By Hugh Kay
IT took a left-wing Tory group to call a halt to some of the hogwash talked last week about the trade union movement. "Stop knocking the unions", said the PEST pamphlet. And it is hard to say which sequel was more nauseous: the Tory brawl at Brighton or the Wilson-Gunter "Communist plot" red herring.
One would have thought that Wilson had had his fingers burned when he tried the same ploy in the seamen's strike. It didn't, and doesn't, wash. Didn't he read the Pearson Report?
Of course, there is now the Cameron Report on the building sites, the attack on Frank Chapple, the razorslashing threat to Les Cannon, the tireless Mr. Dash in London's docks, competing ginger groups on the Mersey, not to mention the goon squad at the Barbican.
Few will doubt that somewhere among this lot the Comms and the Trots are well on the ball, at times in uneasy alliance, at others in rivalry. But extremists can only exploit, never create. true grievances. Nor can the individual Communist's motives always be taken for granted.
The Liverpool crisis, Mr. Cousins, is not a Catholic affair. But Catholics are in it up to the neck. A high proportion of dockers tend to the Right, and this is especially true of the stevedores.
Who would say that the NUR under Sidney Greene is under the thumb of Commu nists? A glance at its journal shows the outright agony of conscience felt by a leadership striving to balance their members' rights with national needs.
As for the unions' loss of control. most of the current disputes (including the rail way guards') are union-led. The building sites affair was not. As I write, Merseyside dockers are out of hand. The chronic communications problem besetting the whole community stalks in trade union corridors as elsewhere. Nevertheless. Britain's strike figures are among the lowest in the world, thanks to the unions. Our record to the unions.
No, what's happening in Britain today is basically a working class recoil from a broken promise — a growing sense that someone is selling the worker down the river. Policy seems to him to be aimed at cushioning the cosy suburban middle class. He expects this from the Tories, not under a Labour Government. And the thought gives rise to a sort of mounting panic. Before developing this theme, may I just say that, if ever there was a case for a blistering pastoral letter, it was last week-end when every inch of the issues bristled with moral dilemmas. I do not ask the Church to dabble in party politics. I do say that "keeping out of politics altogether" is a meaningless phrase inhibiting her from her duty to proclaim and defend the needs of justice and truth.
And it's fatuous to confine a bishop to vague generalities. Aided by laymen who know what they're doing, his honest attempt to grasp the concrete details and make constructive proposals would win universal respect. What if he does get it wrong? At least he has shown that he cares. Cardinal Manning, who helped secure the Dockers' tanner. would have taken the point.
Thousands of Catholic workers, striving for Chris tian light in the midst of in dustry's problems, feel abandoned. So many of the big debates in the Church are over their heads. All the semantics and abstractions appear to them as a scream ing irrelevance. It is in this context that we ought to prophesy, and, as a matter of fact, the unions, as I shall later show, so often have to do it for us.
But first. how does the average worker feel about these disputes? Why does the national Press refuse to see things from his point of view? To hell with the national interest. He's a man with a family to keep. With out him there isn't a nation at all. He's accused of hurting the public. Dear God, he is the public.
On Merseyside. the docker found that, despite the new deal, his earnings for 48 hours of work were £3 less than those of his London counterpart for a 40-hour week. His fall-back pay was £1 less — not that employers refused it to him. The Government did.
The London docker, stripped of the continuity rule, found himself transferred from ship to ship and dock to dock at substantial personal loss. Decasualisa tion is half a century late. It will pay off in the end. But what does the docker do today when his pay packet thins and prices rise — and no one can tell him why (or seems to care)?
The railway worker, like the miner, has agreed to a 50% reduction in his industry's labour force for the sake of the economy and the needs of technical change. But what thanks does he get? Of a group of 128,000 last year (what the railways call conciliation staff) some 43% were able to improve their earnings through an incentive scheme. The rest were not. Is it surprising that men doing jobs that do not easily lend themselves to bonus arrangements feel aggrieved and neglected?
Railway workers, living in fear of redundancy, with no clear prospect of alternative jobs, feel that the nation sees them as ciphers, not people. They see their jobs slowly eroding and hang on tooth and nail to every claim, though some of them, like the guards' dispute, are hard for the public to understand. Yet even here it is only fair to ask why. thanks to a management error giving too much to the drivers, guards should rest content with the bottom end of excess differentials.
Examples are endless.
Behind the subversive tactics on the Myton site at the Barbican lay the human problems of working men .deprived of expected bonus payments by basic mistakes in the project's design, with all the resulting delays and the need to keep on doing work over again.
Report after report Devlin (docks), Geddes (shipyards), Pearson (seamen). the Cambridge trio (motor cars) reveals one glaring truth: that labour unrest is basically rooted, not in subversion or technical change, but in problems of personal status and security.
But this is not all. The workers were promised, in return for accepting incomes control, a corresponding control of prices, a "shakeout" and redeployment, a new deal in ultimate expansion. Redundant workers were to be retrained, helped over the gap between one job and the next, led to more dignified forms of work.
Thousands of workers all over the country are, on this basis, daily bearing the brunt of labour mobility with all its social effects: the tearing up of the family's roots, interim financial hardships, the need for re-training in middle life.
And what happens? If being out of work for a time is the worker's service to the nation, he is entitled to be paid for it. Yet his social benefit payments are not far short of derisory — when compared with European standards.
In practice this country aims to retrain 17,000 men in Government centres next year. By Swedish standards it ought to be 12 times as many. Retrained men, moreover, do not always find jobs demanding their new-found skills, like the unhappy welders of a few weeks back. Unions are blamed for not always recognising retrained men as craftsmen, but this is often because the training itself is sound in the theory. deficient in the practical.
SET has not produced the shake-out. Regional Employment premiums are of little use when local planning bodies concentrate on particular local interests instead of the long-term infra-structures needed to attract new industry. The tragedy is that. if the nation is to compete with the outside world with new and expanding industries, its hidden problem is a catastrophic dearth of up-todate craftsmen.
Meanwhile prices are rising, unemployment reaches more than half a million. and the suspicion, rightly or wrongly, is that a pool of unemployed is seen as a necessary ballast; and if the only means of halting the jobless trend is to keep men employed in uneconomic jobs. everyone feels a sense of impending disaster.
All of which leads to the great debate about whether we ought to expand or suffer nobly; whether Clive Jenkins is right in saying we ought to challenge the bankers and break right out of a misplaced slavery to the classi cal concept of constantly balanced payments, whatever the Europeans say. Investment stimuli and financial incentives are the Tory critic's cry.
This is not the place for that debate, and who really believes in the Tories? But one thing is sure. If the need for centralised planning in a complex age is not to dehumanise the working class, they must be helped to feel they're being treated as people.
Of course the unions have their faults. Their structures are out of date. The busmen and printers and railwaymen have run into trouble partly because the working out of productivity pacts calls for trained staffs the unions have not got.
The building unions certainly failed to control their stewards. Transport and General Workers' officials, brilliant in negotiations, fail dismally in explaining things to the rank-and-file. (One steward recently tried nine times on the phone and once in a visit to get some sense out of Transport House and failed.) So when the London boys, after months of apparent neglect, come up to Merseyside to read the riot act, they're lucky not to end up in the Mersey.
In such situations, local unofficial groups can go to town, and the confusion in Liverpool was appalling. The strike started with Com munist pressure, aimed at a few days strike. It got out of hand and the Trots moved in, allying themselves with genuine men and the men of the N.A.S.D. ("Blue Union") whose dislike of the TGWU overrides everything else, and whose own links with their London H.Q. are barely discernible Yet there's another side to the picture, and here's what I mean by prophecy: grow ing cooperation between the Government, TUC and CBI; union initiatives leading to productivity bargains, to prototype pacts like the ship yards' anti-strike charter (brainchild of the boilermakers' leader, Danny McGarvey).
Look at the Fairfields settlement. the ETU's joint council with the employers to foster higher standards among contracting electricians, the TUC's voluntary wage-vetting scheme.
This reconciliation of private and public endeavour, of central planning and workers' participation, could yet be the hope of the future. So criticise the unions if you will, but be fair, and be as quick to encourage.