A common reaction of conservatives to the trade union militancy of the 1970s was to complain about ‘greedy unions’: ungrateful workers, causing chaos for a few quid more in their pay-packets. An extended version of this argument pointed to the supposed hypocrisy between the socialist ideals of equality and solidarity and the ‘selfish’ materialism of union members’ demands.
Kenneth Williams once expounded this view on Parkinson and got slapped down for his troubles. (A rare moment of Parky not being a crawling brown noser)
A more sophisticated depiction of this conflict was the character of Roy Bland, ex-socialist turned jaded spy, in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Bland will only co-operate with George Smiley’s attempts to stop the power struggles in ‘The Circus’ (a fictionalised Mi6) if his demand for £5, 000 is met. He has no shame about this blatant horse-trading – this is the way Britain is now he tells Smiley, ‘You scratch my conscience, I’ll drive your Jag’:
Contemporary leftists looking back on 70s militancy tend to focus on its socialist aspects over the material ones - the common belief in the power of collective action, the respect for picket lines, secondary picketing and so on. Owen Hatherley recently quoted a shop steward interviewed in Huw Beynon’s Working for Ford who rejected the company’s efforts to get the workforce into car or home ownership:
“[The workers] get made up, earn a lot more money and then the company starts encouraging them to buy a house, to get a car on the company's scheme. I know this for a fact. Then when they're up to their neck in debt they put the screws on them, and they've got no chance. A shop steward should never be in that position, where he can't afford to go on strike pay. I'd never buy a house when I was a shop steward. I don't think any steward should."
But we can forget that at the heart of most 70s dispute were basic wage demands, either as compensation for Fordist drudgery or to combat the inflation following the 1973 oil crisis. Speaking on the BBC’s 1974 election coverage an NUM official, hotly denying the Miners’ Strike of that year was political, makes the very opposite point to the shop steward at the Ford Plant, “I don’t envy the man who has two Rolls-Royces or two £20, 000 houses, what I want our members to have is the right to buy one of each.”
No political group in Britain at the time really found a way of taking this materialism further in a radical direction. The bureaucratic language of the TUC and corporate-Keynesian (‘Phase Three’ ‘The Social Contract’) couldn’t express the failures of the welfare state to remedy inequalities of wealth and power, as experienced on the shop floor. In Italy however, Potere Operaio (Workers’ Power) with its slogan ‘More money, less work’ placed wage demands at the centre of political strategy. They were the way to overthrow capitalism:
“[R]aising the price of labour-power was a working-class act of force which coincided for a moment with a necessity of capital, and then overthrew it, surpassing and upsetting it ... the imbalance between wages and productivity is a political fact, and must be understood as a political fact and utilised as such”
[Mario Tronti, Operai e capital (1971) quoted in Steve Wright, Storming heaven (2002) p.66]
With Maria Rosa Dalla Costa’s call for ‘Wages for Housework’ they even saw extending monetisation as an anti-capitalist measure. The Autonomia group also addressed the other side of the coin: working class consumption. Leading a series of direct actions against rising prices, they encouraged people to ride the subway for free or to take part in ‘proletarian shopping’ where protestors forced supermarkets to cut prices. [Phil Edwards, More work! Less pay! (2009) p.73]
Back in Britain, Parkinson invited Kenneth Williams back to debate with Jimmy Reid, then riding high after leading the victory at the UCS working.
Reid bested Williams and showed he was more the capable of handling the tension between political ideas and material necessity. Reid stood for Parliament several times but tied to a well-past its peak Communist Party, never made it into full time politics. Watching him ‘going down fighting’ you get a real sense of a lost opportunity for the British Left.