Academic journal article Capital & Class

A Reappraisal of the Rank-and-File versus Bureaucracy Debate

Academic journal article Capital & Class

A Reappraisal of the Rank-and-File versus Bureaucracy Debate

Article excerpt

Introduction

Against the backdrop of an upsurge in industrial militancy in Western economies in the late-1960s and early 1970s, Richard Hyman crafted an unsurpassed Marxist analysis of the political economy of industrial relations. He drew attention to the way in which a hierarchy of specialist union representatives (notably full-time officials) had acquired interests and perspectives that tended to channel union policies towards accommodation with employers and governments. Officials acted cautiously, with concern for continuity and stability rather than taking risks as leaders of mass activity and struggle (Hyman, 1975a: 74). In common with other Marxist-informed writers on trade unionism (Cliff and Barker, 1966; Anderson, 1967; Lane, 1974; Clarke, 1977; Beynon, 1973), Hyman viewed strong independent workplace union organisation as providing an important counteracting tendency against bureaucratisation and accommodation of the official union leadership (1971; 1972; 1973; 1974; 1975a). In Britain at least, the growth of shop stewards' organisation had 'proved highly responsive to the spontaneous demands of the rank-and-file, articulating members' aspirations and grievances, where necessary, independently and even in defiance of official trade union channels' (Hyman, 1989a: 41).

By the late-1970s, Hyman had distanced himself from what he now perceived to be the 'unsophisticated' view of classical Marxists and their contemporary Trotskyist adherents, the latter amongst whom he had 'cut his own teeth' politically in the 1960s and early 1970s. (1) Hyman rejected the dichotomy between a 'trade union bureaucracy' and the 'rank-and-file'. He regarded the term 'trade union bureaucracy' as an unsatisfactory description (or derogatory slogan) often employed by those whom he dismissively claimed held an 'idealised and romanticised conception' of workplace struggle and shop steward militancy. This position represented union officials as scapegoats for contradictions that in reality were inherent in trade unionism itself. Likewise, although he had often used the term himself, he argued that 'rank-and-file' lacked theoretical foundation and represented no more than a 'military metaphor' (1979b: 54-55; see also 1985; 1989b). Hyman identified a tendency towards what he termed the 'bureaucratisation of the rank-and-file' within British shop stewards' organisation (1979b), with the growing influence of a 'semi-bureaucracy' of 'lay' representatives such as full-time workplace convenors and senior stewards, as well as influential activists at branch and district levels. Such a development had arisen in part, he argued, from the implementation of the Donovan Commission's recommendations in the late-1960s onwards. The largely autonomous shop stewards' organisation had become far more closely integrated within the official structures of trade unionism and collective bargaining. This change had produced an expanded layer of full-time stewards, with more hierarchy and centralised control within stewards' own organisation. This process had led to a distancing of senior stewards from their members, with shop steward leaders often acting in ways that contained as well as encouraged members' militancy (1979b: 57-60).

While commentators drew attention to similar trends (Lyddon, 1977; Cliff, 1979), for Hyman the 'bureaucratisation of the rank-and-file' thesis undermined his earlier conceptualisation of a conflict of interests between the 'union bureaucracy' and 'rank-and-file'. The 'problem of bureaucracy' was not rooted in the interests of a layer of full-time union officials (FTOs), but as a set of social relationships which 'permeates the whole practice of trade unionism' at every level of the representative structure (1979b: 61), with militant lay stewards and activists facing similar pressures towards bureaucratisation. Hyman concluded that intra-union relations could not be reduced to a rank-and-file/ bureaucracy cleavage, but were complex and contradictory. …

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