in this book look at the nuts and bolts of the shop stewards’ work, the role of joint shop stewards committees and the union structure beyond this, starting with the union branch. Strikes and solidarity action figure predominantly as the most dramatic parts of the story. This is the legacy of the large workplaces of the engineering, furniture and printing industries that once covered this part of London. Other chapters look at health workers, the Underground workers and the tenants’ fight against rent rises.

This is not an analytical book - there is not a coherent attempt to define reformism or assess the nature of Party socialism. Instead there are some jewels of the shop steward’s practical role - John Robson addressing a strike meeting to persuade those assembled to extend their action to cover the Underground train guards, a neglected minority, and Alan Watts writes about his attempt to promote workplace bulletins and political organisation.

Jack Moss describes the London Furniture Workers Shop Stewards Council battling against the official union for recognition; Vic Seadon tells of the Grunwicks strike picket line and his consequent stay as a non-paying guest in HMP; Lesley Fisher, with Terry Burton, denounces the divisive tactics of the Royal College of Nursing. Mac O’Connell and Paul Renny discuss the sharp lessons taught to the printworkers in recent years. In addition, Alan Woodward writes of the political activity of the International Socialists in the union-supported tenants’ movement.

Contributors come from the Labour, Communist and Socialist Workers parties - political differences are recognised but not emphasised. Most active union members have some form of political affiliation, but where variations are played out within a framework of workers’ action in the workplace, this is how it should be. The book reflects this process.

To most workers, “the union” means the shop steward who remains on the job, who can be controlled by a shop meeting and who retains the commitment to workers’ interests rather than national union or other structures. Some celebration of the part played by the shop steward is long overdue. As Gramsci pointed out, on workers’ own organisation rests the future of socialism, and this is an excellent reason for more attention to this most neglected area of study. HTUC published this book as part of its promotion of a union renaissance.

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