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Trade Unionism and the State: The Construction of Industrial Relations Institutions in Britain, 1890-2000

Author(s):Howell, Chris
Reviewer(s):Stitt, James W.

Published by EH.NET (January 2009)

Chris Howell, Trade Unionism and the State: The Construction of Industrial Relations Institutions in Britain, 1890-2000. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005. xi + 243 pp. $39.50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-69101-2106-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by James W. Stitt, Professor of History, High Point University.

Organized labor has played a seminal role in modern British political and industrial history. Famous strikes, such as the General Strike of 1926, and famous periods of strikes, such as those before World War I or of the 1970s, form a crucial backdrop to comprehension of twentieth century history.

This convenient assumption about the constancy of labor?s powerful role in British society and its relevance to the understanding of British politics and industrial history in the twentieth century is shattered by events after 1979. The influence of labor, perhaps reaching a high point in the 1960s and 1970s, ended, or seemed to end, quickly with Margaret Thatcher?s election. Was this decline in influence permanent or temporary? If permanent, what can possibly explain how an institution as vital and potent as British organized labor could lose its status and authority so quickly?

Chris Howell, Professor of Politics at Oberlin College, finds traditional explanations of how British industrial relations operate inadequate to address the change of events after 1979. In his Trade Unionism and the State: The Construction of Industrial Relations in Britain, 1890-2000, Howell contends that the framework heretofore common in studies of British industrial relations with an emphasis on voluntarism and a state inclined to abstain from intervention into the interactions of organized labor and employers is not sufficient to explain labor?s rapid decline in influence after 1979. Other factors special to the 1980s alone cannot explain the decline in labor?s role either, according to Howell. He posits both a new interpretation and a refined approach to the study of modern British industrial relations. Howell claims that one can comprehend the reduced role of labor after 1979 by understanding first that the state was not an abstaining entity but, instead, ?played a central role in the construction of industrial relations in Britain in the last hundred years or so.? Howell believes that critical study of twentieth century British industrial relations must consider the state as the fulcrum, not as an impartial observer.

Howell defends his interpretation in a concise book. He divides the entire period from the late nineteenth century to the present into three parts. Each, he believes, reveals both a distinct period of British industrial relations but also different, but vital, activities by the state. The first period begins in the earliest part of the twentieth century and continues through World War II and it revolves around the crisis in Britain?s staple industries. During this portion, the state sought to bring labor and management together in industry-wide collective bargaining to limit strike action and to reduce competition among companies. Actions of government bureaus, civil servants, and politicians all played a key role in the events of this era.

The second part began after World War II and continued through the 1970s. It featured decentralization of industrial relations to the firm or shop level and an expansion of topics falling under the carapace of labor-management negotiations. This change came, Howell contends, because of alterations in the makeup of British industry featuring more attention to productivity and worker wages. The activity of the state was to ?accelerate changes in industrial relations practices that were occurring naturally, and to spread those changes from a few advanced sectors to the rest of the economy.?

The third part in Howell?s assessment begins in 1979. The factors of consequence to industrial relations for this era include the reduction of the percentage of industrial workers in the workforce, the need for greater worker flexibility in the shop to accommodate global competition and technological change, and, most significantly, the coming into office of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. ?After 1979 the British state encouraged a sharp break with, and a reversal of, an established set of industrial relations institutions and practices. It sought … to weaken trade unionism and encourage unilateral managerial regulation of the workplace, and the individualization of industrial relations. For this reason, the role of the state was more significant, more direct, and more coercive.?

Howell?s coherent overview of the period features a clear thesis, often reiterated. The reader never loses contact with how the particulars of a given topic tie into the thesis. Howell writes directly and clearly. He integrates into his study the concepts of many authors and his research is current.

The orientation of Howell?s work is to look back over the last hundred years or so from the perspective of the last twenty-five years. He believes that the powerful role of the state after 1979 must reflect its role before 1979. This formula is both the strength and weakness of the book. It provides strength for it connects together diverse events with idiosyncratic features to create a compelling pattern in support of the thesis. One has a sense that Howell has found the key to unlock the intricacies of modern British industrial relations through his emphasis on the role of the state. Its weakness is that Howell is somewhat selective in the topics addressed and the features of those topics used in the creation of his argument. For example, a bit more subtlety would be helpful in how he uses the concept of state. At times, but not uniformly, politicians, civil servants, government bureaus, and political parties seem to be used interchangeably to represent the state. More nuance as to the difference between pronouncements of a sitting government and the actions of civil servants, for example, could strengthen the perceived connections he defends. Perhaps Howell could have provided more consistent attention to public opinion and voting patterns to help the reader understand the motives and options of sitting governments.

Howell has created a work of merit and it deserves the attention and respect of students of the British industrial relations.

James W. Stitt is the author of Joint Industrial Councils in British History: Inception, Adoption and Utilization, 1917-1939 (Praeger, 2006).

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII