The following interview explores the perspective of four trade-union militants on the development of the British class struggle in the factory and in society as a whole. In nlr 77 Anthony Barnett surveyed and analysed the upsurge of industrial militancy which culminated in the miners’ strike and the mobilization against the imprisonment of the five dockers. After that time there occurred a relative lull on the industrial front with few big clashes between unions and employers or unions and Government. In a context of economic recovery the Heath Government was able to push through its Phase Two policies for wage control without successful opposition. At the same time a million and a half workers participated in the tuc’s ‘day of action’ on 1 May against the Government’s pay laws and there was no major defeat inflicted on the trade unions. This period, in short, conserved both the gains and the limitations registered by Anthony Barnett’s analysis. In the autumn of this year and the spring of next year there is the prospect of new trials of strength but this time in the context of an over-heated boom and an approaching general election. Already during the upsurge of 1971–2 it was evident the struggle at the point of production was not self-sufficient, but needed to be complemented by a properly political strategy. Rampant inflation and a new fluidity within the arena of bourgeois politics now lend even more substance to this conclusion since they clearly raise problems which cannot be resolved purey through trade union struggle. This interview gives some idea of how these problems affect the trade union struggle itself.

The militants interviewed here play a leading role in their union branch, which comprises several thousand workers in a Midlands car factory. The factory has been involved in the application of the more advanced techniques of capitalist rationalization. After a recent bitter struggle the Company eventually succeeded in replacing piece work by Measured Day Work. The latter system seeks to undermine the power of union shop-floor organization by establishing a fixed rate time wage with close management supervision of production standards. An employers’ report described the advantages of the system in these terms: ‘The complete elimination of bargaining about money or payment between the operator and the rate fixer . . . means that higher management is in a much better position to control its labour costs than at present.’ footnote

The factory where the members of this branch work has a strong tradition of trade-union militancy and political groups active in the plant include the Socialist Labour League, the International Marxist Group, and the Communist Party. However only one of those interviewed, Pete, is a member of a left group. Mark is in his fifties and is an officer of the branch; Trevor is in his forties and has been a shop-steward for over ten years; Andrew is in his twenties and has been a shop-steward for two years.