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The struggle for democratic grassroots control of the economy has a long history, even in Britain. During the 1960s and 1970s, Ken Coates was at the heart of the movement for workers' self-management at one of its most vibrant periods.

Taking control

PN: Looking over the postwar period in Britain, is there one experience that stands out as an inspiring advance towards workers' control and industrial democracy?
KC: The obvious thing is the UCS [in June 1971]. The government decided to rationalise the shipyards and close down the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders [with the likely loss of over 6,000 jobs]. The workers announced a work-in, that they wouldn't accept dismissal, and they'd work on and appeal for money from the labour movement to pay people some sort of wage while they carried on working. The owners suddenly found out that they were irrelevant!
The work-in carried on for months [until February 1972, when the Conservative government gave in]. There were hundreds of other factory occupations, work-ins and self-management experiments all over. After the UCS work-in, there was a tremendous flurry of activity.
PN: How did the Institute for Workers' Control come about?
KC: There were a number of us at the time who independently arrived at the same basic viewpoint, which was that top-down socialism was deeply flawed, and that it was necessary to find ways of encouraging the grassroots to speak for itself or for themselves.
We came to the conclusion that you could never win the argument about nuclear disarmament in the Labour Party whilst the trades unions were able to rescue officialdom from any decision that the rank and file wanted to take.
We began by just establishing a newspaper, the Voice of the Unions, in which the rank and file could talk to itself. Within that framework we met with lots of other people who were developing similar ideas and of course the talk turned more and more to workers' control.
In 1964, I summoned a conference about workers' control. About 80 people turned up. The conferences got bigger and bigger. The Economic League, which specialised in monitoring the activities of wicked lefties, came into one of the conferences and swiped the entire address list, such was the state of our security! The Institute for Workers' Control was set up as a forum in which the conferences could be deliberately planned and the agendas could be agreed formally.
PN: And there was support from the unions?
KC: The big unions were the ones that were strongly in support -- the Engineers, the Transport & General Workers' Union, the railway union, the postmen, the Fire Brigades Union and the miners.
The great breakthrough was when the Engineer's Union elected Hugh Scanlon as its president. When Bill Carron, Lord Carron was the leader, the system for the block vote meant people should have been consulted, but they never were. But when Scanlon took over, he passed a pad round and got all the elected representatives to say how the vote should be cast, and then he cast it in accordance with what they had decided. Well that was electric. That was unheard of. Immediately the labour movement was reoriented. It became solidly unilateralist, you couldn't shift it. When we formed the Institute for Workers' Control, Hugh Scanlon was the keynote speaker.
PN: What connection is there between your work in the Institute and your work in the peace movement?
KC: The method we had adopted in the IWC was very much the organising principle we later used in END [European Nuclear Disarmament]. The IWC was not a “preaching” organisation. We had the most general principles and we encouraged people to think about how they could be implemented themselves. We would have a conference of steel workers, which we got together often through the WEA, and they would work out what they wanted to do with their industry. Each group around the country elaborated their own programme. I think that's what was important.
Essentially it was about the democratisation of initiative. The difference between classical leftist organisations and the IWC was that the initiative had been centralised by the classical organisation. They then solicited other people into accompanying them
The democratisation of the initiative is a very crucial area. What we were doing was a rebellion against the idea that a clever class of people could make all the politics that everyone else had to follow.

Ken Coates is the author of many books, including Workers Control: Another world is possible (Spokesman). He has played leading roles in the Institute for Workers' Control, the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, European Nuclear Disarmament, and the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, which he chairs. From 1989 to 1999, he was a Labour MEP.