Back to the shop floor

Edward Webster looks at Working for Ford, by Huw Beynon (1974)

December 4, 2012
5 min read

In the wake of the largest number of killings during a strike in South Africa since the white miners’ strike of 1922, when 153 workers died, it is appropriate that we reflect on the classics of the workers’ movement. Strikes bring sharply to the fore the contradictions within capitalism and often lead to the reconfiguration of class forces.

The 1922 strike led to the 1924 Pact government that laid the basis for an alliance between white workers and Afrikaner nationalism. Two decades later, in 1946, another miners’ strike, which led to the death of nine workers, resulted in the creation of an alliance between black labour and African nationalism. It was, however, the 1973 strikes in Durban that were to lay the foundations for the emergence of a powerful workers’ movement in South Africa.

The 1973 strikes were not led by trade unions; in large part they were the spontaneous collective actions of black workers responding to apartheid’s cheap labour system. As young left intellectuals at the time, we searched for ways we could give this surge of worker militancy a sustained strategic and organisational focus. Influenced by the powerful shop steward movement in Britain, we followed closely its development and the books that emerged from it.

The one that caught our imagination and influenced our teaching and political practice was Huw Beynon’s Working for Ford. I received a copy in 1974 and reviewed it in the South African Labour Bulletin, the journal we had set up to record, analyse and conceptualise this new social movement. Industrial relations at the time in South Africa was dominated by the paternalistic idea that there was a basic harmony of interest between management and labour. Working for Ford made clear that the workers’ struggle ‘can only be remedied by a fundamental change in the entire basis of production. The political transformation of society . . .’ The edition in which the review was published (June 1974) was subsequently banned under the Publications Act for promoting ‘worker unrest’, mainly because of an article highly critical of the treatment of workers at British Leyland in Durban.

There were three ways in which Working for Ford influenced the way we saw shop stewards. The first was the concept of working-class factory consciousness that Beynon saw manifest in the shop stewards at Halewood. ‘A factory consciousness,’ Beynon wrote, ‘understands class relations in terms of their direct manifestation in conflict between the bosses and the workers within the factory. It is rooted in the workplace, where struggles are fought over the control of the job and the rights of managers and workers.’ This led to a concentration in the early years on building support on the shop floor by winning visible concessions from management over unfair dismissals in particular.

Second, if the stage for this conflict is the factory floor, its organisational manifestation is not the trade union bureaucrats but the shop stewards committee. Hence factory class consciousness finds its historical antecedents in syndicalism – developed in Britain in the shop steward movement that occurred during and after the first world war. At the core of these emerging unions in Durban was the notion of direct democracy, of accountability of worker leaders to the rank-and-file, report-backs and mandates.

Third, and for me this was the most important question raised by Working for Ford, how does one explain why some workers define their interests in collective terms and become shop stewards and others in ‘individualistic’ terms and become supervisors?

Beynon rejected an explanation of activism in terms of different types of personalities. ‘An adequate account of shop-floor activism and leadership,’ he argued, ‘needs to go beyond the personalities of the people involved and consider the ideology of the activists and the organisation within which they are active.’ Beynon located the roots of activism in the values of shop stewards and the structural contradictions of capitalism most starkly manifested on the factory floor.

Working for Ford was written 40 years ago and a lot has happened to the British shop steward movement since then. In South Africa these early unions went on to establish links with working class communities and were to play a central role, as the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), in the struggle for democracy. Labour was not seen as a commodity but rather as creative human activity. I remember also discussing Hilary Wainwright and Dave Elliot’s The Lucas Plan: a new trade unionism in the making? with shop stewards and considering how production could be made socially useful.

But for the South African labour movement the Marikana massacre on 16 August, when 34 striking workers were killed may yet prove the kind of turning point that 1922, 1946 and 1973 turned out to be. For the workers’ movement what is clear from Marikana is that worker leaders need to go back to the shop floor, listen to the workers’ voices and rebuild the kind of shop floor movement that is so effectively analysed in Working for Ford.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself


2