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.

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

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform


2