Historical Studies in Industrial Relations

Remembering and Honouring NUPE: A Response to Dave Lyddon’s Review Essay on Leadership and Democracy

Historical Studies in Industrial Relations (2018), 39, (1), 205–224.


Welcoming Lyddon's review and much of its argument, this response addresses six specific criticisms of our account: that it is based overmuch on a chronological history of an individual union at the expense of a comparative study; that it is too much 'top down'; that it provides too little information on the working lives of NUPE members; that the union's peculiar status as a 'breakaway' is given insufficient attention, as is the position of women; that our approach sidelines the contribution of lay activists; and that the analysis would have strengthened by more ‘context’.

In line with John Saville's recommendation, we adopted a chronological perspective which could then serve as a 'foundation' for further analysis and revision. This also provides members and activists with a memorial of their union and their role in it. Our account draws on a wide range of evidence, including material from the 'NUPE Research Project' conducted in the mid-1970s. Of particular interest was the emerging dialectic between the union's appointed full-time officials and lay activists. We document what we term 'sponsored democracy’, its contextual conditions and the challenges to the power of full-time officers. In NUPE's case, this entailed the (then) unprecedented step of promoting women's involvement in the union’s decision-making bodies, including the provision of 'reserved' seats. Some full-time officers, both national and local, also promoted the role of union stewards, not least in the context of the government’s imposition of restrictive pay policies and pubic-expenditure cuts. Finally, in the absence of any discussion by Lyddon, we reprise NUPE’s role in leading the campaign for a statutory national minimum wage.

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Author details

Fryer, R. H. (Bob)

Williams, Stephen