A trade union whodunit

Issue: 133

Julian Alford

Alan Thornett, Militant Years: Car Worker Struggles in Britain in the 60s and 70s (Resistance Books, 2011), £12

Recently promoting Militant Years, an account of car worker militancy in the 1960s and 1970s, Alan Thornett described his book as a “trade union whodunit”. This may appear an unlikely description for a book whose protagonists and subject matter includes TGWU branch 5/55, the JSSC, the Combine Committee, Measured Day Working and so on, but it proves to be as a compulsive as any

Thornett himself was a leading militant at British Leyland’s massive assembly plant at Cowley near Oxford until he was victimised in 1982 and Militant Years is an arresting reminder in our conjuncture of just how militant Britain’s shop floor was. Car workers were the most combative section of the working class, in the forefront of a rising tide of industrial struggle that eventually sank Heath’s 1970-4 Tory government. The pitch these struggles attained stretched the limits of British trade unionism as it had evolved, providing tantalising glimpses of the fraternisation of economics and politics.

But it is also a sobering reminder of the role of the union officials in undermining rank and file revolt. These two aspects are encapsulated in Thornett’s recollection of the resistance to Barbara Castle’s anti-union In Place of Strife in 1969. Castle envisaged enlisting the union leaders in corralling the shop stewards. After lobbying the TUC Cowley’s stewards persuaded the assembly plant to join a national one-day protest strike. A quarter of a million workers struck against the Labour government effectively scotching Castle’s plans. Yet Castle’s diaries reveal broad support from the trade union chiefs for the proposals. But George Woodcock, Vic Feather (TUC general secretary and his successor respectively), Frank Cousins (Transport and General Workers Union), Hugh Scanlon (Amalgamated Engineering Union) and others, were unable to say so openly and instead publicly attacked the white paper!

It was the shop floor that wrecked the ruling class’s strategy of reversing Britain’s relative decline by breaking militant trade unionism. The historian Royden Harrison argued that this passage of revolt, involving mass civil disobedience against the Industrial Relations Act, factory occupations and waves of strikes that eventually landed Heath’s beleaguered government “on the rocks”, marked the greatest success of trade union struggle.

Thornett was typical of the workers drawn to Cowley in search of higher wages. He started as a lorry driver in 1959 after working as a farm labourer. This was the year Frank Horsman, a new breed of aggressive shop steward, was victimised. Quickly drawn into union activity, Thornett (a recent Tory voter) joined the Young Communist League.

By 1966 Cowley was averaging 300 strikes per year (though most were sectional and short-lived). This was also the year the unofficial plant leadership joined Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League (SLL, forerunner of the Workers Revolutionary Party). Despite flaws, the SLL provided a political perspective on capital’s strategies largely absent from the Communist Party. Eventually the stewards would break with Healy as the SLL’s relative sobriety mutated into the WRP’s shrill sectarianism. Crucially the Cowley stewards spearheaded opposition to In Place of Strife, the Industrial Relations Act and the “colour bar”.

During the 1966 general election the unofficial leadership hit the headlines after baseless accusations of intimidating scabs surfaced. The Tory leader Edward Heath denounced the “Noose trial” incident as an example of irresponsible trade unionism. Heath lost the election but union officials launched an investigation and, though the stewards were exonerated, a precedent was established and the closer scrutiny eventually hatched into a full-blown campaign in the 1970s to root out “Trotskyism” from the plant.

The greatest challenge the shop stewards faced was management’s attempt to ditch piecework and introduce Measured Day Work (MDW). Piecework involved negotiating the rate for each job and conferred bargaining power on the stewards. MDW was based on a flat rate of pay with the work rate established via time and motion study. MDW’s introduction would lead to speed-up and falling pay. A seven-week strike against MDW ended in defeat when the union officials caved in. Then the deputy convenor broke with Cowley’s left and began collaborating with the union officials and management to undermine the stewards.

The right, with official support, trampled on union democracy to sideline the left and finally broke the bedrock TGWU 5/55 branch in two (5/55 and 5/293). Yet the left fought back against the odds to win leadership of 5/293 branch. However, nationally the union leaders swung behind Labour’s incomes policy and shortly after British Leyland’s nationalisation in 1975, left wing industry secretary Tony Benn was demoted. At British Leyland the unions embraced “participation”, essentially incorporation intended to neutralise the shop floor.

The writing was on the wall. In 1977 Benn’s successor Eric Varley brought in South African businessman Michael Edwards to run British Leyland. Edwards was given carte blanche to restore profitability and return British Leyland to the private sector. Capacity and manning levels were ruthlessly cut by closing plants with little effective resistance from the unions thus anticipating the mass shakeouts of labour in manufacturing of Thatcher’s early years. Thornett’s valuable book leaves an indelible impression of the strength of militant trade unionism in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s while also acknowledging its limits.