Politics, industrial policy and democracy : the Electricians' Union, 1945-1988
The post-war history of the Electricians' union has been a very stormy one indeed. During the 1950s, when the union was controlled by the Communist Party, there began a stream of allegations from within the union and from the press that the leaders of the ETU were engaged in electoral malpractice. Eventually, in 1961, the High Court did find that some ETU leaders, who were also members of the Communist Party, had used `fraudulent and unlawful devices' to secure the re-election of the Communist General Secretary of the union in 1959. Following the trial the ETU was expelled both from the TUC and the Labour Party, but they were re-admitted in 1962 after a new right-wing leadership was elected to office. Since 1962 the right-wing has enjoyed an uninterrupted control of the Electricians' union. Its opponents claim that this control has been maintained because, under the name of reforms, a huge reshaping of the union's internal democracy has occurred which has been effective in undermining any oppositional challenge and has placed more and more power in the hands of the Executive Council. The thesis is an examination of these two periods of the union's history, and the different strategies pursued by the Communist and right-wing leaderships. It details the rise of the Communist Party in the ETU, and considers the allegations of ballot-rigging that led to the 1961 trial. It examines the remodelling of the union in the 1960s, charts the rise of the organized opposition to the leadership in the 1970s, and considers the controversial `strike-free' agreements that the union has negotiated in recent years. However, the thesis attempts to do more than just chronicle particular episodes in the post-war history of the Electricians' union: it also attempts to understand this history by the use of two broad theoretical approaches. Firstly, the union's internal history is considered in the light of the wider political and industrial factors that have shaped and re-shaped that history. In other words, the union's democracy cannot be understood by solely examining its internal workings, `external' factors also have to be considered. From this perspective it is argued that the ballot-rigging and bureaucratic manipulation that took place under the Communist leadership cannot be understood simply in terms of a faulty electoral process open to abuse by unscrupulous men. Rather, those factors that allowed the CP to legitimately take charge of the union in the first place, and those which compelled some members of the ETU to eventually abuse the unions' electoral process, were intimately linked to the post-war industrial climate and in particular the political and industrial strategies of the Communist Party. Similarly, the remodelling of the union's democracry in the 1960s, and the history of the union up to the present day, has to be understood not just in terms of an authoritarian leadership, but by reference to the particular circumstances that allowed the right-wing to take control of the union, and the political and industrial policies that underlay the reshaping of democracy in the union. Secondly, throughout the thesis there is an engagement with Robert Michels' `iron law of oligarchy'. Michels' theory was expostulated in his Political Parties (1911) and can be summed up in his famous dictum `who says organization, says oligarchy', and in his assertion that in the trade union movement the `authoritative character of the leaders and their tendency to rule bureaucratic organizations on oligarchic lines, are even more pronounced than in political parties'. This theory is critically considered in the context of the actual workings of the post-war Electrician's union. Overall, the thesis attempts to do a number of things: to give a particular account of the major episodes in the union's post-war history, which range from the ballot-rigging of the 1950s to the `strike-free' deals of the 1980s; to explore the relationship between the political and industrial policies of the CP and right-wing leaderships and the union's democracy; to offer a critical appraisal of Michels' `iron law of oligarchy', and, finally, as the union faces expulsion from the TUC, to consider the future prospects for democracy in the EETPU.