Greg Bamber, Militant Managers? Managerial Unionism and Industrial Relations

Gower, Aldershot, 1986

Richard Morris

Although the locus of the study is unfortunately not reflected in the title, this book is about a manager’s trade union in the British steel industry. Methodologically, the book contains various streams. It analyses organizational structure and surveys managers’ attitudes. But it is also history since the study takes as its central theme the growth of managerial trade unionism in one of Britain’s declining nationalized industries during the late 1960s and 1970s. In the 11 short chapters, a sociological approach to contemporary British union history is developed by an author who displays inside know1edge derived from his experience as an official of the union which is the subject of study.

The origins of the Steel Industry Management Association (SIMA) rose in the post-war nationalization of the British steel industry. In 1949 steel managers organized a defensive association to protect their interest during the uncertainties of the transfer to public ownership. However, once the wild talk on the shopfloor of workers control had died down and the maintenance of managerial control was assured, the new managers’ union became little more than a paper organization. By the time of the epochal 1966 Donovan Royal Commission into British trade unions, the Steel Managers Association had been unable to obtain ‘recognition’ from employers and was consequently unable to indulge in collective bargaining. In British industrial relations, ‘recognition’ is the essential first step for a trade union, since the concept signifies some level of employer commitment in negotiation and the establishment of a stable union/employer relationship.

However, SIMA’s hour, such as it was, soon arrived. The re-nationalization of steel in 1967 after the Tory denationalization in 1953 promoted the Union. Aside from the industry specific factors favouring its growth, the late 1960s and early 1970s were good years for the expansion of British trade unions, particularly in the white collar sector. Inflation brought in many new recruits as white collar workers strove to maintain their real wages and to re-establish differentials eroded by the pay gains of unionized and militant manual workers.

Within the white collar sector, there was an upsurge of specifically “managerial” unionism. Managers’ unions sought to distinguish themselves from the general white collar unions such as the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staff (ASTMS) which recruited the mass of routine office workers and first line supervisors. Managerial unionism was aimed at the “middle manager” who feared his subordinates and their unions as much as the employer. SIMA was one of a number of small ‘professional managers’ unions which flourished after a fashion in the period, but were in retrospect ephemeral. By 1974 the organization had 7 full time officials. The membership had quadrupled from 3,000 in 1969 to 12,000 in 1977. But this growth needs to be viewed in perspective. In relationship to membership levels of 300,000 claimed during this period by ASTMS, SIMJI and similar organizations were small beer, existing on the margins of the system and working with at best only uneasy acceptance from senior management and the big Trade Union Congress affiliated unions.

Perhaps this marginality was deservedly the case. SIMA had little real commitment to solidarity and the traditional causes of organized labour. The managers were class warriors on the middle class side of the barricade. But for all that, they were only displaying the same sectional interests particularly over pay which were the central concern of their more established manual counterparts.

SIMA did pursue pay claims through Industrial Action. In 1974 the Union organised a go-slow of the membership after the British Steel Corporation claimed that the national income policy prohibited the manager’s pay deal. The author probably quite rightly considers that the steel managers’ reluctance to strike was related to their lack of immediate tactical power and the quiescence of the industry’s unions in general rather than any moral aversion to industrial action. In fact, the general thrust of his analysis is that managerial unionism is in essence no different from the more traditional type.

Perhaps the demise of SIMA occurred before the true colours of the organization had matured. In 1980, the steel managers merged with the Electrical Electronic, Telecommunication and P1umbing Union, a predominately craftsman’s union with a staff subsidiary, the Electrical and Engineering Staff Association. The EETPY/EESI was a TUC affiliate which had been well to the right of the trade union political spectrum for two decades or more since election rigging scandals had discredited the previous communist leadership in 1961. SIMA’s short history is a work of serious scholarship which should interest students of managerial unionism and British labour.