Union politics, purpose and democracy: to be or not to be? Optimism, pessimism and the continuing importance of Richard Hyman's early contributions.

Author:Lucio, Miguel Martinez


The early work of Hyman--the Hyman of the 1970s and early 1980s--is not simply a 'purer' or more 'classically radical' oeuvre, which has less to say or has less relevance for the study of internal union politics and class relations compared to the broader, more sociological and nuanced focus of his later work. This article will argue that during the earlier phase we see elements forming the basis of a critical tradition within Marxism that has partly been lost by many current Marxist observers. In fact, what is highly significant about this early period is that it produced a range of concerns, thematic elements and reflections that suggest an alternative and at times relatively open, reflective Marxist and critical tradition. (1) This tradition provides an insight into the politics, power and ironies of industrial relations and the study of unions--serving as a basis for the development of the later debate on solidarity and trade union renewal.

This article argues that Hyman's work consists of significant but different elements and phases. The degree of emphasis on class, conflict and questions of bureaucracy are seen to shift in the later Hyman, which is concerned with broader questions of union identity, politics and action within a comparative perspective and with less of an Anglo-Saxon focus. Yet the origins of this concern with identity, politics and action in part rest in a set of debates around Hyman's interventions in the 1970s, which cannot be reduced to discussion of class reductionism and revolutionary discourse in some stereotypical manner. This was an era in which Marxists meditated on unions in a sophisticated and subtle manner. It might have had limitations--and might have been obsessed with assumptions about the political 'ends' of trade union and worker action through specific ideological views--but the early Hyman and the debates of the 1970s form a heritage which foreshadows many later concerns with the way agendas are framed, constructed and engaged with, as well as how they can be ambivalent and contradictory. In effect, the current interest in difference, ambiguity and power in the representation of work and employment is implicit in the work of Marxists--broadly defined--prior to the renewed (empirical) pluralism and postmodern turns of the 1980s. We can therefore understand the debate of the 1970s from the point of view of the concerns of the current time by revisiting the significance of this work and considering what it contributes, not just as a precursor to the new forms of industrial relations analysis but also as a set of relevant narratives and meditations about the actual constraints and context of organised labour. Unions are discussed in terms of the externality or outcomes of their actions, but not their evolution and complexity in terms of politics, purpose and identity. This sophisticated understanding is imperative, given the way that Marxist debates are reduced increasingly to the micro-level labour process and the outcomes of management action at work, being less concerned with the institutional framework of employment regulation and the question of engagement and alternative narratives (Martinez Lucio, 2010). Another problem is that the debates on trade unions seem currently to be fixated on the strategic 'choices' facing unions without understanding how these have evolved or are contextualised (Martinez Lucio and Stuart, 2009).

This article will therefore start with a discussion of three features of Hyman's early work and a sample of the debates and interventions in relation to it: the concern with trade unions as agents of political change; the role of their internal governance in terms of the construction of priorities and practices; and the role of state and capital in constructing an ideological context and a hegemony of 'common sense' regarding trade union purpose and roles. These features appear in various facets of Hyman's work during the 1970s and in related debates and responses--as with Peter Fairbrother's concern with Hyman's pessimistic view of bureaucracy and its impact on our understanding of unions. The first--and main--section of the article will therefore draw out the importance of the contribution made by Hyman and colleagues in establishing a subtle and dialectical view of trade unions across the three dimensions of politics, democracy and regulation. The second section will look at the limitations of some of the early work. We are aware of the development of Hyman's work later in his career (something we shall not engage with systematically, given its objectives). However, the paper will attempt to argue that one needs to see these limitations as part of a broader problem in Anglo-Saxon industrial relations, and the way that concern with 'vertical' relations within unions can play down attention from broader, 'horizontal' relations. In addition, the way that the political (the 'outside' of industrial relations) becomes a defining part of how trade union purpose and action is constructed and, indeed, constrained, is examined. We attempt to consolidate the main elements of early Hyman by arguing that much of this early work remains highly relevant to today's debates on trade unions, even if it did not go as far as it might have done in engaging with the political.

The later Hyman presents us with a rich portrayal of questions of solidarity and its meaning, the re-imagining of union roles, and the complex identity of unions; but the early work acts as a vital precursor and offers a rich set of concepts explaining the dilemma of labour representation, its inherent instability, and the importance of the role of the political in shaping it, even if the concept of the political is underdeveloped. Hence the paper draws on a series of texts in a discursive and reflective manner, pointing to the irony that '1970s Marxism' has more to tell us than many currently think. It is not just about creating institutional maps, organisational typologies and triangular graphics, but of opening a door on how we need to understand some of the core concerns and interventions of Marxism, which both reductionist and foundationalist Marxists and anti-Marxists have a tendency to trivialise as being concerned merely with 'class'.

The aim of the article is not to trawl through Richard Hyman's early work in the form of a historical literature review and essay. It is not some attempt to map the logic, continuity and breaks--and hence 'purity'--in his narrative as a Marxist and scholar, nor is it concerned merely with the coherence or ultimate meaning of his early work. The aim is to reflect on the earlier part of the debate concerning unions, class and strategy within a capitalist context seen from the perspective and concerns of the current intellectual and political climate. The recent work by Hyman on class identity, union strategy and the meaning of solidarity, in part resolves many of the tensions of that early period and moves the discussion to a more sensitive, multi-causal and sociological analysis, but it makes greater sense by engaging with earlier interventions on the purpose and politics of trade unions.

Are trade unions agents for change or not?

The political purpose of unions

A historical concern among the left in relation to trade unions is the extent of their role in social and political change. As the main form of worker representation in a capitalist society, the role and impact of trade unions has engaged political activists and academics for some time. From a contemporary 21st-century perspective this may sound unrealistic, given the concern with the decline and change to which the unions themselves have been subjected. However, as formal and informal organisations of worker activity in terms of employment relations, their role is a subject of great interest. Richard Hyman's 1971 publication Marxism and the Sociology of Trade Unionism was set in a context in which trade union power and its role in industrial conflict was a source of concern for both state and political elites within the capitalist system, as well as a source of positive inspiration among large parts of the left, and part of an ongoing and rich debate especially within Fourth Internationalists in Britain (Cliff, 1970; James 1960). Hyman brought together, and moved to a more academic and critical dimension, many of the contributions of the left in Britain since the 1950s. As a member of the International Socialists, he was pivotal in opening up discussions about the role of workplace representation and its potential, yet ambivalent, relation to politics and progressive agendas (with the latter becoming more important as a focus of discussion towards the end of the 1970s and into the early 1980s). On the left, the emergence of a more dynamic system of workplace representation in the 1960s and 1970s within various key trade unions led to the prospect that trade unions were well placed to make real gains and changes within the industrial order. Broader debates about workers' control in industry were apparent within industrial relations at that time, in both academic and practitioner spheres. There was an increasing awareness of worker-led organisations from the early 1960s, in organisations such as the Institute of Worker Control, among others, both in the form of workers' and activists' influence on formal industrial relations mechanisms and as an emerging interest in direct forms of worker control in the capitalist labour process and organisation (see Barratt Brown et al., 1975). This debate around worker control concerned the indirect effects of workplace representation and agitation on the scope and nature of management control, but it also concerned the direct effects in terms of the content of production, as in specific cases where workers took a step into the purpose and content of production. This is another legacy that has not been well served by contemporary...

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