Shop Stewards in Local Government Revisted

AuthorIan Kessler
Publication Date01 Nov 1986
British Journal
Industrial Relations
Local Government
Industrial relations research in Britain has retained a strong interest in the
workplace level of analysis for the last twenty years. The central focus of
most studies has been the development of shop steward activities, influence
and organisation, and while the emphasis in theoretical explanations and
policy debates has shifted, not least in response to the changing economic
and political context, the published research is characterised by a number of
unchallenged assumptions and selective illustrations.
First, the majority of studies have been located in private manufacturing
industry, especially the engineering sector. Second, shop stewards have
often been viewed as representatives of work groups. The analysis of the
Donovan Commission that drew attention to the largely ‘informal, fragmen-
ted and autonomous’ character of workplace industrial relations powerfully
endorsed the assumption that shop stewards represented work group
interests, which in turn implied unrestricted access and regular interaction
between sterwards and members. Third, it has been invariably assumed that
shop stewards engage in collective bargaining. The level, scope, and
formality of bargaining may have varied between factories and changed over
time, but Goodman and Whittingham
were not alone in asserting
that negotiation was the ‘only function regarded
essential’ to the
definition of the shop stewards’ role. Finally, as the above points suggest,
the dynamics of shop stewards’ organisation and analysis of the
patterns of leadership have largely been based in medium and large factory
environments that facilitated regular contact between stewards.’
It is now more widely recognised that the published research on shop
steward activities and organisation may have limited relevance to many
sectors, and especially to parts of the public service sector. This article seeks
to explore shop steward organisation in local government. The focus is on
the development of stewards amongst the
manual workers engaged
in a wide range of occupations- refuse collectors, gardeners, grave diggers,
school caretakers, cooks and cleaners, home helps and others involved in
Deputy Research Officer, Institution
Professional Civil Servants.
British Journal
Industrial Relations
providing local authority services. It should be obvious that most of these
manual workers are employed in conditions that are strikingly different
from the usual factory environment. Many are isolated, dispersed, or mobile
over large areas; some rarely meet with fellow workers and have only a
fleeting relationship with line management; they are also employed by local
authorities whose most senior representatives are influenced by party
politics and the uncertainties
the electoral process.
In common with other parts of the public services, and other groups in
local government, shop steward organisation developed late for manual
workers. National collective bargaining in the
shop steward activity at local level, with the exception of limited bargaining
opportunities for the stronger groups of full-time male workers in large
urban authorities. From the late
however, the introduction of bonus
schemes, the major re-organisation of local government, the impact of
incomes policies on pay relativities, and the more recent financial controls,
expenditure cuts and privatisatibn policies have combined to generate a
sharp increase in conflict and to encourage
rapid expansion in the number
of shop stewards and the opportunities for local bargaining.
These changes stimulated some academic research interest in local
government industrial relations, but
systematic attempts to analyse the
distinctive context and form of shop steward activity.* The case study
research of Terry
exhibited a greater sensitivity to the unique
local government, notably in its focus on the problems of
organising a fragmented workforce and in its treatment of the influence of
management policies on shop steward ~rganisation.~ The research reported
here was designed to build on Terry’s work in three distinctive ways:
explore the impact of different kinds of employing authority on patterns of
shop steward organisation, to analyse in more detail the nature of
management policies on the unique context of local authorities, and to re-
examine the impact
bonus schemes on the shop stewards’ role and
Terry’s selection of authorities, all
which were ‘small semi-rural districts’,
left steward organisation in a number of different types of authority
uninvestigated. The character of authorities, in particular, their size and the
functions they perform, will vary within the two tier structure of local
government in England and Wales: thus, there are four types
upper tier urban and rural counties and lower tier urban and rural districts.
The characteristics of these different types of authority will have a direct
effect on steward organisation by determining the area over which workers
are dispersed and the exact occupational composition
the workforce
stemming from the different services provided. Less directly, they may have

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