Strikes and Class Consciousness in the Early Work of Richard Hyman

By McIlroy, John | Capital & Class, February 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Strikes and Class Consciousness in the Early Work of Richard Hyman


McIlroy, John, Capital & Class


Introduction

I first met Richard Hyman in the spring of 1970 when, together with Hugh Clegg, he interviewed me for a place on the M.A. in industrial relations at the University of Warwick. The militancy of the period was moving towards its zenith. 'In Place of Strife' had been interred, strikes were an everyday occurrence, Harold Wilson's incomes policy was on the rocks, and the Heath government was on the horizon. Still in his late twenties, Richard was already an important member of the industrial relations community at Warwick. Under the leadership of Clegg, it was evolving an effective balance between teaching and research, informality and rigorous standards.

Remarkable as it seems today, Richard was at the time as yet largely unpublished, although his history of the Workers Union was in the press and over the following academic year, the ideas that would inform his publications of the 1970s were expounded and discussed in his lively classes.1 Never a disciple of oratorical technique, he was a strong character and his enthusiasm combined with patience and an insistence on dialogue to make him a good teacher. He gnawed away at problems, exposing their complexities. He provided students, some of whom were perhaps impatient with his nuanced exposition and open-ended conclusions, with a demonstration of the way an engaged scholarly mind worked. Like his writing, his teaching affirmed that commitment implied questioning and rethinking, if it was not to descend into dogma. He expressed that commitment in his dedication to developing industrial relations as a field of study, and in his membership of the International Socialists (IS).

As he saw it, academic industrial relations debilitatingly assumed the economic, social and political context as a given. It had discarded the preoccupation of its pioneers with working-class welfare and radical social change. The status quo required only refinement. Framed by public policy, its central concern was restoration of 'order' in the enterprise through a refurbished collective bargaining that left exploitation untouched. Its mission lay in civilising the employment relationship and institutionalising conflict in a fashion that legitimated subordination. Academics became advisers to the state and apologists for management. In a situation 'where the attempt of men consciously to control their destinies clashes with social arrangements rooted in ignorance or manipulation' (Hyman, 1972a: 10), he did not profess neutrality, suggesting instead that mainstream industrial relations was on the wrong side.

He did not, however, give it up as a bad job. An accomplished sociologist and historian, he did not identify himself with these disciplines, although he was emphatic that engagement with them enriched industrial relations. Instead he sought to reforge its axis as 'the study of processes of control over work relations', rather than the orthodox 'study of the institutions of job regulation' (Hyman, 1975: 9-31). In the 1970s, 'industrial relations seemed caught in the time-warp of the transatlantic conservatism of the 1950s' (Hyman, 1989a: ix). Almost single-handedly - Vic Allen was a dissident voice and the cause was enhanced by the defection from orthodoxy of Alan Fox - he attempted to reorientate and radicalise the field, and to build on and transcend the concern the Webbs and GDH Cole had demonstrated with the ambitions, activity and emancipation of workers. Often objectified, these remained the true subjects of industrial relations.

This was related to his political alignment. The tumults of the time - France, Vietnam, Ireland, the student revolt, the emergence of the women's movement, militancy on a scale unprecedented for fifty years - failed to shake the industrial relations establishment. Yet 'for any student of the subject who was involved in the contemporary politics of the left, there was an obvious need to develop an approach to industrial relations which could make sense of the assertiveness and combativity displayed by workers . …

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