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NUPE, Leadership and Democracy

This official history of NUPE from 1928 to 1993 (when it merged with COHSE and NALGO to form UNISON) deserves to be a standard reference book for those interested in the evolution of modern unions, particularly in the public services. It is comprehensively researched, although mainly from the written records, rather than tapping into the rich vein of oral history; and for those of us who were members of NUPE (as I proudly was between 1979 and 1981) it does capture the ethos of the union.

It would be fair to say that the early years of the union were sometimes controversial, as NUPE took an often belligerent stance towards other unions; and the General Secretaries of the earlier years, Jack Wills and Bryn Roberts, were blessed with a monomaniacal devotion to the principle of unions organised by industrial sector, and a passionate aversion to general unions like TGWU and NUGMW. The era of Jack Wills saw the union run will almost no concessions to the concept of democracy, but the simple force of will of the General Secretary saw the union grow through grim,  unglamourous hard work with some of the lowest paid and most downtrodden manual workers, often working for public authorities in Tory run rural areas, and NUPE made a big effort to recruit road workers; countering employer prejudice that these men were inferior and undeserving.

Bryn Roberts was also a General Secretary of extraordinary personal talent, but almost unblemished by the attributes of tact and diplomacy. As a union open to all grades, NUPE came into frequent conflict with craft unions, and had a stated policy of wanting to be the only union, for example, in London County Council’s housing maintenance division. Roberts published an inflamatory book in 1961 “The Price of TUC leadership” which castigated the other unions in the most forthright terms, and effectively denounced the general unions for being an obstacle to advance towards socialism. Williams and Fryer make the point that Roberts was so focused on the issues of union structure, that he overlooked the significance of the TGWU moving to the left when Frank Cousins became General Secretary in 1956. As a result, Roberts was never elected to the General Council of the TUC, and up until the early 1970s NUPE was seen as a slightly eccentric and wayward organisation.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, NUPE was extremely popular with its members; who were often the lowest paid and lowest status workers, and who enjoyed the attention that Bryn Roberts’s intransigence brought them. NUPE always embodied a crusading spirit of genuine indignation about the scandal of low pay, and the social stigma associated with the dirty but necessary public service jobs that its members worked in.

One area where I did find this book slightly disappointing was in not expanding on the substance of these debates. As an official history of NUPE it focuses only on NUPE’s point of view, without explaining the counter-arguments from the general unions. A good case in point is that while the inspiring story of the victorious 1970 council workers dispute – which really established NUPE’s national reputation – is well told; the union subsequently had to increase weekly subscriptions by 50% due to the cost of the strike; but TGWU and GMWU who were also involved in the strike were able to avoid this by spreading the cost over their broader membership in other industrial sectors.

The sections relating to the years of the Social Contract are fascinating, telling the story from NUPE’s point of view. The Social Contract, based upon the Labour Party’s 1973 Programme was the high point of labourism, with the unions pledging wage restraint in exchange for government action to boost the social wage, tackle inequality, improve industrial democracy and increase state ownership and planning in favour of economic growth.

However, the Party was not fully committed to the programme, and the Croslandite revisionists like Douglas Jay were already flirting with the idea that inflation could only be controlled by a rise in unemployment, and cuts in government spending. In the face of this strong internal opposition, the government could only be encouraged to stick to the programme if the left and the unions had persuasively stood together, and maintained pressure in support of the programme. But this unity, while superficially present, was not based upon a shared understanding or commitment.

What this book throws an interesting spotlight on is the division between the unions; where NUPE’s dedicated focus only on public service workers led to it making sectional arguments against the cuts, causing some anger among the leaders of other unions who emphasised the need for productive investment in manufacturing to boost growth and jobs. NUPE at the time adopted an under-consumptionist approach to economics, and argued that maintaining the spending power of low paid workers would sustain demand.

This was a substantial difference from the economic policies of unions like AEU and TGWU, who argued the priority for investment in manufacturing. While the political arguments against wage restraint were often carried by unions with some muscle in engineering like TASS; NUPE was instrumental in creating an alliance of public service unions that campaigned against both cutbacks and low pay.

This book is extremely useful in explaining the Winter of Discontent, from NUPE’s point of view; and also for recounting the history of how militancy grew in the NHS in particular as an assertion by low status workers of their demand for dignity and respect.

Leadership and Democracy
A History of the National Union of Public Employees

Vol 2 1928-1993
Stephen Williams and R.H.Fryer

Paperback, 600pp, All rights L&W December 2011
ISBN: 9781907103377

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