The behaviour of the National Incomes Commission is beginning to reveal a somewhat subtle intelligence, which needs marking by the Labour Movement. This distinctly backhanded compliment is not intended as a form of thanks for the very substantial increase in university salaries of whichnic has rather unexpectedly proved the architect: but as a warning of things to come which must be heeded by the unions if they are not to suffer substantial reverses. For the careful manoeuvres of nic, in a situation in which it has no legitimate powers over unions, are already proving to be a calculated nuisance to them: how much more effectively malignant will be the incomes policies which are about to be wished on the unions by all sorts of individuals and forces who should know better?

nic’s first public foray into its appointed field was the report on the Scottish Plumbers’ and Builders’ agreements of 1962. The thin edge of its now most obvious wedge was then exposed, in the form of its fierce strictures on the 40-hour week. ‘Reduction in hours must be judged for what it in fact is’ intimated this document—‘namely a means of increasing wages’. Yet the deterrent effect of this discovery on other groups of employers was to prove marginal. It is in the period since last November, in which it has been devoting, or threatening to devote, its attention to the Shipbuilding and Engineering settlement of that month, that nic has given evidences of its developing tactical awareness. Ostensibly, the Commission has the right to ponder on agreed settlements which the Chancellor refers to it. In fact, with the reference of this particular major settlement to it, the Commission has found a tongue with which to speak on a whole range of general issues, over which it has brooded with lingering detachment until at convenient intervals a statement has seemed useful to it.

At the beginning of February, the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions was due to meet the Engineering Employers’ Federation on a claim for a 40-hour week for three million workers. Five days before the meeting, there appeared in print a 35,000 word memorandum from the Treasury to nic, published as part of the written evidence which was to be considered by the Commission from the end of the month on. Although the Commission was charged to consider the effects of the November settlement, the Treasury statement uninhibitedly expatiated in full on the inflationary effects of a phased introduction of a 40-hour week in engineering. It also discussed in detailed terms the incidence of wage-drift, or the gap between actual earnings and agreed rates of pay, in the industry. As the Financial Times pointed out in its lead story of the day: ‘the Government has issued what amounts to a warning to the employers not to give way.’ The meeting took place, and after it, in due time, the labours of the Commission commenced.

By the June meeting between the unions and the employers, the issue had been telescoped by the employers into a proffered package deal, covering hours, wages and holidays, set against relaxations in demarcation boundaries, and cast in the form of a long-term bargain, to run for a proposed three-year term. But once again, one week before the date of the meeting, the nic made a new surge into the headlines. Although its report was not scheduled to appear until the autumn, the Commission was not to be silenced. It had judicially prepared an ‘Interim Report’, highlighting once more the very points which had been set out in the Treasury memo, and beating with loud fervour on the by now monotonous gong of wage-drift. In the words of Prospero, writing in the July issue of the Director, ‘the report is devoid of even the slightest hint of the Commission’s view of the November wage agreement.’

But it was clearly by no means devoid of quite firm opinions about the prospect implied in impending agreements.

The reaction of the unions to this intervention was also quite firm. Mr Barratt, the general secretary of the cseu, politely explained that since the Confederation had not accepted the Commission’s invitation to give evidence, it did not feel any particular responsibility for its findings. ‘We are fully aware of the wage drift, as we are of the drifts in prices and profits, but the nic has little to say on the latter,’ he said. Frank Cousins characterized the interim report as ‘a dangerous pieces of amateur interference’, and added, apropos the drift, that ‘if there is one certain way of disrupting Britain’s export and productivity drive, it is to interfere with local bargaining and payment by results.’ Both George Barratt and Frank Cousins made the obvious point that firms which pay increments in one form or another over the agreed rates tend to be more profitable and more highly productive than the average. We can anticipate that this argument, too, will come under fire when the Commission launches its next interim statement, in time for the next round of negotiations. What it will say will probably echo the comments of the Director’s contributor, who argues that high wages are just as likely to be the result of featherbedding and complacency as of intrinsic productivity. ‘The fact is’, he writes, ‘that the local agreements which Mr Cousins and others are so eager to champion have a lot more to do with bargaining strength than with efficiency or productivity.’

Of course, though they are fencing in the foggy mazes of argument about productivity and growth, the Director and the union leaders are really at odds about different questions altogether. The one is concerned about growth (of profits) without inflation (ingeniously attributed to wage-pressure). The others are concerned that ‘while there is a free for all we are going to be part of the all’. From this last most sound point of view it is encouraging to see Frank Cousins explictly defending the powers of local organizations and shop stewards to probe forward.