SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 157 - April 2012

Driving industrial action

From the 1960s, the car industry was at the forefront of industrial militancy in Britain. And strong rank-and-file organisation, through shop stewards committees was a key component. BILL MULLINS reviews a book which looks back at these militant years.

Militant Years: Car Workers’ Struggles in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s

By Alan Thornett

Published by Resistance Books (2011)

Available from Socialist Books, £12 plus £2 p&p

ALAN THORNETT WORKED in the Cowley car factory, Oxford, from 1959 until 1982. For most of that period he was a shop steward in the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU – now part of Unite) and, for some of the time, he was deputy convenor of the Morris car assembly plant. As he says: "The Morris plant was by the end of the 1960s amongst the most militant in the industry – averaging 300 strikes a year".

He attempts to show that "working conditions were transformed and a vibrant shop floor movement was built" in the 1960s and 1970s, due to the militancy of the car workers at Cowley – and I would add, to a certain extent, in the wider car industry. This period also encompasses the massive struggles of the 1970s and 1980s, such as the miners’ strikes and the public-sector battles in 1978/79 under the Labour government (the ‘winter of discontent’).

Thornett was a member of the Trotskyist Socialist Labour League (SLL), which later became the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP). As he indicates, his political development was from the right to the "hard left". After working on a farm for four years, followed by three years in the army, he got a job in 1959 in the car plant as a transport driver at the age of 22. He admits that he voted for the Tories in the 1959 general election. Under the experience of factory life, however, he first joined the Communist Party (CP), then the SLL.

He explains how he broke with SLL leader, Gerry Healy, when Healy declared that the SLL was a mass party and changed its name to WRP. After this split, writes Thornett, only one SLL member in the Oxford area stayed with Healy. The rest were expelled and went on to form the Workers Socialist League (WSL). According to Thornett, the SLL had 109 members in the area at the time, including 40 car plant shop stewards. Throughout the book he mentions by name different SLL/WSL members in this or that part of the plant, and there is little reason to doubt his figures.

Rapid politicisation

CLEARLY, A LAYER of the more advanced workers were rapidly becoming politicised, not only by the militancy of Cowley but also by the increasing number of industrial trade union struggles at the time. In the Rover Solihull plant, in the West Midlands, were I was senior shop steward, we also were able to build a sizable group of supporters of the Militant (predecessor of the Socialist Party). At one stage in the late 1970s, there were over 20 supporters of the Militant, most of them shop stewards. In the Longbridge plant, Birmingham, the CP had over 40 members at around the same time – again, mainly shop stewards.

These figures have to be put into context. British Leyland (BL), when it was formed with the backing of Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1968, brought together all the major car plants in Britain, except for American-owned Ford, Chrysler and Vauxhall (General Motors). BL had over 60 factories, including the car assembly plants of Longbridge, Cowley, Standard Triumph, Jaguar and Rover. Many of the company’s component supply plants were also under the umbrella of BL.

BL had over 200,000 workers at the time of its formation. The shop stewards were an increasing force in these plants and took over much of the day-to-day trade union control from the fulltime union officials. BL had a combine shop stewards committee made up of the plant convenors from 15 or 16 different unions. It became the driving force in BL. And its influence was felt far beyond in other industries as well.

Maintaining workplace unity

INEVITABLY, MUCH OF Thornett’s book deals with the details of the many strikes and battles in the Cowley plant. Nonetheless, it also gives a flavour of the sort of events that were taking place to one degree or another in other parts of the industry.

Recorded strikes in the Cowley plant in 1969, for example, amounted to 324. Not all plants were like that. It often depended on the political outlook of the leading shop stewards and convenors. This was seen in Oxford, where the body plant, which was on the opposite side of the road to the assembly plants, had relatively few strikes compared to the assembly plants. In 1964, there had been 254 strikes in Cowley and this led to an official inquiry which found that most strikes were down to working conditions. This was the case in many other plants as well.

These strikes had two sides. In mass car production, a strike in one part of the assembly track leads to lay-offs across other parts of the factory. The intensity of the pressure of working on the track was the main cause of strikes. The conditions meant that separate sections of the production line, each with its own shop steward/s, would see flare-ups and walkouts.

Another cause of militancy was the existence of group piecework. When a new model or a ‘facelift’ to existing models was introduced, the piecework price was negotiated by the shop stewards on that section. Workers laid off because of another section’s strike would lose their pay for the day. Inevitably, this led to tensions between workers. Thornett does not go into that in his book, perhaps because he was a transport driver/shop steward. As such, his section was not affected as quickly as the workers on the assembly lines who were generally taken off the clock almost immediately when the tracks came to a stop due to a strike by even small groups on the line.

In Rover Solihull we were able to keep the affected workers on the clock (and so receiving pay) by ensuring that the section with the grievance stayed on the site, even when they stopped work. This meant that we were able to tell management that anybody taken off the clock would have the backing of all the shop stewards, and we would call a mass meeting to endorse that.

Fighting anti-union laws

MILITANT YEARS ALSO explains much of the background political struggles of the time, not least the events around the attempts by successive governments to curtail and illegalise the actions of the rank-and-file shop stewards with the introduction of anti-union laws. Firstly, it was Wilson’s 1969 In Place of Strife proposals (which he was forced to abandon), then the Tory government of Edward Heath with its 1971 Industrial Relations Act.

Thornett tries to claim that his former party had played a significant role in mobilising the rank and file against these laws. It was plain, however, particularly under the Heath government, that the Communist Party was much more influential through its Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCFDTU), not least because the CP had a traditional base in industry.

For example, when Heath initially introduced his anti-union laws as a parliamentary bill, the LCFDTU issued the call for a one-day strike. This was supported by the BL combine committee. As Thornett admits, the strike call in the Oxford area (including Cowley) was only supported by the printers’ union SOGAT. At Rover Solihull we called a mass meeting of all 10,000 workers and got support for the strike, along with Standard Triumph in Speke, Liverpool, tractor and transmissions in Birmingham and the Chrysler plant in Glasgow.

This unofficial strike was supported by between 500,000 and 750,000 workers, and was the start of a campaign of official strikes against the legislation under the demand of ‘Kill the Bill’. It put massive pressure on the TUC to oppose the anti-union laws. In the end, the laws were made completely inoperable.

Militant Years is a very interesting book. Thornett, however, seems to claim that the governments of the time saw the Cowley plant as one of their main enemies, if not the main one. He quotes extensively from the hostile media attacking him and the left at Cowley. My recollection is that, although Cowley was in the news a lot, so were numerous other vehicle plants.

Worker participation committees

UNDOUBTEDLY, THE MAIN defeat inflicted on BL workers was the sacking in 1980 of Derek Robinson, the convenor of the huge Longbridge plant and the chair of the BL combine. Robinson’s sacking was a conscious blow against the shop stewards’ movement.

Thornett is correct to say that the combine was undermined fatally by the willingness of Derek Robinson and the BL combine committee to enter the infamous ‘worker participation committees’, set up by the Labour government after BL was nationalised in 1975. These committees allowed the BL bosses to get the participating shop stewards to accept responsibility for management decisions, including massive plant closures and job losses.

In fact, the only BL plant which completely opposed the worker participation committees was Rover Solihull. Thornett says, rather sweepingly, that "only five plants in BL cars rejected participation. These were Morris radiators in north Oxford, service division in Cowley, Standard Triumph in Coventry, Rover in Bordsley Green, Birmingham, and Rover Solihull in Solihull. Some of these decisions, however, were not rejections in principle but objections to particular details, and were later reversed".

This is not entirely accurate in relation to Rover Solihull. From the start, we had opposed participation and led a campaign against it, including in the BL combine committee. I had written a back-page article for the combine paper, The Spark, setting out our objections. We had got the backing for the position of the entire workforce at a shop stewards’ meeting which was followed by a mass meeting of both the SD1 car division and the Land Rover division.

The call for nationalisation

BL HAD GONE almost bankrupt under the previous chairman, Sir Donald Stokes, and he had demanded £100 million subsidy from the Wilson government in 1974/5, plus a government guarantee for a loan of £500 million from the banks to keep going. In the Militant, we said: "No to subsidisation and yes to nationalisation", and produced a special pamphlet with that as its title.

The fundamental problem of BL was a lack of investment by the private shareholders. Instead of subsidisation, we called for BL to be nationalised under workers’ control and management, with one third of the board coming from the unions in BL, one third from the TUC (representing the organised working class as a whole), and one third from the Labour government. In other words, the trade unions would have the majority control.

Nowhere in his book does Thornett refer to our position on either the worker participation committees or nationalisation. He merely mentions in passing that the BL combine shop stewards had adopted the position – a third, a third, a third (or, at least, a diluted version of it) – as if it came out of nowhere. According to Thornett, his own shop stewards’ committee in Cowley voted narrowly to accept the setting up of the participation committees.

Their mistake was to see the nationalisation of BL as nothing more than a fancy way of issuing shares – some 95% of BL shares were to be held by the government. We saw it as an opportunity to put the case for full workers’ control and management, as a stepping stone to call for the nationalisation of the rest of the industry.

Thornett says that the reason that the Labour government had become the dominant shareholder in BL was to make it easier to hand the whole thing back to private shareholders without having to get a special bill through parliament some time in the future. This, indeed, is what happened under Margaret Thatcher when BL shares were sold off to British Aerospace (BAe).

However, it would have made no difference whether this was done by selling shares or just giving it over lock, stock and barrel to BAe, parliamentary bill or not. The fundamental issue was that the government was forced to nationalise BL one way or the other as it could not let it go bankrupt overnight, because of all the political and social consequences of 200,000 workers being thrown on the dole with another 500,000 in the supply industries also losing their jobs. The nationalisation of BL, therefore, was a decisive political moment under the Labour government.

Alan Thornett ends by recounting what happened when he was witch-hunted and sacked by management in 1982, with the collaboration of the local TGWU official. He draws general conclusions about what the period of the 1960s and 1970s meant, and how that impacted on subsequent developments in the 1980s under Thatcher: firstly, with the printers’ strikes at Warrington, followed by the miners’ strike of 1984/85. Incredibly, Thornett does not mention the struggle of Liverpool city council – but, perhaps, it is not surprising. He gives little credit to the Militant or its supporters, including our role in the car industry at the time.


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