Academic journal article Capital & Class

Union Politics, Purpose and Democracy: To Be or Not to Be? Optimism, Pessimism and the Continuing Importance of Richard Hyman's Early Contributions

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Union Politics, Purpose and Democracy: To Be or Not to Be? Optimism, Pessimism and the Continuing Importance of Richard Hyman's Early Contributions

Article excerpt

Introduction

The early work of Hyman--the Hyman of the 1970s and early 1980s--is not simply a 'purer' or more 'classically radical' oeuvre, which has less to say or has less relevance for the study of internal union politics and class relations compared to the broader, more sociological and nuanced focus of his later work. This article will argue that during the earlier phase we see elements forming the basis of a critical tradition within Marxism that has partly been lost by many current Marxist observers. In fact, what is highly significant about this early period is that it produced a range of concerns, thematic elements and reflections that suggest an alternative and at times relatively open, reflective Marxist and critical tradition. (1) This tradition provides an insight into the politics, power and ironies of industrial relations and the study of unions--serving as a basis for the development of the later debate on solidarity and trade union renewal.

This article argues that Hyman's work consists of significant but different elements and phases. The degree of emphasis on class, conflict and questions of bureaucracy are seen to shift in the later Hyman, which is concerned with broader questions of union identity, politics and action within a comparative perspective and with less of an Anglo-Saxon focus. Yet the origins of this concern with identity, politics and action in part rest in a set of debates around Hyman's interventions in the 1970s, which cannot be reduced to discussion of class reductionism and revolutionary discourse in some stereotypical manner. This was an era in which Marxists meditated on unions in a sophisticated and subtle manner. It might have had limitations--and might have been obsessed with assumptions about the political 'ends' of trade union and worker action through specific ideological views--but the early Hyman and the debates of the 1970s form a heritage which foreshadows many later concerns with the way agendas are framed, constructed and engaged with, as well as how they can be ambivalent and contradictory. In effect, the current interest in difference, ambiguity and power in the representation of work and employment is implicit in the work of Marxists--broadly defined--prior to the renewed (empirical) pluralism and postmodern turns of the 1980s. We can therefore understand the debate of the 1970s from the point of view of the concerns of the current time by revisiting the significance of this work and considering what it contributes, not just as a precursor to the new forms of industrial relations analysis but also as a set of relevant narratives and meditations about the actual constraints and context of organised labour. Unions are discussed in terms of the externality or outcomes of their actions, but not their evolution and complexity in terms of politics, purpose and identity. This sophisticated understanding is imperative, given the way that Marxist debates are reduced increasingly to the micro-level labour process and the outcomes of management action at work, being less concerned with the institutional framework of employment regulation and the question of engagement and alternative narratives (Martinez Lucio, 2010). Another problem is that the debates on trade unions seem currently to be fixated on the strategic 'choices' facing unions without understanding how these have evolved or are contextualised (Martinez Lucio and Stuart, 2009).

This article will therefore start with a discussion of three features of Hyman's early work and a sample of the debates and interventions in relation to it: the concern with trade unions as agents of political change; the role of their internal governance in terms of the construction of priorities and practices; and the role of state and capital in constructing an ideological context and a hegemony of 'common sense' regarding trade union purpose and roles. These features appear in various facets of Hyman's work during the 1970s and in related debates and responses--as with Peter Fairbrother's concern with Hyman's pessimistic view of bureaucracy and its impact on our understanding of unions. …

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